Have you ever wondered what exactly is a water softener? After all, isn’t all water soft? Fair point. But water softeners were created to combat a surprisingly common problem: hard water.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, about 85 percent of American households have hard water, including homes with city water and well water. But what exactly is hard water and what can be done about? Glad you asked.

The term “hard water” may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s simply household water that contains high concentrations of dissolved minerals, specifically calcium and magnesium. These minerals don’t make water unhealthy to drink. They also are relatively undetectable through smell or taste, but they can be harmful just the same.



The effects of elevated mineral levels range from annoying to highly destructive. Hard water causes cloudy water spots on sinks, dishes, silverware, and shower enclosures. White, crusty deposits form on teakettles and coffee pots. Hard water also dramatically reduces the lathering and rinse-ability of laundry detergent, body soap, and shampoo.

As a result, laundered clothes appear gray and faded. Bathing and showering in hard water makes your skin feel dry and itchy. Because shampoo doesn’t lather up very well in hard water, shampooing leaves your hair feeling and looking limp and dry.

Now, the abovementioned effects of hard water are annoying and irritating, but not terribly problematic. That is, until you consider the harmful effect hard water has on plumbing systems, fixtures, and appliances.

As water runs through the supply pipes and then out the faucets, showerheads, icemaker, washing machine, water heater, boiler, and dishwasher, it’s leaving behind hard, crusty mineral deposits. At first, these small deposits are harmless, but over time they build up and eventually clog pipes, seize valves, and plug aerators and showerheads. In extreme cases, hard-water deposits can dramatically restrict the water flow, which puts undue pressure on the whole plumbing system.

The best way to determine if your home has hard water is to bring a water sample to a water-testing laboratory. For about $90 or so you’ll receive a full report, and not just about minerals. The detailed analysis will also list the presence of many other substances, including nitrates, chlorine, sodium, and dangerous bacteria.

So, as you can see, hard water is a common and potentially serious problem. Fortunately there’s an effective and relatively affordable solution: install a water softener.

Whole-house water softeners come in a variety of sizes and styles to accommodate the size of your home and family. The softener is installed in the basement, garage, utility closet or wherever water enters the house.

A typical water softener consists of a tall, narrow water-softener tank, and a short, wide brine tank. The softener tank is connected to the home’s water-supply line. A small-diameter fill tube connects the brine tank to the softener tank. And a discharge hose runs from the softener tank to a nearby drainpipe or drywell.

The softener tank is filled with specially formulated resin beads, which are permanently sealed inside the tank. The brine tank has a removable lid so you can fill it with salt or potassium chloride pellets.

Water enters the top of the water-softener tank and percolates down through the resin beads. The resin has a negative charge, which attracts the positively charged minerals in the water (a process known as, ion exchange). The mineral deposits cling to the resin and the now-softened water exits the softener tank and flows throughout the house.

Sooner or later, however, the beads reach maximum capacity and can’t attract any more mineral ions. At that point, the softener tank must be regenerated, or, flushed clean. That’s where the brine tank comes in. An on-board computer calculates the amount of water that flows through the softener. When it reaches the preprogrammed setting, regeneration automatically begins. For a three-bedroom house and family of four, regeneration usually occurs every 12,000 gallons.

During regeneration, salty water from the brine tank flows up the fill tube and into the softener tank. A rinse cycle commences and the salty water washes the mineral deposits off the resin beads. The regenerated water and the mineral deposits are flushed out the discharge hose. The system then reverts back to softening the incoming water.

At some point, you’ll have to add more salt or potassium chloride pellets to the brine tank. How often you’ll need to add pellets depends on how much water you use. An average family of four typically needs to add one 50-pound bag of pellets each month.

Water softener costs vary widely depending on the size and make of the softener, but expect to pay between $2,000 and $2,500 for a typical system, including installation.

Be aware that softened water contains trace amounts of salt. An 8-ounce glass of water contains about the same amount of salt as a slice of bread. That’s not very much salt, but for those on a strict sodium-free diet it might be too much.

If you’d like to eliminate the salt, simply fill the brine tank with potassium chloride pellets, not salt pellets. The only problem is that potassium chloride is expensive: $25 to $30 per 50-pound bag. Salt costs $4 to $6 per bag.

Another option is to use salt pellets in the brine tank, but then install a reverse-osmosis water filter at the kitchen sink. The filter will remove salt from the water, which you can use for drinking and cooking.

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But the popularity of water softeners has created a new problem: the salty discharge water is raising sodium levels in municipal water-treatment plants, reservoirs, and ground-water tables. New legislation in some regions restrict or prohibit the use of water softeners, so be sure to check with the local building department before proceeding.

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