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One of the most popular water treatment solutions for whole-home use is the water softener. Water softeners do as their name suggests: they soften water, removing calcium and magnesium hardness minerals. With these minerals removed, water is called “soft water”.
There are many benefits of using a water softening system for your home. Hard water leaves scale deposits, known as limescale, which can damage your home’s appliances, reduce water flow in your pipes and plumbing, and affect the efficiency of your water-based appliances. But, these benefits aside, is it safe to drink softened water?
I’ll be covering the ins and outs of drinking softened water in this short guide.
💡 What is Soft Water?
Let’s quickly look in more detail at what makes water “soft”. We already know that soft water has had its calcium and magnesium minerals removed, but what else stands it apart from normal tap water?
Typically, if you’ve used a traditional ion-exchange water softener to treat your home’s water supply, your water will also contain a small amount of salt, or sodium chloride. That’s because ion-exchange softeners replace water hardness minerals with equal parts sodium. I cover more about this process in the section below.
Soft water, then, is water that contains little-to-no calcium and magnesium minerals, and a low concentration of sodium ions.
Related: Soft vs Hard Water: Complete Guide
📝 How is Soft Water Made?
First off, to avoid confusion, you should know that there are two types of water softener: traditional salt-based softeners; and conditioners. Conditioners do not soften water, as they don’t actually remove the hardness mineral particles. So when I talk about how soft water is made, I’m talking about the traditional salt-based ion exchange process.
This traditional water softener consists of two tanks: a brine tank and a resin tank. It’s inside the resin tank where the softening process takes place.
Water flows through the resin bed, and as it does so, the positively charged hardness minerals (calcium and magnesium) are attracted to the beads. They stick to the surface of the resin beads, attracted to their negative charge. At the same time, positively charged sodium chloride ions are released from the media bed into the water, swapping equal parts calcium and magnesium for sodium chloride. The water that leaves this tank is softened water.
🤏 How Much Sodium Does Softened Water Actually Have?
Softened water contains minimal amounts of sodium, so you don’t need to panic about overdosing on salt from your water supply alone. Even if your water contains a high quantity of hardness ions, the amount of sodium that replaces these ions isn’t high enough to be noticeable, let alone dangerous.
The average 8oz glass of softened water contains around 1% of your daily sodium intake – so it’s certainly nothing to worry about.
Does Soft Water Taste Salty?
Soft water will have a different taste to the water you’re used to – but that’s because the hardness particles have been removed. Your water won’t taste salty, and if it does, you need to check that your water softening system is working properly. A common problem that can lead to excess sodium in your water is a blockage or kink in the drain hose, which will affect the system’s ability to regenerate.
How Do Ensure I Am Using the Right Amount of Salt in My Softener?
Most water softeners are clever enough to calculate the ideal amount of sodium based on your water’s hardness levels and your daily water usage. If you have hard water of more than 10 grains per gallon (gpg or mg/ L), your softener will use around 20 to 30 mg of sodium with every regeneration. You’ll just need to add salt to the system once every 6-8 weeks to make sure your water softener always has a supply to replenish the media bed during regeneration.
Don’t worry about the risk of drinking water with too much salt without knowing – you’d always know. We all know what salt tastes like, so if your softened water tastes salty, you know there’s something not right.
🩺 Are There Health Concerns With Drinking Softened Water?
There are two ways to look at drinking softened water when it comes to our health: the potential health effects of a small amount of sodium and the potential health effects of water that lacks magnesium and calcium ions.
Let’s start by looking at sodium’s potential health problems.
To start with, we’ve all been conditioned to consider salt as “the big bad wolf” in the nutrition world, but our bodies actually rely on sodium to survive. Sodium is used to control blood pressure. It’s also needed for the proper functioning of our muscles and nerves.
The key is to make sure we’re not consuming too much sodium – and drinking water that has been softened using a small amount of sodium is nothing to be concerned about. The only instance where talking to your doctor is advisable is if you’re on a low-sodium diet to prevent serious conditions like heart failure.
Moving onto the potential issues with drinking water with little to no magnesium and calcium. Again, we need these nutrients to survive – they strengthen the bones and teeth, support muscle and nerve function, and regulate blood sugar levels. But it’s still safe to drink softened water that doesn’t contain these nutrients, as we get the large majority of them from healthy fruits, veggies, dairy products and whole grains anyway.
⚖️ Alternatives to Drinking Softened Water
If you’re still not sure that drinking softened water is good for you, you can learn about the alternatives to water softeners that can provide similar results without the use of salt.
Use a POU Reverse Osmosis System
Reverse osmosis systems are just as effective as water softeners at tackling up to 5 grains per gallon (gpg or mg/ L) of water hardness. The RO filter process sends water at a high pressure through multiple filters and an RO membrane, which acts as a sieve to remove contaminants of all sizes, including hard water particles.
One setback of an RO filter system to be aware of is that it can’t handle high hardness like water softeners. This is because the hardness mineral content may leave scale deposits on the RO membrane, reducing its efficiency and lowering its lifespan.
Use Potassium Chloride Instead of Sodium
An alternative to using sodium in a softener is potassium chloride. This option is considered a more healthy approach to water softening as it doesn’t add any additional salt to your diet through water consumption.
Potassium chloride is becoming more popular by the day, but it’s less available than sodium, so expect to pay more for this solution.
Install a Bypass Valve and Hard Water Tap
If you wanted to drink hard water but still benefit from soft water throughout your home, one solution is to install a bypass valve that would send hard water to a specific tap according to your requirements. That way, the water flowing around your home would have a low level of hardness particles, while you could still enjoy the taste and related benefits of drinking softened water.
Is it Better to Drink Hard Water or Soft Water?
Because the levels of sodium in soft water aren’t considered unhealthy, it would be wrong to say that soft water was in any way bad for you, and there’s no need to be concerned. However, it is true that hard water is slightly healthier for you because of its very small quantity of healthy hardness minerals. With that said, you can get plenty more of these nutrients from the foods in your diet, so hard water certainly isn’t necessary to drink for these nutrients alone.
What are the Disadvantages of Having Soft Water?
The main disadvantage of soft water, as you would quickly learn, is its taste. Many people prefer the flavor of hard water that comes out of their faucets. Another issue with soft water is that it becomes more volatile, after you install a softener, your water could become more susceptible to picking up unwanted contaminants.
Can Soft Water Make You Sick?
Only if you’ve somehow added too much salt to the system and the softener for some reason hasn’t regulated the sodium level. You would then have to drink a large amount of incredibly salty, unpleasant-tasting water to get sick (I’m talking over a gallon). So it’s unlikely that you would ever get sick from soft water.