How Does a Water Softener Work and What Does it Actually Do?

There are a lot of good reasons to use water softener as hard water can damage your plumbing, as well as your skin and hair, while also making it more challenging to keep your house clean. Dissolved magnesium and calcium come out of hard water as scale, and they build up inside of pipes, coffee makers, water heaters, and other home and industrial appliances that make use of water.

Scales reduces water flow through pipes, and eventually, the pipes can become completely clogged. You can combat hard water and create better quality water that extends the life of your devices by using a water softener. If you are planning to buy one for your home, we urge you to check out our water softener reviews. But have you ever wondered how a water softener works and what it actually does? In this post, we will be discussing how a water softener works, but before then, let’s take a look at what hardness in water means.

What is Hardness in Water?

Hard water has high concentrations of calcium and magnesium minerals. Due to the mineral chemical structure, they bond easily with other types of metals. These hard minerals over time build up into something you can see, for instance, the crusty residue on your showerhead is as the result of hard water coming into your house.

These mineral deposits over time accumulate and corrode pipes and cause significant plumbing issues. Also, these deposits can build up in hot water heaters and boilers, making them more expensive to use and less efficient. In short, hard water hurts almost every surface it runs over, on, or through.

What is a Water Softener?

Water softeners are systems created to reduce and treat hard water. If you have ever noticed any form of scale buildup in your faucets, sinks, or showers, you have experienced firsthand the negative effect of hard water. Without the proper treatment or prevention methods, your pipes can become encrusted and blocked as the minerals keep accumulating.

When calcium, magnesium, and other minerals accumulate in your pipes, some of the things you will experience include heated water, clogged showerhead, low water pressure, and slow drainage. Now, what does a water softener do? Well, it is the answer to the menace of water hardness.

How do Water Softeners Work?

There are four significant types of water softeners, and these systems work in different ways to remove the adverse effects of hard water. The different types of water softener systems include salt-based, salt-free systems, magnetic systems, and reverse osmosis systems. Let’s start with the functioning of salt-based water softeners.

How a Salt-based Water Softener System Works?

The salt-based water softener is the most effective way to soften hard water, and the system uses a process known as ion exchange to remove minerals like magnesium, manganese, calcium, and iron – replacing the minerals with sodium ions. The ions are molecules and atoms that carry either a negative or positive charge because there is an imbalance between protons and electrons.

Anions have a negative charge, while cations have a positive charge. Though odium, iron, magnesium, and calcium are all positively charged, sodium allows for the exchange because it has a much weaker charge. Before fully going into how a salt-based water softener system works, let’s take a look at its essential components.

A salt-based water softener system consists of three main components: the resin tank, brine tank, and control valve.

The Resin Tank: The resin tank is the chamber where the actual softening takes place. In this chamber, the water supply line supplies the hard water to the tank. And it is where the water filtration takes place, and the calcium and magnesium are removed to soften the water.

The Brine Tank: This is where a highly concentrated solution of salt or potassium is mixed and stored. This solution is called brine, and you need it for regeneration.

The Control Valve: The control or head valve is the device that controls and operates the entire water softener system. It controls the flow direction and rate of water into and out of the resin and brine tanks during regeneration.

You now know about the different components a salt-based water softener system contains. Now, let’s dive into how these parts work together to produce soft water.

How a Salt-Free Water Softener System Works?

This system makes use of a filter to softening water, so it doesn’t require salt. However, this system is not considered to be a water softener, but rather a water conditioner that utilizes template-assisted crystallization. The system uses spherical beads to convert dissolved hard minerals into micro-crystals, which are unable to reach the surfaces, thus preventing them from scale buildup in your pipes.

This system is not designed to soften the water, and it is an anti-scale system. Although salt-free water softener systems are effective at both eliminating pre-existing scale and preventing scale, they do not provide the same benefit as a salt-based water softener system. Salt-free water softener systems do not remove the hardness of the water; they only transformed the hard mineral; the elevated magnesium and calcium are still present in the water.

So, you will still use more detergent during cleaning, and soap scum will still accumulate around your shower and tub. However, your faucets and showerheads will be safe from the accumulation of scaly, and you will see flow and pressure return to your pipes.

How Magnetic Based Water Softeners Work?

Magnetic based systems work by transporting hard water through a magnetic field to reduce the effects of hard water. This type of water softener is compact and only require a set of magnetic transmitters and display panel. However, it is controversial because there has been a mixed result on how effective the system works.

How Does a Reverse Osmosis System Work?

This water softening process is very similar to the operation of purifying seawater. The hard water passes through a fine membrane, and the hard minerals like the calcium and magnesium and other impurities are left behind, leaving the water on the other side of the layer soft.

This system usually gets used under sink RO systems, and you can also utilize it with the sink faucet water filters. The significant factors of the reserve osmosis water filter include pressure and a fine membrane. However, the drawback of this system is that while trapping the hard minerals, it also captures the useful minerals.

What Does a Water Softener Do and How it Produces Soft Water?

The hard water supplied to your house contains hard minerals like magnesium and calcium, and in some cases, manganese and iron. When coming from the main supply line, the hard water passes the bypass and flow into the water softener’s control valve. Then, it gets directed into the resin tank from which it moves down to the distribution pipe.

On the way to the distribution pipe, the hard water gets in contact with the resin beads saturated with sodium ions or in potassium ions, in rare cases. The stronger charged magnesium or calcium gets pulled to the solution like a magnet. And since the hard minerals have a higher positive charge than the sodium, they displace the sodium ions and take their place.

All the hard minerals stay trapped inside the resin tank. And by the time the water reaches the bottom of the tank, it is soft. It is important to remember that the soft water only contains a small amount of sodium because of the ion exchange process, so it is not saltwater.

It is also important to note that in the case you are on a salt-restricted diet, you can also use potassium chloride in place of sodium chloride. This mineral has the same function and benefits. The only downside is that it is more expensive.

1.    Regeneration

Over time, most of the resin beads get covered with magnesium and calcium ions, and they will be unable to soften the hard water coming in anymore. This process is when a water softener needs to regenerate, and this can be initiated manually or by a timer, depending on the type of water softener. Some water softeners know when you use the most amount of water. And this allows them to delay water regeneration until midnight.

The brine tank stores the salt you need to refill the resin beads, which have now been exhausted of all its sodium. For starter, before using any brine, the resin tank is backwash in the one stage of the regeneration cycle.

2.    Backwash

Regeneration starts with a backwash cycle where the valve reverses the flow of water in the tank and flushes debris out of the container. Backwashing is an essential part of the regeneration process because it helps loosen and expand the resin and remove any debris, precipitated iron, or sediment that might have accumulated in the bed.

3.    Brining

During this stage, more freshwater flushes the resin tank and goes down the drain. However, the difference between backwashing and brining is that the direction of the flow is now back to normal. And the water flow creates a tap effect drawing salt water from the brine tank into the resin tank through the fill tube.

The brine washed over the resin beads and displaced the accumulated mineral ions while replacing them with fresh sodium ions. The brining process ends when all brine gets eliminated from the brine tank, and at this point, most of the calcium and magnesium ions have been washed out.

4.    Rinse

Lastly, the tank is filled and rinsed with water, and this process repeats itself. By now, the salt will have been used to coat the beads. The magnesium and calcium in hard water are attracted to the beads; the salt gets displaced from the beads – now, the salts are floating in the softened water. The instance the beads become coated with minerals, the head valve begins a new regeneration cycle and flush the hard water minerals down the drain again.

Note: Whenever your system hasn’t been regenerating correctly, we recommend you renew your water softener about 2-3 times back-to-back immediately the water softener is repaired. Usually, you won’t know the amount of water that has passed through the system untreated, so you regenerate a couple of times to make sure you are back to ground zero.

How to Maintain a Salt-based Water Softener

Generally, water softeners have a lifespan of 15 years, but when properly maintained, they can last longer. For starter, ensuring the brink tank doesn’t run out of salt will extend the live span of your system. You can also protect your water softener by safeguarding the resin bed from a high level of manganese and iron. When properly maintained, the resin can last for about 10 to 20 years; however, chlorinated water can quickly exhaust the beads ion exchange.

Also, substantial levels of sediment may cause the injectors and screens within your head valve to fail prematurely. So, we recommend you put a sediment filter in front of the water softener, particularly if you get your water from a well with lots of debris and dirt.

Do You Need a Water Softener?

Some people think water softeners are only necessary if you own a private well with tough water. Others believe it is a luxury. They could not be more wrong. You will probably require a water softener if you have a well. Even the people living in the city uses hard water as well. Municipalities treat water for impurities, but they do not remove hard minerals from the water before supplying you.

High-efficiency appliances cannot operate as designed when they are fed hard water. For instance, washing machines and dishwashers could end up with a much shorter lifespan due to the effect of hard water. So, if you noticed reduced water pressure from scale-ridden pipes, endless appliance repair, stiff laundry, and dry hair, you need to get a water softener as soon as possible. The hard water problem is not something that will go away on its own. And the cost incurred as the result of hard water will continue to pile up.

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