Several years ago, Larry Sagers was conducting a pruning demonstration at our home in our small vineyard. He made the comment that you shouldn’t use the same water that you do for the lawn to water grapes and orchards. A participant asked, “What type of water should you use then? Bottled or something like that?”
He smiled, gently shook his head, and then said, “No, that’s not what I meant. I mean that fruit trees and vineyards should be on a different watering system than the lawn, as turf sprinklers won’t deliver a sufficient amount of water that trees and vines need.”
The way Larry answered saved face for the inquirer, and we all got a good chuckle and horticultural lesson at the same time.
While I’ve found that my landscape and garden plot thrive on well water, when the sprinklers hit our windows, you can sure see the aftermath in the form of hard water spots. Untreated well water works fine for outside applications, but there are some serious benefits to using softened water inside.
I remember the first time I encountered softened water. My family was visiting friends in the Los Angeles area. I recall getting a shower and having the sensation that I couldn’t get the soap to rinse off my skin; no matter how much I rinsed, it seemed that slippery soap was still there. Of course, the soap had long rinsed away.
Anyone that has lived in the West knows this is typical with our water. Usually it tastes fine — the palatability of the water isn’t the problem. It’s the suspended and dissolved minerals in the water that cause issues in our house’s plumbing, as well as on surfaces where hard water wicks off and leaves lime deposits behind.
Hard water contains a significant amount of minerals dissolved in it and these minerals are positively charged ions (known as a cation). Water that seeps through chalk and limestone will become hard. A quick look at the Oquirrh Mountains will tell you what we’re in for.
Water is softened by passing it over negatively charged resin beads that attract the positively charged calcium and magnesium carbonate ions. Sodium then replaces the calcium and magnesium, allowing them to continue to cling to the beads. A recharging cycle cleans off the beads, and renews them for another softening cycle.
Sodium will rinse away easily, doesn’t react significantly with soaps and detergents and leaves only a tiny amount of residue when the water evaporates off.
However, this comes with a trade-off. Many times the taste of the minerals in water is highly desired. Once those minerals are removed, and replaced with sodium, the taste can be salty, or just “blah.”
We’ve addressed these issues in our home by having the cold water taps in our kitchen dispense untreated well water, while the remainder of the house, both cold and hot, is softened water. So, the cold water can be used for drinking, watering plants, pets and food preparation, without having a salty or non-desirable taste. We get the best of both worlds.
While the most familiar way to condition water is softening, this is only one type of water treatment. In fact, our friend, H2O, may need to be conditioned for a variety of purposes in residential, commercial and industrial settings.
For instance, our well water that we get from our cold taps in the kitchen is not great in hot or iced tea. The dissolved minerals in the water absorb the tea pigments and result in a murky color, rather than the more prized clear, amber solution. For this, we use a reverse osmosis (RO) unit that produces water with very little mineral content and no added sodium.
The unit works by pre-filtering and then passing the water through a fine membrane that captures the mineral molecules. However, a residential RO system produces such a small amount of water that it’s not a practical whole-house system.
There are other reasons for conditioning. Extremely hard water will shorten the life of plumbing and lessen the effectiveness of soaps and detergents. And, when hard water is heated, scale forms — which is not good for pipes, tea kettles, water heaters, shower heads, boilers, etc.
The scale narrows plumbing and pipes and it also affects how efficiently heat is transferred. So, it takes more energy to heat the water, and the tank’s life is shortened.
Anyone who has changee a water heater has seen this first hand. Scale builds up in the bottom of the tank where the burner is. As a result, the heater needs to use more heat to reach the desired temperature.
Another side effect is corrosion, which can result in tank leaks. To counter this scale build up, experts recommend ongoing flushing and reducing the temperature of the heater.
Some manufacturers will have the cold inlet pipe go into the tank with a curved end section near the bottom. This causes the cold water entering the tank to create turbulence, which helps rinse the tank and expels the scale.
As alluded to earlier, softened water allows soaps and detergents to work better. Both are surfactants, a substance that will mix both with water and grease. So, they make water “wetter” and more able to lift out dirt from fabrics and objects.
But, there are significant differences between the two. Soaps tend to be made from vegetable and animal fats and lye. Detergents are generally made from petroleum products.
Detergents are popular because they react less with minerals in water. Soap will form a scum or curd with minerals in water and starts to turn fabrics gray. The problem worsens when chlorine bleach is used, which can impart a yellowish hue to fabrics. The fabric can even yellow further if the fabric is exposed to the sun.
In the past, bluing — a light blue hue makes the clothes seem whiter and more brilliant — was the solution to this problem. Nowadays companies add UV brighteners to their detergents.
As an aside, these brighteners remain in the laundered fabric to do their job. However, they cause some folks skin reactions. For the deer hunters out there, brighteners will also make you more visible to deer — who possess a high degree of blue-sightedness. There are also restrictions with military applications as UV-brightened clothing is more visible to night vision gear. Who knew?
Distillation is another form of water treatment. Water is heated until it turns to steam, with the vapor then being condensed back into pure water.
Distillation removes minerals and impurities and is typically done in small amounts. It is used in applications where it’s undesirable to have minerals present, such as with batteries, chemistry processes and in manufacturing.
We have also heard tales of stranded survivalists purifying either polluted or dirty water sometimes with plants or cacti. In fact, the morning dew on blades of grass is a form of distilled water.
One final way to treat water is with desalinization. Sea water, which is extremely plentiful on the surface of the earth, cannot be used for agriculture or drinking as is. Israel has made tremendous strides in this area, creating technology that allows high volumes of water to be extracted from the Mediterranean Sea. The salt is removed through reverse osmosis, with the water being distributed both to municipal water systems and farms.
This is a fascinating subject that can easily be researched online. I think you’ll find the effort to take a look worthwhile.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.