Water softeners are commonly used in homes with hard water in order to reduce mineral buildup and improve the efficiency of water-based appliances. However, some people are concerned that using a water softener may increase the sodium content of their drinking water. In this article, we’ll examine how water softeners work, how much sodium they add, the potential health impacts, and alternatives for those looking to reduce sodium levels coming from their tap.
How Do Water Softeners Work?
Water softeners use a process called ion exchange to remove minerals like calcium and magnesium from hard water. Inside the softener is a resin bed made up of small plastic beads. Sodium ions attach to these beads.
When hard water passes through the softener, the calcium and magnesium ions swap places with the sodium ions. This leaves sodium ions in the water and traps the mineral ions in the resin bed.
After this ion exchange process, the water exiting the softener is considered “softened” because most of the calcium and magnesium has been removed.
What Are the Different Types of Water Softeners?
There are two main types of water softeners:
Whole House Softeners
These systems soften all the water entering a home. The softener unit is installed on the main water line where it enters the house. All faucets, showers, appliances, etc. will deliver softened water.
Whole house systems require less maintenance because regeneration happens automatically on a preset schedule. However, water used for irrigation or other outdoor purposes will also be softened.
Point-of-use softeners are installed directly at the point of use, such as under a sink or next to a water heater. Only the water from that specific faucet is softened.
These smaller units allow targeting softened water to where it’s needed most. However, they require more maintenance because resin beds need to be regenerated more frequently.
How Much Sodium Do Water Softeners Add to Drinking Water?
The amount of sodium added by a water softener depends on several factors:
- Water hardness – Harder water requires more sodium to regenerate the resin bed. Very hard water over 20 grains per gallon (gpg) will lead to more sodium in softened water.
- Softener settings – Softeners can be adjusted to use more or less salt during regeneration. Higher salt doses release more sodium into the water.
- Water usage – Higher water use triggers more frequent regenerations, which increases sodium levels.
Studies have found that water softeners tend to increase sodium levels by 50-100 mg per liter on average. However, a 2017 study found that modern electronically metered softeners only increased sodium by 15-20 mg/L on average.
According to the EPA, sodium levels above 20 mg/L can be concerning for those on low-sodium diets. Ask your water treatment company to test your softened water’s sodium content if you are concerned.
What Are the Health Risks of Drinking Softened Water?
For most people, the small amount of sodium added by water softeners is not a health concern. However, for those on sodium-restricted diets, the extra sodium could potentially contribute to:
- Increased blood pressure
- Higher risk of heart disease and stroke
- Worsening of congestive heart failure
- Kidney problems
Sensitive groups include:
- People with hypertension
- Individuals with chronic kidney disease
- Older adults
- Pregnant women
- People with congestive heart failure
The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day at most. Drinking softened water could add 6-15% to your daily sodium consumption.
Those on sodium-restricted diets under 1,500 mg daily should take precautions if ingesting softened water frequently. Even small amounts can be impactful.
Are There Alternatives to Water Softeners?
If you’re looking to avoid extra sodium from a water softener, here are some alternative options:
Install a Salt-Free Water Conditioner
Salt-free conditioners use magnets or electrical current to alter the structure of minerals. This prevents them from binding to surfaces. However, unlike a softener, conditioners do not remove minerals from the water itself.
Salt-free conditioners do not add any sodium. However, they are not as effective at preventing scale buildup compared to salt-based softeners.
Use Reverse Osmosis Filtration
Reverse osmosis (RO) systems force water through a semipermeable membrane that traps minerals. This removes both hardness ions as well as sodium. RO water will have very low sodium levels.
However, RO wastes 2-3 gallons of water for every purified gallon produced. The systems also require regular filter replacements.
Mix Softened and Filtered Water
Another option is using a whole house softener along with a reverse osmosis system at the kitchen sink. You get softened water for bathing and appliances, while an RO faucet provides low-sodium drinking and cooking water.
This gives the benefits of both systems while limiting sodium intake from softened water.
Use Distilled Water for Drinking
Distillation involves boiling water and collecting purified steam. This removes both minerals and sodium. Drinking distilled water from time to time can help offset sodium levels.
However, distilled water lacks minerals that provide taste and nutrition. It should not be consumed exclusively long-term.
How to Reduce Sodium From Your Water Softener
If you already have a water softener installed, here are some tips to minimize sodium levels in your drinking water:
- Adjust the salt dose – Most softeners are pre-programmed for medium to high salt doses. Try lowering the salt setting gradually and test water hardness to find the minimum effective dose.
- Extend the regeneration cycle – Regenerating less frequently will release less sodium over time. Try spacing out the schedule from every 2 days to every 5-7 days.
- Install a brine tank bypass valve – This allows bypassing the brine solution. Sodium will not be added to the water during regeneration cycles.
- Use potassium chloride instead of sodium chloride – Potassium pellets act similar to salt in the ion exchange process. This avoids adding extra sodium to your water supply.
- Drink bottled or filtered water – Use pitchers with filters, under-sink RO systems, or distillers to provide lower-sodium water for drinking and cooking.
Testing Your Water’s Sodium Level
To monitor your water softener’s impact on sodium levels, have your water tested 1-2 times per year. There are a few options:
- At-home test kits – Low cost kits test sodium level in parts per million. Simply fill the vial and compare the color to the chart.
- Professional lab testing – More accurate, but costs $20-100 per test. Your local water treatment company may include testing services.
- Smart water softener monitors – New models have sensors that track sodium levels and can adjust salt doses automatically.
Ideally, aim for staying below 20 mg/L of sodium from your softened water if you are monitoring salt intake closely.
Choosing a Certified Low-Sodium Water Softener
Look for water softeners certified by NSF International to NSF/ANSI 44. To earn this certification, softeners must keep sodium additions below 30 mg/L.
Certified softeners have superior sodium reduction but still effectively soften hard water. Features like flow meters and microprocessors optimize salt and water use.
Here are some top-rated certified low-sodium softener models:
- Fleck 5600SXT
- Kinetico K5 Drinking Water Station
- Aquios Full House Salt-Free Softener
- Nuvo H20 DPHB Water Softener
Always consult the manufacturer’s performance data sheet to confirm sodium levels before purchase.
What Do Customers Say About Low-Sodium Softeners?
Here are some reviews from people who installed certified low-sodium softeners:
“My husband’s blood pressure dropped 20 points after we got this low-sodium softener. The taste is great too.”
“Easy to install, works great, and gives us peace of mind about reduced sodium.”
“This softener is efficient with salt and keeps our water soft and safe for my dad with heart disease.”
“The softener works great but replacing the filters gets expensive.”
“Had to call customer support to help program the settings when we first got it.”
“Took longer than expected to start feeling the full effects of the softened water.”
Overall, most reviews indicate customers are satisfied with certified low-sodium models. The systems effectively reduce hardness, improve taste and lathering of water, and give those monitoring sodium peace of mind.
Installing and Maintaining Your Water Softener
Proper installation and maintenance ensures your water softener provides effective water softening with minimal sodium:
- Follow the manufacturer’s instructions exactly during installation. Position the softener correctly and bypass outdoor spigots.
- Schedule professional service annually to keep the softener working properly and optimize settings. Technicians can also sanitize the system.
- Check the salt levels monthly and refill as needed. Use potassium pellets if aiming to reduce sodium.
- Test water hardness and sodium levels 1-2 times per year. Adjust softener settings as needed.
- Inspect for leaks and fix immediately to prevent sodium rich water from escaping the system.
Investing in a high-quality, certified low-sodium softener and staying on top of maintenance provides the best results in terms of effective softening combined with reduced sodium output.
The Bottom Line
While water softeners do increase the sodium content of drinking water to some degree, the rise in sodium is relatively small for most people when systems are properly maintained. Those on sodium-restricted diets should take precautions and consider alternative options. When shopping for a water softener, look for NSF-certified models rated for low sodium output. With careful monitoring and maintenance, you can enjoy the benefits of softened water while keeping sodium additions to a minimum.