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Water Softeners

Hard water; is THAT why you can't see through your drinking glasses anymore? And perhaps you do make an effort to clean your bathrooms; right afterwards, they look as though no one has cleaned them in months?? Imagine what your hot water heater looks like, or your dishwasher??? What causes hard water and what can you do about it???

Hard water is really just water with a high amount of dissolved calcium and magnesium in it. Calcium in particular causes the ugly scaling you see on your faucets and tubs. Once out of solution, it seems to permanently bond to the surface, and cleaning up with hard water just deposits more calcium on top of the stuff you are trying to get rid of! So obviously, So obviously, getting rid of those ions is the ONLY way to solve your problem, unless, of course you just love buying new appliances and having your house re-plumbed every few years!

Once armed with the knowledge that you HAVE hard water and that you have to DO something about it, you must now be held hostage in your home by the water softener sales people, who will parade through your house, and try to sell you a softener which seems large enough to take care of a small pharmaceutical plant's water needs. They will also perform some mumbo jumbo at your kitchen sink with solutions of many different colors to try and demonstrate just what their unit will do for you, quoting things like grains per gallon per day, and reverse osmosis. Finally, when you can't see straight, they will come up with an absurdly huge price tag, which you will of course agree to on the spot, because, at that point, you will do anything to get these people out of your house!

Allright, take heart, there IS some way you can make an informed decision on this! You can't do anything about the sales people though, they are a necessary evil, assuming you ARE going to purchase a water softener. Spend a few minutes thinking about your family's water usage. First thing to consider is, how many people are in your household and how much water do you use a day?? The average human uses about 75 gallons of water a day, (the average teenager about 750, what with all the showers.....). So multiply 75 by the number of people in your house. Impressive, isn't it???

Now, here is the tricky science part- how hard is your water?? Water hardness is measured in the units called grains. Anything over 1 grain per gallon is considered "hard" The water where I live is about 30 grains per gallon, we get rocks out of our tap. The water guys won't tell you this, but you can measure the hardness the same way they do by going to a pool supply store and purchasing a water test kit. You can test the chlorine level and the hardness very easily for about 6 dollars. Or better yet borrow the stuff from someone who has a pool, you'll only need to use it once or twice. A more expensive solution would be to put a pool in, that way you'd have to have them on hand at all times. All the test involves is taking a small amount of your water and adding a few drops of a chemical to it, which turns it pink, then adding another chemical to it drop wise until the color changes from pink to blue. The number of drops correlates to the degree of hardness in grains of your water. We personally like to have the water softener guys come and do ours, it makes them elicit lots of low whistles when they have to use up so much of their chemicals.

Now for the tricky math part- you have figured out how many grains of hardness per gallon you have, multiply it by the total number of gallons you use in a day. Wow, an even bigger number, right? This number is the amount of hardness that any softener will have to be able to remove in ONE day.

How does the unit do this??? Through a mysterious and complicated scientific process called ION EXCHANGE. Your water, laden with "hard ions" passes over a bed of beads that are saturated with "soft ions", either sodium or potassium. Now the beads and the water hang out for a bit and swap stories, and the water leaves the beads free of its hard ions and some cash, while the beads hang on to the hard ions. The water that comes to your tap is thus "softened". So when you take a shower, you might not feel so "squeaky" clean, which only means that you are not being coated with calcium anymore. Neither are your dishes or your laundry or any other appliances.

The system continues to work for many years because the unit will flush itself out and reload itself with soft ions every few days from the brine tank. Here is where the sizing of the unit is critical. Too small a unit and you never decrease the hardness enough. Too large a unit and you waste salt, about 12-15 lbs for each regeneration cycle and water. You should select a system that can remove about 3-4 days worth of hardness from your water before regenerating.

How does your unit know when to regenerate itself?? It doesn't, really. Some units rely on a resistance meter, which senses a change in electrical current, caused by the saturation of calcium ions on the resin bed, then signals the unit to start the regeneration cycle. Unfortunately, the resistance meters get corroded by constant exposure to the salt and need replacing every few years. A lower tech method is to use the figure for 3-4 days worth of hardness, which should be below the maximum capacity of your resin bed, and just set the unit to regenerate itself at that time. Regeneration is usually accomplished at night, when your water usage is low, and takes a few hours.

You can use either sodium or potassium to soften your water. People who are on sodium restricted diets should consider a potassium based system, and people who have renal dysfunction should consider sodium based systems. Another consideration is what type of waste water system you have. Sodium is notoriously destructive to concrete, which is probably what your septic tank is constructed out of. There is a definite price differential also, with the potassium being 3-4 times the price of sodium.

Those are the basics of softening your water. Most companies will also offer you some other interesting options, like bacteriostatic filters and reverse osmosis units at the tap. If you have concerns about your water being contaminated with micro-organisms or organic chemicals, these add ons will help to reduce or eliminate those things, but bear in mind they also will add to the cost of the system and require additional maintenance.

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