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Chapter: Environmental Engineering : Water Treatment

Water Tretment: Sodium Zeolite Softening

Sodium zeolite softening is the most widely applied use of ion exchange. In zeolite softening, water containing scale-forming ions, such as calcium and magnesium, passes through a resin bed containing SAC resin in the sodium form. In the resin, the hardness ions are exchanged with the sodium, and the sodium diffuses into the bulk water solution.




Sodium zeolite softening is the most widely applied use of ion exchange. In zeolite softening, water containing scale-forming ions, such as calcium and magnesium, passes through a resin bed containing SAC resin in the sodium form. In the resin, the hardness ions are exchanged with the sodium, and the sodium diffuses into the bulk water solution. The hardness-free water, termed soft water, can then be used for low to medium pressure boiler feedwater, reverse osmosis system makeup, some chemical processes, and commercial applications, such as laundries.

Principles of Zeolite Softening


The removal of hardness from water by a zeolite softening process is described by the following reaction:




Water from a properly operated zeolite softener is nearly free from detectable hardness. How-ever, some small amounts of hardness, known as leakage, are present in the treated water. The level of hardness leakage is dependent on the hardness and sodium level in the influent water and the amount of salt used for regeneration.


Figure 8-5 is a typical profile of effluent hardness from a zeolite softener during a service cycle. After final rinse, the softener produces a low, nearly constant level of hardness until the ion exchange resin nears exhaustion. At exhaustion, the effluent hardness increases sharply, and regeneration is required.


As illustrated by the softening reactions, SAC resin readily accepts calcium and magnesium ions in exchange for sodium ions. When exhausted resin is regenerated, a high concentration of sodium ions is applied to the resin to replace calcium and magnesium. The resin is treated with a 10% sodium chloride solution, and regeneration proceeds according to the following equation:



During regeneration, a large excess of regenerant (approximately 3 times the amount of calcium and magnesium in the resin) is used. The eluted hardness is removed from the softening unit in the waste brine and by rinsing.


After regeneration, small residual amounts of hardness remain in the resin. If resin is allowed to sit in a stagnant vessel of water, some hardness will diffuse into the bulk water. Therefore, at the initiation of flow, the water effluent from a zeolite softener can contain hardness even if it has been regenerated recently. After a few minutes of flow, the hardness is rinsed from the softener, and the treated water is soft.


The duration of a service cycle depends on the rate of softener flow, the hardness level in the water, and the amount of salt used for regeneration. Table 8-1 shows the effect of regenerant level on the softening capacity of a gelular strong cation resin. Note that the capacity of the resin increases as the regenerant dosage increases, but the increase is not proportional. The regeneration is less efficient at the higher regenerant levels. Therefore, softener operating costs increase as the regenerant level increases. As shown by the data in Table 8-1, a 150% increase in regenerant salt provides only a 67% increase in operating capacity.


Table 8-1. Effect of regenerant salt level on strong acid cation resin softening capacity.


Salt (lb/ft3)    Capacity (gr/ft3)


6                 18,000

8                 20,000

10               24,000

15               30,000




The equipment used for sodium zeolite softening consists of a softener exchange vessel, control valves and piping, and a system for brining, or regenerating, the resin. Usually, the softener tank is a vertical steel pressure vessel with dished heads as shown in Figure 8-6. Major features of the softening vessel include an inlet distribution system, free-board space, a regenerant distribution system, ion exchange resin, and a resin-retaining underdrain collection system.


The inlet distribution system is usually located at the top of the tank. The inlet system provides even distribution of influent water. This prevents the water from hollowing out flow channels in the resin bed, which would reduce system capacity and effluent quality. The inlet system also acts as a collector for backwash water.


The inlet distributor consists of a central header/hub with distributing laterals/radials or simple baffle plates, which direct the flow of water evenly over the resin bed. If water is not prevented from flowing directly onto the bed or tank walls, channeling will result.


The volume between the inlet distributor and the top of the resin bed is called the free-board space. The free-board allows for the expansion of the resin during the backwash portion of the regeneration without loss of resin. It should be a minimum of 50% of the resin volume (80% preferred).


The regenerant distributor is usually a header-lateral system that evenly distributes the regenerant brine during regeneration. The location of the distributor, 6 in. above the top of the resin bed, prevents the dilution of regenerant by water in the free-board space. It also reduces water and time requirements for displacement and fast rinse. The regenerant distributor should be secured to the tank structure to prevent breakage and subsequent channeling of the regenerant.


Water is softened by the bed of strong acid cation exchange resin in the sodium form. The quantity of resin required depends on the water flow, total hardness, and time desired between regeneration cycles. A minimum bed depth of 24 in. is recommended for all systems.


The underdrain system, located at the bottom of the vessel, retains ion exchange resin in the tank, evenly collects the service flow, and evenly distributes the backwash flow. Uneven collection of water in service or uneven distribution of the backwash water can result in channeling, resin fouling, or resin loss.


Although several underdrain designs are used, there are two primary types-subfill and resin-retaining. A subfill system consists of multiple layers of support media (such as graded gravel or anthracite) which support the resin, and a collection system incorporating drilled pipes or subfill strainers. As long as the support layers remain intact, the resin will remain in place. If the supporting media becomes disturbed, usually due to improper backwash, the resin can move through the disrupted layers and exit the vessel. A resin-retaining collector, such as a screened lateral or profile wire strainer, is more expensive than a subfill system but protects against resin loss.


The main valve and piping system directs the flow of water and regenerant to the proper locations. The valve system consists of a valve nest or a single multiport valve. A valve nest includes six main valves: service inlet and outlet, backwash inlet and outlet, regenerant inlet, and regenerant/rinse drain. The valves may be operated manually, or automatically controlled by air, electrical impulse, or water pressure. In some systems, a single multiport valve is used in place of the valve nest. As the valve rotates through a series of fixed positions, ports in the valve direct flow in the same manner as a valve nest. Multiport valves can eliminate operational errors caused by opening of the incorrect valve but must be properly maintained to avoid leaks through the port seals.


The brining system consists of salt dissolving/brine measuring equipment, and dilution control equipment to provide the desired regenerant strength. The dissolving/measuring equipment is designed to provide the correct amount of concentrated brine (approximately 26% NaCl) for each regeneration, without allowing any undissolved salt into the resin. Most systems use a float-operated valve to control the fill and draw-down of the supply tank, thereby controlling the amount of salt used in the regeneration. Usually, the concentrated brine is removed from the tank by means of an eductor system, which also dilutes the brine to the optimum regenerant strength (8-10% NaCl). The brine can also be pumped from the concentrated salt tank and mixed with dilution water to provide the desired regenerant strength.


Softener Operation


A sodium zeolite softener operates through two basic cycles: the service cycle, which produces soft water for use, and the regeneration cycle, which restores resin capacity at exhaustion.


In the service cycle, water enters the softener through the inlet distribution system and flows through the bed. The hardness ions diffuse into the resin and exchange with sodium ions, which return to the bulk water. Soft water is collected in the underdrain system and discharged. Service water flow to the softener should be as constant as possible to prevent sudden surges and frequent on-off operation.


Due to resin requirements and vessel designs, the softening operation is most efficient when a service flow rate between 6 and 12 gpm per square foot of resin surface area is maintained. Most equipment is designed to operate in this range, but some special designs utilize a deep resin bed to permit operation at 15-20 gpm/ft≤. Continuous operation above the manufacturer's suggested limits can lead to bed compaction, channeling, premature hardness breakthrough, and hardness leakage. Operating well below the manufacturer's recommended flow rates can also negatively affect softener performance. At low flow rates, the water is not sufficiently distributed, and the optimum resin-water contact cannot take place.


When a softener is exhausted, the resin must be regenerated. Monitoring of the effluent hardness reveals resin exhaustion. When hardness increases, the unit is exhausted. Automatic monitors pro-vide a more constant indication of the condition of the softener than periodic operator sampling and testing, but require frequent maintenance to ensure accuracy. Many facilities regenerate softeners before exhaustion, based on a predetermined time period or number of gallons processed.


Most softening systems consist of more than one softener. They are often operated so that one softener is in regeneration or standby while the other units are in service. This ensures an uninterrupted flow of soft water. Prior to placing a standby softener into service, the unit should be rinsed to remove any hardness that has entered the water during the standing time.


Softener Regeneration


The regeneration cycle of a sodium zeolite softener consists of four steps: backwash, regeneration (brining), displacement (slow rinse), and fast rinse.


Backwash. During the service cycle, the downward flow of water causes suspended material to accumulate on the resin bed. Resin is an excellent filter and can trap particulate matter that has passed through upstream filtration equipment. The backwash step removes accumulated material and reclassifies the resin bed. In the backwash step, water flows from the underdrain distributor up through the resin bed and out the service distributor to waste. The upward flow lifts and expands the resin, allowing for removal of particulate material and resin fines and the classification of the resin. Resin classification brings the smaller beads to the top of the unit while the larger beads settle to the bottom. This enhances the distribution of the regenerant chemical and service water.


Backwashing should continue for a minimum of 10 min or until effluent from the backwash outlet is clear. The backwash flow should be sufficient to expand the resin bed volume by 50% or more, depending on the available free-board. Insufficient backwash can lead to bed fouling and channeling. Excessive backwash flow rates result in the loss of resin. Backwash flow rates usually vary between 4-8 (ambient temperature) and 12-15 (hot service) gpm per square foot of bed area, but each manufacturer's recommendation should be followed. The ability of water to expand the resin is greatly affected by temperature. Less flow is required to expand the bed with cold water than with warm water. Resin bed expansion should be checked regularly and the flow rate adjusted as needed to maintain proper bed expansion.


Usually,  the  backwash  water  is  filtered  raw  water.  Water  leaving  the  backwash  outlet  is unchanged in chemistry but can contain suspended solids. In order to conserve water, the backwash effluent can be returned to the clarifier or filter influent for treatment.


Regeneration (Brining). After backwash, regenerant brine is applied. The brine stream enters the unit through the regenerant distributor and flows down through the resin bed at a slow rate (usually between 0.5 and 1 gpm per square foot of resin). Brine flow is collected through the underdrain and sent to waste. The slow flow rate increases contact between the brine and resin. To achieve optimum efficiency from the brine, the solution strength should be 10% during brine introduction.


Displacement (Slow Rinse). Following the introduction of regenerant brine, a slow flow of water continues through the regenerant distribution system. This water flow displaces the regenerant through the bed at the desired flow rate. The displacement step completes the regeneration of the resin by ensuring proper contact of the regenerant with the bottom of the resin bed. The flow rate for the displacement water is usually the same rate used for the dilution of the concentrated brine. The duration of the displacement step should be sufficient to allow for approximately one resin bed volume of water to pass through the unit. This provides a "plug" of displacement water which gradually moves the brine completely through the bed.


Fast Rinse. After completion of the displacement rinse, water is introduced through the inlet distributor at a high flow rate. This rinse water removes the remaining brine as well as any residual hardness from the resin bed. The fast rinse flow rate is normally between 1.5 and 2 gpm per square foot of resin. Sometimes it is deter-mined by the service rate for the softener.


Initially, the rinse effluent contains large amounts of hardness and sodium chloride. Usually, hardness is rinsed from the softener before excess sodium chloride. In many operations, the softener can be returned to service as soon as the hardness reaches a predetermined level, but some uses require rinsing until the effluent chlorides or conductivity are near influent levels. An effective fast rinse is important to ensure high effluent quality during the service run. If the softener has been in standby following a regeneration, a second fast rinse, known as a service rinse, can be used to remove any hardness that has entered the water during standby.



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