Dear PoPville – necessity of having a water softener in DC?

Photo by PoPville flickr user yostinator

“Dear PoPville,

Have you ever discussed the necessity of having a water softener in DC? I don’t know whether it’s just a personal preference or if the water is sufficiently hard in DC that you really need one.

My girlfriend and I have put an offer on a house in the Truxton Circle neighborhood. The utility room w/hot water heater is located on the first level. On the second level, above the utility closet, is a large hall closet containing a water softener with a very large tank (we thought it looked like an old atomic bomb at first glance but it luckily turned out to be much more benign). We’re trying to figure out whether we need the water softener, and if not, whether we should ask the seller to remove it.

At the time we saw the house, we thought it was an old water heater (the one downstairs looks quite new and the listing said the water heater had been replaced in the last 5-10 years). So when we put in our offer, we added the condition that the seller remove the “upstairs water heater” because we were concerned that it might not fit down the stairway due to its girth. The seller is having a plumber look at the “upstairs water heater” today to determine the cost of removal. A couple of days ago, I called a plumber friend of mine and described the tank to him, and he thought it sounded more like a water softener than a water heater because I told him I thought it had a fiberglass tank.

So if it’s a water softener and I don’t need it, I will have it removed, but if I need it, I might just wait because I don’t want to have to buy a new one right now even if my end goal is to free up that upstairs closet. And if it turns out to be some type of Cold War explosive, I’m definitely withdrawing the offer.”

I’m embarrassed to say I also don’t even know what a water softener is…

Anyone use one?

54 Comment

  • Dc doesnt really have an issue with hard water, typically having calium carbonate and other cation forming substances. I dont know why you would have a softener here. I would just get rid of it.

    • You do realize that hard water is defined has having a high concentration of calcium ions, right? The presence of calcium carbonate is an indication of hard water.

  • How about a picture of the “other water tank” upstairs. I wonder if I have the same thing in my house.

    It is located on the second floor in a top corner of a closet. Mine is a black iron barrel (about 2-1/2′ X 12″ across – empty) with a pipe going through to the ceiling and one coming up from the basement.

    I think this might be the same thing but not sure. A friend once told me it was holding tank to add gravity pressure back in the day.

    Sorry I have no photo but will take one and send it in if requested.

    • saf

      That sounds to me like a heating system expansion tank. Do you have a boiler/hot water radiators?

      That’s an old fashioned one.

      • Not now… but the old house clearly once had radiators which is what I suspected.

        It’s as old as the house. I am sure of that as the extending pipes are iron and so it the tank.

        The house is from 1916. Sound about right?

    • I don’t have a picture of it now, but I’ll take one on Saturday during the inspection. It was not a black iron barrel, it was sort of tan and I’m pretty sure it looked like fiberglass. It was also about 5 feet tall and close to 3 feet in diameter with a couple of pipes running into and out of it. We should be hearing back from the seller’s plumber soon, so I’ll update when I learn more.

      So far it looks like 3 say remove it, 1 says keep it. Thanks for the responses.

    • I think i had something similar, a contractor told me it was an expansion tank that was no longer needed.

  • DC has very soft water already. No need for a softner.

  • No true. D.C. water contains all kinds of minerals that can be removed for a water softener. Iron, for example, will cause excess staining on shower tiles. Many people also prefer not having to use as much soap in both the bath and the laundry. So a water softener can help you reduce the need for excess soap.

    If you are not sure, you should test the water and see what is in it. At the very least, put a good quality whole house water filter to remove the massive chlorine in the water.

    • Why do people prefer not having to use as much soap? Is it to save money on soap or for other reasons?

      • There are many reasons. Some people believe that today’s soap is too strong and can cause health issues like allergies. White clothing also looks brighter when washed in soft water. Laundry soap is also bad for the environment. Soft water requires less soap. And for some people soap is expensive.

        One thing to mention, smelly water can be corrected with a water softener.

        If you have ever taken a shower in soft water, it is hard to go back. I can’t live without a water softener now.

        • in previous apts, we had a problem with our towels getting stinky really quickly after we washed them. The solution – adding borax to the laundry, which softened the water. it cuts down on soap residue in the washer drum too – pre-borax the drum was black with it. so you are saving your laundry machine too.

        • As a child of city water, whenever I visit somewhere that has soft water I always feel like I can’t get the slime off me when in theshower. Don’t they call it “squeaky clean” for a reason?

          • I believe you’ve got it backwards. Hard water makes you feel like there is still a soapy residue on your hands; for this and other reasons, people install water softeners.

          • I totally agree. Just came back from visiting the ‘rents in Indiana, and their water softener makes me feel totally slimy.

            My dad raves about how little shampoo he needs to use, which is endlessly hilarious.

          • I too find that “softened” water makes it near impossible for me to wash off soap residue. When I shampoo, my hair looks like some kind of limp muskrat pelt on my head because there’s still soap in it.

            Maybe I’m doing something wrong, but I’ve always been suspicious of water softeners for this reason.

          • The problem is not that the water is too soft. The problem is that the water there is too HARD, and the water softener can’t bring it down to the softness you’re used to.

            If you don’t believe me, try washing your hands or hair with distilled water. Distilled water is ‘ultra-soft’ water, with no minerals and a calcium content of 0 mg/L. It has absolutely no ‘hardness’ in it whatsoever.

            You will find that when washing,it does not leave a residue or film of any kind, because those substances aren’t present in distilled water. It’s also the reason why you only put distilled water in a car battery, because the minerals in hard water will screw it up.

    • I don’t know if it’s minerals or chlorine or “hardness” or what, but DC water makes my hair dry and brittle (though I have found that my residence in Truxton Circle was marginally better than the Atlas district, but on a par with Foggy Bottom). The only place I’ve visited that’s been worse for my hair was Boston.

  • My folks bought a house with a water softner in the basement from the previous owners. When they moved in they decided they didn’t need to have it so they had a plumber come over and install some sort of valve that would bypass the softener. Anyways….about 15 years later they come home from the opera and discover that the valve had failed and they had about a foot and a half of water flooding their entire bassment. I would have the seller remove the softener, not just install a bypass.

  • how interesting. we’ve got the mystery tank in the upstairs closet too, but ours was painted white at some point. we’ve got a boiler and radiators. not the greatest water pressure upstairs, so i don’t know that it’s helping with that. i looked in google books and found some turn of the 20th century descriptions of water softeners, and the diagram looked pretty similar.

    • saf

      No, the expansion tank is connected to the heating system and has nothing to do with your bathroom water pressure, only with the water in the heating loop.

  • We lost water pressure recently in our kitchen sink, and a plumber found lots of mineral buildup in the faucet. He told us we have hard water. I too thought DC had soft water, but apparently not.

  • It’s most likely a hot water expansion tank. A water softener wouldn’t be located there; would normally be located at point of use (e.g.: sink) or at the supply (downstairs). May want to reconsider your plumber if he thought it was a water softener.

    • If it is a hot water expansion tank, would I want/need to keep it? It’s probably got a 60-80 gallon capacity, and there will only be two people living in the house.

      • If it is a hot water expansion tank and you still have radiators, you need to keep it. It’s not hot water that you will use for showering, etc. It’s a place for water to expand into when the boiler heats water for the radiator system. I think your boiler would explode without it.

        But if you don’t have radiators anymore, it could be removed.

      • Expansion tanks are required by code.

        To simply this, is it connected to the hot water line or a cold water line.

        Water softeners must be installed before water heaters, boilers, and any storage tanks. They may be installed after a whole house water filter.

        If it is installed after the water heater and on a hot water line, then it is an expansion tank which is required by D.C. code.

        You might want to redo all of it like I did. They now have these tankless water heaters that attach to a boiler. So both your radiator heat and your hot water for showers comes from the same source. IT’s instant hot water and more important, never-ending hot water.

        Just remember to protect your new boiler/tankless unit by installing a good whole house water filter in front of it. And if you want to try a water softener (and all its benefits), have it installed after the water filter and BEFORE the boiler.

    • Water softeners are never located at the point of use. You might be thinking about in-line water heaters or water filters.

  • Why don’t you ask the seller what it is and why he/she installed it?

    • The seller has owned the house for about 13 years, and the thing is clearly much older than that. Also, it appears that the seller doesn’t know what it is because he suggested sending the plumber to figure it out and estimate the removal cost. A non-profit organization used this house as an office (perhaps for the entire length of time the seller has owned it), so I’m sure if people were taking a lot of hot showers, etc.

  • I’m sure the home inspector will be able to tell you what it is and if you should keep it.

  • Interesting to see these different perspectives. I grew up with a water softener. I moved to DC five years ago and it still amazes me how hard the water is here. If it is a water softener (which sounds like an odd location, like the others said) then I highly recommend keeping it.

  • Get Billy Walker at Claxton Walker to do a house inspection. He was great for me and knows old houses. He will know what the tank is.

  • People who’ve grown house plants using DC tap water know that Calcium-Magnesium supplements are often required on account of how soft DC water is, compared to other places in the country.

    Now, I’ve also read that male fish in the Potomac are growing ovaries, so it’s not like DC water is the cleanest (also, lead problems), so I might want a filter on my main if I were going to drink tap water.

  • +1 hahaha. My plants must love hard water then because they are quite happy without any supplements. I’d be very interested in reading this accredited male-fish-ovary-tale you speak of… did you get that from fox news? 😉

  • I’m going to echo everyone else and say it’s probably an expansion tank for a radiator system. I’ve got one in my upstairs closet too. You can probably remove it if you put another expansion tank somewhere else in the house (downstairs near the boiler?) or if you don’t use hydronic heat, but check with a licensed contractor.

  • The District’s water is moderately hard. Water hardness typically varies by season of the year and is higher during warmer months. For specific water hardness levels, see our Drinking Water Quality Report –

    As general practice, homeowners should routinely remove and clean aerators located at the tip of faucets. We also recommend annually draining your water heater. Over time, calcium and sediment can build-up in the water heater and collect in your aerators. For instructions, visit

    DC Water
    [email protected]

  • Mineral concentrations:
    0-60 mg/L = soft water
    61-120 mg/L = moderately hard water
    121-180 mg/L = hard water

    According to WASA, water entering the DC water treatment system has an average total hardness of 136 mg/L, with a range of from 91 mg/L to 196 mg/L (moderately hard to hard).

    Water distributed by WASA in the District has an average calcium hardness of 105 mg/L with a range of from 80 mg/L to 155 mg/L (moderately hard to hard).

    According to WSSC, Potomac River water has an average hardness of 120-130 mg/L (hard), and Patuxent River water has an average hardness of 60-65 mg/L (borderline soft/moderately hard).

    Hope this clears up some confusion.

  • You may want to check out this link and see if you have an expansion tank:

    There are two types. If you do have one, removal is probably a bad idea since they are used to regulate the pressure in your radiators.

  • If it’s just a tank it’s probably not a water softener. You have to add salt so it should easily open on top. It would also have an electrical plug for the motor that doses the water, the dosing motor would sit on top of the whole thing.

  • yay!! I live in Truxton and love it! I especially love that I can drive to VA in less than 10 minutes and just hop on 395!

  • yay! I live in Truxton and love it! I especially love that I can drive to VA in less than 10 minutes and just hop on 395!

  • me

    Why are there 2 weird, unrelated-to-this-topic posts at the end by 2 different user names? This is a really strange thread to troll on…

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