Understanding water softeners and what they do

June 7, 2017

Hard water can leave deposits or “scale” on your plumbing fixtures and appliances, creating a headache for you by clogging your pipes and reducing the efficiency of your appliances. Luckily, a water softener can fix this problem and quickly get you back on good terms with your water supply. [Photo Credit: istock.com/DenBoma]

Understanding water softeners and what they do

Hard water and soft water

Depending where you live, the hardness level of water will vary. From a health standpoint, hard water minerals have no adverse effects; the hard water merely has a high mineral content, typically calcium and magnesium. Some of the negative effects of hard water are:

  • A film formation on dishes and residue on bathroom fixtures.
  • Mineral build-up in pipes and faucets, causing clogging and reducing the efficiency of boilers and tanks.
  • Reduced efficiency of water-using appliances.
  • Reduced ability of soap to lather whether in the shower, sink, dishwasher or washing machine.
  • Increased utility costs due to poorly functioning water systems.
  • Water is considered soft when most of the calcium and magnesium is removed.

Benefits of soft water include:

  • Lower energy consumption (improved water heater efficiency).
  • Reduced staining and deposits on plumbing fixtures and less spotting on dishes and glassware.
  • Increased effectiveness of soaps and detergents.
  • Extended life of water-using appliances.
  • Laundered clothing is whiter, brighter and softer.

 Good to know!

Soft water is not recommended for drinking, cooking or watering plants. You can install a bypass that provides un-softened water for these purposes. This should be carried out by a professional plumbing service.

How a water softener works

A water softener system is a resin tank full of tiny resin beads.

  • A typical water softener is plumbed into your home's water supply system.
  • Hard water enters your home from a main water pipe or well and travels to the water softener.
  • Resin beads in the tank attract and hold on to hard water minerals, removing them from the water.
  • Softened water exits the tank and flows to the plumbing throughout your home.

 Automatic softeners are most popular. They vary in price and complexity. Common types include:

  • Time clock. Regenerates on a pre–set schedule; this method is popular but can cost twice as much to operate as demand–based models.
  • Water meter. Regenerates based on volume of water. These produce the softest water per pound of salt.
  • Hardness sensor. Monitors the hardness of the water and activates regeneration as needed via a sensor. It’s the most costly to buy but uses less water and salt, offering long–term savings. Manual and semi-automatic versions are available; these require you to initiate regeneration.

 Good to know!

Health Canada recommends choosing a softener that’s certified to the NSF 44 performance standard.

Water softener salt

Water softener salt doesn’t actually soften the water, the resin beads in the mineral tank do. Over time, these beads need to be rinsed free of the minerals and “recharged” so they continue to work effectively. This is called regeneration.

  • Water softeners have a brine tank where salt is added to create a brine solution.
  • This solution flows into the mineral tank, rinsing and recharging the beads.
  • The water softener then flushes out the remaining brine and minerals through a drainpipe, leaving it ready to continue collecting hard water.

There are three main types of water softener salt available: rock salt, solar salt and evaporated salt.

  • Rock salt is the cheapest but contains more impurities. As a result, the tank requires more frequent cleaning and maintenance.
  • Solar salt is evaporated from seawater. It contains less insoluble matter than rock salt but more than evaporated salt.
  • Evaporated salt is best if you have really hard water or use a lot of water per day because it has the lowest tendency to form buildup.

Check your water softener owner’s manual before purchasing salt to ensure you select the correct type. Mixing evaporated salt and rock salt is not recommended, as this can clog the tank. If switching, allow the tank to empty of one type of salt before adding another.

Alternatives to salt exist. If you’re on a salt-restricted diet or concerned about sodium levels, try:

  • Potassium chloride. It works the same way as salt but is more costly. Consult your owner’s manual before switching.
  • Install a separate water dispenser that bypasses the softener.

Good to know!
For best performance, check the water softener monthly and keep the salt level at least half full.

Water hardness classifications

There are varying levels of water hardness.

  • Water hardness is measured in milligrams per litre (also referred to as parts per million or ppm) or grains per U.S. gallon (gpg).
  • If you have your water tested, the report will use one or both units to tell you how hard your water is.
  • There are five classifications: soft, slightly hard, moderately hard, hard and very hard.

Before installing a water softener, always determine your daily household water use and the hardness level of your water. There are online resources that explain how to calculate water usage and that provide hardness levels for your local area.

Now that you know how water softeners work, you can confidently remove hard water once and for all. Unclogged fixtures, lathery soap and smoothly running appliances are now a part of your soft-water world.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
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