Water Softeners, But Why?

As I wrote already in the past, despite the fact that we rent our flat, we have spent time and money on improvements — either by asking our landlord to get things fixed for maintenance, or sometimes just going and finding the right replacement/component to fix a bunch of minor issues with the flat. Up until last month, the biggest investment of both time and money into this apartment has been my work on replacing the thermostats, which was a significant quality of life improvement. But last month we settled on another expensive improvement on our quality of life: a water softener. And I think it would be worth talking a bit about why we decided to do this.

Since the terms “water softener”, “soft water” and “hard water” are not exactly commonly known, I think it might be worth spending some time first understanding what the problem is. Water hardness refers to the presence of limescale in the water supply — water hardness is primarily a property of the supply of water in your specific living area, although things like the plumbing of a building do make a difference as well. Water hardness is affects the way water tastes and behave, including how much detergent you need, how often you need to descale your kettle or your iron, and how soft your skin feels after washing.

Where I grew up, in the Venice mainland, we have a medium-to-hard water supply, so I thought I was quite well used to hard water… until we moved to this flat. Despite moving from one building to the next one over, thus not experiencing any change in water supply company or regime, the water was significantly harder in this building. This is not limited to our flat but to the whole building — it appears it has something to do with the pipes used in the building, and nothing we can really get taken care of.

The hardness of the water in this building was such that it took us at least two months to stop needing to put hand cream every time we washed our hands to avoid hands so dry they bled. The drain cover push/pops have been completely stuck since we moved in, no matter how much WD-40 we tried on them, and the kettle that we used to descale every half-year needed descaling every two months instead.

To be clear, these are not just cosmetic problems: yes, limescale build-up on the shower and the kettle is unsightly, but it also makes it harder to use them, the Dyson humidifier gets clogged with scale build, and any heating element in boilers, dishwashers, and washing machines need to expend more energy to bring the water to temperature. Plus, as I already said, it increases the amount of soap and detergent you need to use to wash clothes, dishes, and yourself.

There’s solutions to this, though. Water softeners are devices that you can run your water through, and reduce the hardness of the water. So in the summer, we asked our landlord if it would be possible for us to get one installed, out of our own pocket. The first answer we received was not our preferred one at all: he was okay with us getting it installed, as long as we wouldn’t change the supply of water in the kitchen, which was one of our main concerns.

The reason for this is to be found on the Thames Water page on Water Hardness, that appears to be mostly trying to convince you that hard water is great for you and that you shouldn’t do anything about it. To understand what our landlord concerns were, we need to dig below the surface of how water softening works.

Caveat emptor! My understanding of the chemistry and physics that follow is… very vague, so don’t take my word for it. Feel free to correct me in the comments if I misspeak, and if you have further references I should provide in the post I’m more than happy to do so.

Since water hardness is caused by the presence (mainly) of calcium and magnesium, most of the water softening solutions involve salt (usually, table salt, NaCl.) There’s exceptions: in Italy, my mother’s boiler system has a phosphate-based softener, but as far as I know it’s only used to soften the water used in the boiler itself, nd I have no idea if that’s even safe to drink.

The most straight out softening solutions end up involving dissolving salt in the water supply to reduce the hardness, which in turn raises the sodium concentration in the water. This is what dishwashers do, as well, at least in Europe, and is the reason why you buy salt for them. Increasing the amount of sodium in drinking and cooking water can have negative effects, particularly if you suffer from high blood pressure, or for young children.

Thames Water and the sketchy recommendation

This is the concern that Thames Water scare you with, and our landlord share. It’s a valid concern, particularly for older softener systems, but to the best of my understanding of the current market, it’s not the top-of-mind for modern ones. On modern systems, the salt is not used directly on the water supply, but for the regeneration of resin-based exchangers. The water (or rather brine) used for this regeneration is discarded, and is not fed into the water supply that gets consumed.

Thames Water thus recommend not to use softened water for drinking or cooking, and instead suggests the use of an electric descaler… which confused the heck out of me when I saw it, and even now as I type feels fishy. To understand what an electric descaler is, let me introduce a different page (or rather leaflet) on water hardness, this time by Southern Water, that manages the water supply in other parts of England, including Southampton, where we have been over the summer, and had the first soft shower in over a year!

Unlike the Thames Water page, Southern Water delegated the fact gathering to WRc which appears to indeed be an independent organization. And again unlike the Thames Water page, it does get into the details of how different water softening solutions work, spending quite a bit of time explaining different “Physical Conditioning” (PC) device, these are your electric descalers. It is also very, very careful with the suggestions that these water conditioners are actually solving problems, with lots of notes to the theme of “They do have an effect, in the right circumstances, but you’ll have to try by yourself.” Indeed they do note that the only publicly known comparative tests of these device was done in 2000 in Germany, and that only one device passed such tests, and that while other devices may be using the same technology, it’s better to try it out, and see.

At this point, it doesn’t seem that bad. Thames Water is known for having harder water than Southern Water, so while annoying, it’s understandable that the former would provide more reasons not to have to change anything in their supply. Where things get to the other side of “fishy” for me is noticing that while Southern/WRc are very careful to phrase what they talk about not as recommendation, but as information – and they even include an explicit «The mention of any proprietary devices or product in the following must not be interpreted as any form of endorsement of them by Southern Water or WRc.» – Thames Water as of today provides an explicit recommendation of a device called Scaleguard: «Install an electric descaler. We recommend Scaleguard.»

The Scaleguard electronic unit works by sending out a computerised modulated signal which can change the physical properties of lime scale and control further build up of hard scale. […]

Scaleguard website.

As I said above, WRc explicitly doesn’t recommend any one particular physical conditioning device, since their ability to even function depends on a number of parameters, so the fact that Thames Water goes ahead and straight out provides you with a single company, with claims that trigger my buzzword-detector (“computerised modulated signal”, seriously?) had me doubting the veracity of its suggestion. Even more interesting, the Wayback Machine can tell us that the Scaleguard recommendation showed up some time this year, as the capture in March does not include the link, despite their website saying «Recommended by Thames Water.» all the way back to 2008!

But, okay, maybe Thames Water did indeed test the device, found out that it works awesomely and decided to suggest any of their customers who complain about hard water to get one. But then you would expect that WRc would have covered the device that one of the other water companies recommended for such a long time! No reference to Scaleguard is to be found in their fact sheet.

Where things get a bit more sketchy is that the device, which normally costs £125, can be bought at a discount if you use the Promo Code “THAMES” — I unfortunately don’t remember where I read that first. I think it might have actually been on the Thames Water website, but it’s definitely not there right now. On the other hand, you can find how order the device at the «Thames Water Special Price» on their website.

When I noticed that, the whole unreferenced “Actually, hard water is good for you” slant of the page started feeling even more dodgy, and it convinced me to not listen to Thames Water at all. Which doesn’t mean I can’t be convinced that they are indeed right, but it takes more than a statement from a supplier of hard water to buy into it.

Getting a softener — Failure First

Eventually, we came to a compromise with our landlord: we would be installing (from our pocket) a softener with a three-way tap in the kitchen, allowing access to non-softened water for drinking. And we would restore the original state of the plumbing when we moved out. this turns out to be not too difficult, as it’s possible to rent the softener rather than outright buying it. And keeping in mind the costs of installing and moving the softener if you move apartments, it turns out to be fairly convenient, particularly if you’re not entirely sold in staying in the country forevermore.

At that point, I went looking for a softener, and – thanks to their continuous leafleting and a demonstration at the London Coffee Festival a few years ago – I asked a quote to Harvey, which is supposedly the market leader for softeners in the UK. This was a mistake.

They came quickly to give us a demonstration of the softener, which my wife appreciated since she hadn’t experienced it before, but they couldn’t book an installation right there and then. I had to wait for another call to book it for the following week. When the time came for the installer to come, the first problem came up: despite having spoken to the sales rep about the current limitations of parking around our building (there’s cladding being replaced nearby), the installer came unprepared, and couldn’t find a place to park. After not really trying that hard, he decided he couldn’t proceed with the installation, and would send have someone call us back for it. This was on a Friday.

Despite chasing the sales rep the following day, and then again on Monday, and Tuesday, we failed to get a new booking at all. Worse yet, the various people I kept sending email to were being shy about putting in writing that we wouldn’t owe them a penny, since we lost interest in renting from them (they did get our credit card details to book the installation.) They even offered to give us a four months supply of salt for free — which of course is something that only matters if you do get the softener installed and keep it, so I was not particularly keen on accepting based only on that offer. At some point, the sales rep called me suggesting he might be able to get us an emergency booking in two days, but then called back saying that his supervisor scolded him for having used the “retention” team to get that booked, and that it would have to be called off, with the first available installation date being over a month after the original demonstration.

We decided to give up, eventually managed to get it in writing that we owed them nothing, and just left them a bad review on TrustPilot. At first we thought we wouldn’t try again to get a softener installed, but then we did end up in Southampton, and loved the feeling of soft water after a shower, after nearly a year spent in the hardest water I’d ever experienced.

Getting a softener — Once More, With Professionals

So we looked around for an alternative, which turned out to be Kinetico water systems, which appears to pretty much sell the same exact technology as Harvey, but franchises the installation back to separate companies. For our area, Watercare Softeners in Twickenham was the local installer, and it was a refreshing experience to deal with professionals for once.

First of all, we managed to maintain nearly all of the communication by email only, something that I appreciate immensely as a busy millennial who hates being on the phone. Secondly, the sales rep who came to check out the installation beforehand provided all the information needed without wasting anyone’s time, and even pointed out one thing the other guy hadn’t: we needed to restore a shelf that we had previously stashed away in the boiler room, because the softener has a gravity-fed excess valve. I could then imagine the previous unprepared installer forgetting to consider that altogether!

Installation was just as professional: you couldn’t tell that someone had just done work in the apartment after they left, and it only took one hour, considering that he had to make a whole in the wall to bring the hard water line to the kitchen.

They got their good review and we have a working water softener at home, yay!

Results and Costs

Water softening is not magic, and doesn’t quite work as instantaneously as you may think. The main reason is that the scale that hardened on boilers, heating elements, pipes, and so on and so forth, don’t just disappear overnight. Softened water appears to dissolve some of it away, since it’s no longer saturated with calcium and magnesium, but that means for some time after installing a softener, you’re still experiencing the presence of those.

That’s why the first things we did after installing the softener was to run the descalers on the kettle, the clothes iron, and the humidifier. And I changed the flow regulators in the bathroom (we already got a new shower head a few months back because the previous one was getting too stuck to use — and both were the same “AliExpress special” quality so we didn’t worry much.) We kept using the salt in the dishwasher for a week or so after the softening, but it now seems like it’s not required at all, while we decided to just finish the Calgon box we were halfway through.

The overall difference in scale presence is impossible to ignore: the bathroom no longer needs weekly descaling, the kettle has not even started building up scale — tea and coffee taste exactly as normal. And we no longer get brown foam on the top of the pasta (yes, it got to that level before!) Also finally we’ve been making use of ice makers since using ice cubes from soft water does not leave a layer of nasty-looking “dirt” on top of your drinks. I even briefly considered that it might be sensible at this point to get a Sodastream (with the Pepsi Max syrup that they actually sell in UK) rather than buying the bottles from the supermarket, but to be honest, I should just rather not drink it. My wife already does not like any carbonated drinks so it wouldn’t matter.

Installation, including the hard water line and the three-way tap for the kitchen, came down to £550, rental is £35/month, and the blocks of salt add another £6/month. And, exactly like Southern Water stated, this is not going to be balanced by the savings of products: while Harvey tries to convince you that you don’t need any soap whatsoever with soft water, that is exaggerating. We do use overall less soap than before, but not in a quantity that makes a difference (it would probably be another story if we didn’t buy soap in 5L bulk), and while we did try to follow Alec’s suggestion with powder detergent (both before, and after installing the softener) we still prefer using the packs.

On the other hand, the feeling the soap gives you after a shower is significantly different, and our hands are welcoming the much-less-hard water compared to the previous months, healing nicely from the extreme dryness we have been suffering.

Where we feel there may be a significant saving is in the descaling products and maintenance. While £2 of Oust descaler per month for the kettle is not going to break the bank compared to the softener, the maintenance time spent to care for the appliances, faucets, and everything else was substantial. In a classic struggle between owners and tenants, we could have ignored caring for the build-ups, and eventually the landlord would have had to pay for replacing them, but at the same time, we prefer living in a place that make us feel good.

So to close this up, I would say that the water softening is definitely an optional, and not something that I would consider a requirement for anyone. It’s a very middle class thing to have, but if you’re looking for a quality of life improvement, or if you find yourself doting on the faucets to deal with the limescale build up, it’s probably a good choice.