How Water Softeners Work and Why You Probably Need One
So, you’re sick of dealing with hard water problems and need a water softener… but what does that mean?
There are a lot of good reasons to soften your home’s water as hard water problems can wreak havoc on your plumbing, as well as your hair and skin, while making it harder to keep the house clean. For a list of areas in your home affected by hard water, click here.
If you’re going to install a softener in your home to take care of these issues, you might want to know what is going on inside of it.
Hard Water vs. Soft Water
There’s more in your home’s water than just H2O. Water quality differs depending on where you live and whether you’re getting water from a municipality or a private well. Both sources are known to contain hardness minerals.
Minerals in water are what makes certain water considered “hard.” Calcium and magnesium are the most common minerals found in water. Typically, minerals get there because groundwater will dissolve rock like limestone, or metals, like iron and the remnants travel with the water until it is in your home.
Those dissolved solids can cause a scaly buildup on everything from dishes, to pipes, to the heating elements of your appliances, to your own body. Soap scum and clogged, corroded plumbing are usually the result of hard water.
Water softeners remove those hard minerals making it easier to clean your home and your laundry, while prolonging the life of appliances that use water.
How Hard Water Becomes Soft – The Ion Exchange Process
So how do water softeners get the minerals out? This is where the incredible science of residential water treatment comes into play!
Water softeners use a process called ion exchange to remove things like calcium, magnesium, iron, and manganese – replacing them with sodium ions.
Ions are atoms or molecules that carry either a positive or negative charge because there’s an imbalance between electrons and protons. Cations have a positive charge and anions have a negative charge.
Calcium (Ca+2), magnesium (Mg+2), iron (Fe+3), and sodium (Na+) are all positively charged cations. However, sodium has a much weaker charge, which allows for the exchange.
The Ion Exchange Process in Water Softening
The media our water softeners use are either ion-exchange resin beads or zeolite, which is a special inorganic mineral that comes in the form of tiny crystals. Learn more about our exclusive zeolite material at Mineral-Right.com.
Each resin bead or zeolite crystal is negatively charged and has space to hold on to positive ions. The fresh media starts by holding on to the weaker charged sodium ions. As hard water passes through your water softener tank, the stronger charged calcium or magnesium are pulled to the media like a magnet. Since the hardness minerals have a higher positive charge than the sodium, they will knock the sodium ions off and take their place.
All the hardness minerals stay trapped inside the water softener tank while the H2O, with a few sodium ions, disperse throughout your home for use. No more scaly build up!
It’s important to remember that soft water is not salt water, it only contains a small amount of sodium due to the ion exchange process. Typically less than eating two ounces of cheddar cheese!
In the animation below, you can see how water flows from the external source, through the media that removes minerals, and then provides your home with softened water.
Watch How a Water Softener Works
You may be wondering what happens to the hardness minerals that are trapped inside your softener’s tank. If all the media beads or crystals are full of the calcium, magnesium, etc., how can treatment more water in the future?
That’s where the second part of the water softening process takes place: Regeneration!
Regeneration – How Water Softeners Keep Working
Regeneration is how a water softening system cleans and recharges itself so it can continue providing your home with soft water.
All water softeners will come with some kind of secondary storage tank. This is where the home owner will need to add water softener salt. Water is added to the tank to create a salt solution called brine. Therefore, this component is known as the brine tank.
During regeneration, the water softener will take the brine solution into the softener tank and the ion exchange process happens again, only this time in reverse.
The media gets a bath in the salt solution. Hard minerals caught in the resin (or zeolite) are released and the media gets replenished with sodium ions. The water softener is also cleaned and disinfected during regeneration. Finally, water containing the hard minerals and other waste gets flushed out of the system.
Ion Exchange During Regeneration
The regeneration process usually happens in the middle of the night when your family is asleep and nobody needs to use any water.
Do You Need a Water Softener?
Some people think water softeners are a luxury. Others think they’re only necessary if you have a private well with extremely hard water. That’s not quite right. If you do have a well, you will probably need a water softener, and possibly other types of filtration to improve the water quality.
However, even people living in the city can have hard water coming from the tap. Municipalities are required to treat the water for impurities, but they do not remove hardness minerals because they are not harmful to your health.
The modern home depends on soft water. High efficiency appliances can not run as designed when they suffer from hard water build up. Dishwashers and washing machines could end up with a much shorter lifespan because of hard water. If you notice a lot of soap scum around your home, if your towels are hard and stiff, or if you have a hard time getting a nice sudsy lather in the shower … you may have hard water problems.