By Jerry Poe

Summary: Sparked by the recent regulation developments in California, water softeners combined with the use of chloride have come under fire. As the controversy rages on about what limits should be placed on the water softener industry, many are concerned the costs and regulations will drive away potential customers and suppress viable options such as potassium chloride (KCl) as a regenerant.

Sometimes new laws have negative consequences in spite of their noble intentions. Let’s take a look at an example that relates directly to water softener dealers. As you will see, the trend toward laws that regulate residential water softeners has the potential to directly affect your operation’s profitability and sales of not only water softeners, but also water softener salt.

The issue begins with brine discharge, which is a source of concern for state and local governments, especially in California. The brine discharged from water softeners goes to septic systems or local wastewater treatment plants via sewers. From there it’s released into groundwater or surface water where the chloride may impact freshwater organisms and plants in ways that alter the characteristics of a local ecosystem. In addition, as the chloride filters down to the water table, it puts stress on plants and may adversely affect the desirability of drinking water where it’s joined by a myriad of other sources of similar, more benign and more hazardous contaminants from households, businesses, institutional buildings and road and agricultural runoff.

Facing the issues
Water softener manufacturers have been doing their part to address these problems by developing higher efficiency water softeners and advanced resins that require much less brine for regeneration. New water softener technology isn’t the only solution for areas where brine discharge is of special concern. Using potassium chloride in water softeners instead of sodium chloride can diminish the environmental impact of brine discharge because potassium chloride is actually a healthy nutrient for both humans and plants.

Potassium chloride is the main source of potash fertilizer in the world, accounting for 94 percent of all forms of potash used domestically as reported by Agriculture Canada for 1995/1996.1 The total domestic consumption was 314,000 tons of potassium chloride out of 333,253 total tons of potash, and 4,829,045 tons of all fertilizer. Further, the amount exported was 13,076,0771 tons from a total of 13,082,442, or 99.5 percent. The total potash consumption worldwide was 20,550,000 tons.2

In spite of the industry’s ongoing efforts to help alleviate the problems associated with brine discharge, some areas continue to try to ban water softeners altogether. Ironically, according to Tracy Strahl, president of the Pacific Water Quality Association (PWQA), these bans haven’t always worked.

“What we’ve seen in California is that previous bans on water softeners in some areas never did achieve the goal of intended reductions of chlorides/total dissolved solids in the discharge water,” Strahl says.

In 1999, California attempted to draft a law that prohibited a residential water softening or conditioning appliance from being installed except in certain circumstances—reviving earlier attempts to allow communities to restrict the consumer’s right to improve the quality of their drinking water by choosing water treatment devices that was quashed in March 1997 by WQA lawsuits. At the time, the state adopted a compromise law that established regeneration efficiency standards for water softeners and gave local agencies the authority to ban residential water softeners under very specific conditions. The law was viewed by advocates of water softener manufacturers and dealers as a concession that was necessary to avert a statewide blanket ban on all water softeners. Unfortunately—and ironically—the law has the unintended effect of inhibiting the use of potassium chloride in water softeners. In other words, the new law nearly eliminates one of the best solutions to the problem it was trying to solve. This can be explained by way of comparative examples.

Looking ahead
At 100 percent theoretical efficiency, sodium chloride is capable of removing 6,000 grains of hardness per pound of salt used. This easily meets the minimum standards of regeneration efficiency established by the California legislation: 1) no less than 3,350 grains of hardness removed per pound of salt used in softeners installed after Jan.1, 2000; 2) no less than 4,000 grains of hardness in softeners installed after Jan.1, 2002. On the other hand, at theoretical efficiency, potassium chloride is capable of removing 4,800 grains of hardness per pound of salt used. Taking into account the fact that no salt can reasonably be expected to perform at theoretical efficiency, it becomes clear that on Jan.1, 2002, potassium chloride may cease to be a viable choice for water softener salt in California. Water softeners would have to be about 20 percent more efficient with potassium chloride than with sodium chloride.

That’s because the theoretical efficiency of sodium chloride is 6,000 grains of hardness per pound—a difference of 1,200 grains or 20 percent per pound. For either, this is a physical limit that cannot be increased. As of 1990, water softeners were using about 5 pounds for 15,000 grains of hardness or 3,000 grains per pound of salt. That consumption would give an efficiency of 50 percent for sodium chloride. If potassium chloride was used under the same circumstances, the consumption of 5 pounds per 15,000 grains would again be 3,000 grains per pound, but the efficiency would be 64 percent (see Table 1). Under the new legislation, potassium chloride is at a distinct disadvantage. Well meaning legislation has significantly reduced the role of potassium chloride in the marketplace.

Laws like the one in California are also being considered in Wisconsin and Massachusetts even while the uses of water softeners and water softener salts are increasing. According to information presented at the recent convention of the PWQA, the impact of the law in California on the water treatment industry will be significant in the form of:

  • Increased costs,
  • Water softener sales will not increase at previous rates,
  • Salt usage and sales will go down 16-to-20 percent, and
  • Water conditioners may be banned in areas where efficiency standards aren’t met.

Water softeners play an important role in improving the lifestyle and increasing the life of appliances of people living in areas with hard water. Potassium chloride has a rightful place in the market for water softener salt. It adds healthful potassium to the homeowner’s drinking water and is gentler to the environment than sodium chloride. In health and environmentally conscious communities such as those in California, the use of potassium chloride should be encouraged and promoted as an advantageous alternative to sodium chloride.

The issue of brine discharge isn’t going to go away and new laws will affect your bottom line. That’s why it’s important for water softener dealers to make their voices heard in the debate. Educate your health and environmentally conscious customers about higher efficiency water softeners and the advantages of potassium chloride. Contact your state and local water quality agencies and explain how laws that ultimately have the effect of restricting or prohibiting the use of potassium chloride in water softeners are counterproductive and take away a viable alternative from consumers.


  1. Korol, Maurice and Gina Rattaray, “Canadian Fertilizer Consumption, Shipments, and Trade—1995/1996,” Farm Inputs Market Unit, Farms Income Policy and Program Directorate, Agriculture and Agrifood Canada, February 1997.
  2. International Fertilizer Industry Association, “Fertilizer Consumption Statistics,”, 1999.

About the author
Jerry Poe is the technical director at IMC Salt, which manufactures K-Life® potassium chloride and ProSoft™ White Diamond™ sodium chloride water softener salt. Poe earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering specializing in design and thermodynamics. He can be reached at (913) 344-9195 or email: http://[email protected]


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