State of California requires homeowner’s only install salt based softeners that meet California salt efficiency standards i.e., ones installed after 2000 and 2002 (has higher efficiency rating than 2000). The reason for this is reduce the impact of the salt (sodium) which produces a lower quality of effluent and its impact on the environment.

Water Quality Association (an independent, highly recognized & respected nonprofit) foundation has published a research study detailing the environment impact of ion-exchange water softeners (salt-based softeners).

Bottom line summary of the study: Addition of regeneration wastes that contain large concentrations of excess sodium can, however, be detrimental to solids settling and, therefore, produce a lower quality effluent. Such higher concentrations can be from the operation of a softener in an inefficient manner (</= 1000 gr/lb) in relation to the excessive use of salt for the removal of hardness.

Even before this study was done, California initially in 2000 and 2002 mandated that residents only use salt efficiency certified softeners to address the potential effluent concerns arising due to excess discharge of sodium. Prior to this regulation softeners were very inefficient.

California code related to softeners; .

"An appliance installed on or after January 1, 2000, shall be certified by a third party rating organization using industry standards to have a salt efficiency rating of no less than 3,350 grains of hardness removed per pound of salt used in regeneration. An appliance installed on or after January 1, 2002, shall be certified by a third party rating organization using industry standards to have a salt efficiency rating of no less than 4,000 grains of hardness removed per pound of salt used in regeneration."

These regulations ensure, softeners certified per California salt efficiency standards far exceed the recommendation from research study which say efficiency less than (</= 1000 gr/lb) are likely contribute to effluent That said, if the purpose of installing softener is to remove the scales, the only technology that physically removes the calcium and magnesium is Salt based softeners. So, it is totally up to the consumer on which way they would like to go. Ideally most I know would like to go with salt less but cost makes even environmentally conscious consumer to stay off them. The good thing is California has a regulation around salt efficiency.

The proponents of salt-based softeners say that there are environmental benefits of using Salt based softeners and there are studies in support of salt based system which primarily talk about lessened consumption of soap or chemicals to wash clothes or dishes etc., thereby reducing chemical pollution into the sewer / drains, savings on electrical bills etc. So, there is a case to be made on both sides. Given this, it is important when changing softener or installation new salt based softener to always go with softener's that meet California salt efficiency standards or higher. Hope this helps.

I have a penned a series of detailed vendor neutral posts regarding "Why do I need a water softener" and various other aspects of water softener(s), RO etc. Links to all these posts are listed towards end of this post. It is a very valid and 100% genuine thing that some people do not like water being too soft i.e., for their skin or general feel etc.

In this topic, I will try to cover few options that are available to address water being too soft along with the topic, does having water softener provide protection to appliances installed down stream? Water heater (tank based, tank less, geyser etc.) is one of the main appliances that commonly gets impacted due to the scales (hardness) in water. Scale build up could greatly reduce the performance of water heaters, potentially contribute to increase in utility bill and also shorten lifespan of water heater ( you can research on web and there are several YouTube video showing how scale deposits shorten the lifespan of water heaters and how bad it could get in some cases).

With other appliances like dishwasher, coffee maker, faucets, washer etc. while we see the signs (stains, whitish rings), the impact may not be anywhere near to how water heater gets impacted due to presence of scales (calcium and magnesium). As most of us know water heater replacement is expensive (average cost of basic unit being around $1.5K - 2k)! How often do we hear, I only installed my water heater 6-8 years back and it started leaking? My water heater made a loud sound or is makes noises, my water hear is leaking from the bottom etc. I remember recently few of the members posting videos on NextDoor about water heater making pop noise in their garage etc.

One of the primary reasons why water heater gets impacted is due to heat. More heat means, more calcium and magnesium getting separated from water molecules and depositing / settling down at the bottom. Heat enhances accumulation of scale build. The more water flows through the water heater the higher the quantity of scales deposited in the tank. That is the reason, scale build up generally is not that big of an issue on cold water lines! Again, am speaking in relative comparison and not in absolute terms. Of course, apart from choosing the water heater that self cleans , there are many options to slow down the scale deposits including lowering of the water heater temperature, replacing sacrificial anode rod periodically (every 2-3 years), installing water softener, reducing the quantity of hot water use, flushing water in heater tank every year etc.

But how many homeowners do these basic maintenance activities regularly? It is very rare that after the water heater has been installed, it is almost forgotten and assumed everything is fine until it suddenly gives up. The damage caused by scale deposits is over period of time, depends on several factors including how hard the water itself is, heat etc. So generally, you would not notice any decrease in performance or impact to appliances for several years until it suddenly becomes an issue. There are some water heater scale deposits cleaning options using chemicals such as Lye, De-liming chemicals, Vinegar and Hydrogen peroxide, but most of them involve very tedious and time consuming process and not ideal for every situation or for most.

Given all of the above, for whom softened water is an issue (which is fair and 100% valid concern), they possibly could consider softeners that allow you to control the softness level (there are some good ones for very reasonable price available in the open market) to meet your comfort or consider electro magnetic / magnetic de-scalers or whole house inline mechanical de-scaling filters (available in from some good brands for around $300 and requires filter change about every 6 years). All these options cost around $200-$400 for equipment and most can be self installed and if you are not into DIY, just factor in install costs as well i.e., for overall cost. Those who maybe interested in knowing electronic de-scalers, they could refer to the following post. Towards the end of the post also includes links to various other aspects of residential water purification. All vendor neutral and just sheer information on what actually happens.

I have written series of posts on various aspects of Water Softeners from Why do I need water softener, What softener size is good for my home, What softener to buy, water softener vs reverse osmosis and how to interpret TDS readings etc. However, some of you have reached out to me asking about my opinion regarding some popular brands.

This is a great question in general and leads to the discussion about salt based vs salt less water softeners including electronic conditioners / de-scalers. As mentioned in some of my posts, I will try to stay off from brands while trying to address this question. Essentially salt based water softeners remove hardness (calcium, magnesium and iron) physically from water via ionization process i.e. by physically removing one calcium molecule for every two molecules of sodium (salt) and putting removed particles (calcium, magnesium and ferrous) into drain and ensuring only softened (water without calcium, magnesium and ferrous) water is supplied to the house from that point onwards.

Salt based softener's require the softener's drain be connected to the proper drain in the house per the city code (most cities including Pleasanton, Dublin and San Ramon require this). Excellent NSF &/ WQA certified salt based softeners typically range between $600 - $1100 in open market. Most come with 5/10 year warranty for resin & brine tanks and with very good warranties for the control valves. Most of them being open systems, parts are easy to find and systems are easy to maintain. On the other hand, salt less water softeners condition water with what is called as "Template Assisted Crystallization" (TAC). Different salt less vendors may call this technology with different marketing names. However, at the core of the TAC (template assisted crystallization) is polymer beads that hold (calcium) microscopic nucleation sites to form crystals and once formed, detach and do not bond to anything. Thus ensuring the calcium (hardness) not settling down at the bottom of the plumbing lines and thereby appearing to provide the benefits similar to salt based softener.

However, calcium, magnesium molecules are still present in the water as they are not physically removed. This is the reason some people despite of using very expensive salt less softeners (technically conditioners) complain seeing white powder (calcium) rings around faucets including stains when they wash dishes etc. These are very expensive systems and generally range between $2k - $6K but do not require drain as they do not remove anything. One more thing is the mix is electronic de-scalers / conditioners, you can search or several online sites and you will find several electronic de-scalers / conditioners in the range of $150 - $500 providing benefits similar to that of salt less systems but using electro magnetic waves. Technically electro magnetic waves do not let calcium settle in the plumbing lines as they diffuse or agitate the settled particles and make them float in the water.

In fact, this is the only technology that claims to be able to remove even existing scales in plumbing lines with over a period of time. This technology doesn't involve any maintenance costs. Once installed it does it's thing for the rest of the life without ever requiring to do anything. Only exception being if unit gives up ( unlikely but being an electric device you never know), then you need to replace with a new one. You can do lot of reading about this technology online. All of them are great technologies and have their own place and market. I personally would go with a salt based softener unless installing a dedicated drain (in some cases where drain is not accessible near by) becomes very expensive.

At core of this topic is, getting rid of hardness from water and removal provides benefits to appliances down stream and also provides other benefits such as softened skin, hair, dishes without stains and clothes not getting turned into brown during wash cycles etc. If that goal remains the same, salt based is the best technology that removes hardness. From a price perspective, with standard install costs including softener, salt based softeners costs around $1500 - $1800 to setup and on average cost about $50/year for salt and about $50 for water (that gets wasted in drain).

Whereas salt less setup could cost anywhere between $2.5K - $7K and normally most vendors would like you to sign you up for their Annual maintenance contract for around $200-$300/year. Most salt less systems are by closed vendors (meaning you have to only rely on that company for any parts, repair, service etc.). Both Electronic de-scalers and salt less softener's make similar claims ( using different technologies) in terms of the water conditioning &/ softening and are certainly more eco friendly vs salt based softeners.

Given the average life of water softeners is around 10-15 years and based on what each of these technologies actually do, you decided which one is best for you. I have seen people installing only electronic de-scaler, only softener and some installing both salt based softener & electronic de-scaler and some salt less softener & electronic de-scaler. At the end, either you should be able to make up your own mind on what is best for you or seek advise about best technology / combination for your specific needs and desired outcomes. Cheers.