An Important Question for Urbanites
If you live in a city, you can be fairly confident that your water is safe to use. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has strict standards requiring local water authorities to remove, or at least reduce, contaminants that can be harmful to people.
On the other hand, there's no requirement for your city to remove substances that can be harmful to your home. I'm talking here about hard water minerals, which can slowly but surely clog pipes and ruin appliances. While it might be nice to have the whole city's water supply softened, in most cases it would be prohibitively expensive - and maybe not even desirable.
The question of whether you need a water softener with city water really hinges on whether you have hard water, whether its bad enough to justify the cost of an expensive appliance, and even whether it's legal in your area.
Do You Have Hard Water?
Hard water is widespread, so if you think you have it, the odds are that you're right. Still, you should find out for sure by using an at-home test or contacting a local water company to visit your home for a free test (warning: they will try to sell you something).
Alternatively, you can just get the water quality report for your area. Depending on where you live, you may be able to find it online. If your general area has hard water, there's every reason to believe you have it, too.
Finally, you can often tell you have hard water based on evidence to be found around your home. You may notice cloudy glassware, dingy clothing, and scale forming in appliances and around plumbing fixtures. Regardless of what you see with your eyes, it's a good idea to confirm your suspicions with one of the aforementioned tests.
Why Your Community (Probably) Doesn't Soften its Water
No matter how hard the water is in your area, it's highly unlikely that your city will soften it for you. Why not? Because softening water on that scale would be cumbersome, expensive, and, due to the waste produced by salt-based softener systems, bad for the environment. Here's what does typically happen in the water treatment process:
While the vast majority of local city governments don't do any softening even when the water is very hard, there are a couple of cases where the water supply might be softened for a smaller subset of people. For example, if you live in a gated community, it's possible that the local association could soften the water for you. Similarly, large apartment complexes might do this, especially where it's impossible for renters to install softener systems themselves.
Are Water Softeners Legal in Your Area?
So, you know that you have hard water, and furthermore, that your city does nothing to soften it. Time to get a water softener, right? Not so fast. You could be breaking the law.
Conventional water softeners are banned in a few places around the country because of their effect on the environment and their costs to the community at large. For one thing, they waste a lot of water. But more importantly, the waste water they produce costs extra money to recycle. Some communities consider this cost too much to bear, and have banned conventional softeners.
For this reason - as well as the high cost of traditional systems - a lot of people are experimenting with so-called saltless water softeners. These systems use alternative technologies that may or may not be effective, but are generally considered less reliable than the standard ion exchange method used by the old standbys.
The "Hard" Truth
Whether you live in the city or not, hard water is not something you can afford to ignore - especially if you're noticing telltale signs around the house. Since your local community likely doesn't soften the water for you, your best option is usually to suck it up and buy (or rent) a whole house water softening system. In the long run, you'll be glad you did.
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