When our members are visiting customers, one of the most regularly asked questions about water softening is “Can I drink softened water?". For most people, the simple answer to this is yes, softened water is perfectly safe to drink.
A question our members are often asked by customers is “Can I drink softened water?”. The simple answer to this question is “yes” although there are a few exceptions where drinking softened water is not advised. For most people, it comes down to whether or not they like the taste of the softened water. Whatever your requirements or preferences however, there is always an option when it comes to your drinking water supply.
Water softeners use a process called ion exchange to remove the calcium and magnesium minerals from your water as it enters your home. The hard water passes through tanks in the water softener which are filled with resin beads. The calcium and magnesium ions in the hard water are attracted to these beads and they are removed from the water with sodium ions being released into the water in their place. This results in softened water. Once the resin has reached its capacity, it will need to regenerate using a brine solution to clean away the mineral deposits collected and repopulate with sodium ions. The whole process will then begin again. The amount of sodium that remains in your water will depend on the amount of minerals that have been removed from the water so in harder water areas, this figure will be higher. During the ion exchange process a water softener will add under half the amount of sodium for the amount minerals taken out of the water. For example, If the water hardness is 300 mg/litre (or 300 parts per million), a softener will add 138 mg of sodium to every litre of water. If you take into account the recommendation to drink two litres of water every day, the figures in this example mean you would consume just 276 mg of sodium from your water. The NHS guidelines for the recommended maximum daily allowance (RDA) of sodium from all food and drink is 2,400mg. In this case it would mean that just 11.5% of your RDA for sodium would come from drinking water. A small amount when compared to the many high sodium, processed foods available to buy in the UK.
Although we all need a certain amount of sodium in our diet for healthy cell function, too much can actually cause higher blood pressure which is obviously not good for us. The Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 2018 (page 37) set a maximum level of 200 mg per litre (or 200 ppm) of sodium in drinking water. When you consider the ion exchange process mentioned above, this means that as long as you live in an area where the hardness of the water is below 400ppm, then there is no need to have a source of unsoftened drinking water. Most areas of the UK do actually have a water hardness level of under 400ppm but your local AIWSE member will be able to test your water hardness for a more accurate reading. Appropriate advice can then be given regarding drinking water options when having a water softener installed. The government website has a useful map showing the hard water levels in England and Wales for more information.
Whilst it’s perfectly fine for most people to drink softened water, there are a couple of instances where this is not advisable:
Both the WRAS (Water Regulations Advisory Scheme) and the NHS recommend that the sodium limit should not exceed 200 mg per litre when preparing formula for babies. A baby cannot process the slightly higher level of sodium as their kidneys are not yet fully developed. The balance of nutrients and sodium in infant formula is very precise and dehydration can be caused if this is altered by any additional sodium.
Although the sodium in softened water is at a safe level for most, it is advised that those who have been prescribed a low sodium diet should not drink softened water due to the slightly higher quantity.
It is also advisable to have a hard water feed available for watering plants, for use in fish tanks, and for your pet’s drinking water. Some Irons that are self-descaling are also specifically designed for use with hard water. In this case, it is always best to check the manufacturer’s instructions to make sure you are using the correct water.
Tea connoisseurs agree that water quality is as critical as tea quality and that hard water is unsuitable for making a decent cuppa. This is due to the way that the flavonoids in the tea react with the calcium hydroxide in the hard water, creating a film that floats on the surface. In contrast, soft water is a great natural solvent. When the mineral content of water is lower, it improves the dissolution of aromatics which is vital in tea (and coffee) making. Tea made with soft water will taste better and cleaner, won’t stain your crockery so much and will also be more cost effective as you won’t need to use so much. Sauces, stocks and gravies made with soft water will also taste better as the soft water will uptake flavours more readily than hard water.
Whether it’s for health reasons or simply because you don't like the taste, there are several options for drinking water which is not softened.
Depending on where your mains water comes in, you can keep a hard water feed at your kitchen sink for drinking water purposes. This can be as a separate mini tap or there is also the option to install a three way tap which can provide hot and cold softened water as well as filtered drinking water. There are various inline water filters available to filter the hard water to make it more palatable. These fit neatly under your kitchen sink and are inexpensive to replace when needed. The only issue with this option is when your mains water supply comes in at a different location to under the kitchen sink where the water softener is sited. If the mains supply and water softener are in the garage, then it can be difficult to provide un-softened water to the kitchen sink without running a lot of extra pipework around your property.
Reverse Osmosis (RO) is a simple water filtration process which works by using pressure to force water through a semipermeable membrane in order to remove any impurities. The contaminants which are filtered out are flushed away and you are left with clean, great tasting drinking water. Cost effective and easy to maintain, RO systems are an extremely effective method of water filtration, capable of removing the sodium from softened water along with many other dissolved impurities. An RO system can be installed in your kitchen and, like with the more basic drinking water filter, can feed either a mini tap or a three way tap. The big advantage with an RO system is that it doesn’t matter where your water softener is installed or where your mains water supply comes in. They are a more expensive option than just a basic drinking water filter but models to suit all budgets are available and the difference in your drinking water is definitely worth it.
Of course you could just drink bottled water. This will work out to be expensive and inconvenient compared to the other options however. It is also worth bearing in mind the environmental impact that drinking bottled water has. The entire life cycle of bottled water, from production to disposal, uses fossil fuels, contributes to global warming and causes pollution.