But Honey, Its Just Too Hard!
March 28, 2013 8:03 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to hear from people who have installed water softeners in their homes. What are the pros and cons, the prices, and the life expectancy of a whole house system? I'm not on a well. I have municipal water so would be most interested in answers from people who are also on municipal water. The other big concern I have is that I have an allergy to salt (yes i do) and wonder if the salt softened water would bother me.

I can't get clean dishes at my house. Everything ends up coated in a white film. My old (it wasn't even all that old) dishwasher broke and we replaced it with a brand new dishwasher but the problem persists so its not the dishwasher itself. Also our laundry never feels clean or fresh. Our clothes look grey and dingy and worn out. Our municipal water comes from a lake carved out of limestone and is very hard.
My husband is leery of installing a softening system. He is under the impression they don't make much of a difference and are SUPER expensive. I have tried googling and cant find much information on the cost of installation and maintenance. I have heard that water softeners extend the life of your appliances like dishwashers and clothes washers as well as improve the life of your clothes.
I think I could convince my husband to get the water softening system but I am concerned about my salt allergy. I get a rash from ocean water. I never thought much of that until I used a salt crystal body scrub and my whole body swelled up with burning red wheals. Also I sometimes get hives after a really sweaty work out. Salt and I do not get along. Is the water coming out of the softener really very salty? Anybody have any ideas about how to check my tolerance of it BEFORE getting the whole system installed?

Any info much appreciated!
posted by WalkerWestridge to Home & Garden (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The salt doesn't soften the water, the salt "resets" the resin beads that attract the minerals from the water. The beads have a limited capacity for hanging on to minerals, and the system uses the salt to release the minerals from the beads, refreshing them to do more mineral-extraction. Then the salt is flushed out. That's why you get salt-free drinking water from your taps.

I'm not a user of such a system, but that's my understanding from watching "Ask This Old House." It's educational! See for yourself! (Skip to 16:45) (caution: pop-ups)

If you have hard water, your neighbors have hard water. Find one with a softener and try out their water, both in your mouth and on your skin. (seriously, bring soap, and wash off your arm or something)
posted by Sunburnt at 8:30 PM on March 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: We had our water softener installed with our water heater. The both of them, installed, cost about 1500 dollars.

As for maintenance, we buy maybe a bag of salt per month - and thats 4 bucks. Other than that, it's pretty much maintenance free.

Your dishwasher and hot water heater will last longer with softened water.

The salt gets flushed - almost none of it ends up in the service water, so I wouldn't worry about your reaction too much. Even at that, it is possible to only provide softened water to certain outlets - for example, our toilets and outdoor spigots get unsoftened water. And you can always try a neighbors softened water, I guess, or something.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:45 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can buy potassium chloride for use in the softener. It is much more expensive (like $25 instead of $5) and i think it is used for people that cannot tolerate salt.
posted by joshu at 9:00 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

EVERYONE where I live has one on the municipal water system. A good friend of mine just paid around $600 to have hers replaced but I'm not sure how average that is ... every house here has a whole-house softener put in when it's built, so people are only ever replacing, not plumbing for them, and the water softener companies around here do an unusually large volume business. Mine's more than 10 years old (probably more than 15) and I've had it repaired once, about $120 I think (and that included fresh salt). They DEFINITELY improve the life of your appliances -- especially the dishwasher -- and are much gentler on your clothes and glassware in particular. (Also your knives don't 24/7 look dirty.) It also means the aerator on my faucets doesn't fill completely up with minerals quite so fast. I like the taste of the harder water a little better, and my hair looks nicer with the harder water (a.k.a., things you discover when your water softener breaks), but those are small benefits compared to the general benefits of the softener for my very hard water on the plumbing systems in my home.

The salt costs around $5 per 40# sack and my softener (4-person family) uses 3 sacks at a time and needs refilling about every 3-4 months, so around $50/year in the salts. Locally (because EVERYONE has one) I have the option to subscribe to a salt-delivery service that costs around $20 for the $15 salt delivery (not bad for delivery). The water softener guy does math to tell you about how often to top up the salts, but you can just look down in the salt canister to see how low it is, since it's not an exact science. I have a calendar alert set to remind me to check.

I have not heard of anyone having a reaction to the softened water; it's not very salty. Mine is still much harder (and less salty) than the regular municipal water at my parents' house, where the water isn't particularly hard or soft. Replacing the salts (every three months for me) is GROSS (and the sacks are HEAVY to lift that high) and the salt dust billows up everywhere for a couple seconds and makes everything taste like salt the rest of the day, so maybe don't do that part if you're allergic.

You can wipe down your dishes with vinegar to remove some of the white film, and putting vinegar in your clothes washer helps a little. I used wipe down all my knives with vinegar before parties because they just looked so bad before I got my softener fixed.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:13 PM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Since you are on a municipal supply, a softener will last a good long time (as compared to one that is on a well system.) Probably 15-20 years, depending on variables like the quality of the raw water and where the softener is located. Ours is in teh garage and is subject to hot/cold cycles according to the weather.

As Sunburnt points out, the salt doesn't get into the water. It's used to clean the resin bed of the softener during the regeneration cycle. Ages ago, when softener systems were relatively new, the wives tale about salty water was pretty common, and many homes were built with at least one water line that bypassed the softener completely, allowing one tap of raw, unfiltered water, ostensibly for drinking. Usually it was the cold tap in the kitchen. Our home has a line like that, and the water is undrinkable (we're on a well.)
posted by Thorzdad at 5:16 AM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

The salt doesn't soften the water, the salt "resets" the resin beads that attract the minerals from the water. . . . That's why you get salt-free drinking water from your taps.

The ion-exchange resin replaces the minerals in the water with sodium ions. You don't get salt (NaCl) in the water from your taps, but you do get drinking water with sodium (Na+). That's why very hard water that's been softened tastes nasty and why it leaves a soap film on your skin. Some people like how soap lathers up much more in soft water, but for me the slimy feeling on my skin outweighs that benefit. The biggest benefit of softened water is that is can greatly extend the life of your dishwasher and shower heads by preventing mineral buildup. (Note that the downsides of softened water don't apply to water that is naturally soft.)
posted by stopgap at 2:01 PM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I believe it is not good to water house plants with softened water.
posted by annsunny at 3:56 PM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

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