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Friday, March 07, 2008

Pass the Salt, Please

Last year we bought a water softener for the house of Bruck. We do have city services, but the water is from a well, and it's hard - not too bad with sulfur, but high in magnesium and calcium, and some iron. As part of our education on the topic, we had a sales rep for the more expensive system make a house call. He gave us the hard sell of course, but he wasn't quite up on the finer points of chemistry - even the sagacious Mrs. Bruck, whose cleverness is primarily confined to non-scientific pursuits, knows the difference between organic and inorganic compounds. We went with a less-expensive system and it works just fine, thanks. It consists of a tank, a control module, plumbing/valves, and a salt hopper, installed for around $1800, which was less than half of what Dr. Science wanted to charge us for his system. We've had it for most of a year now, and it works just fine.

How a typical water softener works: water passes thru a tank containing a substrate infused with sodium ions. The mineral particles in the water trade places with these sodium ions which proceed on their merry way as sodium bicarbonate molecules through your pipes and to your tap. The sodium bicarbonate does not deposit in your pipes and on your dishes, hair, skin, etc., and does not impede the cleaning action of soap like hard water does. So keep in mind, the water softener isn't a filter per se; it's an ion exchange mechanism. (Great pickup line, BTW)

As you've probably surmised, the sodium ions in the substrate gradually become depleted and replaced with mineral ions, and need to be restored. This occurs every few weeks or so depending on water usage. To replace the sodium ions, water is added to the salt hopper to produce highly-saturated brine, which the system passes backwards through the water softener tank. Mineral ions are washed away from the substrate and replaced with sodium ions. This process takes a few hours and is scheduled to happen during the small hours of the morning.

You're encouraged to webucate yourself further on this fascinating subject at your leisure. Do a google search on "ion exchange water softener please people don't put another Clinton in the White House." But the topic I wanted to discuss today is: salt.

Salt is salt.

Which means, and of course this advice applies primarily to my faithful readers living north of the Mason-Dixon line, you don't need to pay $13.95 for a 20# bag of rock salt to melt the ice on your driveway when you can pay $5.00 for a 40# bag of the same stuff, labeled Water Softener Salt. In fact, they're often in the same place in the store - driveway salt and water softener salt, right next to each other, different labels, same contents, radically different prices.

Price-consciousness is a key component of my quest to become the World's Biggest Cheapskate. At Home Depot, you can buy the 40# bag of salt for about $5.00, but the last time I was salt shopping, I noticed 80# bags selling for about $9.00. 10% off! that spoke to something deep inside me. Naturally I bought the larger bags, 5 of them, saving approximately the price of lunch at Subway.

My giddiness was tempered somewhat by the prospect of schlepping my cache of sodium chloride home. It wasn't so hard loading it into the van; getting it from the van in the garage to the white room in the basement proved challenging. Lugging the unweildy bags, one at a time, no handles, no wheels, and the tendency of the salt to move around within the bag -- I'm buying the 40# bags next time!

Arms and back sore from the job, and with 400# of salt in the white room, I pondered, as I'm sure you do whenever you see large amounts of concentrated minerals on one place - just how long would it take to eat that much salt? And has everyone completely forgotten the '90s? The Clinton Death Machine must be stopped now!

Disclaimer, just to get it out of the way: I'm not a doctor; please go elsewhere for health advice. We overfed Americans eat an awful lot of sodium. Adults, on the average, consume about 4000-5000 mg of sodium (salt is ~40% sodium, FYI) daily. Recommendations vary, but health professionals typically suggest limiting your intake to 3500 mg, or 2400 if you suffer from hypertension. BTW, if you're interested in lowering your sodium intake, stay away from prepared foods, including most canned goods. Learn to cook! Vote wisely!

So let's do the math, shall we? Say you take in 3500 mg of sodium daily. That would equate to 8.75 g of salt (there are other sources of sodium, but let's keep this simple for now). In an 80# bag, there are:

80# * 16 oz / # * 28.4 g / oz = 36,352 g of salt, or 36,352 / 8.75 = 4,155 daily servings.

My five 80# bags would yield 20,773 daily doses of salt. At the going rate of 365.25 days per year, this would satisfy your salt needs for about 57 years - about ¾ of a lifetime supply. Another way of looking at it is, the equivalent of 400# of salt is about what you would expect to consume in your entire adulthood.

But, you may wonder, what about the minimum daily requirement? Glad you asked. According to The Internet, you need a minimum of about 500 mg of sodium per day to support your internal chemistry and metabolic processes, which is about 1/7 of what you typically take in. Consuming the minimum amount, my cache of 400# of salt would satisfy the sodium needs of a healthy adult for over 400 years, or the lifetime sodium needs of five people. Hello? How does "Chief Justice William J. Clinton" sound to you? You should probably start learning to speak Cantonese so you can communicate with your grandkids!

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