Updated: November 2017
Hard Water and Water SoftenersWhat is hard water? If you live in certain areas, you know. In fact, about 75% of US homes have hard water. Hard water means water that is high in calcium and magnesium, naturally occuring minerals that get into ground water and reservoirs. These minerals don't cause any health problems, but when their dissolved concentration gets high enough (measured in grains per gallon, or GPG, anything over 10.5 is very hard, but readings up to 3 or so are considered OK) hard water can cause problems for your home's plumbing and water use systems. What kind of problems does hard water cause? First, hard water does not interact with soap very well, making it tough to form a lather and tough to get things clean. Shampoo and soap don't work very well, the dishwasher leaves mineral residue on the plates and glasses, soap scum appears in baths and showers, your clothes don't get as white in the washing machine, and your hot water heater gets a buildup of crystallized mineral deposits, as do your copper pipes, eventually reducing water flow and affecting the efficiency of your water heater. In this guide, we will take a look at how you can combat hard water, how a water softener works, and how much water softeners and the salt supplies to run it cost.
How Water Softeners WorkWe've talked about some of the problems associated with hard water -- you avoid these problems by using a water softener to treat the water coming into your house. Remember, hard water is caused by excess dissolved mineral content, namely calcium and magnesium. A water softener works by removing these minerals and replacing them with common salt ions, either sodium or potassium. There are a variety of different water softening systems -- whole house water filters, reverse osmosis treatments, potassium based water softeners, etc. But normally, a water softener is 2 devices that are plumbed into your water system. The tanks are about 4 feet tall, cylindrical in shape. The first part is the mineral tank, which connect directly to your incoming water supply pipes. The tank is filled with little resin beads that are negatively charged, allowing them to interact and "grab" the positively charged calcium and magnesium deposits. Sitting nearby is the second component of the water softener system, the brine tank. The brine tank is filled with water and salt, either sodium or potassium salts. When its contents are flushed into the mineral tanks, the positively charged sodium ions washout the calcium ions, resulting in saltier but softer water, without the heavy mineral content.
This whole process is done day after day and is controlled by an automatic timer. First the incoming, untreated water is brought into the mineral tank, where it sits as the beads grab onto the minerals. The backwash phase then flushes out any dirt particles. Next is the recharge or regeneration phase, in which the brine tank salt-rich water is brought into the mineral tank to get rid of the minerals. In the rinse phase, the excess brine (containing the minerals) is flushed away down the drain, allowing the softened water to go into the homes water system. The cycles constantly repeats to provide a continuous supply of processed water.