Updated: June 8, 2015

Hard Water and Water Softeners

What 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 Work

We'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.

Why get a water softener?

Installing a water softener in your home benefits you in many ways. First, since soap products work better, it can decrease your cleaning supply costs by 50% or more now that dishwasher and washing machines work better. Secondly, you and your clothes and your dishes actually get cleaner, since soap and mineral no longer cling to your surface. Third, your water heater, coffee maker, dishwasher, and washing machine will all last longer and require fewer repairs. Fourth, you'll have better water flow and water pressure in your pipes. One thing you'll notice with soft water is a kind of slimy, slippery feeling when you bathe, shower, or wash dishes. The saltier water has that natural characteristic, and it will taste saltier if you drink it without using a water filter. Most homes with water softeners also install water filters for drinking water.

Buying the Best Water Softener

A good water softening system can last for a decade or two without much maintanance required. The only regular work needed is refilling the brine tank with salt pellets. You can buy water softener salt pellets at most hardware or home supply stores -- they come in plastic tubs or bags that you simply dump into the brine tank to the specified level. As the salt is consumed each month, you check the level in the brine tank and refill as needed. Salt is cheap and costs only a few bucks a bag (for 40 lbs). You can buy water softeners that are timer controlled or water meter controlled (ie, operating depending on the measured flow of water rather than on the clock). How much do water softeners cost? A water softener system can cost from about $800 to $1500, while installation charges can be an additional $300-$500. After that, the ongoing costs are just electricity to run the system and monthly salt expenses which should not exceed about $2.50 per person in the household, or about $10 for an average family. GE makes a family of water softeners called SmartWater. They are priced and sold based on their processing capacity, with the top of the line being the Super Capacity GNSH45E with a 45,200 grain capacity, made for families of 5 or more. It can handle up to 200 lbs of salt at a time. The slightly smaller GXSH39E GE Water Softener System (39,300 grain capacity) sells for about $750. Home Depot and Lowes and other home supply stores sell water softener systems direct to home owners, or your plumbing contractor can purchase one for you as they plan the installation process. Browse water softenening systems here.