You may have heard that a lot of people in your area have a water softener. Or maybe you’ve simply seen them for sale at your local home improvement store or online. But exactly what is a water softener? And more importantly, do you need one?
What is a Water Softener?
The smart aleck answer to the question is that it’s something that softens your water. But what does softening mean, and why would your water need this treatment?
The answer is that water in many parts of the country (roughly 85% according to the U.S. Geological Survey) is considered hard. That means it contains high levels of dissolved minerals like calcium and magnesium. As hard water flows through your pipes and water-using appliances, some of the minerals are left behind – gradually building up until they cause serious problems. The minerals in hard water also interfere with the ability of all types of soap to lather up and do their job of cleaning.
To save soap and reduce the other ill effects of hard water, many homeowners use water softener systems. There are various types of water softeners, but the most common ones are large appliances that attach to your home’s water supply. Using a process called ion exchange, they take out the hard water minerals and replace them with something that doesn’t cause problems – typically sodium. To keep this process going, you have to keep your system filled up with water softener salt.
Do You Need a Water Softener?
If you’re on city water, your local water authority is required to publish a report on water quality. This report should include levels of hard water minerals – in other words, your water hardness. To find your local water quality report, search online or contact your water company. Compare the levels of hard water minerals to the water hardness scale to find out if you need to treat your water.
You can also test your home’s water directly using a test kit purchased at a hardware store or online. Most companies that sell water softeners will also test your water for free in order to get their foot in the door. Only take them up on this offer if you trust the company and are willing to listen to a sales pitch.
Getting a Water Softener
Water softeners aren’t cheap. You can find devices calling themselves water softeners that sell for as little as $50, but ion exchange systems typically cost $500 and up. There are opportunities to rent systems as well. However, if the upfront cost is a problem, it usually makes more sense to get a low interest financing deal on a new system, if possible.
Water softeners typically require professional installation. People often buy them through water service companies that both sell the softener and install the system for you. You can also get them through large retailers like Sears and Menards, where they can set you up with installation through a local provider (and sometimes offer special financing deals, too). Finally, you can buy a water softener online and either install it yourself or hire someone locally to do it.
Before making such a large purchase, do plenty of research on the models you’re interested in. Be particularly wary of water softener alternatives, which vary a lot in performance. For more information, check out our tips on buying a water softener.