With more than 30 years’ experience in the residential and commercial water treatment space, Mark Nelson is a Class 1 Drinking-Water Operator and a CBWA (Canadian Bottled Water Association) Certified Plant Operator. As founder and president of Nelson Water in Ottawa, Mark focuses on dealing with challenging water treatment system designs for problem water. He also heads the largest water bottling plant in the city of Ottawa with a delivery network throughout the Valley.
Before we answer this question, it’s important to establish that some bacteria are actually good for human health. So, you don’t necessarily want to get rid of all bacteria because it could be detrimental to your long term health. That being said, a water softener will not kill bacteria, and as we have seen, this can be seen as an advantage.
How Does a Water Softener Work?
The best modern water softeners use a proven ion-exchange process to make hard water softer. There are other water softening methods, but they are unreliable, and for this reason, most people stick with the proven technology. The ion-exchange process removes the ions of minerals that cause hardness, such as calcium and magnesium. These mineral ions are exchanged with benign sodium (salt) ions that are kinder for you and your home.
If you’ve ever had to use hard water, you will know that it isn’t harmful to your health. But, hard water can cause a large number of other problems in your home. The dissolved mineral content in hard water inhibits the formation of soap suds leading to less effective cleaning. The creation of soap scum is caused by hard water, and this can lead to sticky residues of bacteria around sinks and faucets. Fabrics washed in hard water have minerals tangled in them that make them wear out faster, and bright colors look faded. When hard water dries on our skin and hair after showering, it leaves behind the minerals that clog pores and makes our skin feel dry and itchy. One of the worst things about hard water is the scale that it creates in our plumbing pipes and inside our water using appliances. This leads to more frequent repairs, earlier than expected replacements, and it can waste a lot of money over time.
As you can see, softened water is a great improvement when you look at how hard water can affect our homes. So, although a water softener doesn’t remove bacteria, it certainly makes our lives easier in many other ways.
How Do You Know if You Have Contaminated Water?
If you’re concerned about harmful bacteria in your home, how do you know if you have a problem? Firstly, it’s useful to know that bacteria can be broadly divided into two categories, they are: pathogenic and non-pathogenic.
Non-pathogenic bacteria are not harmful to your health in any way. This would include the healthy bacteria that we briefly talked about at the start of this article. This healthier bacteria is often found in yogurt or kombucha drinks.
Pathogenic bacteria are harmful to health. They cause illnesses and diseases that can be very serious such as E.coli from human and animal excrement.
We can find both non-pathogenic and pathogenic bacteria occurring naturally in our water supplies. The most common example of this is iron bacteria which you may have seen in nature where it turns the water red. The main problem with bacteria is that it’s hard to detect; it cannot be smelt, tasted, or seen with the naked eye. If you are exposed to pathogenic bacteria, you’re not likely to notice any health related symptoms for some time. Some typical reactions to pathogenic bacteria in drinking water may include vomiting, fever, and stomach cramps. The only reliable way to discover the presence of bacteria is water testing through a laboratory.
Is this a City or Rural Problem?
Both, if you live in a rural area, you may draw your water from a private well that can be prone to bacterial contamination from a variety of sources. If you live in a city with aging infrastructure, this can still be a problem because treated water has to travel through pipes to your home. A crack or break at any point in the delivery infrastructure can allow bacteria and other contaminants to enter the water supply. Conducting testing for a specific bacteria is extremely expensive, so most water supplies are only tested for coliform bacteria. Although coliforms are not pathogenic, they are found in the digestive systems of people, animals, plants, and soil which makes their presence a good warning that pathogenic bacteria is present.
How Do I Remove Bacteria from My Water?
There are three methods that you can use to remove the bacteria from your drinking water, they are:
- Ultraviolet (UV) Light
Installing a UV light disinfection system where the water supply enters your home will kill any bacteria present. The UV light wavelength disrupts the DNA of bacteria, which prevents them from replicating. Essentially, this destroys the bacteria present, and you don’t need to add any chemicals to the water.
- Chlorine Disinfection
If you’re only dealing with a single bacterial contamination event, you can use chlorination to kill the bacteria. But, care must be exercised because if you don’t know the source of the bacteria, it’s likely to return later. If you feed chlorine into your water at 3-5 ppm with a residual of 0.4 ppm of free chlorine for 30 minutes, you can meet clean water standards.
- Reverse Osmosis (RO)
The best thing about a RO filtration system is that it can remove 99% of contaminants from the incoming water with no need to add chemicals. The water is forced through a semi-permeable membrane under pressure, and only water molecules can pass through. Adding a filter under your sink is simple, and this will provide pure and clean drinking water for your home.
How Do I Sanitize My Water Softener?
If you think that your water softener has become contaminated with bacteria, here are five steps that you can follow to sanitize the unit safely.
Step 1: Locate Your Brine Tank
Find the brine tank, run a measure along the top to determine if you have a 9” or a 12” tank.
Step 2: Add Bleach
If you have a 9” brine tank, add a cup of bleach, and if you have a 12” tank, add two.
Step 4: Find the Cycle Panel
On the water softener, there will be a cycle panel where you can set the unit to perform a manual regeneration. The exact method can vary a great deal depending on your water softener model, and the process will be covered in your owner’s manual.
Step 5: Don’t Use the Water
Avoid using the water during the regeneration cycle. When the cycle is complete, run the water for an extra 5-10 minutes to make sure all the bleach is gone.
If you’re unsure about sanitizing your water softener or you need to install a UV light or RO filtration system, contact your local water treatment specialist today.