What is a Water Softener and How Does it Work?

Running water is an essential quality of a good home. Water itself is a vital necessity – as it is used to perform basic day to day activities like; laundry, cooking, cleaning, hygiene and consumption, and so indoor plumbing is an important part of a good household. This is why your plumbing system, and your home in general have to be protected from hard water.

Hard water is simply raw water that runs through pipes, fountains and taps, containing high mineral contents such as; calcium and magnesium. These minerals are picked up as the water percolates through a series of underground tunnels in rocks and soil; passing through deposits of calcium and magnesium coated minerals (for example, limestone and chalk).

It is relied on by families to perform household chores and cooking, and while general consumption of hard water might not be harmful, it wrecks havoc on pipes – causing limescale to build up, clogging up the pipes and reducing water pressure, eventually leading to galvanic corrosion. It also shortens the lifespan of electrical appliances like dishwashers, ice machines, coffee makers and hot water appliances. The higher the temperature, the more calcium and magnesium will harden and solidify into solid deposits inside the hot water heater.

Hard water causes laundry to demand more soap by reducing its ability to lather and resulting in roughness and loss of color to the clothes. The water also reacts with soap to form sticky scum – which can take hours to clean properly. Bathing in hard water leaves your skin itchy and dry and your hair lifeless and sticky.

If the residents of a household are living with decreased pressure from scale-ridden pipes, dry hair, stiff laundry, and endless appliance repair bills, a water softener is a must have. Hard water is not a problem that will go away on its own and the costs incurred by hard water will only continue to escalate. Without a water softener, appliances will inevitably fail sooner than their expected lifespan. If scale continues to accumulate in the pipes, the flow rate will continue to reduce and increases the odds of losing water pressure throughout the house. Hard water ravages water heaters, and without a softener, the utility bills will continue to barrel skyward. If the water supply is hard, the perpetual cycle of repairs and replacements will continue until the house is safeguarded by a water softener

Not only is hard water dangerous, it is also inconvenient and costly. An easy solution to end the problem before it even starts is to install a water softener.

What is a water softener?

A water softener is a filtration system that works by removing hardness causing minerals through a processes known like ion exchange and lime softening.

Water softeners primarily remove calcium and magnesium ions from hard water. Calcium (Ca2+) and magnesium (Mg2+) are the two water hardness inducing minerals. The ion exchange process will furthermore attract and eliminate any positively charged ion (also known as a cation). This can include other minerals like iron and manganese.

They might look like simple machines, but in fact – they work tirelessly to provide soft water – which extends the lifetime of plumbing by reducing or eliminating scale build-up in pipes and fittings, saving users the trouble of replacing prematurely ruined water heaters, scaly faucet heads, and hours and hours of cleaning up soapy residue. Investing in a water softener saves you time, energy, and money, and protects your home and your property from unnecessary damage. Soft water as compared to hard water is much beneficial to your family. There are a lot of water softener companies out there. So, make sure to read our UK water softener reviews for more information.

How does a water softener work?

Different water softeners work in various methods with a singular aim of extracting the impurities of water and leaving behind soft water. There are four major types of water softener systems; reverse-osmosis systems, magnetic systems, salt-based systems and salt free systems.

Salt-based water softener systems

Salt-based water softeners are well known to be the most effective way to soften hard water.

This system makes use of a process known as ion exchange – which makes use of three components; control valve, a mineral tank and a brine tank, working together to remove the minerals from hard water, monitor the flow of water and periodically clean the system through a regeneration process.

During the exchange, hard water enters into a mineral tank, flowing through a bed of spherical resin beads – plastic beads made from polystyrene, charged with a sodium ion. As the resin beads are anions –negatively charged ions – they attract the calcium and magnesium minerals – which are positively charged ions – holding onto them as the hard water passes through, removing them from the water and releasing sodium ions in the process. This method effectively removes the hardness out if the water as it passes through the mineral tank, resulting in the flow of softened water into the home.

The brine solution contained in the brine tank is used to wash the hard water minerals that are trapped in the resin tank and are clinging onto the resin beads (This is known as regeneration). Regeneration is necessary to recharge the beads and allow them to work as they should. The whole regeneration cycle can last approximately two hours. Once the regeneration is done, the softening process can begin again.

The system is effective. However, the resulting soft water has high levels of sodium. So, the quality of the softened water produced is not the best for drinking water, especially for people on sodium-restricted diets. Some would recommend using potassium chloride instead of salt, but the former is way more expensive. One of our highly recommended salt-based systems are the Harvey Water Softeners. Read our blog post to know more about its models and prices.

Reverse-osmosis System

This is the one of the most popular systems, but it doesn’t really remove hard water minerals. It’s more of a water filtration system than a water softening device. So, we recommend getting a water softener along with a RO system. Reverse osmosis is a process quite like the one used to desalinate seawater. This works by forcing hard water through a very fine membrane and the minerals within the water end up stuck, leaving soft water on one side and the impurities on the other.

The factors that contribute to this system are pressure and a very fine semi-permeable membrane, which the water is forced through. The disadvantage to the system is that it removes water minerals that are beneficial to the human body.

Magnetic softener system

Magnetic systems – also known as the anti-scale magnetic treatment – is a process that works by passing water through a magnetic field to reduce the effects of hard water. These systems are small in size when compared to the other softening systems and they usually only require a display panel and a set of magnetic transmitters which are coiled around water supply pipes.

This is a very controversial method of water softening- scientific studies into its effectiveness have given mixed results, only making the debate more confusing.

Overall, this method rarely works, so if your water is unusually hard, it may not be the best choice for you.

Salt-free water softener systems

Salt-free systems work a little differently to salt based systems. Generally, they don’t require resin beads, a brine tank nor a brine solution to soften water. Hence, there is no need for a regeneration cycle as well.

Hard water minerals are not actually removed from the water but their form is changed or crystallized.

In other words, the minerals are converted to hard crystal, and the resulting effect is that they cannot bind, or stick, to any surface. There are a lot of excellent salt-free water softeners, especially for those on strict sodium diets.

How to install water softeners?

Water softeners should be installed as close to the water’s point of entry into the house as possible. This ensures the majority of the plumbing and appliances are reaping the benefits of carrying the softened water. It is especially important to make sure that the water softener is located far from the water heater, as hard water does the greatest damage to hot water appliances. It is vital to install the softener in a dry, level location, like a basement or garage. It will need to be close to the water’s main line, an electrical outlet to turn on the system, and a drain for the brine solution from the regeneration cycle.

Most softeners have a bypass built into the inlet and the outlet. By turning a valve, it is possible bypass the softener in the event that some kind of maintenance has to be provided to it or even while working on installing it. If the softener chosen does not have a bypass, then it is wise to build one out of plumbing to bypass the equipment in case a need to maintain the unit arises.

Water softener maintenance

It is not difficult to maintain a water softener system. Unfortunately, water softeners are not impervious to damage and might develop a leak with time. They are primarily caused because of an issue at the point of installation or because of maintenance. When installing the plumbing to the softener, take time and ensure the fittings are threaded well and that the push-to-connect fittings are seated properly. If the bypass valve is cracked, it can also cause the system to leak. Bypass valves are fitted with o-rings that may need to be constantly re-lubricated or replaced over time. A cracked rotor valve or rotor valve seal may also be the culprit behind the damage. The rotor valve directs the water throughout the system during softening and regeneration processes. A worn water valve can lock up and spring a leak. If the rotor valve’s seal is leaking, it is likely cracked and simply needs to be replaced.

Day to day usage should not cause a water softener to leak. Leaks can also happen if someone or something bumps into the softener and jostle it, pulling the fitting apart. To prevent this from occurring, install the unit in a safe and stable location. If the house is in an earthquake-prone area of the country, secure the softener so that if the foundation starts moving, the softener doesn’t fall over and rip out the plumbing. If the water softener is leaking during regeneration, it is advisable to wait until after the cycle is completed and then inspected the system for cracks or broken fittings. Be sure to also check to make sure that the drain line is never blocked up with debris. A clogged drain line can blow off of the softener during regeneration and flood your basement or garage.

To prevent electrical shock, never attempt to fix a leak while the softener is plugged in. Always unplug the softener from its electrical supply before attempting any repair or cleaning. Always also shut off the bypass valve on the water softener to prevent any further leaks and to isolate the unit from the rest of the home’s plumbing. If the softener does not have a bypass valve, turn off the water at the main line. If the cause of the leak cannot be located, call a plumber or the service that installed the unit.

Water softeners lifespan

Water softeners typically have a lifespan of 15 years, however, water softener systems can last much longer if they are properly maintained. Making sure the brine tank never runs out of salt will extend the unit’s life. Protecting the resin bed from high levels of iron and manganese will also protect the unit. Iron will foul the resin and lower its ion exchange performance. Resin cleaners enhance the regeneration cycle and help relieve the resin beads of hardness-causing minerals. Resin can last for 10-20 years if maintained well, however, heavily chlorinated water will exhaust the beads ion exchange capacity quickly. Heavy levels of sediment will also cause the screens and injectors within the control valve to fail prematurely. It is wise to place a sediment filter in front of your water softener, especially if the house depends are on well water with lots of dirt and debris. If the house runs on hard water (over 14 gpg), the softening system may not last as long as someone softening moderately hard water.

The variance of factors makes it difficult to determine a specific time frame for replacing a water softener. If the unit is over a decade old and it would become apparent that it’s softening powers seem to be consistently declining, it may be time to invest in a new system. That being said, vigilant care and maintenance can extend a water softener’s lifespan.

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