Water Softeners: A $10.3B Market with Flawed Solutions
Measurement of brine, salt and fresh water level in water softener systems.
Current solutions are lacking accuracy or longevity
Industrial water softener systems involve the precise dispensing of brine, created by adding tap water to salt tablets. The machine requires precise dispensing of brine, and can be significantly damaged by anomalous performance, such as pumping fresh water instead of brine. Checking effective salt level usage is therefore vital despite most systems depending on manual inspection. Furthermore, current liquid measuring techniques struggle to differentiate between brine and freshwater. More reliable methods of contact measuring techniques are however subject to significant corrosion and frequent replacement. A solution that is non-contact and able to differentiate between salt tablets, fresh water and brine is required.
- Around 85% of the US [ref] and 60% of the UK [ref] water supply is classed as hard water.
- Limescale costs the US industry billions of dollars a year to control and remove the limescale that builds up in industrial equipment.
- The global water softeners market is worth $10.3 billion and is predicted to grow to $13.6 billion by 2028 with a CAGR of 4.1% [ref].
Global water consumption is predicted to rise by 20-30% by 2050
A rapid growth in water consumption is predicted due to industry demand, population growth and dietary habits [ref] which will only support the need for water softening systems. From a health perspective, it is becoming more well known that the consumption of water with high levels of magnesium, as found in hard water, can cause health issues [ref]. This has especially increased demand for residential consumers.
Besides this, the industrial segment dominated the market in 2020 with industries such as food and beverage, manufacturing, chemicals and pharmaceutical becoming more dependent on water softening systems [ref]. Water softening is integral for these industries as hard water accelerates limescale formation which is reported to reduce the lifespan of equipment by up to 50% [ref]. The industrial sector is also realizing the added efficiencies with soft water such as how better quality water produces better quality products or how soft water can reduce the amount of other products needed (e.g. cleaning agents) [ref].
Looking at the types of water softening systems, salt-based (as opposed to salt-free systems) have the larger revenue share [ref] as they are lower-cost and have high efficiencies. Currently, North America has the largest share in the water softening market at 32% (2020) [ref]. This has been fueled by the growing industrial sector and the increased amount of incidents from water-borne diseases. Asia Pacific has the next largest market share followed by Europe [ref].
The problem: Wrong salt concentrations lead to ineffective machinery and wasted products
A water softening system depends on precise amounts of brine at the right concentration to regenerate the main ion exchange filter. If the salt concentration is not at the right level, this can hinder or worse break the water softener and the serious impacts of limescale will ensue. Limescale not only reduces a machine’s service life but can increase a factory’s energy bill by up to 29% [ref]. Furthermore, long-term build-up of limescale can cause corrosion, harmful bacteria and damage to essential parts such as safety valves. Checking the salt level is also essential as the water softening system may occasionally cause malfunctions such as salt bridging or too long/short regeneration cycles. Although these issues are elementary to fix, they must be detected in the first place.
Monitoring a brine tank’s operation is therefore crucial, yet most systems employ very manual inspection techniques like using a clipboard and stopwatch to record salt levels or probing the brine with handheld devices after the salt has been mixed. These methods are expensive and if not carried out regularly can overlook important issues.
This is why installed sensors are becoming an attractive option. Capacitance sensors can be placed inside a brine tank to measure the level and presence of material [ref]. However as the sensor is directly in contact with brine and salt tablets, this can, over time, degrade the sensor. Ultrasonic and radar sensors can be placed at the top of a brine tank to track liquids and bulk materials [ref]. These overcome the need to be in contact with the harsh environment but can be unreliable when in vapor or in dusty conditions. Furthermore, these sensors need to be fitted in a tank’s interior which makes it difficult for installation and maintenance.
Even though these mentioned sensors can detect the level and presence of materials, knowing whether a liquid is freshwater or brine is not currently catered for. Distinguishing between these liquids would greatly benefit this system to ensure only the right concentrations of brine are passed on.
LAIIER’s solution: A non-contact, easy to install sensor
An effective method of maintaining correct salt levels and brine concentrations in water softening systems is needed. LAIIER addresses this gap with a non-contact capacitive sensor that can be applied like a sticker on the outside of a brine tank, making it easy to retrofit existing systems. LAIIER’s IoT sensor can infer the exact level of salt and additionally differentiate these salt tablets between freshwater and brine. This data can then be effectively communicated via our Surface to Cloud™ platform to alert facility managers of any issues. Measuring salt use from the source rather than at a later processing stage will catch issues earlier reducing defective products and machine downtime. Proper management of the brine tank will also allow for all the benefits of water softening to occur such as extended service life, reduced maintenance and lower energy consumption.
Demand for liquid measuring solutions falls into three categories
Facility managers of industrial water processing:
Industrial water processing plants are a prime example of where softening needs careful monitoring. As these plants utilize a range of chemicals and good bacteria to treat water, the effectiveness of these processes can be diminished if in contact with brine water itself [ref] or the resulting water that has not been treated appropriately. Furthermore, for treatment facilities adhering to the EPA guidelines for water softeners [ref], having LAIIER’s sensor automatically recording salt and brine usage would make inspections much easier.
Facility managers of industrial factories:
Water softening systems are adopted in a wide variety of industries where clean water is just a single component of a more complex product or process. Where this would be critical is in food and beverage factories that require the right balance of minerals to meet safety requirements but also maintain the quality of taste within their products [ref]. Additionally, the pharmaceutical and chemical industry needs this strict level of control over their water source and likewise need to pass purity standards. By retrofitting existing systems with non-contact brine level measurement sensors, this will save time for service engineers who can prioritize time elsewhere in their production line.
Original equipment manufacturers:
Most water softening systems are provided and maintained by the same service for example Veolia [ref], Culligan International [ref] and 3M [ref]. Therefore by incorporating this discrete sensor in the original manufacturer's product would add significant value to the system throughout its lifetime. This can be especially worthwhile to services responsible for many facilities across a country such as chain restaurants. The resulting real-time data can inform engineers in advance, saving time and money from reduced site visits.
Salt-based solutions, as the dominating water softening technique, will be vital in the future where the demand for high-quality water is rapidly increasing. Brine creation must therefore be a controlled and precise process to meet the industry’s standards. Despite this, current practices of inspection and handheld devices are manual and slow to emerging issues. Most contact sensors are prone to degradation and are not convenient to install into existing water softener designs. LAIIER has created a non-contact level sensor that proactively monitors salt, freshwater and brine, diagnosing any abnormal behavior to be addressed promptly. The use of IoT sensors is a step much needed for such a critical system employed in countless industries.
LAIIER’s non-contact level sensors are also used in a range of alternate use cases. To find out more, sign up for our newsletter here. Have an idea or want more information on how we work with partners to develop scalable solutions? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.