Water Softeners and the Environment – Is it Time to Embrace New Technologies?

If you have been following the news in California, you have probably seen the recent move by cities and municipalities to ban old-fashioned salt-based water softeners.

This is not a new controversy – softener bans were in place in California over 30 years ago in some areas. However, there is definitely a new awareness of the environmental issues caused directly by the chlorides introduced into the ecosystem from water softeners. These products operate by removing calcium from incoming water and replacing it with sodium or potassium. In the regeneration or self-cleaning process, salt brine goes down the drain as calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, and excess sodium or potassium chloride. Wastewater treatment facilities remove very little of these mineral concentrations, and therefore they are passed along to the environment. 

Chlorides and increased salinity negatively affect recycled water and wastewater quality. The ability for municipalities to meet federal guidelines becomes dramatically impaired as salinity increases, sometimes resulting in federal fines. In addition to increasing the costs for wastewater treatment (seen directly in your water bill), the salts wreak havoc on landscape and farming irrigation, reducing crop quality and yields.  Chlorides can also harm aquatic life. Laundry detergents work less efficiently, plumbing fixtures and home appliances wear out faster, and costs increase for maintaining boilers, cooling towers and manufacturing processes. Everyone bears these increased costs and the environment is adversely affected.

Why are companies like Culligan fighting so hard to avoid bans on these old-fashioned machines, rather than putting their efforts into finding alternative technologies that benefit the environment? If you have been following the news, Culligan (the largest player in California) has been making every effort to diffuse the issue by pointing to other sources of salts and chlorides, rather than offering a real solution. It is profit motivation, pure and simple. The water softening business is a $ 500 million annual cash cow for these companies. And the water softener salt and potassium business is also a multimillion dollar industry driving big profits for companies like Morton.

Major water softener companies also stand to make millions of dollars by providing a portable exchange tank service (where the regeneration takes place en mass at a plant instead of in the individual home, and the salts are routed to another area where a ban is not yet in place). Rental services like this require access to the customer’s home once every three weeks, offer only unpredictable efficiency, and continually tap into checkbooks with no opportunity for ownership.

So what can the manufacturers of old-fashioned water softeners do, if they are really concerned about the environment? The answer lies in alternative technologies, some old and some new, that do not rely on salt, potassium or chlorides to reduce hard water problems for consumers. I have personally worked with several companies for nearly three decades that use specific catalysts and/or media to reduce hard water issues in the home, without any foreign substances required to perform well. These technologies have stood the test of time, making permanent changes in the hard water minerals (unlike inconsistent magnetic or sonic devices). When combined with whole house water filtration, these systems can produce exceptional water quality for consumption, cooking, ice and other household needs.

The time has come for the manufacturers of traditional salt-based water softeners to think outside the box, rather than spending their time, advertising and public relations dollars to scratch for share in shrinking market. New technologies exist for those with open minds – everyone and our environment will be better off when these companies decide to become innovative once again.