How Do Water Softeners Work?

Cartoon of a helpful plumber, ready to explain how water softeners workAsk a water softener pro How do water softeners work? and you typically get a lot of mumbo-jumbo about ion exchange and resin beads. We confess that we’ve been guilty of using similar language on this site. Now, to make amends, we intended to explain how water softeners work in plain English. Most of this will concentrate on conventional systems, but we’ll also have a few words to say about saltless water softener systems.

Four questions cover this subject pretty thoroughly…

1. What is Hard Water?

When rain water soaks into the ground, it passes through rocks and earth. Along the way, some minerals like calcium and magnesium are dissolved in the water. Water that contains a lot of these minerals is called hard water. Some areas are more prone to hard water than others, but the US Geological Survey estimates that about 85% of the United States has it. If you live in one of these areas, then this hard water – that is, water containing a lot of dissolved minerals – eventually makes it into your home’s water supply.

This can be a problem, because the minerals in hard water eventually leach out – especially when water is heated. You can get mineral buildup on your hair, your faucets, and inside appliances like your water heater, causing varying degrees of damage. Also, soap does not lather well in hard water, forcing you to use more of it to do the same job. Overall, everything water-related in your home tends to run less efficiently.

2. What is a Water Softener?

A water softener is an appliance that attaches to your water supply at the point where it enters your house. You don’t typically want to soften outside water – it’s wasteful and can actually harm grass and plants. The water softener’s job is to prevent minerals from solidifying in your house.

Most water softeners have a large tank that you have to keep stocked with a special kind of salt. However, there are also saltless water softener systems that are much smaller and don’t use salt. While they have the same purpose, the two different styles of water softener work completely differently.

3. How Do Water Softeners Work?

The tried and true method of treating hard water is to take out the offending minerals and replace them with sodium, which behaves much better as far as your soap, pipes, and appliances are concerned. That’s why you need to add salt – though it’s not used directly on the water. Instead, the salt is used to charge up resin beads, which in turn are used to filter your house water. For a detailed explanation, check out this video:

This technology is proven, but it has some downsides. Many people loathe dealing with hefty bags of water softener salt, and some are concerned about adding sodium to their tap water. Because of this, there’s a great demand for water softener alternatives. That’s what has driven the development of salt free water softeners.

4. How Do Salt Free Water Softeners Work?

Salt free softeners work through a lot of different methods. The only thing they have in common is that they bear little resemblance to the conventional way of softening water. In fact, some people argue that they’re not softeners at all, and that the term is misleading.

Saltless systems do not actually remove minerals from your water – only a system that uses salt can do that. What saltless systems are designed to do is to treat the water so that those hard water minerals don’t misbehave. They do this through electronic pulses, magnetic fields, or chemical filtration – it varies by product.

Bonus Question: Should You Get a Water Softener?

If you suspect you have hard water, you can perform a simple test to find out for sure. If you fall on the high end of the water hardness scale, installing a water softener is a good idea. The investment will pay for itself by preventing damage to your plumbing and appliances.