Diagram showing how a water softener works through ion exchange, hard water enters and calcium and magnesium ions are removed and replaced with sodium ions to create soft water. Useful visual explaining the ion exchange process that removes minerals inside a water softening system.

Are Water Softeners Safe? Understanding the Health Risks and Benefits

Water softeners are common household appliances that remove minerals like calcium and magnesium from hard water. This process creates softer water that produces less soap scum and extends the life of water-using appliances.

But there has been some debate around whether water softeners are completely safe to use. Let’s take an objective look at the potential health risks and environmental impacts, as well as the benefits of using a water softener.

How Do Water Softeners Work?

Water softeners use a process called ion exchange to remove minerals that make water hard. Hard water contains high levels of calcium and magnesium ions, which can build up in pipes and appliances.

Water softeners contain resin beads that are charged with sodium ions. As hard water passes through the softener, the calcium and magnesium ions are attracted to the resin beads and swap places with the sodium ions. This leaves you with soft water that now contains sodium ions instead of the hard mineral ions.

There are a few different types of water softening systems:

  • Salt-based softeners – These are the most common type. They use salt, usually in the form of sodium chloride pellets, to recharge the resin beads. The salty backwash water is discharged.
  • Salt-free softeners – These use potassium chloride instead of sodium chloride to recharge the resin beads. This reduces the amount of sodium discharged.
  • Magnetic water softeners – These use magnets to alter the structure of mineral ions, preventing them from binding together and forming scale.
  • Reverse osmosis systems – While not technically water softeners, these systems use a membrane to filter out hard mineral ions, producing soft water.

No matter the specific type, all water softeners work by removing hard mineral ions and replacing them with softer ions like sodium or potassium.

What Are the Health Risks of Water Softeners?

Some health concerns have been raised over the use of water softeners, primarily related to the increased sodium content of softened water. However, the risks appear to be low for most people.

Increased Sodium Consumption

Softened water contains significantly higher levels of sodium compared to hard water. The sodium concentration can range from around 50 to 400 milligrams per liter (mg/L).

This can contribute to an increase in sodium intake, especially for those who drink softened water and use it for cooking. The average American already consumes over 3,400 mg of sodium per day. Drinking high-sodium softened water could potentially push that even higher.

High sodium intake has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and other health issues. The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium to less than 2,300 mg per day. Excessive sodium consumption can potentially have greater health impacts for those who already have hypertension or kidney problems.

However, for most people the increase in sodium intake from drinking and cooking with softened water is relatively small compared to other dietary sources. As long as you maintain a healthy diet overall, the sodium from a water softener likely does not pose a significant health risk.

Allergic Reactions

Some people have reported allergic reactions after installing a water softener, manifesting as skin rashes, digestive issues, and sinus problems. This appears to be very rare, but the cause is likely related to nickel or chromium contaminants leaching from the softener’s resin beads.

Certain types of resin beads may contain trace amounts of nickel and chromium, which can potentially leach into the water supply under certain conditions. Those with nickel or chromium allergies may react to this increased exposure. Seeking medical advice is recommended if any adverse symptoms develop after installing a water softener.

Using a nickel-tested resin or stainless steel softener can help avoid allergic reactions. Make sure any softener purchased meets NSF/ANSI 44 and 61 certifications for materials safety. Properly maintaining the softener as recommended also minimizes the risk of allergic reactions.

Other Potential Health Risks

A few other health concerns have been occasionally raised regarding water softeners, but the evidence for these risks is limited and inconclusive:

  • Magnesium deficiency – Softened water has very low magnesium content. Some studies suggest that low magnesium intake could potentially be linked to an increased cardiovascular disease risk in people with already-low magnesium levels. However, this appears unlikely to affect most people.
  • Pregnancy risks – Some websites claim that softened water increases the risk of pregnancy complications or birth defects. But there is no scientific evidence supporting this. In fact, the World Health Organization says water softeners are safe for pregnant women.
  • Cancer – There have been isolated claims that water softeners could increase cancer risk, but this is not backed by any research. The low contaminant levels from properly certified softeners do not appear to have carcinogenic effects.

Overall, there is no definitive evidence that water softeners directly cause major health problems or increase disease risk for most healthy individuals. But those with specific medical conditions like hypertension should consult their doctor.

What Are the Environmental Impacts?

In addition to health effects, there are some potential environmental impacts from the operation of water softeners that are important to consider:

Discharge of Sodium, Chloride and Heavy Metals

The backwash cycle of salt-based softeners releases a brine solution of sodium, chloride, and trace heavy metals from the resin beads. This salty discharge flows either into septic tanks, drainage fields or public wastewater systems.

High concentrations of sodium and chloride have been shown to negatively impact groundwater quality and aquatic life. The metals can also accumulate in the environment. However, the environmental impact depends on the volume and concentration of the softener discharge, as well as the size of the local ecosystem.

With proper installation and maintenance, water softeners are designed to minimize any ecological risks. Using potassium chloride salt pellets instead of sodium chloride can further reduce environmental impacts.

Effect on Local Water Sources

Water softeners require backwashing and recharging around every 3-5 days. This can result in increased household water usage of 15-20%. In areas that rely on limited groundwater or surface water resources, the higher usage could potentially have a cumulative effect.

However, modern water softeners are over 95% efficient compared to older models. The extra water usage is unlikely to cause shortages in regions with robust water infrastructure and aquifers. Those relying on hauled water may want to avoid installing a water softener.

Salty Backwash Water Entering Septic Systems

The salty backwash from water softeners can harm the bacteria responsible for decomposing waste in septic system drain fields. This can decrease the efficiency of septic tanks over time.

To mitigate this, it’s recommended to install a twin alternating system. This uses two smaller tanks and alternates backwashing between them. This exposes each drain field to smaller volumes of brine at less frequent intervals, reducing the salinity impact on wastewater microbes.

Local Regulations

Many municipalities prohibit or restrict the discharge of salty backwash from water softeners into public sewer systems. Local laws may also set limits on environmental contaminants.

Checking for any regulations in your area regarding water softener installation and discharge is advisable. Be sure to follow all guidelines. Using a high-efficiency softener with eco-friendly salt pellets can help minimize regulatory concerns.

With proper installation and maintenance, most modern water softeners do not pose major environmental risks. But checking local laws and being mindful of water conservation is recommended.

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What Are the Benefits of Using a Water Softener?

Despite some potential drawbacks, water softeners do provide a number of benefits that make them desirable for many homeowners:

Elimination of Hard Water Scale Buildup

Hard water leaves behind calcium and magnesium deposits that build up inside pipes, water heaters, faucets, showerheads and other plumbing. This limescale can gradually reduce water flow, waste water and energy, and lead to premature appliance failure.

Water softeners eliminate this hard water scale buildup by removing the minerals. This keeps plumbing clear of deposits and extends the operating life of water-using appliances.

Softer Hair and Skin

Hard water makes it difficult to lather soap, leaving behind soap scum residue on skin and hair. This can result in dryness, irritation and overall less healthy skin and hair.

Softened water allows soaps and shampoos to lather properly. Bathing with softened water leaves skin and hair feeling smoother and healthier without irritation. Those with existing skin conditions may particularly benefit.

Improved Laundry Cleaning

Hard water acts as a deterrent, making it harder for soaps and detergents to break down dirt and stains when doing laundry. Clothes washed in hard water may look dingy and feel stiff and scratchy.

Soft water allows detergents to work more effectively cutting through grease and dirt. Fabrics washed in soft water feel softer, fluffier and brighter. White clothes stay whiter without graying. Soft water improves the performance of soaps and detergents so less is needed.

Sparkling Dishes and Glassware

Just like with laundry, hard water prevents dishwashing detergents from working their best leaving behind film and spots on dishes and glassware. This buildup can be hard to remove.

Softened water gives much better cleaning results when doing dishes by hand or using a dishwasher. Dishes, glassware and silverware all come out cleaner without spots, streaks or residue.

Longer Lifespan of Appliances

Scale buildup caused by hard water can eventually lead to breakdowns and reduce the operating efficiency and lifespan of appliances like dishwashers, washing machines and water heaters.

Water softeners prolong the life of appliances by eliminating mineral scale damage. Your investment in the water softener pays off over time by avoiding costly appliance repairs or replacements.

What Factors Should You Consider Before Installing a Water Softener?

Deciding whether or not a water softener system makes sense depends on several factors:

Hardness of Your Water

The hardness of your water is an important factor determining the benefits you’ll get from a water softener. Hard water is typically classified as:

  • Soft: Less than 1 grain per gallon (gpg)
  • Slightly hard: 1 to 3.5 gpg
  • Moderately hard: 3.5 to 7 gpg
  • Hard: 7 to 10 gpg
  • Very hard: Over 10 gpg

A professional water test can determine your water’s hardness. If hardness levels are under 3.5 gpg, a water softener may not offer enough benefits to justify the cost. Over 7 gpg and the benefits become much more substantial.

Size of Your Household

The number of people in your home will affect your daily water usage. Large households with 4 or more people who rely heavily on softened water for bathing, laundry, cooking and more will get the most benefit in terms of convenience and cost savings.

Small households with just 1 or 2 occupants may find the upfront investment in a water softener not worthwhile for the occasional convenience benefits.

Health Risk Factors

Those on a medically-restricted sodium diet may want to avoid installing a water softener, or at least take precautions around drinking softened water and using it for cooking. People with nickel or chromium allergies should select a system with nickel-tested resin beads.

Consult with your doctor if you have any concerns regarding potential health impacts based on your existing medical condition. They can help assess any risks.

Costs of Buying and Maintaining

Basic water softener systems often cost $500 to $2,000 for installation. More advanced models with eco-friendly features and WiFi controls can cost up to $4,000. These systems also require regular salt purchases for regeneration, which can cost $5 to $15 per month.

While water softeners can save money over time in appliance energy and longevity, the upfront and maintenance costs may not be feasible for all budgets. Consider whether you’ll use the system enough to get your money’s worth.

Environmental Impact

Those concerned with ecological impact may want to research salt-free alternatives like reverse osmosis or magnetic systems. Make sure any system you install meets all local regulations regarding water discharge.

Using potassium rather than sodium pellets, properly maintaining the softener, and using an alternating twin tank can all reduce environmental risks.

Alternative Options

Other options for hard water treatment include anti-scale devices, water distillers, or pitcher filters. While not as effective at treating whole-home water, these alternatives have lower costs and environmental impacts for smaller applications.

Evaluate whether your needs could be met with a less intensive water treatment solution before deciding on a full water softener system.

Carefully weighing these factors will help determine if the benefits of installing a water softener outweigh the downsides for your particular situation.

How Do You Install and Maintain a Water Softener?

Once you’ve decided a water softener is right for your home, proper installation and maintenance is crucial for performance and safety:

Installation Tips

  • A plumbing professional should install the system. Trying to DIY risks leaks and voids warranties.
  • The softener will need to connect to plumbing before the water heater and appliances.
  • Include a bypass valve to isolate the softener if needed.
  • Allow sufficient drainage for backwash cycles. Follow local codes.
  • Clean pipes beforehand to flush sediment that could clog softener resin.
  • Program the system regenerations based on water hardness and household size.
  • Add salt to the brine tank and calibrate salt levels for optimal efficiency.

Ongoing Maintenance

  • Periodically check the salt level and refill as needed based on your programmed schedule.
  • Test water hardness monthly to ensure the softener is functioning properly.
  • Inspect for leaks and unusual noises that could indicate a problem.
  • Disinfect resin tank with chlorine bleach once a year to prevent bacterial growth.
  • Replace resin beads every 5-10 years depending on water usage and quality.
  • Filter sediments before the softener to prevent resin fouling.
  • Maintain optimal salt settings. Too much or too little salt decreases efficiency.

Signs of Problems

  • Sudden return of hard water symptoms (scale, skin/hair issues)
  • Inability to recharge and refill brine tank
  • Leaking from valves, tank or connections
  • Unusual noises from tank or plumbing
  • Increased energy bills if it fails to recharge properly
  • Musty or rotten egg odors indicating bacterial contamination

Spotting issues early and identifying the cause of the problem allows quicker repairs to get your softener working properly again.

Proper installation combined with regular maintenance and servicing will keep your water softener functioning safely and effectively.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is softened water safe to drink?

Softened water is generally safe to drink in moderation. The increase in sodium is relatively small. Those on salt-restricted diets may want to avoid drinking softened water or use alternative treatment methods.

Is installing a water softener difficult?

Most water softeners require professional installation due to the plumbing modifications required. Attempting a DIY install can result in leaks and other problems down the line.

What level of water hardness requires a softener?

Water hardness over 3.5 gpg will start to produce noticeable scale buildup and detergent efficiency issues. But the hardest water over 10 gpg sees the biggest benefits from softening.

Can water softeners irritate skin conditions like eczema?

For some, the removal of minerals makes softened water more irritating to existing skin conditions. Those with eczema or sensitivities should patch test their skin’s reaction.

How much water do softeners use?

Backwashing and recharging increases water use by 15-20%. High-efficiency models have greatly reduced this water waste. Twin alternating systems also decrease the frequency of recharging.

What’s the difference between salt-based and salt-free softeners?

Salt-based softeners use sodium chloride salt for ion exchange softening. Salt-free systems use potassium or magnets instead of sodium to soften water.

Can water softeners damage septic systems?

The increased sodium from backwash cycles can harm bacteria in septic system drain fields. Using an alternating twin tank system helps reduce this risk.

How can you make softened water safe for septic tanks?

Use potassium chloride salt, recharge as infrequently as possible, discharge away from the drain field, and install an alternating twin tank system. These steps minimize risks to your septic system.

How often should water softeners be sanitized?

Resin beds should be cleaned with chlorine bleach once a year. More frequent sanitizing may be needed if you notice smells indicating bacterial growth in the tank.

The Bottom Line

Water softeners effectively prevent scale buildup and produce softer water for easier cleaning and healthier hair and skin. But there are some potential health and environmental drawbacks to consider as well.

Carefully maintaining your softener, using safer salt pellets, and installing an eco-friendly alternating system can help minimize any risks. Weighing the benefits versus the potential downsides will help determine if a water softener makes sense for your household’s needs.

For most homeowners with moderately hard to very hard water, the many advantages of softer water outweigh the negatives as long as the system is properly installed and maintained. But those with medical conditions affected by increased sodium intake or very limited water resources may want to explore alternatives.

Understanding both the pros and cons allows you to make an informed decision about whether installing a water softener is the right choice to effectively and safely treat the water in your home.

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