The Hard Facts About Soft Water

I recently came back from two weeks in rural Canada – cottage country. I have modest expectations for summer vacations: family, food, relaxation. It’s also a chance do a bit of leisure reading. Magazines are ideal – they’re a break from all the scientific articles I read all year. This year I ended up reading back copies of Harrowsmith Country Living magazine. For those of you that haven’t heard of it, Harrowsmith was born in the back-to-the-earth seventies in Ontario, and grew to become one of Canada’s most popular magazines. It’s filled with articles about how to “get off the grid”, grow organically, can your own vegetables, and make homemade soap. But it was the “market” section that caught my eye, and this header:

The Benefits of Softer Water Without Salt or Chemicals


Now while I’m now happy urbanite who drinks municipal water, it wasn’t always this way. Growing up we pulled our water from Lake Ontario and treated it ourselves. The water was hard, so we softened it. I remember the giant bags of salt we had to carry to the basement, and the tanks we used to soften the water. What’s the new technology? Is there an app for that now?

What is Soft Water?

First, a bit of background. Put simply, hard water has a lot of minerals in it – usually calcium and magnesium, sometimes iron or other metals too. These minerals affect the water in several ways. Most immediately and obviously, they stop soap and shampoo from lathering easily. The water feels “hard” because of this effect. The minerals can also interfere with the water supply by slowly clogging pipes, faucets, water heaters, and appliances like kettles (that’s the white material inside your kettle). Depending on where you live, your municipal water ranges from soft to moderately hard. In Canada, Vancouver and coastal cities have soft water, and the rest of the country’s water is moderately hard.

There are no health risks due to hard water, but it’s usually felt to be undesirable. The process of removing these minerals is called softening. Softer water feels nicer on your skin. Soap lathers and rinses off easily. There’s less scale build up in pipes and appliances, too.

The most common means of softening water is termed ion exchange. Water is passed over resin beads that are impregnated with sodium. The calcium is absorbed, the sodium is released. As all the ions are gradually exchanged, the beads have to be recharged by flushing with concentrated salt water. The consequence is there’s more sodium or potassium in the water – but usually not enough to have any significant health consequences.

“Alternative” Water Treatments

Let’s get back to the Harrowsmith advertisement and the water device. This device is called the Water King. Called a “Salt Free Softner” [sic] on the vendor’s website, it’s described as:

The WaterKing is an electronic device that attaches externally to water line to be treated. This unit transmits a large number of healthy wavelengths into the water through the pipe wall. These radio waves produce many desirable results which include softening the water, and reducing the surface tension. The result is water that has all the benefits of soft water but without the use of salt.

and

Water-King uses pre-programmed micro-chips to transmit pulses of electrical charge into the water at varying frequencies and amplitudes. These “signals” cause some of the salts in the water to form sub-microscopic clusters. When the water is then heated, the clusters act as nucleation seeds upon which the calcium carbonate (limescale) precipitates. Instead of the hard encrustation on pipes and heating elements that normally occurs when water is heated, the precipitation takes the form of tiny calcium carbonate crystals that float suspended in the water.

There are installation instructions (PDF) which require the user to wrap metal “aerials” around the pipes.

And from the FAQ:

Q: How well does Water-King actually work?
A: Well enough for us to have over 250,000 units in use worldwide.

Q: Why don’t magnetic and electro-magnetic treatments work?
A: Because one magnetic signal or frequency is not enough. Different parts of the country require a cocktail of specific signals to de-stabilise the ionic equilibrium of salts in solution. Water-King’s unique, automatically variable frequency system produces the desired treatment regardless of mineral composition, strength or temperature.

By now, you’re probably a bit skeptical. What exactly are “healthy wavelengths”? How does wrapping your water supply with an aerial have any effect on the softness of water? A bit of digging reveals there are hundreds of similar water treatment systems out there, and electronic water treatment devices like the Water King are just one of many different “solutions” sold as alternative to typical ion-exchange softener systems.

Steven Lower, retired Faculty Member of the Department of Chemistry, Simon Fraser University runs the excellent H20 Dot Con/AquaScams website, where he has cataloged hundreds of different water treatment systems. He sums it up as:

The great economic importance of water softening has created a large and thriving industry that utilizes a number of proven methods based on well established scientific principles. It has also unfortunately attracted a variety of operators offering technologies that are purported to be better, less expensive, easier to install, or “chemical-free”, but which have never been validated scientifically and whose principles of operation are largely unexplained by the known laws of chemistry. This does not mean that such schemes cannot work (after all, we can use theory to show that under idealized conditions, water can never boil and it can never rain!), but it should inspire a good degree of skepticism.

Not surprisingly, the Water King is listed among many other devices on his site. (It’s also called the Aqua Rex.) So what exactly is the technology in the Water King supposed to do? It’s electromagnetic: passing current through the wires creates a magnetic field, which is supposed to cause small particulates of calcium and magnesium to form, reducing their effect. While Lower points out that there is some evidence that magnetism can have effects on water, he’s very skeptical about efficacy claims with these devices.

So do these “alternative” water treatments work? Given there’s no change in the total mineral content of the water, it’s difficult to say. Many of the claims seem to be based on anecdote, and testimonials related to efficacy could be strongly influenced by placebo effects. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t find any regulator or agency that endorses these types of products as alternatives to traditional water softeners.  Lower’s advice seems sensible:

The best advice I can give at this time is to choose a product for which actual performance data is available, and which offers a guarantee of sufficiently long duration that its efficacy can be tested in an actual installation. One should be wary of vendors who make over-hyped or scientifically unfounded claims for how their devices work.

Without objective information to evaluate the efficacy of these products, I’m going to remain skeptical of electronic water softeners.

7 Responses to “The Hard Facts About Soft Water”

  1. Kevin says:

    “There are no health risk due to hard water, but it’s usually felt to be undesirable.”

    I’m 100% certain I got kidney stones by drinking the extremely hard Las Vegas water. I don’t know if you’d call it a health risk, but it wasn’t pleasant.

  2. jtradke says:

    Soap lathers and rinses off easily [when using softened water].

    Really? In my experience it definitely lathers easier, but I could NEVER rinse it off my skin to save my friggin’ life. This section on Wikipedia agrees with me, but Googling the phenomenon for 5 minutes was frustratingly inconclusive…

    • Scott Gavura says:

      Hi. I think that both answers are correct. Soft water gives the perception of rinsing off easily. However, that smoothness could be a film of soap, which others may notice and find objectionable.

  3. Murdoch says:

    Are there downsides to softening water? Yup. There is added sodium to the water. Drinking water does not really need to be softened, so you can bypass the softener for the kitchen sink etc. Most people only notice softened hot water anyhow.
    Other downside, if you’re on a septic system, the heavily salt laden water from the recharge can negatively affect your tank and disposal field. If anyone is interested, I can provide more information and links to _actual_ research on the topic.

  4. Zeno says:

    jtradke said: “Googling the phenomenon for 5 minutes was frustratingly inconclusive…”

    As ever!

    My experience is different. I lived in Scotland until two years ago where all the water is soft and moved to London where the water is very hard (not sure where it is on the scale of, well, scale). I can’t say I’ve noticed much difference in rinsing the soap off. There is less lather, though.

    British Gas serviced my CH boiler a few months ago. I found a static magnet version of the water softener on one of the pipes – that was soon removed! However, they did have an advert for some device like Scott’s one. Unfortunately, I’ve not found the time to submit it to our Advertising Standards Authority. It’s on the list for tomorrow now!

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  • Scott Gavura

    Scott is passionate about improving the way drugs are used. A pharmacist by background, Scott has a professional interest in improving the cost-effective use of drugs at the population level, while helping consumers make more informed decisions about their health. He blogs about pharmacy practice and questionable science at Science-Based Pharmacy and Science-Based Medicine. All views expressed by Scott are his personal views alone, and do not represent the opinions of any current or former employers, or any organizations or associations that he may be affiliated with. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.