Get Started with a Free Water Consultation

What Are Water Softeners? The Complete Guide


If you’ve ever seen the symptoms of water hardness — such as spotty dishes, mineral buildup, and dry skin or hair — you’ve likely gone looking for a solution. Fortunately, there’s a simple one for your whole home: water softening.

Water softeners remove the minerals that cause hard water problems in the first place. They work by using resin beads to attract and remove these minerals – mainly calcium and magnesium – from your water supply. The system “regenerates” – or flushes out the resin tank – with a brine solution that rinses the beads to keep them working effectively.

Want to know more about water softeners, how they work and why a majority of homes can likely benefit from having one? Here’s your complete guide to the world of water softening.

How Do Water Softeners Work?

A water softener works through basic chemistry. To understand how all the pieces fit together, it’s helpful to know the science of hard water.

Certain minerals — particularly calcium and magnesium — are responsible for making water hard. These “hardness minerals” can irritate your skin, dry out your hair, keep soap from lathering and even build up in your water heater, dishwasher and other water-using appliances or plumbing fixtures.

Calcium and magnesium are ions that have a positive charge. That means they can be attracted by a negative charge, much like opposing magnets. That’s why your water softener contains negatively charged resin beads. These beads attract the mineral ions and trap them, while the rest of your water flows through the system — and the result is soft water.

To keep working effectively, the resin beads need to be flushed or cleaned of the trapped positive ions in a process called regeneration. The system uses a separate tank containing a brine solution full of sodium ions to wash away the hardness minerals. Depending on what kind of water softener you have, regeneration may occur at fixed intervals based on how much time has passed or your water usage. With Culligan® Aqua-Sensor® technology and proportional brining, your water softener can intelligently monitor the condition of its resin beads and regenerate only when necessary – reducing your salt and water usage.

Fortunately, regeneration is generally an automatic process — although certain smart features may allow you to trigger it manually. The only thing you need to do is ensure that you have plenty of water softener salt to keep your system working at peak performance.

Water Softener vs. Water Conditioner vs. Water Filtration System

When it comes to water treatment, you’re likely to hear terms that sound similar, but actually have important distinctions. Here’s what that means for water softening:

Water Softener

By definition, a water softener is responsible for softening water. Its job is to remove hardness minerals and directly treat their symptoms, including mineral buildup, spotty dishes, decreased lather from soaps and shampoos, and more. Softeners typically have two tanks as described above, the resin tank and the brine tank.

Water Conditioner

“Water conditioner” is a broad term for any system that improves your water’s overall condition. Every water softener is a water conditioner, but not every water conditioner is a softener.

This includes salt-free water softeners — more accurately called salt-free conditioners. Although these solutions help treat symptoms of hard water, they don’t remove those hard minerals in the same way a water softener system does. For example, salt-free conditioners might make limescale thinner or easier to remove, but they won’t entirely eliminate it.

However, there are plenty of benefits to the salt-free approach, particularly if you’re in an area with brine restrictions. You’ll get some of the same advantages — including longer-lasting appliances and cost savings on cleaning supplies — but the outcome isn’t technically softened water.

Water Filtration System

A water filtration system isn’t the same thing as a water softener. Although some softening systems can also come with filtration capabilities, it’s common to have a separate filtration solution, depending on your water problems. That’s because the most comprehensive filters — for example, reverse osmosis drinking water filtration systems — can address a much wider range of potential contaminants.*

The good news is that you can have both a water filtration and water softening system. These solutions complement each other for a more complete water treatment solution.

Benefits of Water Softeners

While hard water isn’t harmful to your health, it can be a nuisance if you’re trying to keep a clean, functioning household. Not sure if you need a water softener? Take a closer look at the surfaces your tap water touches. If you’re noticing any of the following signs of hard water, it might be time to install a water softener:

  • Limescale buildup around faucets or showerheads
  • Soap scum on shower walls, bathtubs, sinks and other fixtures in the kitchen or bathroom
  • Plumbing and pipe corrosion due to mineral buildup
  • Streaky or spotty dishes
  • Stiff laundry after washing
  • Irritated, dry skin or dull hair

Hard water can cost you time and money having to clean or replace items that have stopped working due to mineral deposits. Luckily, a water softener can help solve many of these issues.

Soft water systems can help remove high concentrations of calcium and magnesium and deliver softer, better water for your home. The benefits of a water softener include:

  • Shinier hair and softer skin
  • Sparkling, spot-free dishes
  • Brighter and softer laundry
  • Longer-lasting appliances
  • Reduced time and money spent on cleaning

When you reduce these dissolved minerals in your water, you can see the benefits everywhere — around your home, on your skin and even in your wallet. That’s why it’s smart to keep an eye on your tap water and find a softening solution at the first sign of limescale, reduced appliance performance, impacted soap lathering or other issues.

Your Water Softening Questions, Answered

Whether you’ve never had a water softener before or are looking to refresh your knowledge, it’s always helpful to brush up on the facts. Here are the answers to some frequent questions you may be asking yourself.


Do water softeners require maintenance?

Water softeners require minimal maintenance, which mostly comes down to regular salt refills. The most comprehensive, smart systems have automated notifications to let you know when something needs to be taken care of — and some can even enable remote troubleshooting for your local service experts. For example, certain softeners can use the Culligan Connect App to send you salt refill reminders.

What should you know about salt replacement?

Water softener salt is an important part of the softening process. Although you can handle this yourself, it’s much easier — and more convenient — to schedule salt deliveries based on your softener’s needs and your home’s water usage.

How long does a water softener last?

A high-quality water softener can last decades if maintained properly. However, there are a few factors that can affect the lifespan, such as how often it’s used and the quality of your water. For example, if your home currently has extremely hard water or well water, your water softening system may need to be replaced sooner.


Can you install your own softener?

Water softener installation involves a lot of work, which can include cutting pipes, connecting drain lines and performing other important tasks that could impact your whole house. That’s why it’s often best to leave this task to the experts.

What should you expect at your water softener installation?

A professional water softener installation should be efficient and hassle-free. You’ll begin by preparing the area ahead of time by moving things out of the way and cleaning up any clutter. From there, Your local water expert will take care of everything for you — from turning off your main water supply to cleaning up the area afterward. You’ll also have plenty of opportunities to ask questions along the way.

Smart Features

What are smart features on a water softener?

Smart features vary between softener models, but they generally have the same goal: to add convenience and give you more control over your water. Here are just a few examples of available smart water features:

  • Water usage monitoring: Do you know how much water your household uses? This feature helps you monitor your habits and even create and track conservation goals.
  • Real-time alerts: You’ll get notifications when your system needs maintenance, including salt refills. You can even customize when and how these alerts are delivered.
  • Leak detection: Some systems can detect leaks around the softener, including nearby water-using appliances. You’ll be notified right away if an issue is detected, helping prevent damage, waste and high water bills.
  • Softening control: Want to switch off your system while you’re on vacation? Need to ensure you’re not wasting soft water on areas that don’t need it, like your lawn? Smart features including Away mode and bypass functionality help put you in control of softening. With the Culligan Connect App, it’s all right in the palm of your hand.
  • Customization: Some softeners may have features that enable you to directly control the feel of your water, like Culligan’s proprietary Dial-A-Softness® option, which lets you customize the softening process.

What are the best softener options?

The best smart softening features depend on your home, needs and water goals. To determine what’s best for you, it’s helpful to start with a professional water test and consultation. You’ll get the chance to talk to a local water expert who can make personalized recommendations based on your water usage, hardness, available space, budget and more.

Choosing Your Softener

How do you choose the right softener?

When choosing a softener for your home, it’s important to consider a few basic factors:

  • Size and capacity: Can the softener keep up with your water usage?
  • Hardness rating: Is the softener equipped to handle the level of water hardness in your home?
  • Smart features: What features come standard and which are available? Perhaps most importantly, what do you need to get the most out of your water treatment plan?

How do you know your softening needs?

You can’t “see” water hardness the way you may notice other water problems. It doesn’t have a taste, odor or color — and although it can cause other visible issues such as limescale or dry hair, you may not immediately know what’s causing these things.

That’s why it’s always smart to begin with a professional water test and consultation. Your Culligan water expert will determine the water hardness levels in your home. They may even be able to compare that to the average hardness in your area so you have a better understanding of your needs. Along the way, they’ll also test for certain contaminants and other water issues, including chlorine, iron and more.

From there, your local expert can recommend the water softener and filtration system combination that will best fit your home, budget and water quality. If you’re in an area with brine restrictions, your expert can also suggest salt-free alternatives.

Take Control With a Water Softener

If you’re tired of hard water problems like mineral buildup, spotty dishes and dry hair, it’s time to see what water softening can do for your home. From cost savings and better appliance performance to healthier skin and softer laundry, you’ll see and feel all the benefits of a water softener.

However, to know which solution is right for your home it’s important to understand your water’s hardness levels — and anything else that could be lurking in your tap. That’s why your first step should be a professional water test.

Schedule your free, in-home water test and consultation today.

*Contaminants may not be present in your water.

Find A Location Near Me


Schedule Your Free
In-Home Water Test

Get better water in your home by scheduling an appointment with your local Culligan Water Expert.

Our Products

blue wave
Water Softeners

Water Softeners

With any of our soft water systems, get more out of your water-using appliances while spending less on energy and detergent.

View Products

Water Delivery

Water Delivery

There’s never been a better time to enjoy the convenience of scheduled bottled water deliveries from the Culligan® Water Experts

View Products

Water Filtration Systems

Water Filtration Systems

Culligan's water filtration systems have improved water quality for thousands of families worldwide.

View Products