Water softeners are commonly debated within the water industry because the amount of salt discharge (or more so, chloride) into the environment has triggered concern. In fact, some states have executed restrictions and bans on the use of these products. Despite heightened apprehension, water softeners continue to maintain a strong presence in the water market.

To help combat the battle over brine, softening equipment manufacturers are infusing technology into their products to help optimize performance and efficiency while limiting the amount of chloride discharge. Additionally, alternatives to water softeners, such as “salt-free” solutions, are on the rise.

The problem with chloride

Municipal wastewater treatment facilities are required to meet specific U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for chloride discharge or risk becoming out of compliance, explains Mark Bertler, vice president of sales and marketing for HydroNovation.

“If a municipality is out of compliance or near [its] discharge permit limit, then action must be taken,” he adds. “Unfortunately, most existing treatment technologies employed at present do not reduce chloride; so in order to achieve this requirement, a municipality can spend capital on new treatment equipment or address the source contaminant.”

The source contaminant often targeted by municipalities is the brine produced by water softeners. Restrictions and bans on these products have followed suit for some states, resulting in the adaptation of traditional water softeners to address these concerns and the creation of softening alternatives.

Shifting mindsets

In addition to addressing water softening equipment, those serving this industry also must lead the way in shifting the societal mindset on water softeners. In Water Technology’s article, “WQRF study makes the case for water softeners,” we examined the 2009 Energy Savings Study, also known as the Battelle Study, and how this report assisted the Water Quality Association (WQA) and the (Water Quality Research Foundation) in their push to change public perception.

According to the executive summary of this study (available at wqa.org), Battelle tested 30 WQA-supplied water heaters during a 90-day period using Battelle-developed and WQA-approved test protocol. Battelle used this data and the effects of water hardness on the performance of fixtures and appliances to develop a “differential carbon footprint assessment” for residences using unsoftened (hard) water versus softened water. This study is often used to help assure the water industry and consumers of the benefits of water softeners, despite the issues regarding chloride.

Other analyses regarding water softening have since been conducted, such as the Detergent Savings Study. Furthermore, Jeff Hellenbrand, president of Hellenbrand Inc., teamed up with WQA, WQRF, the Madison Metropolitan Sewage District (MMSD) and other parties to develop and fund an independent research study, “For the Reduction of Influent Chloride to Wastewater Treatment Plants by the Optimization of Residential Water Softeners,” after MMSD approached Hellenbrand in 2010. The study, soon to be released, is partially funded by WQRF along with local water treatment professionals, MMSD, the Madison Water Utility Department and other contributors.

“The bottom line in this soon-to-be-released study is that, with optimizations, we achieved a 16 percent reduction in chloride mass and over a 53 percent reduction in chloride mass by replacing water softeners with ‘high-efficiency water softening systems,’” states Hellenbrand. “Those are numbers our industry should be proud of.”

He continues, “As the study in Madison will show, we can make a huge impact on the reduction of chlorides going to the wastewater treatment plant and hopefully make this a nonissue.”

Advancements in water softening equipment

In general, water softeners have been popular products in the market because they address the aesthetic and potential cost- and energy-related concerns associated with hard water. Water is considered “soft” when tested below 1 grain per gallon. With water hardness, scale can build up within a delivery system’s pipes and fixtures, shortening its lifespan and decreasing its overall efficiency and productivity. Moreover, reports Hellenbrand, water softeners can be thought of as “eco-friendly solutions” because of the decreased use of soaps, detergents and cleaning products compared to the amount required with hard water.

Regardless of the benefits of water softeners, the concern of chloride is causing a splash within the softening industry. Manufacturers are including new technologies within their equipment to increase the efficiency while decreasing brine. High-efficiency water softening systems, says Hellenbrand, provide “4,000 and even [more than] 5,000 grains per pound of salt efficiencies along with minimal water to regenerate” and present an opportunity for upgrades to replace less efficient systems.

“Yes, dealers will need to reinvest in their rental fleets in many of these markets to improve their efficiencies, but that is way better than the alternative: a water softener ban,” remarks Hellenbrand.

Some bans already exist in municipalities across the country. Several municipalities in California have instituted bans on the use of salt-based water softeners.

“Water softeners have been a solid water treatment technology for decades, and they provide numerous benefits to the end user and will continue to have a strong presence in the market,” states Bertler. “However, the considerable pressure by regulators to ban softeners and the desire by end users to eliminate the hassle of salt handling and the associated brine discharge are creating significant opportunities for technologies that can demonstrate analytically how they improve the water.”

Softening alternatives

Salt-free solutions have been spreading throughout the water industry. However, informs Bertler, the lack of standards and suggested benefits have cast doubt on many of these alternatives, and their efficacy cannot be demonstrated analytically because the water hardness entering the system is often at the same hardness level leaving the system.

Here is a closer look at two softening alternatives covered in past issues of Water Technology and online:

  • Physical water treatment systems are said to influence the initial growth of crystals in water to produce more, and much smaller, crystals that do not adhere to surfaces but flow with the water. These systems’ manufacturers assert that they break down existing scale without using chemicals or salts.
  • Anti-scale systems, also known as “no-salt” water softeners, use media to form hardness crystals that remain suspended in the water and help decrease scaling. Although these systems may be effective at reducing scale formation and buildup in appliances and plumbing systems, they are not traditional water softeners and should not be confused with possessing the same benefits.

Bertler also offers insight into a few other alternatives:

  • Portable exchange (PE) tanks offer a solution that removes the responsibility of chloride discharge from the homeowner. The waste discharge from the softener is sent to a tank, which is transported to the dealer’s centralized treatment facility with a cation regeneration plant at which the discharge is handled. This solution may present challenges to the homeowner, such as increased local truck traffic, fluctuating feedwater quality and higher costs.
  • Another alternative recently introduced to the market by one company is to utilize electro deionization technology to reduce ionic impurities in water. This salt-free water processing system‘s manufacturer attests that the system uses electricity and proprietary ion-specific membranes to efficiently and cost-effectively reduce any ionizable species, including cations and anions.

Assessing the market

“There is a market for both traditional water softening systems and alternative technologies,” says Hellenbrand. “We have found that once people are conditioned to zero grains, the alternatives do not seem to meet their expectations. On the other hand, there is also a percentage of the market place that grew up without a water softener or in areas with some hardness in their water, and the alternatives fit their niche.”

Advantages and disadvantages exist for both traditional water softeners and alternative solutions. Water dealers must stay current on the latest trends, regulations and technologies impacting this market to offer their clients the best and most effective products available.

“One can either complain about the regulations or do something about it and become a leader,” notes Hellenbrand. “Dealers need to take a serious look at who their business partner is and what added value that partner is providing them to become the leader in their market.”