Possibly one of the most impressive public health innovations in the 20th century was the advances made in the disinfection of public water and water softening. Up until this time, waterborne diseases were a major cause of illness and death in the west and elsewhere. In this article, we will take a brief look at the history of water treatment and water softening.

The First Water Public Water Treatment

The first ever city in the US to use public water treatment was Jersey City, New Jersey. Back in 1908, they began to routinely disinfect the community supplied drinking water with chlorine. This led to a dramatic decrease in local water related illnesses and other cities took note. Over the next decade, the process was rolled out to thousands of US cities, and a nationwide decrease in waterborne diseases soon followed. As our country became more industrialized in the early 20th century, another type of water treatment was needed. Unlike purification, water softeners were developed to reduce the amount of dissolved mineral content in hard water.

Understanding Hard Water

Hard water has a high concentration of dissolved minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, and iron. These minerals are quite harmless to health, but they do contribute to a buildup of calcium carbonate (limescale) inside industrial equipment and water using domestic appliances, such as dishwashers, washing machines, and water heaters. As the scale accumulates, it will clog up the interior of the pipes to reduce the flow of water, and it will cover the heating elements. These scale deposits lower the effectiveness of the equipment and ruin the energy efficiency. So, the cleaning isn’t optimal, and the energy bills increase at the same time. As industrialization increased and more domestic machines came onto the market, it was soon discovered that hard water has a serious effect on these devices.

The Invention of the Water Softener

The exact history is unclear, but many sources agree that the early 1900s is when water softening began. Emmett Culligan was responsible for making water softeners viable for the domestic market sometime in the 1920s. If you check the Culligan Water website, they state that their first domestic products were available in 1936. Suffice to say that water softening was a revolution for the domestic and industrial markets alike. Now water was easier to work with, and it was kinder to water using equipment.

The Modern Water Softener

The modern water softener is far more advanced than the earlier models. The most common water softeners used today use an ion exchange process. This swaps out water hardening mineral ions for benign sodium (salt) ions. The water is cycled through a pair of tanks and water softener salt is used to provide the sodium. The water hardening ions are attached to a resin medium in the system. Over time, the ions will build up a coating on the resin, and it will become less effective. Periodically, the system will regenerate, and the resin media will be washed clean to restore its effectiveness.

By EcoWater Systems.
EcoWater Systems of Nebraska is the largest water treatment company in the state and is a member of Water Quality Association.