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Laundry tip: How to have whiter whites, lower bills and a smaller carbon footprint

If you do your own laundry, pay for detergent, or simply like clean clothes, here is a quick quiz. What is the most important factor in removing stains?

a. – Amount of detergent.
b. – Water temperature.
c. – Water softness.

If you said, “c, water softness,” congratulations. You know your laundry, and perhaps your water. Reduction of water hardness was up to 100 times more effective at stain removal than increasing detergent dose or washing with hotter water, according to a March 2011 study by Scientific Services S/D on behalf of the Water Quality Research Foundation.

Everyone has seen ads touting the cleaning power of this or that detergent, but many don’t realize the dissolved mineral count in their water has a much greater effect. Water with a high mineral count, particularly calcium and magnesium, is called “hard,” and is prevalent in most of the United States. “Soft” water has a lower mineral count.

“The study shows that if you soften your water, you can use half the detergent and switch from hot to cold water and still get better stain removal,” says Pauli Undesser, director of regulatory and technical affairs at the Water Quality Association. “In other words, softened water gives you cleaner laundry while saving you money and reducing your carbon footprint.”

The study examined water treated by salt-regenerated water softeners, the most popular and effective water softening systems available. Undesser says the Water Quality Association considers magnetic water treatment devices to be anti-scaling devices rather than water softeners because they do not remove hard minerals as water softeners do.

The study quantifies what hotels and other high-volume launderers have known for years – reducing minerals with a water softening system creates more lather while leaving fabrics visibly cleaner and softer to the touch. Softened water also requires less detergent, meaning fewer toxic chemicals for the environment. From a budgeting perspective, using less detergent and energy can add up to real savings, not only for hotels, but for families and individuals as well.

The study adds more data to a laundry list of benefits for softened water. Another 2011 study conducted for the Water Quality Research Foundation assessed the impact of water hardness on automatic dishwashers, finding a similar effect in the kitchen as was observed in the laundry room.

Softening water was up to 12 times more effective at cleaning dishes than increasing detergent dose. “Put another way, you can achieve a 70 percent savings in detergent and still maintain the same soil removal from your dishes and glasses,” Undesser says.

The dishwashing study may have uncovered yet another benefit: Softened water appears to help dishes dry better in air – a practice that saves more energy and money when compared to drying with heat in a dishwasher. More research needs to be done to measure the savings and environmental impact.

These studies follow a 2010 study that showed water softeners can save significant amounts of money and energy. Conducted by the Battelle Memorial Institute, the study found hard water can make water heaters lose up to 48 percent of their energy efficiency. It also found hard water rapidly leads to clogged showerheads.

The U.S. Geological Survey has calculated that more than 85 percent of U.S. groundwater is hard. Many municipal water systems treat hard water, but consumers may want to have their water tested at home to determine if softening’s benefits makes sense for them.

Do-it-yourself water testing kits are available at most hardware stores, or you can have a water treatment professional do the testing. The Water Quality Association has a web page enabling searches by company name, state or zip code. For more information on water softening, see water-softening.org.

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