What is Soft Water, How Does It Work? Do I need It? Cost [Answers]

by Jay | Last Updated:  Posted on July 25th, 2022

What is soft water?

A water softener is a whole-house filtering system that uses ion exchange to remove hardness-causing calcium and magnesium minerals from your water. 


The purpose

The primary goal is to reduce scale building to lengthen the lifespan of your household appliances and plumbing system, lowering maintenance and repair expenditures.

A water softener handles one of the most common and destructive water issues: hard water. 

What hard water?

Hard water has significant levels of minerals, specifically calcium and magnesium. Calcium and magnesium bond easily with other metals due to their chemical structure. These bonds accumulate over time and can be seen, for example, as the crusty residue on your shower head!

How does hard water work?

In reality, the moniker “hard water” comes from the hardened mineral deposits that this type of water leaves behind. These deposits can build, obstruct, or even damage pipes over time, causing significant plumbing issues. In addition, hard water deposits can accumulate in boilers and water heaters, reducing efficiency and increasing operating costs.

To cut a long story short, hard water can have long-term harmful impacts on whatever surface it passes through.

  • Hard water wreaks havoc on today’s homes. Scale accumulates in your pipes, blocking them and reducing water pressure. 
  • Scale significantly reduces the longevity of equipment such as dishwashers, coffee makers, and ice machines. 
  • Hot water appliances are destroyed by hard water. 
  • The more calcium and magnesium consolidate and harden into solid deposits inside your water heater, the greater the temperature of the water. 

What happens with hard water

If you reside in a hard water area, your water heater may sound like it is popping popcorn. This is due to scale adhering to the heating element. The calcified rock deposits coated on the heating elements begin splitting and straining as the heater’s temperature rises, and the tank fills. The popcorn popping sound is caused by hard water-induced scaling.

Laundry with no water softener requires more detergent to keep it from looking dirty. Dishes will be smeared and discolored as they come out of the dishwasher. Shower curtains become clogged with dark muck, and soap and shampoo fail to lather. 

Bathing in hard water causes your skin to become itchy and dry, and your hair becomes lifeless and sticky. The amount of time, energy, and money required to clean up the negative impacts of hard water are mind-boggling. The solution to the plague of water hardness is whole-house water softening.

Hard water and health concerns

Hard water is not harmful to one’s health. On the other hand, the salt that remains in softened water may be an issue for persons on sodium-restricted diets. Others may prefer to avoid the somewhat salty flavor of treated water.

A separate water dispenser that bypasses the softener can be installed in either situation. You can also use potassium chloride instead of salt, albeit it will cost you three to four times as much.

For more information on the differences between soft and hard water.

How do water softeners work?

Water softeners work by removing calcium and magnesium from the water through a process known as ion exchange. 

Water softeners, believe it or not, are similar to magnets. A conventional bar magnet has one “positive” and one “negative” end. Assume you have two bar magnets and try to link both positive ends.

So, what happens? They are opposed. It’s impossible to get them to connect, no matter how hard you try. But what if you link the positive end of one to the negative end of the other? They have an instant connection.

The hard water runs through a bed of spherical resin beads as it enters the mineral tank. These sodium-ion-charged plastic beads are typically constructed of polystyrene. 

The resin beads are anions, which means they are negatively charged. On the other hand, calcium and magnesium are cations because they have a positive charge. 

Because opposing charges attract, the minerals’ negative charge is drawn to the resin beads’ positive charge. As a result, the beads take hold of the mineral ions and remove them from the water as the hard water travels through the resin. 

The sodium ion is released when the bead seizes the mineral ion. As the water goes through the mineral tank, the resin column removes all of the hardness, and softened water flows into your home.

Soft water results in:

  • There are no unsightly stains or hard water deposits on tubs or showers.
  • Cleaning the house in less time and with less effort
  • There is less spotting on plates and glassware.
  • Savings on energy bills (improved water heater efficiency)
  • Better lather while using up to 50% less soap
  • Clothes that are whiter, brighter, and softer
  • Appliances that use water have a longer lifespan.
  • Skin that is smoother and gentler

What do water softeners get rid of?

Water softeners purify hard water by removing calcium and magnesium ions. The two minerals that cause water hardness are calcium (Ca2+) and magnesium (Mg2+). 

In addition, any positively charged ion will be attracted and eliminated during the ion exchange process (also known as a cation). Other minerals, such as iron and manganese, may be included.

Does a water softener remove iron?

Water softeners remove ferrous iron (dissolved iron) in small amounts, and most of the iron is soluble. As a result, iron darkens the color of water and causes obvious stains on your toilet, bathtub, and sinks. 

Removing ferric iron (insoluble iron) with a softener is more challenging. Ferric iron will collect on the resin bed and resist the regeneration cycle’s backwashing. This can result in iron slugs in your softened water, reducing the efficacy of the resin beads. 

When dissolved iron comes into contact with oxygen, it oxidizes and transforms into ferric iron. So, while a water softener can remove iron in its dissolved state if your water contains a high concentration of iron, some of it will inevitably transition to an insoluble condition. 

If your water softener is processing a lot of iron, you should apply a chemical solution to clean your softening bed and extend the life of your resin beads. An iron filter or a more extensive filtering system, such as reverse osmosis, is preferable for removing iron from water.

What exactly are the parts of a water softener?

A water softener consists of three parts: a control valve, a mineral tank, and a brine tank. These three operate together to remove minerals from hard water, monitor water flows, and clean the system regularly via a regeneration process.

1. The mineral storage tank

The mineral tank is the chamber that softens hard water. The hard water is fed into the tank via the water supply line. Water penetrates through the bed of resin beads, depositing calcium and magnesium ions that harden the water. The water softly exits the tank and goes to your domestic appliances via your pipes.

2. The value of the control

The control valve monitors the amount of water that flows through the mineral tank and into your home. The valve contains a meter that measures the amount of water that enters the mineral tank. The resin beads exchange sodium ions for hardness ions as hard water runs through the mineral tank.

This depletes the resin’s capacity to continue softening water effectively over time. The control valve commences a regeneration cycle when the beads become too clogged with mineral content to continue extracting calcium and magnesium ions.

This maximum capacity is pre-programmed into the control valve’s onboard computer. It is determined by several criteria, such as the size of your home, the number of people, and the hardness of your water.

As a result, control valves are demand-initiated controls that enable water softening systems to operate at peak efficiency.

3. The saltwater tank

The brine tank contributes to the regeneration of the water softening system. It is a smaller tank located next to the mineral tank. The brine tank contains a highly concentrated solution of salt (or sometimes potassium) to restore the positive charge of the resin beads.

Salt in the shape of pellets or blocks is manually added to the brine tank. These disintegrate in the water at the tank’s bottom.

When the control valve detects the resin’s dwindling softening capacity, the heavy brine solution is pulled from the tank and flushed through the resin in the mineral tank. If the salt in the brine tank runs out, the water flowing through the unit will no longer be softened.

Other critical components include:

  • Built-in bypass: Turns off the water supply to the softener for regeneration, maintenance, and repair; the house receives unsoftened water while the valve is in the bypass position; not included with all models.
  • Motor for a valve: Rotates the rotor valve to execute various operations such as softening and regeneration.
  • Flow meter: This device measures the amount of water that passes through the softener; it is not included with all models.
  • Resin softening media: Sand-like substance, synthetic or natural; typically a polystyrene combination (plastic)
  • Tube riser: Riser tube, also known as a distribution tube, is positioned in the center of the resin tank; it conducts water from the resin tank to the head valve and has a basket on the bottom to keep the resin from entering your home’s plumbing system.
  • Salt: When combined with water, it produces a highly concentrated sodium chloride solution.
  • Assembly of a brine float: To prevent overfilling, the safety float turns off the water supply when it reaches a particular level.
  • Fill tube: This line connects the brine tank to the head valve and is used to extract brine during regeneration and refill the brine tank.
  • The brine/venturi valve injector: Suck brine into the resin tank; use a mesh net or screen to catch dirt.
  • Grid plate: Installed within the brine tank; the height of the salt grid determines the volume of water in the brine tank for a specific amount of saturated salt brine containing a defined amount of dissolved salt per gallon.
  • Optional pre-filter: Traps bigger particles such as sand and silt to prevent early softener failure; especially crucial for good supplies.

How does the regeneration of a water softener work?

Regeneration is the process by which a water softening system cleans and recharges itself so that it can continue to provide soft water to your house. As you may recall, the water softener comprises two primary parts: the tank where the ion exchange occurs and a secondary salt storage tank.

Regeneration cycles submerge the resin beads in a highly concentrated brine solution, washing away the hardness minerals and emptying them from the system. 

The resin beads are replenished and ready to remove the hardness minerals. Resin beads are long-lasting and may properly soften your water for up to twenty years. 

Water softeners regenerate in one of two ways: 

Coexisting regeneration cycle

The brine solution enters the mineral tank in the same direction as the service flow during a co-current regeneration cycle. As a result, the brine solution runs down the depth of the resin bead bed, and an ion exchange process happens again, but this time in reverse. 

The salts push the beads to release magnesium and calcium ions in exchange for sodium as the brine flows over them. As the brine travels through the resin, an increasing concentration of hardness minerals forms and circulates throughout the system. 

Continuous interchange and re-exchange of minerals and regeneration ions occur when the brine solution forces more hardness minerals through the bed. 

The solution’s strength was greatly diminished when the waters exited the tank. 

The most charged beads in a co-current regeneration cycle will be on the ones at the top of the tank. Therefore, co-current regeneration consumes more water and salt than counter-current regeneration.

The cycle of counter-current regeneration

Water enters the tank through the bottom of the mineral tank, where it normally exits, during a counter-current regeneration cycle. 

The brine is pushed up the resin bed by the countercurrent cycle, starting at the bottom, where the resin beads are normally the least depleted. This indicates that throughout the regeneration cycle, fewer hardness minerals initiate re-exchange. 

When the brine reaches the top of the resin bed, where the softener first touches the hard water, it is less depleted. 

A counter-current cycling water softener consumes 75% less salt and 65% less water than a co-current cycling water softener. It also more equally distributes the recharging sodium ions. 

The most highly charged beads in a countercurrent cycle will be near the bottom of the tank, shortly before the water exits into the home. High-efficiency water softeners are another name for these.

Is it okay to drink soft water?

It is safe to sip soft water. When the resin beads grab hold of the hardness minerals during the ion exchange process, they release sodium into the water. 

However, the quantity of salt in softened water is not harmful and is significantly less than what is commonly assumed. 

If you have somewhat hard water, say five grains per gallon (around 86ppm), you’re just adding 37 milligrams of sodium each quart. That is less than 2% of the recommended daily sodium consumption. A slice of white bread contains approximately 170 milligrams of sodium, while a slice of pizza contains approximately 640 mg. 

As a result, the quantity of sodium added by water softeners is insignificant.

The amount of sodium a water softener added is proportional to the number of hardness minerals removed. The softener releases two milligrams of salt for every milligram of hardness in the water. This is only an issue if you reside in a region with extremely hard water. 

If the hardness level in your water exceeds 400 ppm, you should install a reverse osmosis system to cleanse the water you drink and cook with. 

The reverse osmosis system forces water through a semipermeable membrane, which removes practically all dissolved particles and salts from the water. 

If your doctor has advised you to limit your sodium intake due to high blood pressure or kidney difficulties, you should install a reverse osmosis system after your softener.

Do I need a water softener?

You need a water softener if you have low water pressure due to scale-infested pipes, dry hair, stiff clothes, and endless appliance maintenance expenditures. 

Hard water is not an issue that will go away on its own, and its expenditures will only increase. 

Appliances with a water softener will fail before their expected lifespan. 

If scale builds up in your pipes, your flow rate will be restricted, and you risk losing water pressure throughout the house. 

Hard water wreaks havoc on water heaters, and your utility expenses will continue to rise without a softener. In addition, if your water supply is hard, you will be in a never-ending cycle of repairs and replacements until water softener protects your home.

How do I determine if I need a water softener?

Look for the following indicators of hard water in your home:

  • The mineral-like crust that has accumulated around your faucets or your shower head
  • Soap scum accumulates in your sinks and on your shower walls.
  • Clothing that is stiff after a load of laundry
  • After showering, you may experience irritated or dry skin and dull hair.

What is the price of a water softener?

A whole-house water softener ranges in price from $600 to $1,500. If you live in a hard water location, a water softener is not a luxury; it is an essential investment in your home and property. 

The size and model of water softener best for you are determined by the size and hardness of your water. 

Keep in mind that, despite their expensive cost, water softeners can last for 20 years or more. They also have relatively cheap operational expenditures every month. 

They run on very little electricity (no more than a bedside alarm clock). If properly backwashed, water softener resin can persist for more than 20 years. 

The only genuine monthly expense is the salt replenishment of the brine tank. 

According to industry standards, a household of four using a standard efficiency softener will use around 40 pounds of salt each month. On the other hand, water with high TDS and iron levels will require more salt to soften efficiently.

A 40-pound package of sodium chloride pellets costs between $10 and $25. Upgrading to a high-efficiency counter-current brining device will produce even less salt.

Compared to the everyday expenses and frustrations caused by hard water, a water softener is ultimately a cost-effective investment. The money and energy saved far outweigh the cost of the water softener system.

Here are three of the best-selling water softening systems:

Conclusion

  • Professional, qualified plumbers or well-water contractors should install water softeners. Try your local home improvement store if you can’t find one in your neighborhood. Most offer free in-home consultations as part of their water softener installation services. You can also read our DIY water softener installation guide.
  • Water softener prices vary greatly depending on the size and manufacture of the softening, but a typical system, including installation, should cost between $2,000 and $2,500. It would be more affordable to purchase your water softener and have a professional install it.
  • Be aware that softened water contains trace quantities of salt before purchasing a water softener for your home. For example, a single slice of bread contains about the same amount of salt as an 8-ounce glass of softened water. Although there is not a lot of salt, it may be too much for individuals on a low-sodium diet.
  • To remove all salt from your drinking water, fill the brine tank with potassium chloride rather than salt pellets. The sole disadvantage is that potassium chloride is expensive, ranging between $25 and $30 for each 50-pound bag. On the other hand, a bag of salt costs only $6 to $8.
  • Another alternative for salt-free drinking water is to utilize salt pellets in the brine tank while installing a reverse-osmosis water filter at the kitchen sink. The filter will remove salt from the water, allowing you to drink and cook with it.
  • Water softeners’ sudden and broad appeal has produced a new difficulty in some parts of the country: Sodium levels in municipal water treatment plants, reservoirs, and groundwater tables are rising due to the salty water discharged from the water softener during the regeneration process. In addition, to water new regulations, water softeners are now restricted or prohibited in some areas, so check with your local building department before proceeding.

Modern water softeners are extremely dependable and require little to no maintenance. Therefore, there isn’t much the homeowner can do besides adding pellets to the brine tank. However, it is recommended that the contractor who installed the system tune up and updated it once a year. An annual system checkup normally costs around $125.

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Jay

Self assessed Germaphobe, specializing in everything water, water filters, health and nutrition. Diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, I've acquired immense amount of knowledge when it comes to natural, biology, and everything about human anatomy.