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Water Softeners: Understand How & Why They Help Your Home

Water Softeners: Understand How & Why They Help Your Home

What are water softeners? How do water softeners work? Why do they help improve your home comfort?

If you are like most homeowners, you likely know about things such as hard water, water softeners or water treatment. After all, stories about poor drinking water around the country floods the news. We often forget that we bath and clean with the same water, so high quality water matters for a variety of reasons.

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From worst-case scenarios in Flint, Michigan to local complaints in Plainville, Connecticut, residents need to be mindful of their home water.

For example, did you know that nearly 85% of people in the U.S. have hard water?

Not sure if you are part of the 85%? The tell-tale signs include things, such as:

  • water spots on dishes or glasses,
  • soap scum in the shower and sink,
  • dulled hair and clogged pores,
  • scratchy or hard clothes after doing the laundry,
  • increased difficulty in household chores, and/or
  • reduced water flow and pressure.

Why is hard water so common?

Simple, hard water is a result of our natural environment. Hard water has a high mineral content. In particular, hard water derives from minerals (i.e., calcium and magnesium) accumulating during the water cycle. It forms in well and/or city water. The more calcium and magnesium dissolved in the water, then the harder the water becomes, which is why certain cities or counties within the same region have varying degrees of water hardness.

Originally, the term hard water referred to the lack of soap lathering. The “hardness” prevents soap from lathering by causing the development of an insoluble mineral contained within the water.

water softeners help reduce the impact of hard water

Fortunately, it is pretty straightforward to treat hard water in your home through water softeners.

A water softener counteracts the impact of hard water by removing the minerals. Properly installed water softeners will create better water quality and extend the life of appliances, such as the washing machine.

If you are interested in learning more about water softeners, how they work and why they improve your home comfort, then you are in the right place.

What are Water Softeners?

Water softeners are designed to treat hard water conditions by removing calcium and other mineral deposits through a filter system.

A water softener system treats your home water when the water enters the your home by removing the impurities before the water travels through the pipes and into your water-using appliances. Water softeners stop hard water from coming out of the faucets in the bathroom and kitchen (or wherever you may have faucets).

To learn more about how a water softener operates, here is some of the science behind the filtering system.

how a water softener works

  • All water softeners operate under the same principle: They trade the minerals (i.e., magnesium or calcium) for something else, in most cases sodium. The process is called ion exchange.
  • At the heart of the water softener is a mineral tank, which is filled with small polystyrene beads (aka resin or zeolite). They carry a negative charge, which means these minerals will cling to the beads as the hard water passes through the mineral tank.
  • Water softeners have a separate brine tank that uses common salt to create brine solution.
  • Sodium ions have positive charges. When a very strong brine solution flushes flushed through a tank that has beads saturated with calcium and magnesium, the sheer volume of the sodium ions drives the calcium and magnesium ions off the beads.
  • The hard water flows into the mineral tank and the calcium and magnesium ions move to the beads, replacing sodium ions. The sodium ions go into the water.
  • Once the beads are saturated with calcium and magnesium, the unit enters a regenerating cycle.
  • Upon completion, the mineral tank is flushed of excess brine and the brine tank is refilled.

One of the biggest misconceptions about water softeners is that the salt actually softens the water. However, the thousands of resin beads inside your softener that filter out hard water minerals actually “softens” the water. The salt in the water softener enables the resin to collect and remove the “hardness” from your water.

What are the Benefits of Water Softeners?

If you have hard water and install a quality water softener, then you and your family will begin to experience numerous benefits. From improved health to brighter clothes and more efficient appliances that will save you money, water softeners are a great idea.

Water Softeners Provide Health Benefits

1. Ability to use chemical free soaps.
2. Drink and bath with mineral free water.
3. Overall “softer” feeling of skin and clothes.
4. No more dry, frizzy hair.
5. Lower risk of developing eczema.

Water Softeners Provide Cleaning Benefits

water softeners help with improved efficiency that makes cleaning easier

6. Reduce cleaning-supply costs by 50-75%.
7. Brighter and whiter clothes and towels with less detergent.
8. No more hard water spots or etching on dishes, glasses or crystal.
9. Easier to clean the shower, tub and sink with less soap scum to remove.
10. Reduced build-up of film on tubs, sinks, faucets and wall tiles.
11. Eliminate hard water residue in fabrics, which can help clothing last longer.
12. Cost savings on reduced soap use.

Water Softeners Provide All Around Benefits

13. Improve water flow and water pressure due to less build-up in pipes.
14. Increased water heater efficiency from by less mineral scaling.
15. Eliminate mineral staining and discoloring.
16. Reduce scale build-up in pipes.
17. Lower energy consumption, by up to 29% of your water heater.
18. Increased longevity of the washing machine and dishwasher (and coffee machine!).
19. Decrease amount of cleaning agents and excess water draining back into the local groundwater and/or water system.
20. No more lime scale.

The overall benefits that water softeners provide to your home are backed by some qualified research. A 2009 study commissioned by the Water Quality Research Foundation (WQRF) and conducted by the Battelle Memorial Institute found that:

“adding a water softener helps water heaters and major appliances operate efficiently and prevents clogs in showerheads, faucets, and drains. For example, researchers ran dishwashers and washing machines for 30 days and 240 wash cycles. They ran softened water through half of the units, while using a hard water source for the others. At the end of the month, the washers using softened water were nearly free of scale buildup, but the washers using hard water required scale removal to work well.”

Studies conducted by the independent test firm Scientific Services S/D, Inc., of New York, revealed the following benefits of softened water:

  • In washing machines, softened water can reduce detergent use by 50% and save energy by making it possible to wash in cold (60ºF) rather than hot (100ºF) water. Cold water washes with softened water achieved the same or better results when it came to removing stains and whitening fabrics.
  • In dishwashers, softened water can achieve the same cleaning results as unsoftened while using less than half as much detergent.

From increased longevity of major household appliances to better hair, water softeners have a wide range of benefits.

Are there different types of water softeners?

There are multiple types of water softeners and water softener systems. From whole house systems to products for shower heads and/or faucets, there are plenty of ways to gain the benefits of a water softener.

There different types of water softeners.

Each type of softener removes minerals from hard water in different ways. For example, some water softening systems are ideal for homes, while others are best suited for commercial locations.

In general, the major difference between water softener systems is the number of tanks. In a one tank system, there is a single tank or cabinet-style system. This system requires less space because the softener’s brine tank resides inside of the salt tank. In a two tank system, there is a separate salt tank, which provides more options for the hard water capacity of the unit.

learn about the various types of water softeners

Salt-Based Water Softener Systems

In a salt-based water softener system the household water cycles through two tanks. The first tank contains resin beads. The second tank contains brine. The salt-based system works thru an ion exchange (as described above) by softening water through substituting sodium (salt) for minerals (i.e., calcium, magnesium and/or iron).

Salt-based systems require a regular ‘regeneration’, which is when the hard water ions are flushed out of the system. The regeneration process makes these systems effective at providing clean water throughout your home.

Salt-Free Water Softener Systems

In a salt-free water softener system the household water regenerates with a potassium-chloride salt substitute rather than sodium. For those homeowners and families concerned about sodium (or salt intake), then this system might be a worthwhile option. Technically, a salt-free softener is a descaler because it does not reduce the hard water minerals. Instead, the system prevents minerals from being deposited into the home water flow. As a result, the system limits build-up in pipes and water-using appliances.

Overall, a salt-free water softener is not as effective as the standard salt-based water softener.

Magnetic Water Softener Systems

In a magnetic water softener system the household water flows through a magnetic field. The magnetic field changes the electromagnetic properties of the calcium-carbonate minerals so they are repelled by pipes. The system includes a plug-in device that clips onto the incoming water pipe to create the magnetic field.

In general, nothing is as effective as a salt-based water softener to provide a long term solution to hard water problems. The magnetic softeners are only temporary (the field ‘paralyzes’ minerals for up to 48 hours).

Dual-Tank Water Softener Systems

The standard salt-based water softener requires one tank to recharge. During this time, the tank disconnects from the water system so the regeneration cycle is normally set for night time.

In a dual-tank water softener system there is one tank that regenerates while the other tank is in use. For large families or homes with particularly hard water, the dual-tank system works because there will always be available water.

Of course, the dual-tank system requires plenty of space and requires installation near the main inbound water line so it can supply the entire house. This systems requires a drain for backwashing as well. If you choose a model that requires electrical power, be sure a circuit is located nearby.

How to Determine the Water Softener for Your Home?

There are several factors to consider when selecting the best water softener system for your home.

  • Does your family use a lot of water?
  • How much softening power does your home need?
  • Are you willing to complete routine maintenance?

The right softener for your home is determined by testing your water, considering how many people are living in your home, understanding your normal water usage. Additionally, it is important to count the number of bathrooms in your home and understand the water-using appliances in your home.

Determine the Proper Water Softener Size for Your Home

In selecting the proper water softener, then rest assured, that size does not matter. The right softener needs the ability to remove the minerals from water without frequent regeneration.

For example, water softeners are sold in several sizes and each are rated by the number of grains of hardness they can remove from water between regenerations. The idea is to get a unit that will go multiple days between recharges. Ideally, the water softener can also handle periods of larger-than-normal water usage.

“You can calculate the size of water softener your family needs by multiplying the number of people in your household by 75, which is the the average number of gallons used per person per day. Take this number and multiply by the number of grains per gallon (GPG) of hardness minerals in your water to figure out the capacity of whole-house water softener you need.”

So, for example, figure that a family of five uses 375 gallons of water per day (5 X 75). If your water has 10 GPG, you have 3,750 GPG of hardness minerals (375 X 10) requiring removal each day.

Determine the Right Water Softener Features for Your Home

Water softeners also include features and controls, which help monitor and manage the regeneration cycles and amount water and salt needed for recharging. Be aware that even fully automatic types require occasional refilling with salt and there are a few methods are used to control the cycles.

  • Timer Controls

Clocks or electronic timers automatically recharge the unit at a preset time and day, based on your average usage. These controls tend to waste sodium and water because they regenerate whether or not recharging is necessary. However, this is typically done in off-peak hours.

  • Softener DIR Controls

A more sophisticated method, called demand-initiated regeneration (DIR), senses when the resin needs recharging. The controls monitor usage either electronically or with a meter that measures and calculates usage. A DIR system saves on salt and regeneration water because it does not recharge unless necessary. In addition, it provides for abnormally large water usage.

Determine the Proper Water Flow Rate

Flow rate measures how quickly a water softening system produces conditioned water, which should be compared to the average and peak household water usage. Most softener manufacturers provide a maximum flow rate in gallons per minute (gpm) for their products so you can calculate what will work best.

Determine the Right Water Softening Capacity

The capacity of a water softener is typically measured in grains per gallon (gpg) so you can calculate your water’s hardness. Most water utilities provide detailed water quality reports that include your water’s hardness, or you can purchase a test kit and check it yourself. Simply subtract this value from your water’s original hardness rating to get an estimate of the system’s output hardness level.

Salt-based water softeners generally provide a rating for how many minerals (or hardness) they remove from the water. For example, water with a rating of 1 gpg or lower is considered soft and water with a rating of 7 gpg or more is considered hard. Salt-free water softeners do not remove minerals, so these units do not affect water hardness.

Determine the Right Maintenance Threshold for You

All water softeners require some periodic maintenance.

For example, salt-based water softeners require regular additions of salt, plus power to run the regeneration cycle, which means some additional charges on the electric bill. Conversely, salt-free water softeners have filters that require regular replacement.

How to Find a Quality Water Softener?

When looking for a quality water softener, then there are primarily two certifications that help homeowners identify reputable products.

First, look for an NSF-certified water softener with a system monitor that indicates low salt. The indicator ensures that the system is operating at optimum levels for soft water. For reference, the NSF International is an independent testing organization that tests and certifies water-treatment products.

Secondly, review the Water Quality Association’s’ Certified Product Listings, which help connect consumers with tested and certified water treatment products.

WQA offers guidance on water softeners

WQA maintains a complete listing of all products and components that have earned the Gold Seal and Sustainability Certification Marks. The listing only shows products that pass the rigorous industry standard testing requirements, pass annual manufacturing facility audits and comply with WQA’s proprietary certifications.

Tips to Find the Right Water Softener Company

Just like researching other home service providers, it is important to conduct proper due diligence. For example, reach out to a couple of companies for quotes and ensure the estimates cover the exact same topics, such as:

  • regeneration cycle
  • type of controls
  • level of service
  • warranty on both the control valve and the resin tank

Generally, it is good practice to work with an established company, so look for reviews and referrals. The longevity of a company typically means they provide high quality service to customers and remain in business for so long.

We rely on water everyday for everything. If you have hard water, then don’t wait another day to provide your family with a better solution. Water softeners provide plenty of solutions and options to fit your needs.

At the end of the day, soft water helps improve the health of your wallet and family!