There is a finite amount of available water on our planet, which thanks to natural and anthropomorphic factors seems to be becoming an increasingly scarce resource. As humans continue to expand civilization, significant amounts of water are required to maintain modern societies. In the post-war United States after the baby boom and massive urbanization, meeting increasing demand while managing water quality expectations became a significant challenge for the water supply industry, and brilliant minds realized that municipal water should be reused more effectively.

Non-potable reuse involves using treated wastewater for agriculture, irrigation, industrial cooling, toilet flushing, and fire protection. Indirect reuse involves guiding treated wastewater to reservoirs or back into the ground where water will eventually percolate down into aquifers to be used “as new”. Direct reuse involves advanced filtration and purification processes to make wastewater drinkable; the eponymous “toilet to tap” process.

Naturally, when reusing water (especially for irrigation), it is important to keep the salinity and Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) below critical levels. Decades ago, Californian water managers noticed a progressive increase in chlorides and other conductive ions in irrigation water and decided that something had to me done to minimize the negative impact on agriculture. Lawmakers, Utility Managers, and activists quickly identified a potential contributor to increasing chloride levels that would be easy to target & attack: Automatic Salt-based Ion Exchange Water Softeners.

The Santa Clarita Valley drew their line in the sand in 1961, banning automatic softeners in businesses. In 2003 they made news again with the nation’s first ban on installation of new residential automatic water softeners. The Santa Clara River Chloride Reduction Ordinance (Measure S) of 2008 required removal of ALL residential automatic water softeners by June 30th 2009. Voters were assured that if they didn’t pass Measure S, sewer rates would increase exponentially to finance a massive desalination system. The measure passed, and according to the District, almost Eight Thousand softeners have already been removed from homes so far (Interestingly enough, sewer rates subsequently increased almost threefold, in spite of passing Measure S – Prompting Rep. George Runner to pen his now famous “Bait and Switch” letter). The jury is still out on whether these bans have really helped at all, yet legislators in other areas continue to propose similar bans and well-intentioned yet uninformed environmental activists continue to berate salt-based ion-exchange water softeners.

Lawsuits were filed, further legislation proposed and the water improvement industry led by stalwarts at the PWQA and WQA fought hard to protect consumers from kneejerk legislation and arbitrary appliance bans. These trade organizations still stand guard, protecting the rights of American consumers and the related companies that serve them.

Salt-based ion-exchange is the simplest, and cheapest technology to soften water in today’s marketplace. Water industry experts continue to teach the true environmental benefits of water softening; how softeners reduce greenhouse gasses, how softeners reduce surfactant usage, how softeners save energy, and how appliances, clothing and plumbing infrastructure last longer with softened water. Some people don’t even realize that salt-based ion exchange technology is used to protect Americans from Heavy Metals, Arsenic, Nitrates, and a host of other ionic contaminants. Most legislators and consumers don’t even understand these true benefits of softening technologies.

While water scarcity is critically import issue in arid areas like Southern California, many communities across the USA are experiencing water shortages, calling into question the viability of a national water supply infrastructure that is continually threatened by droughts, pollution, and population growth. More than 30 states currently face serious water shortages, and potable water demand is beginning to outpace supply in prominent cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Water districts will increasingly implement recycling and reuse strategies to provide for their populations. Wastewater salinity will continue to be a thorn in the side of water quality improvement, management, and reuse industries.

Just like passage of the Volstead Act, further legislative attempts against salt-based water softeners are inevitable. It’s not a matter of if, but rather when regulations will be proposed in your area. So what should we do, sit and pout? Complain? Cry?  NO! We must do what American Industry does best…INNOVATE!

The beauty of our market-driven economy is that consumers can drive product development trends with their purchasing dollars. Ion Exchange Water Softeners have become progressively more efficient over the last 50 years without legislative intervention because manufacturers have responded to consumers’ desire for more salt-efficient technologies fueled by innovative water quality improvement dealers seeking the competitive edge.

Looking at the offerings in today’s marketplace I am pleased to see continuing improvements in salt-based softening technologies like proportional, variable, and fractional brining, widespread adoption of Upflow (countercurrent) regeneration methods, improvements in structured matrix resins, and resin-exhaustion sensors – all of which have been driven by consumer demand and the dealers who truly care about bringing innovative water products to their clients.

Innovative dealers are also taking a layered approach to water quality management, where water is treated to different levels for different uses in the home or business to maximize brine efficiency and minimize environmental impact. Other dealers are also helping their customers to identify WHY they want a softener, and helping them into proven salt-free scale control technologies where appropriate.

Disruptive technologies naturally displace the outdated products of the past, so it’s no surprise to see great leaps forward in salt free softening technologies, like membrane separations and electro-deionization – It’s not unrealistic to predict that within the next 10 years, more than 25% of the residential softening market will comprise salt-free technologies.

We need to continue to make our products more efficient, inspect and calibrate installed systems regularly, and embrace viable alternative technologies. Most importantly, our industry needs to be more vocal in communicating the real benefits of water quality improvement technologies to consumers, legislators and environmental groups; we are all legitimate stakeholders in the future of our planet.