Are Water Softeners Bad for the Environment? Find Out Here!

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If you’re looking to install a water softener, you might have heard a few things about water softeners being bad for the environment.

Is this true? Why might a softener have an environmental impact? We’ve shared everything you need to know in this guide.

📌 Key Takeaways:

  • Water softeners may be considered bad for the environment because of the energy used in the manufacturing process, the water waste, and the introduction of sodium into the environment.
  • However, the energy-saving benefits of water softeners should balance out their negative impacts.
  • You can make your softened water system more environmentally friendly by reducing regeneration frequency, using your softener for as long as possible, swapping sodium for potassium chloride, and more.

🤔 Are Water Softeners Harmful For The Environment?

Water softeners are considered bad for the environment for the following reasons:

  1. They waste water when they regenerate
  2. They send chloride ions into aquatic environments
  3. They’re made from a variety of materials, which all must be sourced or fabricated for their purpose (which uses energy)

🕵️‍♂️ We’re going to look in more detail at all three of these claims below, but the quick answer is no, in most areas, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that water softeners are harmful to the environment.

Water softener discharge

1) Is Water Softener Regeneration Bad For The Environment?

Let’s first look at a water softener’s regeneration cycle, and the wastewater produced from this process.

Water softeners have to regenerate. The process involves flushing collected calcium and magnesium ions out of the resin beads, and replenishing the resin with sodium ions.

The calcium and magnesium ions are carried out of the resin tank with around 25-65 gallons of water (per regeneration).

Some people say this water waste is bad for the environment because it’s using “unnecessary” water, which means that wastewater treatment plants have more water to treat and must use more energy to do so.

However, water softeners actually improve the energy efficiency of water-using appliances like washing machines and hot water heaters, so you could argue that this extra bit of water waste is balanced out by the benefits of installing a softener.

Plus, water softeners only regenerate every 1-2 weeks on average, so they shouldn’t significantly increase your water usage.

2) Is Water Softener Salt Discharge Bad For The Environment?

Onto the other aspect of water softener regeneration that’s said to be bad for the environment: salt discharge.

The water wasted by a water softener contains sodium chloride (salt). Salt is used in the ion exchange process to produce softened water. It’s present in small amounts in soft water, but water softener discharge water is much more concentrated.

What we do know is that the sodium chloride in water softener effluent may harm aquatic life. Once salty water is discharged into a natural water source, there’s no easy way to remove it.

Wastewater treatment plants are usually unequipped to remove chloride salts from water. As a result, the salt remains in the treated water and is released into lakes and reservoirs. Many aquatic organisms can only survive in specific conditions and are likely to die from dehydration if exposed to excess salt in their environment.

Thankfully, sodium doesn’t bioaccumulate (build up over time), so it shouldn’t have any increasing long-term effects on the environment. Modern water softeners are designed to perform efficiently, which minimizes the salt that ends up in our natural water sources.

Standing water in water softener salt tank

3) Is Water Softener Manufacturing Bad For The Environment?

Finally, let’s look at the water softener manufacturing process, and whether this can be seen as bad for the environment.

Like any manufacturing process, building a water softener takes energy. Water softeners are becoming more and more popular, and this increased demand means that more materials must be sourced, and more energy must be used, to manufacture these water treatment systems.

Various materials are used to manufacture softening equipment, including plastics and metals. Luckily, these are commonly available and usually recyclable. Plus, they’re long-lasting – unlike water filters, the resin and other parts of a water softener don’t have to be switched out every few months. Most water softener components last over 15 years.

The only consumable product in a water softening system is the salt, which is naturally occurring and widely found in the environment. Extracting salt is relatively easy – it’s usually done by evaporation – and doesn’t have a huge geological impact.

🕵️‍♂️ So, is the manufacturing process bad for the environment? It does have an impact, but it’s usually only a small one, due to the easily sourced, durable materials.

✔️ How To Reduce Water Softener Environmental Impact

There’s no avoiding softener regeneration, which means a water softener can never be 100% non-impactful on the environment. However, there are a few things you can do to reduce the environmental impact of your water softening system.

Reduce Regeneration Frequency

A simple way to reduce the impact of your water softening system is to reduce the frequency of regenerations.

As we know, all salt-based water softeners use a process called regeneration to flush the dissolved minerals out of the resin with a concentrated brine solution.

If your softener regenerates before it needs to – or before the resin has become depleted of sodium and saturated with water hardness ions – you might be able to space out the regeneration cycles to cut down on your monthly water waste and reduce your carbon footprint.

👨‍🔧 You’ll only be able to adjust regeneration frequency on a timer-based softener. If you have a system that performs demand-initiated regeneration, it’s already as efficient as possible, and will only regenerate once a certain volume of water has passed through the resin tank.

setting a water softener timer to regenerate manually

Own A Softener For As Long As Possible

To reduce the effects of manufacturing water softener parts, minimize how often you replace your water softening system.

It’s easy to get tempted by new deals and offers by manufacturers, but it’s better for the environment if you own your water softener for as long as possible – preferably 15-20+ years – and simply replace the worn parts when the time comes.

Use Potassium Chloride Instead Of Salt

Potassium chloride is an alternative to salt that works in the same way to remove hard minerals in an ion exchange softener. The only difference is that potassium chloride adds potassium to your hard water, not sodium, so it’s a popular choice for people on a low-sodium diet.

Potassium chloride is also good for plants due to its potassium content, so it’s a great salt alternative if you discharge your softening wastewater outside.

Buy A Salt-Free Water Softener

If you want to avoid the potential effects of salt-based water softeners altogether, consider buying a salt-free softener.

Salt-free water softening systems, otherwise known as water conditioners, don’t technically produce soft water. Instead, these systems retain calcium and magnesium ions in water, but prevent them from forming scale, using a process called template-assisted crystallization (TAC).

Unlike ion exchange water softeners, salt-free water conditioners don’t need to regenerate, which means they don’t waste water, and they don’t use salt.

This makes them a much better option for people who want to prevent the effects of hardness ions in their homes while keeping their carbon footprint as small as possible.

Springwell Water Filter and Salt-Free Water Softener combo system

📑 Are Water Softeners Bad For The Environment? Final Word

There are a few environmental effects of softened water systems that you should consider before you buy this water treatment system for your home.

If you’re keen to reduce your water footprint or carbon footprint, know that a water softener will have some impact.

However, many people feel that installing a softener in their plumbing system is worth it for the energy-saving benefits of soft water, which improve the efficiency of water heater units and other water-using appliances.

Only you can decide whether or not a water softener is right for you. If the answer is no, consider salt-free conditioners or anti-scale magnetic treatment units.

  • Brian Campbell
    President & CEO, CWS, CWR

    Brian Campbell, a WQA Certified Water Specialist (CWS) and Certified Water Treatment Representative (CWR) with 5+ years of experience, helps homeowners navigate the world of water treatment. After honing his skills at Hach Company, he founded his business to empower homeowners with the knowledge and tools to achieve safe, healthy water. Brian's tested countless devices, from simple pitchers to complex systems, helping his readers find the perfect fit for their unique needs.

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