One hotly debated topic among septic and water softener experts is whether water softeners have a negative impact on septic systems. You’ll find conflicting opinions all over the web on this topic, and we would be remiss if we didn’t set the record straight. In this article, we’ll explore the potential negative impact of water softeners on your septic system. We’ll also offer some septic-safe practices for using a water softener in a home with a septic system.
How Water Softeners Work
A typical water softener system has two components—a softener tank that treats water as it comes into the house and a brine tank. Water softeners use ion exchange to remove minerals from hard water. As water passes through the softener tank, the positively charged minerals in the water (calcium, magnesium, iron, and sodium) attach to the negatively charged resin in the tank. The minerals in your hard water stay behind, while softened water is distributed throughout your home. Every few days, the water softener regenerates the resin by drawing brine (salt water) into the tank to do the same ion exchange, but in reverse, to once again negatively charge the resin inside the softening tank. The negatively charged brine releases the now positively charged minerals from the resin, releasing them and flushing them out of the system through the home’s plumbing, often into the septic tank.
The Potential Negative Impact of Water Softeners
During the regeneration process, the average water softener uses between 50 to 150 gallons of brine solution to clean the resin in the softener tank. This poses two significant problems for your septic system.
First, pumping that much water into your septic tank is the equivalent of taking 3 to 9 showers, back-to-back. Today’s water softeners regenerate 1-2 times a week, depending on household water usage. The EPA estimates that a water softener uses an average of 25 gallons of water a day, adding up to more than 10,000 gallons a year. The influx of water that the regeneration process flushes into the septic tank can overwhelm the system, especially if the water softener regenerates on a day when you’ve also done laundry, run the dish washer, or tackled other water-heavy household chores. Overwhelming the system can force solids to either back up into the home or flow out to the drainfield, where they can clog the pipes and cause the drainfield to fail.
The Effects of Salt on Your Septic Tank
Flushing excessive water into your septic tank has the potential to overwhelm the system, but salt water, in particular, poses two significant threats to your septic system. First, salt water is significantly heavier than the fresh water you typically flush into the septic tank. Because of this, the salt water from the softener rapidly sinks to the bottom of your septic tank, sometimes lifting the sludge and allowing it to become suspended in the effluent within your tank. In fact, septic tanks that receive softener brine often have no distinct layers of sludge, scum, and effluent. Septic tanks are designed to allow solids to sink to the bottom so that clear effluent can flow out to the drainfield. The high concentration of salt brine from the water softener interferes with this process, which can ultimately allow solids to flow out to the drainfield and cause failure by clogging the pipes.
Second, salt is a naturally corrosive element. Just as it contributes to erosion and spalling in concrete roadways, driveways, or sidewalks, the salt in the regeneration brine can also corrode your concrete septic tank. This can significantly shorten the life of your septic tank.
Septic-Safe Use of Water Softeners
Because most homes with septic systems also rely on private water wells to supply water the household, we understand the need to remove minerals from the home’s water supply. We recommend having your water softener installed to discharge outside of your home’s plumbing that leads to the septic tank. This can include a storm drain or a downspout, either will direct the softener brine away from your septic system. This allows you to enjoy the benefits of softened water while completely avoiding the negative impact the water softener will have on your septic system.
If your water softener currently discharges to your septic system, it is important you let your septic provider know and that you take steps to redirect the softener brine as soon as possible.
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