Water softening is the removal of calcium, magnesium, and certain other metal cations in hard water. The resulting soft water requires less soap for the same cleaning effort, as soap is not wasted bonding with calcium ions. Soft water also extends the lifetime of plumbing by reducing or eliminating scale build-up in pipes and fittings. Water softening is usually achieved using lime softening or ion-exchange resins but is increasingly being accomplished using nanofiltration or reverse osmosis membranes.
Hard water leads to the buildup of limescale, which can foul plumbing, and promote galvanic corrosion. In industrial scale water softening plants, the effluent flow from the re-generation process can precipitate scale that can interfere with sewage systems.
The slippery feeling experienced when using soap with soft water occurs because soaps tend to bind to fats in the surface layers of skin, making soap molecules difficult to remove by simple dilution. In contrast, in hard-water areas, the rinse water contains calcium or magnesium ions that form insoluble salts, effectively removing the residual soap from the skin but potentially leaving a coating of insoluble stearates on tub and shower surfaces, commonly called soap scum.
The desirability of these competing effects varies by personal preference, and those who dislike the effects of soft water may choose to harden the water by adding chemicals such as baking soda, calcium chloride, or magnesium sulfate.
Ion-exchange resin method
Conventional water-softening appliances intended for household use depend on an ion-exchange resin in which "hardness ions"—mainly Ca2+ and Mg2+—are exchanged for sodium ions. As described by NSF/ANSI Standard 44, ion-exchange devices reduce the hardness by replacing magnesium and calcium (Mg2+ and Ca2+) with sodium or potassium ions (Na+ and K+)."
Ion exchange resins are organic polymers containing anionic functional groups to which the divalent cations (Ca++) bind more strongly than monovalent cations (Na+). Inorganic materials called zeolites also exhibit ion-exchange properties. These minerals are widely used in laundry detergents. Resins are also available to remove the carbonate, bicarbonate, and sulfate ions that are absorbed and hydroxide ions that are released from the resin.
When all the available Na+ ions have been replaced with calcium or magnesium ions, the resin must be recharged by eluting the Ca2+ and Mg2+ ions using a solution of sodium chloride or sodium hydroxide, depending on the type of resin used. For anionic resins, regeneration typically uses a solution of, sodium hydroxide (lye) or potassium hydroxide. The waste waters eluted from the ion-exchange column containing the unwanted calcium and magnesium salts are typically discharged to the sewage system.
Lime softening is the process in which lime is added to hard water to make it softer. It has several advantages over the ion-exchange method but is mainly suited to commercial treatment applications.
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Chelators are used in chemical analysis, as water softeners, and are ingredients in many commercial products such as shampoos and food preservatives. Citric acid is used to soften water in soaps, personal care products and laundry detergents. A commonly used synthetic chelator is ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA), which may exist as a tetrasodium or bisodium salt. Due to environmental and aquatic toxicity concerns regarding widespread use of EDTA in household and personal care products, alternatives such as sodium phytate/phytic acid, tetrasodium glutamate diacetate and trisodium ethylenediamine disuccinate are finding more prevalent usage.
Distillation and rain water
Since Ca2+ and Mg2+ exist as nonvolatile salts, they can be removed by distilling the water. Distillation is too expensive in most cases. Rainwater is soft because it is naturally distilled during the water cycle of evaporation, condensation and precipitation.
Reverse osmosis uses an applied pressure gradient across a semi permeable membrane to overcome osmotic pressure and remove water molecules from the solution with hardness ions. The membrane has pores large enough to admit water molecules for passage; hardness ions such as Ca2+ and Mg2+ will not fit through the pores. The resulting soft water supply is free of hardness ions without any other ions being added. Membranes are a type of water filter requiring regular cleaning or replacement maintenance.
The above methods, of distillation and reverse osmosis, are the most widely used two non-chemical methods of water softening.
Some manufacturers claim that the electrical devices they produce can affect the interaction of minerals with water so that the minerals do not bind to surfaces. Since these systems do not work by exchanging ions, like traditional water softeners do, one benefit claimed for the user is the elimination of the need to add salt to the system. While particle size reduction and plant growth promotion have been claimed, such systems do not remove minerals from the water itself. Rather, they can only alter the downstream effects that the mineral-bearing water would otherwise have. Examples are remediation of calcium scaling and remediation of salt crusts in soil. These systems do not fall within the term "water softening" but rather "water conditioning".
The CDC recommends limiting daily total sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day, though the average American consumes 3,500 mg per day. Because the amount of sodium present in drinking water—even after softening—does not represent a significant percentage of a person's daily sodium intake, the EPA considers sodium in drinking water to be unlikely to cause adverse health effects.
For those who are on sodium-restricted diets, the use of a reverse osmosis system for drinking water and cooking water will remove sodium along with any other impurities that may be present. Potassium chloride can also be used as a regenerant instead of sodium chloride, although it is more costly. For people with impaired kidney function, however, elevated potassium levels, or hyperkalemia, can lead to complications such as cardiac arrhythmia.
Compared to reverse osmosis and distilled methods of producing soft water, hard water conveys some benefits to health by reducing the solubility of potentially toxic metal ions such as lead and copper, which are more soluble in soft water than in hard water.
Softened water (measured as residual sodium carbonate index) in which calcium and magnesium have been partly replaced by sodium is not suitable for irrigation use, as it tends to cause the development of alkali soils. Non-chemical devices are often used in place of traditional water softening for this application.
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