By Gary Battenberg
In 1982, when I was first introduced to water conditioning, the only thing I knew about water was that it was hot and cold and ran downhill. But it was what I learned in the first couple of years that made me want to make a career in this industry. That learning curve was difficult in some aspects because of the wide variation of water problems I encountered. Many of my customers suffered with problem groundwater prior to investing in a comprehensive water treatment system for remediation. I learned very quickly that while a softener alone, applied to a city water supply, was sufficient to improve the water quality, that same water softener may be only a part of an equipment list for a problem-water application to achieve the same results.
Most WC&P International readers are very familiar with the problems associated with hard water and the sales benefits of the in-home soft-water demonstration. But for those who are new to this industry, let’s look at the issues faced by residential consumers and how they can be remedied with time-proven water treatment methods. Those (problem) issues include:
- Unpleasant taste and odor in drinking water
- Disappointing taste of some foods prepared with hard water
- Hard-water deposits on faucets and fixtures that become damaged by scrubbing with abrasive cleaners
- Iron and manganese stains that also create unseen problems with the service plumbing in the home
- Scale formation and buildup in the water heater, dishwasher and laundry machine
- The need for fabric softeners in the laundry to eliminate the stiffness of freshly laundered clothes
- Dull hair and rough shaving caused by water hardness and the conditioners and other additives to make water useable which runs up the tab at the grocery store
- And finally, the unanticipated plumbing repair and replacement costs caused by hard water
For the sake of this topic, we will not delve into the filtration aspect of delivering soft water to the service plumbing because that has been covered in a previous series and covers the discipline(s) required to be effective in treating problem water, as well as all that entails. Water softening is enjoyed by millions of consumers who would not be without it and gone are the problems associated with hard water.
Taste and odor
Drinking soft water is not a problem for many; sometimes softening is not enough because of the chlorine or chloramine used by municipalities to maintain bacteriologically safe water at the tap. Most softener manufacturers offer mixed-bed softeners, where softening resin and granular activated carbon are combined in one vessel to soften and dechlorinate the water to improve taste and odor. Foods prepared with softened and dechlorinated water will also taste better because there will be no interference from the chlorine or chloramine. Vegetables are more tender when cooked in soft water, whereas before they may have had a ‘tough’ characteristic on the palate.
An example of this is still clear in my memory after more than 30 years. I remember being called to a customers’ home after receiving a complaint of hard water. Their water softener had been working very well for several years, but suddenly, they noticed something was very wrong with their water. Their well water had historically been 10 grains per gallon hard with no odor or iron and neutral pH. In diagnosing the problem, I found that testing the raw water yielded a hardness of 90 grains per gallon. At first, I thought I had done something wrong in testing the water but three subsequent tests confirmed that their well water had undergone a drastic change in a very short time. The customer explained that she couldn’t even cook beans in that water and they just ‘rattled in the pot.’ Talk about tough! Other customers in the area were having the same problem and it was quickly discovered that the well-water problems were the result of an oil company exploration team conducting seismic readings in the area, which disrupted the groundwater. They confirmed that their work caused the problems and agreed to subsidize the purchase of high-capacity softeners for “our customers.”
Update: Nowadays, most consumers will include a POU (undersink) drinking water filtration system or an RO unit or a distiller to further improve the water quality for beverages and food preparation.
Faucets, fixtures and plumbing
Hard-water deposits on faucets and fixtures may be difficult to remove (depending on the hardness levels of the water), which may require caustic, acid (vinegar) treatment and abrasive cleaners to remove. After some time, the shiny finish of the faucets is gone and replacement is probable. In addition, scale build-up in the plumbing system, water heater, dishwasher and laundry machine can cause complete failure due to plugging of solenoid valves and screens and burn-out of heating element(s) of an electric water heater. If you have ever noticed a constant drip from a lavatory or kitchen faucet, hose bib, a temperature and pressure pop-off valve of a water heater or a toilet that constantly runs, in most cases these problems can be attributed to hard-water deposits that erode the seats in the valves and the toilet. These are costly replacements and/or repairs that make living without soft water…hard.
Fabric softeners and laundry soap
In most cases, fabric softeners are no longer needed for laundry after the installation of a water softener. Calcium and magnesium in the water no longer accumulate in the fabrics, which causes premature wear of the fabrics. When you see the tell-tale grey in the water during the soap test of the demonstration, that is the result of the soap reacting with the hardness of the water. More soap is required to overcome the hardness to clean clothes. Fabric degradation can be seen every time the lint trap of the clothes dryer is cleared. Where fabric softeners are still desired, much less is required to achieve the same results using hard water. Additionally, laundry soap can be reduced by as much as 75 percent or more with soft water. For laundry machines exposed to hard water, before washing with soft water, run the washer empty and add two cups of white vinegar to reduce/remove the hardness scale and other deposits that have accumulated in the machine. The first time you use the full amount of laundry soap with soft water, you will spend time mopping up the excess suds that overflow a top-load laundry machine. It is doubtful that you will make that same mistake twice.
Bath soap, shampoo, conditioner, lotion and shaving cream
With soft water, gentle bath soap is all that is needed for bathing enjoyment. Strong detergent shampoos are no longer necessary and much less, if any, conditioner is needed for silky clean hair. Detergent shampoos deplete the natural hair oils, which can leave hair dry and hard to manage. Using a mild shampoo with soft water will give much better results. Body lotion use may be significantly reduced as well since there is no hard-water film left on the skin. The silky feeling of soft water eliminates the sticky and itchy feeling of hard water and may even help some irritating skin conditions go away, along with the medications that were prescribed to control those irritations. In some cases, shaving cream is not even necessary for a close, comfortable shave with either a razor or an electric shaver. Soft water gets the beard wetter and softer, which makes for a more comfortable shave. Less shaving cream is needed; blades and shaving heads last longer because they glide more freely with no skin irritation. Where soft water leaves a silky feeling on the skin, try shaving without shaving cream; the results are amazing. The secret is the sodium in the water that causes the silky feeling. If you have ever dipped your fingers in standard 5.25-percent household bleach, you will remember the slippery feeling on your fingertips. The slippery feeling in soft water is due to the absence of calcium and magnesium and the presence of sodium. The pH value of the water has a direct bearing on the slippery feeling as well. For example, water with a pH of 7 or greater will feel more slippery than a softened water with a pH of 5.5-6. A look at the ingredients on the label confirms this fact. Safety tip: The bathtub/shower may become slippery to stand on, so the use of a rubber bath mat is a good precaution to prevent an accident.
When hand washing dishes, glassware and silverware with soft water, there is no need for harsh dish soap that is hard on the hands. A gentle soap is all that is needed because the soft water does the work of cleaning the dishes and silverware. To help reduce spotting caused by hard water, rinse with hot water only (wear gloves to prevent scalding) and place in a drying rack to air dry. No more embarrassing spots to wipe off the dishes, glasses and silverware. For automatic dishwashers that have been exposed to hard water for any length of time, scale deposits can be seen on the inside surfaces of the machine. To begin, run the machine empty with one cup of white vinegar to reduce/remove the hard water scale. Then, when adding the dishwasher detergent, use only one quarter of the recommended amount and adjust from there for best results. Again, the soft water does the work and too much soap will leave spotting and streaking. If this happens, rinse them with hot water to remove the soap film and let air dry.
For some consumers, the silky feeling of soft water while bathing is not desired. The benefits of soft water can still be enjoyed, however, by blending a tiny amount of hard water into the soft water at the softener control valve inlet and outlet. Some manufacturers have a blending valve designed into their products as a standard feature to comply with some foreign markets, where lead piping is still in use and this blending valve is used to adjust the softener effluent to around four grains of hardness. A simple adjustment of this blending valve for one-half grain per gallon (eight to nine ppm) of hardness will eliminate the silky feel of soft water while still allowing one to enjoy all the benefits previously mentioned. Most consumers who have experienced soft water and lived with it for years, however, have become spoiled by the luxurious feel and all the other benefits and simply won’t do without it because…living without soft water…is hard!
About the author
Gary Battenberg is a Technical Support and Systems Design Specialist with the Fluid System Connectors Division of Parker Hannifin Corporation in Otsego, MI. He has 36 years of experience in the fields of domestic, commercial, industrial, high-purity and sterile water treatment processes. Battenberg has worked in the areas of sales, service, design and manufacturing of water treatment systems and processes utilizing filtration, ion exchange, UV sterilization, reverse osmosis and ozone technologies. He may be reached by phone at (269) 692-6632 or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org