If you’re tired of dealing with hard water in your home — from the increased costs associated with just having hard water to all the temporary fixes you’ve tried to deal with it — it may be time to consider a more permanent fix.
In this post we take a closer look at water softeners, what they are, what you should consider when buying one, and how they work.
Getting Started with a Water Softener
If you’re considering a water softener it’s advisable to call a plumber with experience dealing with hard water issues, water softening, and installing water softeners because:
- The initial cost of water softeners can be expensive.
- Using a water softener will increase water usage from 15 to 120 additional gallons of water used for every 1,000 gallons water softened, according to Consumer Reports
- Using a water softener will increase your electric bill to operate the unit.
- Using a water softener can increase the sodium level of the water, which could be a health concern for some people.
Do You Need a Water Softener?
You can determine this any number of ways, including talking with your plumber about the quality (or lack of) of the local water system.
Otherwise, you can stop by a local home improvement center like Home Depot or Lowe’s or hardware store to get a hard water test (it’s usually free). Or, of course, you can shop the internet.
- Take the test strip.
- Put it in a cup of water.
- Look at the color strip for the result. 0 is soft, then moving toward hard the ratings are 3, 7, 11, 15, 25, 59.
Buying vs. Leasing Water Softeners
In the short run, leasing is most attractive because there are no significant up-front costs. Depending on the level of service and materials you choose, you will pay from $15 to $50 a month or more to lease a water softener.
If you buy, you will pay between $400 to $2,500 a more for a water softener depending on the features you choose. There’s also an additional $150 a year for materials, again depending on the model and features chosen.
- If you have two bathrooms and three people in the house, you will need a small to midsize softener with a 20,000+ grain capacity.
- If you have three bathrooms and at least four people in the home, you will need a midsize to large softener with a 30,000+ grain capacity.
Types of Water Softeners
Ion Exchange Water Softener
This is the water softener most people use. Ion exchange softening generally involves exchanging sodium or potassium ions for the hardness-causing minerals – calcium and magnesium.
Traditional water softeners will have a large holding tank or “brine,” which must be kept full of salt. This is where the “flushing” of ions occurs. Most softeners will have a manual mechanism to initiate the cycle or an electronic timer, flow meter, or a sensor system that will more conveniently do the same thing.
Ion exchange is the most common technology used in household applications. While maintenance, ongoing operating costs and increased sodium in the water are drawbacks, ion exchange is a simple, effective and safe solution to hard water issues.
Salt-Free Hard Water Conditioners
Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC) has emerged as a leading salt-free hard water conditioner technology. TAC does not remove the minerals responsible for hard water like a conventional water softener. It works by acting as a catalyst for the formation of stable hardness crystals that do not readily stick to surfaces.
Considerable independent testing of the technology has been done, including a study conducted by Arizona State University in 2011. It determined that TAC technology was the most effective of all non-salt water conditioners at preventing mineral scale, with reduction levels consistently in excess of 90 percent. The results showed that TAC conditioners were far more effective than magnetic and electronic water conditioners at preventing hard water scale formation.
Unlike conventional water softeners, TAC systems do not require backwash or regeneration with salt so they are regarded as being more environmentally friendly.
There is, however, some uncertainty surrounding salt-free systems and it’s best to review these with a plumber or water-quality expert before committing to one. Some experts contend that these systems are just scale inhibitors.
Two other water-softening technologies include Polyphosphate (mostly effective in low volume, cold water applications) and Magnetic and Electronic Water Conditioners, which are fairly controversial in the U.S. because of a lack of scientific evidence that they actually work.
What to Consider When Buying a Water Softener
Household size and water usage: The grain capacity of a water softener refers to how many grains of hard water minerals can be removed before regenerating (see process below). While our area doesn’t have the hardest water in the U.S., it does have some. If you live in an area with harder water than normal or use a lot of water, consider a higher capacity softener.
Energy efficiency: Because a water softeners uses energy to do its business, consider an energy efficient model to help lower energy bills. An energy-efficient model can help reduce water use by up to 35 percent.
Additional contaminant removal: Some systems also remove other contaminants such as chlorine, sediment, clear-water iron (which appear as reddish stains in sinks, tubs, and toilets).
Maximum hardness removal: You will want to know you hard water numbers in grains per gallon, which will help you choose the model for you. Stop by a local home improvement center, hardware store, or talk with your plumber to get a hard water test (it’s usually free).
Internal sensors: Some models use internal sensors to analyze your home’s specific water patterns to fine-tune when your system needs to regenerate. These models, obviously, are more expensive.
Enhanced performance capabilities: Some models have enhanced performance capabilities, which also will make the purchase of a water softener more expensive. Salt monitors, programming options, and self-cleaning sediment filters are examples of enhanced performance capabilities that will take the guesswork out of water softening. If you are unsure if you need these more expensive features, discuss options with your plumber, who can help you pinpoint the right model and features for your home.
How Water Softeners Work
Water softening is remarkably simple.
- Hard water enters the water softener.
- Tiny beads in the resin bed attract the hard water minerals, removing them from the water. Resin beads hold sodium. As the hard water flows through the resin beads, sodium is swapped for the minerals.
- The soft water enters your home ready for use.
When the resin beads are full of hard water minerals, it’s time for the regeneration process to begin.
- A brine solution you created with the salt added to the water softener is pumped through the resin tank. It exchanges sodium for hard water minerals trapped in the beads. While there is some concern that too much sodium is left in the softened water, some models leave behind the same amount of sodium found in two slices of bread . . . or very little.
- The brine solution and the hard minerals are flushed from the tank into a drain before the softening process begins again.
Note: Most newer, high-efficiency water softeners used less than 10 bags of salt per year, or about $200 in ancillary costs.