Kinder, Gentler, Softer Water

Rick Stryker, PE
July 2015

“Hey Culligan Man!”® For years growing up, the brassy, obnoxious holler would sound over radio and TV at least once a day. Growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, PA, we were bombarded daily with ads from outfits who wanted to treat our water. My dad was a pretty basic kind of guy who dismissed these wholesale as a lot of advertising hype looking to separate him from his hard-earned money. Even after I became an engineer, I didn’t have a very positive impression of the industry as I was working hard to help municipal treatment plants deliver safe, clean potable water to their customers. “What more could they need?” I thought. Over time, though, I’ve become a fan of home treatment units, because when operating properly they reduce the cost of cleaning chemicals, shorten the time to get bathroom and kitchen fixtures clean, brighten laundry, and make water-using appliances last much longer. So Dad was partially right; conditioning water isn’t free, however there are very real financial returns to be realized. Along the way, we’ve made reference to “water softeners” in this column, but that’s only been while examining another issue. This time around, we’re going to look at what’s commonly called “softening” (more appropriately referred to as “conditioning”), what that really means, and why you should make it a permanent part of your operation.

Regardless of whether your water comes from a well on site or a distribution system that serves you and your neighbors, your drinking water contains some amount of dissolved elements. That’s not altogether a bad thing, and if you’ve ever drunk distilled water, you’ve probably noticed a taste that most people call “flat.” It just doesn’t taste right to most people because it contains nothing but H20. It may surprise you to learn that despite the pristine mountain scenes on the labels, most commercially available bottled water is simply conditioned, filtered tap water! But what, exactly, has been done to the water, and what makes it so special that we’re willing to pay so much more for it than what comes directly from the tap?

Let’s begin with some important background information. The US federal government has enacted a series of regulations enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grouped under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Enacted in 1974, it has been updated and amended twice since then. Originally, its intent was simply to ensure that water at each tap on a public system was potable and safe to drink. For those old enough to remember, it was at the heart of the discussion (and later, the arguments) about adding fluoride to the drinking water to help strengthen youngsters’ teeth. And while its scope has really grown over time, potable water remains at the heart of the SDWA. To that end, the EPA has identified a list of parameters that tap water must meet. These include microorganisms, organic and inorganic chemicals, disinfectants and their byproducts, and even radionuclides. The level of treatment required by any given system is determined by the number of users or customers. The more users who could be harmed, the more extensive and frequent the testing. For example, big cities test for the whole range of listed contaminants quarterly. Alternately, most camps are classified as “transient, noncommunity water supplies,” because these don’t provide water to more than 25 of the same users over a single six-month period. These systems must deliver minimally treated water best described as “pretty clear” and without bacteria or microorganisms. Though meeting these parameters, they often contain really high levels of other dissolved matter like calcium carbonate (lime), iron, magnesium, and manganese among others. Nearly every dissolved substance has been assigned a maximum contaminant level (MCL). This represents the highest concentration of the substance allowable in water suitable for human consumption. Some, like iron, can’t even be stomached at the MCL: You simply barf it up instead of absorbing it. I’ve visited camps that though the water met all of the EPA criteria, the iron content was so high it couldn’t be drunk.

In the case of softening or conditioning, though, we’re most often looking at calcium carbonate or lime. While having some in the water adds a taste that most people like, too much causes problems. These may include:

  • Accelerated wear of pumps in the water system or the pool
  • Difficulty in cleaning bathroom fixtures
  • Laundry that doesn’t look clean or bright
  • Accumulations of crusty-looking crud on kitchen fixtures and appliances such as coffee pots, sinks, and the dishwasher
  • Shortened life of systems that use or handle hot water, such as hydronic heater systems, steam kettles and cabinets, and boilers among others.

Enter “water conditioning” as a mechanism to improve things all around! “Softening” simply refers to a process that removes calcium and/or magnesium from the water, which is causing the troubles listed previously. Where filters simply screen tiny particles from the flow stream, softening or conditioning is a special chemical process called “ion exchange” where the magnetically sticky calcium and manganese positive ions are swapped with other “stickier” ions, historically sodium, making up the “exchange” part of the term. The stuff left behind sticks to the surface of beads that have a negative atomic charge until the bed of beads becomes clogged. The system pushes salty brine through the bed of beads to rinse off the calcium and magnesium. Those minerals with the brine are discharged as waste. This high concentration of dissolved minerals can cause septic systems to crust, so many health departments will not allow backwash to be sent through the septic tank. There seems to be some debate about whether that’s really happening, but at the very least, it’s not helping the bacterial microorganisms break down your waste. The drywell is probably the best place for conditioner backwash. Most systems now operate completely by themselves and need only to be checked every few weeks to see that the brine tank contains salt pellets.

All of this seems simple enough. We’re taking advantage of atomic charges and using a stronger atomic “magnet;” we’re swapping what we don’t want for what’s more acceptable. Mostly more acceptable anyway, as many people are watching their sodium intake. Yep. The very same sodium that is hiding in your table salt shaker or processed food has now been introduced into your water. Not so much that the water tastes like the ocean, but surely enough that it’s something to be considered by dietitians working with special health needs populations. There are some ways around this. For example, instead of using sodium chloride, use potassium chloride pellets. Potassium behaves exactly as the sodium does, is an essential nutrient which is often lacking in many diets, and doesn’t affect blood pressure. The drawback is that because it is less abundant than sodium, pound for pound and pellet for pellet it costs more.

Now, where should you install the conditioner? In a perfect world, the best place to treat water is immediately before you send it on to the rest of your system or storage. But the cost to condition your water is absolutely linear. That is, there is a set cost to pass each gallon of water through the conditioner. If you treat every gallon of water that you bring up from your well, all of the sprinkler, car wash, toilet-flushing water will be similarly treated. So sure, your toilet and car will sparkle. But many camp water systems are leaky. While there’s been some research that suggests treated water irrigates better than nonconditioned water, do you really want your lawn to dine at a fine buffet? If your water system is deep enough below the frost line, chances are the grass won’t get any water anyway. The best strategy is twofold. First, treat as closely as you can to the point of use. Put a conditioner in each shower house and in the dining hall/kitchen. If you want to dial it back even farther, condition only the water directed toward the hot water system. While your toilets won’t benefit, you’ll have reduced the hardness at the shower head by about half. And all of the hot water kitchen appliances will cheer.

There is one last point to ponder for today concerning water conditioning. I’ve heard on the radio recently about a magic gadget that trades all of that expensive water conditioning equipment for of all things, magnets. Playing on the ionization terminology, these modern day snake oil salesmen would have you believe that these ions behave in the presence of a physical magnet like iron filings in a plastic tray. There is simply no evidence that this works. None. Thoroughly research whatever technology you choose to condition your water, and avoid anything at all that lays claim to being perfectly suited for all people using no electricity, salt, or other care. As with so many other things, you can bet that you’ll get what you pay for.

Rick Stryker is a professional engineer with a particular passion for supporting camps and conference centers. He can be reached for comments or questions or article suggestions at