Can you safely drink softened water?
There is so so much that has been said about drinking softened water, and it can be rather confusing.
To offer the industry and consumers guidance, I wrote a document for the Harvey Water Softeners dealer network in 2014, in which I summarised the official position on drinking softened water.
Download that document or read through the points I cover below, along with a lot more detailed and specific information.
All of that said, you are in for a complete and interesting surprise as I have researched this exhaustively.
But before you go any further, it is important to note that the right decision is the decision that you feel most comfortable with.
Some companies recommend always having a hard water tap – that may be because they are in a very hard water area (such as Suffolk), or are very large organisations with a lot of staff, such as Harvey Softeners, wherein those circumstances it is easier to have a simple 'one size fits all' policy that makes it easy for all staff to follow.
Let's Look at the Facts
Can I drink softened water?
Yes… and it's even considered "wholesome". The definition of wholesome is "conducive to or suggestive of good health and physical well-being". In this context, 'Wholesome' means Healthy and Drinkable.
Wow! But I thought salt was bad for you?
Let's be clear, the salt we use in water softeners doesn't go into our water supply, but instead is used to create a brine solution which is used to flush the calcium ions (chalk) we remove down the drain.
When your softener is in service and providing softened water, the chalk is removed by a process called ion exchange which replaces calcium (chalk) for sodium. As hard water flows through the softener, the resin exchanges 'calcium for sodium', 'calcium for sodium', 'calcium for sodium'.
When the softener is full of chalk (calcium) and cannot soften any further, it then pops offline and a process called 'Regeneration' begins. The sodium ions in the brine solution are then flushed through the resin, this time exchanging in reverse, 'sodium for calcium', 'sodium for calcium', 'sodium for calcium'. Once the regeneration is complete, the resin is ready to work once again.
The traces of sodium left behind in the water supply are minimal and of an entirely safe level. Our bodies need sodium to live, and how much sodium we need is guided in the UK by the Department of Health
Interestingly, in the new, Third Edition of the World Health Organisation's Guidelines on Drinking Water Quality 2003, there is no sodium guideline. It only states that concentrations in excess of 200mg/l may impart a taste. It is the UK Department of Health that recommends limiting sodium concentrations to 200mg/l in drinking water for babies (see more at the bottom of this page), and those individuals on a medically prescribed, salt-restricted diet.
Did you know that there is already sodium in mains tap water?
Our mains water across the UK contains sodium, and the level of sodium is regulated by the Drinking Water Inspectorate (part of Defra) who guide local water authorities that a maximum of 200mg/l of sodium is permissible.
This guidance shows that as mains water is permissible to have up to 200mg/l of sodium, it is considered safe for everyone to drink water with sodium up to this level unless they have been medically advised not to drink mains tap water. This level is set low at 200mg/l so that it is safe for consumers to drink the water safely, even if they are under medically prescribed directives – download the dwi document.
The average sodium levels in local mains tap water are obtainable from the water companies and all areas in Kent and Sussex are significantly below this 200mg/l:
- Ashford – 13mg/l
- Brighton – 23mg/l
- Bromley – 28mg/l
- Canterbury – 15mg/l
- Chatham – 23mg/l
- Chislehurst, Orpington & Petts Wood – 48mg/l
- Croydon – 21mg/l
- Dartford – 22mg/l
- Deal – 22mg/l
- Dover – 13mg/l
- Eastbourne – 22mg/l
- Faversham – 12mg/l
- Folkestone – 17mg/l
- Haywards Heath – 35mg/l
- Herne Bay – 21mg/l
- Horsham – 20mg/l
- Kemsing – 17mg/l
- Maidstone – 26mg/l
- Sandwich – 18mg/l
- Sevenoaks – 23mg/l
- Thanet – 22mg/l
- Tunbridge Wells – 20mg/l
- Whitstable – 21mg/l
- Worthing – 15mg/l
When we soften water, as an industry we always follow the advice to recommend that customers don't drink water where sodium exceeds the maximum that could be obtained through the mains water supply, i.e. 200mg/l.
How much sodium is added to water during the softening process?
For every 100mg/l of calcium carbonate hardness taken out of the water, 46mg/l of sodium goes in. The sodium limit will be exceeded where the water is extremely hard, for example above 425ppm (parts per million) – this level of hardness is not typically found in the South East, and is more commonly found in Suffolk and parts of Norfolk.
In Kent and Sussex, allowing for local mains water sodium levels, and hardness levels, the typical sodium in the softened water supply is always below the recommended guidelines and is therefore safe to drink. Average mg/l of sodium in softened water (max 200mg/l):
- Ashford – 138mg/l
- Brighton – 148mg/l
- Bromley – 159mg/l
- Canterbury – 156mg/l
- Chatham – 187mg/l
- Chislehurst, Orpington & Petts Wood 191mg/l
- Croydon – 146mg/l
- Dartford – 163mg/l
- Deal – 166mg/l
- Dover – 153mg/l
- Eastbourne – 126mg/l
- Faversham – 130mg/l
- Folkestone – 162mg/l
- Haywards Heath – 81mg/l
- Herne Bay – 146mg/l
- Horsham – 94mg/l
- Kemsing – 101mg/l
- Maidstone – 174mg/l
- Sevenoaks – 187mg/l
- Thanet – 166mg/l
- Tunbridge Wells – 167mg/l
- Whitstable – 146mg/l
- Worthing – 138mg/l
How is hard water measured, and when is soft water, soft?
There are many ways to measure water hardness, and you get an approximate hardness level by ringing South East Water in East Kent or Southern Water in West Kent and Sussex. Alternatively, we'd be happy to come and do that hardness test for you based on your own home's water supply. Sometimes we can find that one part of a street differs from another part of a street, which sounds bizarre, and in those circumstances, it all depends on which way the water main comes in and where it is served from.
We prefer to use the Hach test kit as it is the most accurate way outside of a laboratory to get an accurate hardness reading. The Hach test kit uses the universal method of measurement Parts Per Million, PPM, which is directly drawn on the Hach test kit from the American form of measurement of Grains per Gallon.
How many people drink softened water?
During the 1920s and 1930s, water softeners started to be sold to some homeowners, hotels and many other businesses, to improve the taste of drinking water. In the USA, there is no myth surrounding softened water use for drinking purposes, and over 1 million people a year have a water softener installed.
Today there are millions of water softeners in everyday use in American homes which are used for drinking water purposes. In some parts of the US, almost everyone needs a softener because of the hardness of ground water, but millions of others are bought as a preference item due to dry skin conditions, to remove scale or to keep homes and appliances looking like new. The same happens in the UK.
To the knowledge of the UK industry, in agreement with the USA findings, there has never, in over 90 years of history, been a health-related problem reported that was associated with a water softener.
What does softened water taste like?
Everyone has a different perception of taste, so this depends on your individual preferences. We become so accustomed to the flavour of chalk in our water that we think that the way hard water tastes is the way it should.
The precipitation test
Try the following experiment – the results may be quite surprising:
If we took a glass of hard water and looked at it against a window or light, it would appear clear, just as we would expect – we cannot see the dissolved chalk in the water. But if you were to take a sample of that same water, and place it in a test tube, and precipitate the hardness out (done by adding a chemical – we can do this to show you), immediately the chalk will become visible (see photo). If you then took a sip of the original glass of hard water and rolled that water over your tongue while looking at the vial of precipitated chalk, you would immediately notice a slightly 'fuller' texture – in other words, you would feel the dissolved chalk in your mouth.
By removing dissolved chalk from our drinking water, the flavour of water initially tastes different from what we are used to, and as stated previously, everyone's perception of that taste is different.
To myself, (Laurence), when I first tasted softened water I thought it tasted like boiled water gone cold; flat. My mother thought it had a slightly metallic taste. My dad couldn't tell a difference, and many customers have felt that the water tastes "clean and fresh", the way water should taste. Today, my tastes have changed, and I went through a period of tasting a slightly sweeter taste, and now can't tell the difference other than knowing I much prefer the texture of softened water on my palate.
Many other customers describe it as 'beautiful' and feel that it enhances their pleasure of a cup of tea.
Something worth remembering
It is worth noting, however, that softened water always tastes stronger for the first 2–3 weeks while the new softener 'beds' in. This is because the resin comes supercharged from the factory, as it is a manufactured component (a bit like a new oven has a new smell for the first few uses). Over a few weeks, the taste settles and you will also increasingly become familiar with the taste, and we often find that within a few weeks, customers are much preferring the refreshing taste of softened water, often describing it as, 'beautiful'.
Don't forget, softened water will always taste different to hard water as it doesn't have dissolved rock chalk in the water, and chalk masks everything, creating a taste that we often associate with what water should taste like.
Planning on having softened drinking water in your home?
You’ll be in great company. Over the past 6 years that we have owned Hydroworks, we have recommended softened drinking water to all our customers and given them the right information to enable them to make the right decision for their own personal peace of mind and circumstances.
Of the new installations we have completed, a very high majority of customers have chosen to have softened water, fed through a drinking water filter. The filter polishes the water to give an almost Brita like quality of water.
When we purchased Hydroworks in 2016, we went around meeting all our existing customers and found that a high number of them had a separate hard water drinking tap and scaled up kettles. The reason most customers drink hard water is because they have been told that it is unsafe to drink softened water. In the years pre-1984, most UK homeowners used to drink softened water, but a TV personality linked softened water to cot-death, incorrectly, and at the time the water softening sector in the UK was too small to tackle the issue head on, and so the norm became a separate hard water drinking tap. We have converted a very high number of existing customers to softened water, and none have reversed their decision.
Of the nearly 2,600 new installations we have installed since purchasing Hydroworks, the majority have chosen to have softened- filtered drinking water as their preferred choice. At the time of writing this website update (June 2021), 9 customers have however asked us to fit a hard water drinking tap after installation. Three of these had children with autism, and we understand that changes in flavour is more noticeable to them.
When we install softened-filtered drinking water, rather than a customer purchasing a 3-way tap or having a hard water tap, the majority of customers have chosen to opt instead to go straight for an inline filter. We have sourced a high-quality carbon – the same used in the Brita filter – and this doesn’t leave an unpleasant aftertaste. We connect the filter (circled yellow in photo) straight on to the mains cold water feed to the kitchen sink tap, and in most cases, this filter easily lasts over 12 months, giving refreshing drinking water filter.
If you’re already drinking water with a Brita jug, then the great news is that once the initial ‘new softener’ taste has settled, the water will be very similar to the quality and taste you get from the Brita Maxtra filter.
Brita Water Filters and softened water
Brita filters are the most popular selling brand of jug filters, and their top selling cartridge is the Maxtra, which makes a wonderful cup of tea. Have you ever wondered why? The reason the water is so good is because the 'ion exchange pearls' shown in step two of the photo above is in fact water softening resin! This is exactly what we also advocate; Softened Filtered Drinking Water. Its safe, its healthy, and according to the World Health Organisation, it's wholesome.
What effect does softened water have on babies?
This is the most complex question to answer as it is also the most emotive. For that reason, the best advice for any parent of a young baby is to do your research and make a decision that sits well with you. There are, however, a few things to be aware of. What the industry says, and what the NHS say.
The industry takes its lead from water regulations, which encompasses all the guidance available. The leader in the European Water Softening sector is Harvey Water Softeners, and they have been a driving force behind clearing up the regulations on drinking water. Harvey's chairman, Harvey Bowden, states here on their website:
"We generally don't recommend using softened water with baby feed. You can use softened water for baby feeds if the sodium concentration is below the 200 mg/l limit for sodium. So, it isn’t recommended if you are unsure of your water’s sodium concentration - which is likely in most cases. The 200 mg/l sodium level was set by the Drinking Water Inspectorate in the Drinking Water Regulations. This limit was adopted to make sure that the total sodium levels in baby feed, plus the water added, does not exceed 350 mg/l, considered a safe level for infants."
The guidance relates to the initial approximate 6 weeks of a baby's life while their kidneys are still being formed, and then, as a baby progresses from newborn to infant, their tolerance to sodium increases. Where applicable, the options are to either leave a hard water drinking tap, or to fill a jug from an outside hard water tap, and keep it in the fridge for the initial few weeks.
Our experience is that customers who go on to drink softened water then stop using the hard water tap out of preference, and that means the hard water tap can very quickly become a bacteria and algae harbour, which is less than ideal, particularly if that is used very infrequently.
Pretty much all of Kent, Sussex and South East London fall typically within the low sodium level zone, with the exception of homes supplied by boreholes or well water. If you are uncertain, we can always guide you.
The NHS offers blanket advice based more on sterility and prevention of infection, "To reduce the risk of infection, it's best to make up feeds 1 at a time, as your baby needs them. Use freshly boiled drinking water from the tap to make up a feed. Do not use artificially softened water or water that has been boiled before."
The NHS has also produced a booklet which says, "It is best to use drinking water from the tap that has been freshly boiled (and cooled slightly to 70 ̊C or above) to make up a feed. Do not use water that has been previously boiled or artificially softened water. This is because the balance of minerals in previously boiled water and artificially softened water may not be suitable for making up formula feeds."
This advice is provided on the basis that there are many different types of baby formula foods, some with higher levels of sodium than others.