The commonest solution to hard water in households is the use of a water softener. Hard water is any water which contains high mineral content. Although they are relatively safe for drinking, they lead to constant repairs of pipes and appliances, dry skin and hair, faded clothes, and stains on the kitchen sink and in the bathroom. Seeing as every home is heavily reliant on water, hard water isn’t very convenient for a lot of people. Water softener prices are very reasonable and they are a long-term solution to hard water.

Because of these problems that hard water brings, a water softener is needed to turn the hard water into soft water. Water softeners prevent you from constant repairs and stubborn stains. If you want to purchase a water softener, you might be wondering, how does a water softener work?

What is a Water Softener?

Before going into the question of how do water softeners work, what is a water softener? A water softener is a filtration system that is used to remove the hardness minerals in a water, which are calcium and magnesium, in order to make the water soft. The process used is called ion exchange. This is because the hard water mineral ions are replaced with soft water mineral ions. Before purchasing a water softener, it is advisable to test for hardness levels in advance.

A water softener is meant to solve the problem of hard water dominantly, although some of them also remove many other contaminants in the water. When using a water softener, the problem of limescale and soap scum which are caused by hard water, are solved. Your appliances work better and have a longer lifespan. Also, water softeners solve the problem of clogged pipes caused by limescale. Your skin and hair are no longer dry and itchy after washing and your clothes would be brighter and cleaner.

A water softener makes the household chores that involve water easier, and it provides safe cleaning and drinking water for your home. There are a lot of great water softeners out there. Read our water softener reviews to learn more.

How Does a Water Softener Work?

What does a water softener do to change hard water into soft water? The process of water softening called ion exchange is not complicated. Ion exchange is used to get rid of calcium and magnesium in the water. No matter the water softener brand, the processes are always similar.

The beginning of this process starts with the hard water going into the mineral talk of the water softening system. When this happens, the water goes through a bed which contains many spherical resin beads.

Resin beads are plastic beads that are charged with a sodium ion and made from polystyrene. The sodium ion that the resin beads are charged with have a negative charge, thus making the beads anions. On the other hand, the calcium and magnesium minerals are cations because they have a positive charge. Seeing as opposite charges attract, the anions or negative charges are attracted to the cations or positive charges.

When the water passes through the bed of resin beads, the beads attract the mineral ions and take them from the water. As the beads take the mineral ions, they release the sodium ions.

Through this process, soft water flows into your home and leaves the hard water minerals behind. Apart from calcium and magnesium, the water softener also removes other minerals like iron and manganese.

Water Softener Regeneration

A water softener constantly goes through a regeneration cycle. This cycle is used to recharge the resin beads after a while. Because of all the mineral ions that it attracts, the resin beads find it hard to work after a while. The regeneration cycle involves flooding the resin beads with a brine solution which removes all the hardness minerals in the beads and takes them out of the water softening system.

When this is done, the resin beads are ready to continue its work by removing the hardness minerals again. Resin beads undergo this process frequently, and they can last for about twenty years. They are very durable. The water softener regeneration process is divided into two methods. We have the counter-current regeneration cycle and the co-current regeneration cycle.

Some water softening systems automatically initiate the regeneration cycle when they detect that the resin beads need to be recharged, while others inform the user to start the cycle.

Counter-Current Regeneration Cycle

This process is also called the up flow and down flow brining. In this cycle, the water goes through the place where water normally exits which is the bottom of the mineral tank. Then, the cycle takes the brine to the resin bed and starts from the place where the resin beads are normally weaker which is at the bottom. By the time the brine gets to the top of the resin bed, it is also less depleted. The counter-current regeneration cycle is famous because it uses way less water and salt than the co-current regeneration cycle. It is also highly efficient, and it deals with the weaker resin beads first before going to the stronger ones.

Co-Current Regeneration Cycle

Unlike the counter-current process, the co-current regeneration cycle takes the brine solution into the mineral tank from a different direction, which is the same direction that the service flow comes from. This system makes use of a reverse ion exchange process in recharging the beads. The brine solution goes down to the bottom of the bed of resin beads and the solution takes away the calcium and magnesium ions that the resin beads had attracted from the hard water. The solution replaces them with new sodium ions. This process makes use of more water and salt than the counter-current regeneration cycle to recharge resin beads and finish the process. At the end of the process, the stronger beads would be on top in the tank.

Components of a Water Softener

When looking at how a water softener works, you also have to consider what the water softener system is made up of. In a water softener, there are three main components that are used to turn hard water to soft water, control the regeneration process and take note of the flow of water. The components are the brine tank, mineral tank and the control valve.

The Brine Tank

This is the component mainly used for regeneration in the water softening system. The brine tank is a short tank that is situated close to the mineral tank. The brine tank contains sodium of salt or potassium which is highly concentrated and is used in the regeneration process to recharge the resin beads. The brine tank has to be replenished with salt manually and occasionally in form of blocks or pellets. The salt would mix with the water in the tank. This solution is the brine solution and is used for regeneration. When the control valve senses that the resin beads are weak, it opens up the brine solution from the brine tank into the mineral tank. The brine tank must always be filled with salt.

The Mineral Tank

The mineral tank is the part of the water softener where hard water is turned into soft water. The water supply runs the hard water into the mineral tank. The water passes through the mineral tank and this then softens the water. The water comes out of the tank and goes into your pipes.

The Control Valve

This is the part of the water softener that monitors the water flow from the mineral tank into your house. The valve has a meter which measures the amount of water and goes into the mineral tank. The control valve also knows when the resin beads are weak and then it initiates the regeneration process.

Another important part of the water softener system is the bypass valve. This is usually not included in some water softening systems, but it is advisable to have one. This is used to halt the water softening process for a while when you need to use hard water for something. For example, you can turn on the bypass valve when watering plants, washing a car or filling up the swimming pool. These activities don’t necessarily need soft water and hard water works just fine.

How to Install a Water Softener

When installing a water softener, it should be placed close to the point of entry of water into the house. This ensures that your plumbing system and water appliances, especially a water heater, benefits from the soft water more. The water softener should also be in a dry and levelled place. You can install it in the basement or garage. Your water softener’s location should be close to the main line of the water, a drain to get rid of the brine solution after regeneration and an electrical outlet to plug the system in.

To install a water softener, you need to follow these steps:

  1. Firstly, ensure that the water softener has been properly positioned in the right place. The outlet should be in the direction of water appliances, especially those dealing with hot water. The inlet should be fixed to the water supply.
  2. Then, you will have to prevent any leaks that can happen during the installation process. You can do this by switching the water supply to your house off from the main line. Also, the water supply to the water heater should also be turned off.
  3. Next, you will need to drain your pipes. To do this, open the faucets on the last floor of your house so that all the water left in the pipes come out.
  4. Use a pipe cutter to make a cut into the main line for water supply. Because a water softener is meant for the whole house, you will have to connect both the inlet and the outlet lines into the main line of the water supply.
  5. After that, measure the pipes and cut them according to their measurement before you connect them to the water softener. When using copper pipes, soldering will be necessary on the fittings and nipples before it is connected to the bypass valve.
  6. Then, clamp the drain hose tightly and connect it to the drain meant for the used brine solution. The drain can be a utility sink or a floor drain. Also, ensure that the drain has an air gap so that it doesn’t send the water back into the house. The air gap should be two or three inches between the drain and the hose.
  7. Lastly, attach the overflow tube. This is a precaution to make sure that the brine tank doesn’t overflow. After you have done this, you can turn all the water supply main lines back on and test your water softener.

Although a lot of water softeners are easy to install and some allow for DIY installation, if you’re not familiar with plumbing tools or you cannot handle the installation, it is advisable to call a professional. A badly installed water softener can lead to leakages or the damaging of the water softener.

Other Types of Water Softeners

There are other types of water softeners that don’t make use of the ion exchange process. Water softeners that use the ion exchange process are known as salt-based water softeners. They have been proven to be more efficient and effective than other types of water softeners. This is because they are very thorough in their water softening process.

Salt-free water softeners are the opposite of salt-based or ion exchange water softeners. However, salt-free water softeners cannot be classified as softeners but rather as water conditioners because they don’t remove the hard water minerals in the water. They only solve the problem of limescale buildup in the home by changing the form of the water. The salt-free water softener is an alternative to the salt-based system and is only advisable for those who are on a low sodium diet.

There is also the reverse osmosis water filter in which hard water is passed through a membrane. The membrane keeps the minerals and contaminants on one side while the hard water is at the other side. This system isn’t very efficient because it removes all the minerals in the water; both the hard water minerals and the useful minerals.

Lastly, there is the magnetic based water softener system, but this system doesn’t usually work. The systems are small, and the method they use for softening is controversial. In a lot of cases, it brings different results and it is not reliable. All in all, the salt-based water softener is the most efficient and is highly recommended.