Written By: Dyanne Weiss
While water is in the ground, it picks up bits of whatever it passes through. In some instances, this can mean contamination that makes water unfit to drink. But, in most cases, it simply means that the water contains minerals found in the earth. When water is referred to as “hard,” it means that it contains more minerals than ordinary water. It is drinkable, but it can impact things that use water. For example, hard water can lead to limescale deposits in household water systems that may eventually block pipes or make hot boilers and tanks inefficient.
As the name implies, a water softener is a device that removes the minerals that make the water “hard,” especially the minerals calcium and magnesium. Those two minerals are common in water, but too much of them affects how the water functions in homes and the business processes that use it.
Home water softening systems offer numerous benefits for households, particularly for cleaning purposes. Scientifically, it has to do with positively charged ions in the minerals impacting negative ones in the soap. As a result, soaps and detergents lose some effectiveness. They do not dissolve completely, so the soap combines with the minerals and forms a coagulated soap curd. When less soap is dissolved, more soap is actually required to achieve results.
Here are a few examples of how water softening units commonly help in a home:
- Household Cleaning Products: Hard water can affect the cleansing strength of detergents. Softened water delivers more cleaning power and can actually reduce the amount of soap needed.
- Laundry and Garment Care: The impact here is the same as for soap above. Also, soap curd can work its way into clothes and actually trap dirt in fibers, which can stiffen the fabric. Using conditioned, soft water makes clothes softer, cleaner, whiter, or the colors brighter. These can actually increase the life of clothing, towels, and such. Softened water and less lime buildup can also lengthen the washing machine’s life.
- Dishwashing and Glassware: Dishes and glassware will be easier to clean. They will also be more spot-free, without the gray film that glasses can get from mineral-laden water.
- Bathing and Showering: Bath soap and shampoo lather better and with less effort in softened water. Hair and skin usually feel cleaner, softer, and not as dry. Also, sinks, tubs, and toilets will have less soap scum and grime. In addition, the unsightly rings, stains, or mineral build-ups that darken tubs, showers, and sinks are avoided.
- Scale Prevention on Plumbing and Piping: Over time, limescale can form, thus clogging plumbing. This restricts water flow and reduces water pressure dramatically. Water softening can reduce the issue and increase the life span of pipes, solar heating systems, air conditioning units, and applications in the home that are water-based.
How Do Water Softeners Work?
Water softeners are basically pressurized water conditioning devices. The body of a water softener is a tank filled with resin beads covered with sodium ions. As hard water passes through, the resin beads attract the problematic calcium and magnesium ions in exchange for the sodium ions. This results in softened water.
Eventually, the resin beads do become saturated with mineral ions (like the pipes would) and have to be “re-charged.” This process is done with the control valve on the tank. In most systems, a brine solution is used to bathe the resin beads in sodium ions to replace the calcium and magnesium ions that accumulated, which are then flushed down the drain. Regenerated resin beads can be used over and over again.
Water softeners are rated by grains of capacity. The capacity of a water softener depends on the amount of salt grains used to regenerate it, plus a variety of other design factors.
Who Needs One?
Almost all water in the United States is hard water, to varying degrees. Before considering a water softener for the home, it is important to know the composition of the water in the area and its hardness levels. This evaluation helps determine what size water softener is needed.
Home use is not the only area water softeners are employed. Many industries use a lot of water and need to consider the impact on their equipment and pipes. These include restaurants and breweries as well as others that use water in their processing.