Softening: What does it mean?

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By Dave Duren

Believe it or not…when I’m out in the field as I’m headed to San Diego right now…the most asked question I’ll get is “what exactly is softening?” And if they don’t asked…I’ll be bringing it up!

If you asked 99% of the legitimate water treatment companies and or manufacturers; they respond by saying…Water softening is the “removal of mineral” from the water….plan and simple.

And mineral for the purpose of this article is mostly calcium and magnesium.  (Other metals are also removed by the ion exchange process)I’m going to be talking about ion exchange process from here on out for clarification. So let’s review what is actually going on in that what softener. Inside of a water softener are millions of tiny beads that are man-made of a plastic material. They have a negative charge. Mineral has a positive charge. Water with mineral in it passed through the bed of “resin” and the mineral clings to these beads. As they cling, they release some sodium ions. This is where the term “exchange” comes into play. After a certain period of time the beads become full of mineral or as we say the bed becomes exhausted and it needs to regenerate. This process involves drawing a brine (“salty”) solution into the bed which flushes the mineral away and down the drain while allowing more sodium ions to cling to the beads to get ready for more actual softening.

There are basically three ways this whole process occurs. The first way is manually. Someone tells the unit the time when to start and stop. The second way is with an automatic time clock. The time clock is set to regenerate every certain amount of days. A couple of reliable industry valves have a 12 day wheel on them to control this period. This involves sliding out pins that trip the unit into the process every set amount of days, like every third day or so. The third and probably most popular these days is a metered system. This involves some type of water meter that will kick the unit into regeneration when a set amount of water has passed through it.

So to continue, if mineral is not REMOVED from water through ion exchange softening then some other method is used to try to prevent it from sticking to surfaces, (inside of pipes, inside of heaters and exchangers, showerheads, shower doors..etc.) And you might ask WHY it is sticking to surfaces anyway. This is due to the positive valence or polarity of the mineral itself. Many of the reputable companies use the term “Conditioning” or “Management” but do not say softening in their explanation as to how this gets done. So with that, I’ve broken this down into 4 general methods that are used although there may be other methods out there.

  • Magnets and electricity
  • Adding polyphosphates
  • Creating acid water, mostly using citric acid
  • Media based methods

Let’s talk about these in a general way. First magnets and electricity are merely an attempt to change the polarity of the mineral elements in the water. They are not easily changed and many revert back to their original state if ever changed in the first place.

Secondly are polyphosphates. They have been around a good long while. This product coats the inside of the pipes and anything downstream with a thin layer of itself situating itself between the water and surface. It also coats the mineral element and prevents it from attaching to other things. This method is good in some applications.

Thirdly, acid water created by using citric acid or other chemical is added to the water to reduce the ph of the water making it “acidic”. Acidic water then has a tendency to make the mineral not want to stick to surfaces. This method can work at times but also reduces all of the water’s ph and now introduces acid water to the entire plumbing system.

The fourth method is using medias. There are a few different ones on the market and they basically create an atmosphere wherein that the mineral either sticks to it or sticks to itself or another particle of something that is introduced into the water.

None of the above methods removes or even reduces mineral from the water but once again, merely tries to “control” the mineral’s positive polarity and prevent it from sticking to surfaces. Either inside the plumbing system on a surface (shower doors, dishes, showerheads, etc.) Some with some success and others with zero success. This is why “SALT-FREE SOFTENING” does not exist except in a few extreme cases using very expensive equipment and seldom seen in residential applications.  It is also worth mentioning that NSF, National Sanitation Foundation and WQA, Water Quality Association both have standards and protocols for testing Ion exchange softeners. So as I’ve stated before, this is a very good way to tell if the equipment you’re being asked about or you yourself is trying to sell, is legitimate. Going to either website would also be a great way of learning more about what they do as organizations.

All of the above areas would command their own article or series of articles so take this as an overview. I think that you as a contractor need to at least be aware of the terms and methods because you will probably be asked by a customer. I think that when asked “what is softening?” you can simply say….”it’s REMOVAL of mineral from the water and the best and most economical, tried and true method is an ion exchange softener. I think it would be perfectly OK for you to tell your customer “Buyer Beware”…especially if they are asking or maybe even trying to tell you about some super wiz product they found on the internet or so slick guy called and tried to sell them over the phone.

I’d like to add that research and development continues to look for another method of SOFTENING water for residential use that will be efficient and affordable (which is what?….RIGHT!…REMOVING MINERAL FROM THE WATER!) as growing demand for this type of system exists. Until then ion exchange softening is the way to go to get the desired effects of actual SOFT WATER.  Until next time…happy selling!

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