Water Softeners – How do they work?

It can be easy to forget how important water is in our day to day lives. It’s obvious that we need it in our diet, however in our homes, it’s a tool–a fluid medium that carries material from one place to the next. And one of the reasons it does this job well is that it’s very good at holding things, either by suspending them or dissolving them.

Different from most tools, though, water does not come with an instruction manual. If it did come with one, you’d know why your dishes you thought were cleaned are covered with detergent spots when dry, why your shower water leaves a film on everything it seems to touch, and why what you believed was clean water has blocked up your plumbing system.


Water Softener Systems

The Solution Is The Problem

While your water is in the ground, it collects soluble bits of whatever it goes through. While this can mean contamination that makes your water unsafe to drink, in most cases it just means that the water contains certain minerals found in the earth. Of these, magnesium and calcium are particularly important because they affect the water’s ability to function in your home. These minerals give your water hardness.

One result of water hardness is that detergents and soaps lose effectiveness. Instead of completely dissolving, minerals combine with soap to form a coagulated soap curd. Because less soap is dissolved, more detergent is required. And the sticky insoluble curd sticks around–it gets stuck to the skin and most times inhibit cleansing. Washed hair seems lifeless and dull.

In your laundry, things aren’t that much better. The detergent will sometimes work its way into your clothes as they’re being cleaned in your washing machine. This sometimes will keep dirt trapped in your fibers, and it can roughen and stiffen the fabric.

On top of affecting the actual washing process, insoluble soap deposits will leave spots on everything you’re trying to wash–from the family car to your dishes and glassware–and a soapy film can build up in your shower and bath.

An additional reason to be concerned about water hardness is the effect on your plumbing system. Magnesium and calcium deposits will build up in your pipes, reducing the flow to your taps and appliances. In water heaters, these minerals will generate a scale buildup that decreases the life and efficiency of your heater.



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Water Hardness
credit cards taken for water treatments

The Fix

The problem’s solution is to remove the calcium and magnesium. While there are chemical treatments that will do this, the most common answer is to invest in a water softener.

The typical water conditioner is a mechanical appliance that’s installed into your home’s water supply system. All water softeners use the same operating rule: They trade the minerals for something else, most commonly sodium. The process of this is called ion exchange.

The core of a water softener is a mineral tank. It’s filled with small polystyrene beads, also known as zeolite or resin. These beads carry a negative charge.

Magnesium and calcium in water both carry positive charges. This means that these minerals will attach themselves to the beads as the hard water goes through the mineral tank. Sodium ions also carry positive charges, although not as strong as the charge on the magnesium and calcium. When a very strong brine solution is pushed through a tank that has already has saturated beads with calcium and magnesium, the pure volume of the sodium ions is enough to drive the magnesium and calcium ions off the beads. Water conditioners have a separate brine tank that uses common salt to make this brine solution.

In normal operation, hard water moves into the mineral tank and the magnesium and calcium ions move to the beads, in turn, replacing sodium ions. The sodium ions get into the water. Once the beads are saturated with magnesium and calcium, the unit enters a 3-step regeneration cycle. First, the backwash phase reverses the flow of water to flush dirt out of the tank. During the recharge phase, the concentrated sodium-rich salt solution is passed from the brine tank through the mineral tank. The sodium collects on the beads, replacing the magnesium and calcium, which flow down the drain. Once this phase is completed, the mineral tank is cleared of excess brine and the brine tank is refilled.


The Brains

Most popular water softeners come with an automatic regenerating system. The simplest type has an electric timer that recharges and flushes the system on a regular schedule. During recharging, soft water is not available.

Another type of control uses a computer that watches how much water is used. When enough water has gone through the mineral tank to have depleted the beads of sodium, the computer activates regeneration. These softeners usually have reserve resin capacity, so that a portion of soft water will be available during recharging.

Another type of control utilizes a mechanical water meter to measure water consumption and initiate recharging. The advantage of this particular system is that electrical components are not required, and the mineral tank is only recharged when necessary. Softened water is always available when it is equipped with two mineral tanks, even when the unit is recharging.

Judging Water Hardness

We offer test kits that help you determine the hardness of your water.

Water hardness is measured in grains per gallon (GPG) or milligrams per liter (mg/l, equivalent to parts per million, or ppm). Water up to 1 GPG (or 17.1 mg/l) is considered soft, and water from 60 to 120 GPG is considered moderately hard. A water softener’s effectiveness depends on how hard the incoming water is. Water over 100 GPG may not be completely softened.

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