Should you consider a water softener?

Should you consider a water softener?
Water softener

You might want a water softener because it will help improve the condition of your hair and skin. But there’s a practical argument for the investment, too: reducing the amount of calcium, iron or magnesium in your water can extend the useful and efficient lives of your water-using appliances.

Water is considered hard if it contains more than 1 grain per gallon (GPG) of calcium, iron or magnesium. Indianapolis water typically ranges between 12 to 20 GPG, according to information provided by Citizens Water.

Hard water leaves mineral deposits behind when it flows, leaving stains near drains, spots on dishes, film on shower glass, scale on tubs and your clothes looking dingy. Beyond the unsightly surface effects, hard water does damage behind the scenes. Unchecked, it will clog and shorten the life of dishwashers, washers and water heaters, as well as faucets and toilets, according to a 2010 Battelle Memorial Institute study that was commissioned by the Water Quality Research Foundation.

The study compared the performance of appliances using hard and softened water. Gas water heaters using hard water lost half their efficiency over a 15-year lifetime, whereas those using softened water retained their original efficiency rating. Showerheads using hard water lost 75 percent of their flow rate in less than 18 months, while those on softened water maintained a full flow.

“You’re talking about saving the bones of your house,” said Jessica Larson of Indianapolis Soft Water Service. “Your plumbing; hot water heater; dishwasher; all your shower heads and faucets. Those things become very expensive to replace.”

If you don’t know whether you have hard water, you can have it tested. Water conditioning companies will usually offer free analysis, but you can get also get a reliable review from your local water utility, which doesn’t have a vested interest in the outcome of your test. Approximately 85 percent of U.S. homes have hard water, according to the U.S. Geological Survey Office.

Water softeners work by a process called ionic exchange, in which the salt used works to reduce the concentration of minerals to give the water a smooth feeling. Softeners have improved in technology over the years, making them more efficient, said Mark Timmons of U.S. Water Systems in Indianapolis.

“It used to be water softeners were very troublesome because they had all kinds of gears and dials and mechanics,” Timmons said. “Now, they are almost fully electronic. They measure the amount of water that you use and they only regenerate or recharge when they need to based on the actual water usage. So, they are very salt efficient these days. They may use 50 to 75 percent less salt than they used to.”

“Your laundry is whiter with a water softener,” Larson said. “Your hair is softer. Your skin is manageable. You don’t get that dry, itchy feeling that hard water in Indiana specifically is going to give you.”

Water softeners range in cost from $400 to $1,500, with installation costs running from $150 to $300. Many companies also rent units for a monthly fee that typically ranges between $20 to $30, which covers renting the unit and any service repairs. Before you buy, or rent, investigate both the product and company supplying it. For installation, hire a reputable local company that offers a money-back guarantee.

“(Look for) a company that is a member of the Water Quality Association,” Timmons said. “If someone is going to be installing a system, they should be a Certified Installer. That means that they are up-to-date on the latest practices and ways to install the water softeners. The more knowledge and testing that a person has completed by the Water Quality Association, the odds are the better the equipment they are going to be to treat your water problem.”

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on September 17, 2011.

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