Hard Water, Soft Water

In this report: http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/mhardwater.html , Una talks about the differences between hard and soft water.

But I have a related question.

I have an exchange bed water softener installed in my new house, but we’re not moved in yet. Someone here at work showed me a web site that touted “electronic” water softeners that work by changing the structure onf the dissolved minerals. I don’t have the URL as I told the fellow it was BS and walked away. This device is supposed to use electric fields to operate.

Sounds like BS to me, but I’d appreciate any factual data one way or the other. I’ll look for the URL and post it if I can find it.

I did a search but did not find the site I was shown earlier. Bu this site: http://www.promolife.com/products/softener.htm lists an explaination of the operation of the unit they sell.

“The Electronic water softener unit is composed of a signal cable that is wrapped several times around the pipe and an electronic unit that sends out a complex, dynamic current to produce extremely small, time-varying oscillating fields inside the pipe. The current that produces a oscillating field is known as Ampere’s Law.
Electronic water softeners signal produces a unique square wave current that sweeps all the frequency responses from 1,000 - 12,000 Hz at a rate of 20 times a second. When the strength of the oscillating field varies with time and changes direction, an induced current is produced inside the pipe, a phenomenon known as Faraday’s Law of Induction.
As the induced electric field oscillates, all particles which have an electrical charge are affected by the induced field. This causes the unstable mineral ions to precipitate or collide with each other to the point where the calcium carbonate crystals grow until they become so large that there are no more surface charges left to stick to the pipe walls. These calcium molecules precipitate into an aragonite form and flow through the system. As a byproduct of this “snowball” effect, freed water molecules become available to remove existing scale, molecule by molecule.”

Congrats GaryM, your BS detector is up to snuff. Such electric (or magnetic) systems have little or no effect on the water as the water passes by. 2 seconds later, there is absolutely no effect whatsoever. “Alignment” doesn’t do anything at any time in liquid water anyway.

Just because someone is selling something today doesn’t mean they won’t get a visit from the FTC tomorrow.

Search if you like for threads in GQ on such systems.

That is actually a subject that at first glance seems to be very similar to those that claim that magnets on petrol lines in automobiles (and even on natural gas lines in homes) use their wacky magnetic fields to somehow change molecular structures and improve combustion/efficiency/etc.

The research in this field is very spotty and hit and miss, and most articles you find that are web-able are promotional ones. The sort that set off alarm bells in the head of the natural skeptic. The quick answer is: it is not possible for me to say with confidence they don’t work at some level, but I can say with confidence that conventional systems do work.

Some of the sites I found when I was looking at the questions:
From: http://www.lsbu.ac.uk/water/descal.html

Note that the 4.75T field they reference actually seems unrealistically strong to me - much higher than you could get with a home device. But I’m not an EE so I may be mistaken.

The Canadian Water Quality Association has this to say:

From: http://www.cwqa.com/html/consumer2.html

Another link from their site:

From: http://www.cwqa.com/html/ii_devices.html

And of course, my friends at CSICOP (where I should have looked first) have this to say.

From: http://www.csicop.org/si/9801/powell.html

The above article is very well-done and can answer this better than I can. That is one I highly recommend you read, Gary.

I’d better clarify one thing - I was trying to post before the Board timed out on me and didn’t spend enough time typing. When I say

“The quick answer is: it is not possible for me to say with confidence they don’t work at some level”

I mean

“some positive effects may be present at extremely small levels and under perfect and unrealistic experimental conditions; under real-world conditions they seem, based on the evidence, to be unlikely to work”.

By the way, Una, congratulations on being promoted to full Staff (this may have happened sometime over Christmas break, but I still haven’t caught up on my Christmas reading yet).

Thank you, Chronos. I actually was semi-officially made Staff a while ago without any notice put up, due to me answering the “Does Fanning make you Hotter or Cooler” query in a very lengthy manner, and Ed wanting me to share it with the rest of the Staff to get comments on how to cut it down from about 10 pages of Arial 10-point and three self-made graphics to 5 paragraphs and a smilie. :wink:

[sub]Still have to do that, BTW…[/sub]

Thanks for the reinforcement of my initial impression. The article on CSICOP was interesting, particularly the part about the Consumer Report test.

I’m running my resin bed unit with potassium chloride rather than sodium chloride. Mostly because I failed to plan for a dedicated drain for the backwash and I’ve been told that the potassium is easier on the septic system.

And congratulations to you Una!

Yes, indeed, Una, we’re pleased as punch to have you on board as an Official member of the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board (affectionately called “staff”, probably in memory of Moses’ similar what could call down rains of locusts and the like).

There’s a BIG part missing from this otherwise pretty decent answer.

There is a major difference between “soft water” and “water from a water softener”.

Real soft water is water that is low in dissolved minerals. This includes rain water, which is basically naturally distilled water, which has exactly zero minerals, (but with perhaps a minuscule trace of dust in each raindrop). As the posting noted, “surface water”, which is mostly rain runoff, is also quite low in minerals.

On the other hand “water from a water softener” is NOT low in minerals. Thanks to the laws of thermodynamics, you can’t remove minerals without adding considerable energy. Every water softener I’ve seen uses a no-energy ion-exchange process. Basically it swaps the mineral ions in the water with sodium ions from the slat you pour into the softener. This is a low-energy swap that happens with no net input required into the softener.

Since this is a one-to-one exchange, the harder the incoming water, the more the sodium ions that end up in the “softened” water.

One might suspect that a lot of the funny taste and feel of softened water is due to the presence of lots and lots of sodium ions in the water.

That’s why people on ow-sodium diets are cautioned to drink unsoftened water, the softened kind is just loaded with sodium.

I enjoyed this article very much, since I come from an area with notorious levels of hard water. However, I noticed in the reply the following - “Water from underground aquifers – well water, for you civilians – has extended contact with soft calcium…”. I don’t understand what you mean by extended contact. Did you mean extensive, or is there some other concept I don’t understand - this wouldn’t be the only thing I don’t understand by a long shot :slight_smile: .

Hello, OldSeaDog.

When the article says “extended” it means “prolonged”, as in “has prolonged time in the aquifer”. Since slow percolation through the aquifer results more in a time-based contact than an area or physical length-based contact, I felt that was the better term to use. I checked with my American dictionary to make certain I wasn’t making a gaff (my extended contact with Fierra has me often speaking and writing in Bramerican) and found Webster’s 3rd College Edition supports me, in the 2nd sub-definition. The first sub-definition might also apply as well, being “stretched out; spreadout” if the reader knows I’m referring to time.

Una, this makes me smile.

Nice job on the article and on your subsequent responses to other related questions. Keep up the good work.

And congrats from me too. I didn’t know you had been promoted from guest contributor to science advisory staff member. Well deserved.

I knew that. Maybe the term should be changed to “water that reacts with soap as though it were soft”? Naw, I guess not.

Any comments on the use of potassium vs. sodium and the interaction with the septic system?

Excellent article, Una!


P.S. OK, I have one minor nitpick. When I started teaching chemistry, I found it creates much less confusion to use the symbol “L” for liter, as recommended by NIST, rather than a lower-case “l” (printed or script). As NIST puts it:

Gary, I don’t have any info re sodium vs potassium for a septic tank system, but I do know that potassium is a lot more expensive to use and I found this yesterday at a website for a company that sells water softeners (http://www.kinetico.com/residntl/faq3.htm) whilst looking for some other info:

The information comes from a site that sells water softeners of the type you describe having (ie ion exchange not the magnetic field type), so should be taken with, ahem, a pinch of salt ;), until you find a copy of the actual report from the Water Quality Research Council, since it’s in their interests to convince people to use them. There’s a bit of info about the WQRC (now the WQRF) at the Water Quality Association’s site - http://www.wqa.org/ - they’re a trade association for the water treatment industry, according to their website & the WQRF is an independent research body.

Of course, the study from that tiny snippet seems to be concerned only with what the extra calcium/magnesium levels are doing from the outflow during the regeneration phase. I don’t know if the main body of the report discusses the effects of higher levels of sodium or potassium in the general waste water being discharged into the septic tank, but it may be useful to you.

There’s a nice article about how ion-exchange water softeners work here, btw:
http://www.popularmechanics.com/home_improvement/how_it_works/1998/8/water_softeners/index2.phtml for anyone wanting more information.


This article supporting magentic water treatment for industrial uses is supposedly from the Department of Energy, PNL specifically. I wasn’t able to find it on PNL’s website, though. Were they fooled?

When I worked in dialysis, we had to use large amounts of water equal to distilled.
In the begining we used resin bed exchangers. Very impractical and expensive for household use.
Later we switched to Reverse Osmosis, which is really facilitated diffusion. It is a similar concept to dialysis, in that water is forced across a membrane, leaving the minerals and (some) contaminants behind.
I have had it as an add on for drinking water in my home in other parts of the country. (I don’t need it here)
But I’m pretty sure whole house systems are available.