Hard water is water that is rich in minerals like calcium, magnesium and silica. These minerals can cause serious problems for heat-exchange surfaces, pipes and water fixtures throughout your home and business. Over time, pipes could become completely clogged by scale buildup. When limescale builds up on a heating element, it insulates and prevents it from performing efficiently.
Minerals such as calcium and magnesium, both have a positive charge. Sodium, the mineral that water softeners use to replace hardness ions, also has a positive charge, so none of these ions are attracted to each other. However, sodium's charge is weaker than that of calcium and magnesium. If ions aren't attracted to each other, how can an exchange take place? There is one other crucial element needed to make the process work: a resin bed consisting of lots of tiny, negatively charged beads.
The salt added to a water softener clings to these beads, since opposites attract. When the calcium and magnesium-rich water flows through the water softener, the negatively charged resin attracts the positively charged ions of calcium and magnesium. Since these ions have a stronger positive charge than sodium ions, the sodium ions get displaced and are exchanged for the naturally occurring calcium and magnesium.
While added salt may not be a detriment to the health of a generally healthy household, the salt that is then discharged from one’s home/business into freshwater streams, rivers and aquifers are causing serious damage to our water supplies and aquatic life. In addition, most city wastewater facilities do not have systems in place to remove the added salt from the water during the treatment process. Because agriculture depends on repurposed water coming from wastewater facilities, the water supplied to farmlands are thus supersaturated with the added sodium, damaging crop yields.
As we continue to evolve our policies and awareness towards environmental conservation, many states are taking steps towards alternatives to saltwater softening systems. Here is a list of some current initiatives, programs, ordinances and bans put into place within the last decade in various cities/states within the US.
California - In 2009, California State issued a law allowing agencies to ban the installation of new saltwater softeners to homes and businesses that discharge water into community sewer systems. The law states that this is a “necessary means of achieving compliance with waste discharge requirements issued by a California regional water quality control board” Read the full law 116775 here.
Texas - In 2001 Texas issued a statewide water softener ban. This law was amended in 2003 to allow water softeners in homes and businesses as long as particular conditions were met. Water softeners must conserve water by regenerating on demand and be clearly labeled as being equipped with a Demand-Initiated Regeneration (DIR) device. Point of entry reverse osmosis systems must not cause hydraulic overloading. Read more here.
Connecticut - Brine discharge from saltwater softeners is prohibited from entering private septic systems. The State has also made a push towards educating its residents on water hardness levels and pain points, the damages that can be caused by saltwater softeners and what residents can do for alternative solutions. See Connecticut publication here.
Michigan - In Michigan, many cities have taken steps to reduce the use of water softeners and subsequently, brine discharge into their lakes and sewer systems. Some cities have created a softener buy-back program while others have issued ordinances to regulate the use of saltwater softening appliances. Read here for one such ordinance.
Minnesota - The Department of Water Resources at the University of Minnesota has been actively discovering solutions for Minnesota cities to minimize the risks of salt softening. To learn more about this program visit their page here.
Wisconsin - Wisconsin State has taken measures to reduce chloride from sources such as water softening systems, industrial sources and winter ice control. The Wisconsin State Legislative Plumbing code SPS 382 Subchapter IV — Water Supply Systems code (i) Flushing and disinfection of potable water supply systems, lists the requirements for saltwater systems that flush into sewer systems. Many municipalities have systems in place to reduce the amount of salt discharge into their wastewater plants and waterways such as the Madison Metropolitan Sewer District (MMSD) Saltwater softeners rebate program. Read more about MMSD’s chloride reduction initiative here.
 (j) Water softeners. Ion exchange water softeners used primarily for water hardness reduction that, during regeneration, discharge a brine solution shall be of a demand initiated regeneration type equipped with a water meter or a sensor unless a wastewater treatment system downstream of the water softener specifically documents the reduction of chlorides.