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How Do Water Softeners Work?


The name “water softener” is self explanatory – it’s a system that makes your water softer. Of course, that doesn’t mean much if you don’t know what soft water is, why it’s preferable to hard water, and how the softening process works..

Simply put, a water softener system removes certain types of unwanted minerals from your water, leaving you with reduced energy bills, softer skin and hair, brighter laundry and more efficient appliances.

Here’s what to know about this water treatment solution and how to decide if it’s a good fit for your home.

The Water Softening Process

You don’t need to know all the science to make your water softener work, but it’s helpful to understand the basics of the softening process. That way, you can have more control over your home’s water supply and how it feels.

To begin, think about how a vacuum cleaner works. It sucks up and traps dirt in a filter, which often looks like a cylinder or tank. This needs to be emptied or cleaned out so it can continue doing its job.

In some ways, modern water softeners use a similar method, called an ion exchange process. Water flows into the softener tank from your main water line. The main softener tank is full of resin beads, which are negatively charged. Because the calcium and magnesium minerals responsible for making your water hard are positively charged, the resin beads work like magnets to attract them. These hard minerals are then trapped, letting the rest of the water flow through to your home. The resulting water supply is considered “soft.”

Over time, the resin beads fill up with these minerals, just like your vacuum filter fills with dirt. Instead of the resin beads needing to be replaced or manually cleaned, your water softener does this work for you through a process called regeneration. During regeneration, a brine solution – held in a second tank – flows into the main softener tank, rinsing the resin beads and cleaning out the hardness molecules. To replenish the brine solution, you simply need to refill your system with salt as needed. That’s why salt is a key component of the typical softening process.

Regeneration occurs at various intervals based on how your softener is configured to work. Some run this process after a certain period of time has passed, regardless of how much the softener has actually been used. Others regenerated based on how much water has flowed through the system. The most efficient approach is when systems have smart features that enable them to trigger regeneration only when necessary, using built in tools that monitor the condition of the resin.

Note that, while most water softener systems are whole-home solutions, addressing water at every tap, they aren’t the same as a water filtration or water purification solution. The processes, systems and functions are different, and so are the results. That means even with soft water, concerns related to your water — including any odd tastes, odors or contaminants— may still be present.*

What About Salt-Free Softening?

Technically speaking,  salt-free water softeners don’t exist. However, there are some systems that can condition your water to help treat some hard water symptoms without using salt. While these systems do not rid your water of hardness molecules, they can address some key hard water pain points, making these salt-free solutions a good alternative in areas with brine restrictions.

An Inside Look At Water Softeners

Water softeners may be called systems or solutions, but they usually aren’t thought of as machines. However, modern water softeners may have smart features that make them more functional, efficient and manageable.

The exact design and structure of your system depends on its make, model, size and more. Most softeners have these components in common:

  • Resin tank: Sometimes called a mineral tank, this component holds the resin beads that trap the hard water ions and keep them out of your water supply.
  • Brine tank: This tank stores brine solution made from water softener salt and water. It connects to the mineral tank via a brine line, which is used during regeneration.
  • Water lines: A professional installer will connect your water softener system to your main water line. The system will have another line where softened water comes out.
  • Electronics: Electronic elements can include screens, timers, bypass valves and more depending on your model.

To determine what water softener size and features are right for your home, you’ll need to start with a professional water test. This will help you find your water hardness level, which determines your softening requirements.

What To Expect From Water Softening

If you know how your water softener works, you should also know what it does. Here are just a few potential outcomes from softening:

  • Reduced mineral deposits/buildup on fixtures, inside plumbing and more
  • Softer, brighter, cleaner-smelling laundry
  • No more soap scum around bathtubs and showers
  • Cleaner dishes without spots
  • Healthier-feeling hair and skin
  • Improved water flow/pressure
  • Longer appliance lifetime

All this can be achieved when hard water minerals are being removed and flushed out of your water supply, versus the conditioning process that happens with salt-free systems. If any of these issues return, your system may not be working correctly, which often means it ran out of water softener salt. Some modern, smart water softeners have smart features that remind you to refill your salt when necessary.

Ready to say goodbye to hard water problems?
Download our FREE Hard Water Solutions Handbook.

Getting The Most From Your Water Softener

Want to make sure you get the most out of your water softener? Check out these tips:

  • Consider softener size: Larger households with more people use more water, which means you may need a softener with a greater capacity.
  • Do your research on smart features: Smart features improve the softening process by giving you more visibility, convenience and control. You can get automated alerts when salt or other maintenance is needed, track your water usage and conservation, bypass certain areas to avoid wasting softened water and more.
  • Think about salt replacement: Salt water keeps your softener in working condition. Have a plan for ordering and refilling salt, such as scheduled salt deliveries.
  • Don’t forget filtration: Although some water softener models offer a certain degree of filtration for issues like iron or chlorine, you may still want an additional water filter solution that complements your water treatment process.

Learn More About Water Treatment

A water softener works hard to address issues such as dry skin and hair, mineral deposits, soap scum and more — all caused by hard water. The good news is that the softening process requires little work on your part, particularly if you have smart features.

If you want an even more comprehensive water treatment solution, you’ll have to include filtration, too. The right type of water filter system will depend on your needs and any water problems you might have — all of which can be determined with a water test.

Ready to get started? Schedule your free, in-home water test and consultation today.

*Contaminants may not be present in your water.

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