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Does a Water Softener Remove Nitrates From Water? Should I Choose?

Does a water softener remove nitrates from drinking water

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Nitrates are a hidden danger that could be found due to agricultural, industrial, septic, and sewage runoff. Although you can’t taste and smell their presence, however, their negative health effects can be clearly exposed. You, me, and others can be at higher risk of health concerns. 

Water Softener is the most common treatment system used in every U.S. home for various impurities. In the case of nitrate, does a water softener remove them? Luckily, the water softener using anion exchange uses a specialized resin media ideal for nitrates, sulfates, and arsenate removal. 

If you are going to choose a water softener, or you already have, this blog will help to get water free of nitrates. 

Are Nitrates in Water Bad For You?

Nitrate and nitrite are two nitrogenous compounds that occur synthetically and naturally in soil, water, and air. Usually, it is found as a byproduct of bacterial metabolism. It can dissolve easily in water and does not evaporate in the air. 

If you have nitrate in water, you can’t taste, smell or see it. Even simple boiling water doesn’t remove nitrates, so you need a specialized treatment system such as water softener ion exchange units, reverse osmosis, or distillation.

Nitrates may be added through runoff or seepage from agriculture or rain runoff, municipal and industrial wastewater, refuse dumps, animal feedlots, septic tanks and private sewage disposal systems, urban drainage, and decaying plant debris will increase your exposure to these chemicals.

If your water has nitrate levels up to 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L) as per EPA recommendation, then it is considered safe. While high levels are associated with adverse effects such as: 

  • Blue baby syndrome
  • Methemoglobinemia 
  • Increased cancer risk
  • Abdominal pain
  • Drop in blood pressure and heart rate
  • Headache or dizziness
  • Alterations in thyroid function 

Thus, for high nitrate concerns, you need to install a specific filter, such as an anion exchange water softener, which can remove it effectively. 

Does a Water Softener Remove Nitrates? 

A water softener is also known as an ion exchange unit. It essentially removes calcium and magnesium to a great extent and low levels of nitrates through a process called ion exchange. 

However, a typical water softener that can remove hardness, such as calcium and magnesium, from the drinking water wouldn’t work for nitrate concerns. You need to install a specialized water softener that uses nitrate-selective resin media such as chloride ions. 

The removal of nitrates by a nitrate-selective water softener depends on the factors that are given below

  • Specific Resin Media Used

If you use a water softener with specific nitrate resin media such as chloride ions. A specialized nitrate selective media is a macroporous strong base anion resin that works as an anion exchange and is specifically designed to remove nitrate levels up to 90%. 

It has a high affinity for nitrates, even when moderate or high concentrations of sulfates, chloride, or bicarbonate are present.

  • Flow Rate of Water Through the System

For better purification of water, we recommended a moderate flow rate of water. This is because the contact time between water and media should be enough to replace the nitrate ions with the resin ions. 

  • Concentration of Nitrates in the Water 

Nitrate selective water softener is 10 times more effective than a typical ion exchange water softener. We would not suggest a traditional water softener, which will work well for mineral content, not for nitrate, sulfate, and chloride.

If you have high nitrate concerns, selective resin media would be a good option. Additionally, it can lower the sulfate, chloride, and bicarbonate effectively.  Ensure the detection of multiple impurities in your water because high contaminants can saturate a resin media, resulting in poor treatment results.

You need to maintain and backwash the resin media to restore its nitrate removal capacity.

How Do Water Softeners Remove Nitrates?

It is operated the same as a common water softener. In water softeners, a strong base of anion exchange resin is used, which is charged with chloride ions. When hard or nitrate-containing water passes through the resin, the chloride ions exchange with the nitrate ions or bicarbonate, resulting in nitrate-free water. It can remove more than 90% of nitrates.

However, nitrate removal using water softeners has limitations. They are more effective in making your water soften by eliminating the calcium, magnesium, and others that turn your water hard. Still, If you use a water softener to address nitrate concerns, you need to monitor and maintain it periodically. 

Over time, nitrate ions can stick to the resin and might saturate the resin with a higher concentration, which can lower your water softener removal capacity. This is the time when you must regenerate the resin using a concentrated solution of sodium chloride to restore the water-softener potential.

You can install this type of water softener as a whole house (point of entry) and can also be used as a pre-filter with additional systems such as reverse osmosis and carbon filters. For installation, you need to follow the manufacturer’s manual. However, we suggest hiring a professional plumber who can install it properly.

How to Remove Nitrates from Water: 4 Alternative Methods

Nitrates are a different type of contaminant and require specific treatment methods for their removal. Common methods for removing nitrates from water include:

Reverse Osmosis

RO filters are able to reduce more than 98% of nitrates, specifically 83-92% of nitrites,  microorganisms, PFAS, heavy metals, and pesticides from water. If you are concerned about removing nitrates from water, RO is a strong choice.

In this process, the water passes under pressure through a semipermeable membrane and several stages of prefiltration, such as ion exchange and sediment filter where various impurities are removed.

It is usually impractical to invest in bottled water for the entire household. So you can use special RO water filters available in the market. You can fix it under the sink, at the entry point, or at the point of use. Generally, the cost of a reverse osmosis filter system is high, but it’s a lifetime solution to all your water problems.

Water Distillation Units

The water distiller units rely on steam to purify water. In this process, the contaminated water is heated to make steam. Inorganic compounds such as and large volatile organic molecules do not evaporate with water and are left behind. The steam then cools and condenses back into pure water.

It can effectively remove nitrates, salts, microorganisms, sediments, and other inorganic contaminants. They are available in large, industrial-sized water distillers which can hold up to 12 gallons of distilled water at a time. These systems are equipped to distill water as fast as 2-3 gallons per hour. 

Water distillers can also be plumbed into a faucet or refrigerator, which makes it more accessible. Further, you can also install countertop and floor units according to your ease. 

In summary, they are effective as RO but can be energy intensive and impractical for large amounts of water because the water is literally distilled drop by drop. In this way, It is one of the slowest and most expensive ways to purify water by distillation. 

Media Using Activated Alumina 

Activated alumina is a solid material that can effectively absorb low to moderate levels of nitrates from drinking water.

This process is used in the activated alumina filter, in which activated alumina such as soaked alumina powder. It can effectively reduce nitrate in a neutral aqueous solution (balanced water pH) and has the highest efficiency for nitrate reduction in various methods.

Not only nitrates, but activated alumina can also absorb and remove harmful contaminants including fluoride, arsenic, and selenium from the drinking water. This product comes in multiple sizes to meet your filtration needs and is extremely lightweight.

Nanofiltration

Nanofiltration is a process in which a membrane is used that falls between ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis in terms of membrane pore size and filtration capabilities. It can easily remove particle sizes typically ranging from 1 to 10 nanometers (nm), including nitrates, pesticides, hardness, and PFAs simultaneously or partially, so that purification can be accomplished in a single step.

Nanofilters have membranes that have pores that are smaller than those in microfiltration and ultrafiltration membranes but larger than those in reverse osmosis membranes. When water is allowed to pass through the membrane, the nitrate ions which are relatively large ions are 60-70% removed from water. 

While nanofiltration is efficient at removing nitrates, it is not as extreme as reverse osmosis. Some small ions and molecules may still pass through the membrane, but nitrates are significantly reduced. In summary, you can utilize its selectively permeable membrane to produce water with lower nitrate concentrations, making it safer for drinking.

Conclusion

Removing nitrates from drinking water is crucial as high nitrate levels can be harmful to human health. Thanks to Ion exchange, distillers and nanofiltration can also be used as an alternative option instead of water softeners. 

Although nitrates are easily removed using anion exchange, but they might not be suitable if your main concern is high nitrates. However, the satisfied removal can be accomplished by one of the most common point-of-use applications “reverse osmosis”, which has been shown to provide healthy yet safe hydration. 

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