Water that contains an excessive amount of calcium and magnesium is considered hard. This hard water however, is not a health hazard. So why then do we often depend on water softeners to eliminate these excessive minerals? What is it that a water softener does, that so many of us find them indispensible? Are there any drawbacks to using these appliances? Are water softeners really worth the added cost? The answer of course may have to be an individual one but the answers to a few questions can help you find your own answer.

Increased Expenses
A good water softener can cost a few hundred dollars or well over $1,000. If you have it installed professionally there is an additional cost. Typical ion exchange water softeners will also have routine maintenance costs for the sodium chloride (salt) or potassium chloride they will use every few months. Then there is also the cost of the electricity to run it.

Of course to be fair, you also have to consider the money it may save.

Reducing Build-Up

While hard water may not pose a real health threat, the minerals that it can deposit on pipes, fixtures, and some appliances can be unsightly and destructive. In older homes, pipes may have to be cleaned out or replaced if build-up becomes excessive. Heating elements on hot water heaters may have to be descaled or they operate very inefficiently.  Ion exchange water softeners are the only ones that actually reduce the amount of these minerals and prevent buildup. In this manner, they can save you some money in the long run.

Reducing the Use of Soaps and Detergents
For those who have very hard water, soaps may not want to lather, and detergents may not clean as well as desired. By using a water softener however, most homes will experience an improvement in the effectiveness of their shampoos, soaps, and detergents. Ideally, this will also result in having to use smaller quantities of these products.

Potential Pollutant
The typical ion exchange water softener will release a significant amount of sodium chloride into the soil and eventually the water table. This is deterimental to plant and water life. On the other hand, the amount of chemicals that seep into the soil and water from detergents and so forth should be decreased to some extent.  Appropriate disposal of the brine can also help limit this problem.

Another precaution that can help reduce the impact on the environment is to use a metered water softener that will assure that your household isn't using more sodium or potassium chloride than is necessary. These units soften water only as it is used. In addition, there are now salt-free water softeners available, but few of these are well regarded by professionals, so diligent research is suggested before choosing one of these "magnetic" water softeners.

Switching from sodium chloride to potassium chloride really doesn't solve the problem as some have suggested.

Iron Removal
Not all water softeners will remove iron but some do. For those who have a well system having a water softener that can also remove iron can help reduce the staining that occurs due to iron in the water.

Better Tasting Water
No, a water softener will not improve the taste of your water. In fact, it's generally recommended that you avoid softening the cold water supply in your kitchen assuming it will be used for drinking. If you want better tasting water, a water conditioner or water purifier is needed. The other benefit of not drinking softened water is that you won't consume additional salt via your drinking water.