how does a water softener work

Water softeners are fantastic devices and systems that improve your water quality. Oftentimes, depending on your water supply, your drinking water may contain excessive minerals. As a result, this can cause adverse effects. This is where water softeners can be useful. But how does a water softener work, and what does it do? We answer these questions in the below article.

The Basic Process – Removal of Additional Minerals

Before looking at the actual water softener device, it is important to understand the principle behind this technology.

What is Hard Water?

Hard water has a higher hardness level due to an excess of minerals. The main minerals for the classification of hard water are calcium and magnesium. Other minerals can be included, like iron, but the above two are the main components.

Hard water is commonly caused when water passes through large chalk, gypsum, or limestone deposits. These deposits have a high magnesium and calcium content. As a result, the mineral ions effectively dissolve into the water as it passes through and affects its chemical composition.

How to Soften Hard Water?

Therefore, the basic premise of making hard water soft is to remove the excess minerals. Once you remove the dissolved calcium and magnesium, the water is classified as soft and more suitable for use in home plumbing systems.

A water softener works by using an ion-exchange process to affect the ionic charge of the water minerals. Once the charge is affected, the minerals “stick” to beads inside the device, and thus the water is softened.

How a Water Softener Works – Components

Now that you understand the chemical/scientific process, you must understand how water softeners work from a mechanical perspective. The design of water softeners varies greatly. However, they mainly have four common components, which we discuss below.

Ion Exchange

The ion exchange or mineral tank of the water softener is one of the most important parts. This is connected to the intake pipe, and the water pressure and regeneration are controlled via the control valve.

As the hard minerals and hard water pass into the tank, they seep through an array of resin beads. While passing through the beads, the hard water deposits the hardness minerals like magnesium minerals and calcium minerals.

Once the calcium and magnesium minerals are removed, the water is now soft. It finally passes back out of the ion exchange tank and into your water system – ready for drinking or showering, for example.

Brine Tank

The other major feature that makes water softeners work is the brine tank. This is a separate tank that is vital for the regeneration process.

The issue here is that the resin beads cannot continually remove calcium and magnesium ions – they have a limit. Eventually, the volume of calcium and magnesium ions affects the charge of the beads. When they reach that max capacity, the softening activity stops.

There is a highly concentrated solution of salt (sodium chloride) within the tank. When the control valve recognizes the resin beads are “full,” the regeneration process begins. The salt solution is effectively flushed into the main water tank to reset the charge of the resin beads.

Salt is manually added to the tank to create the brine solution. This is done via tablet salt, block salt, or pellets. If the brine tank runs out of salt water, the unit will not soften water once the resin beads are at maximum capacity.

Intake/Outtake Pipes

Obviously, a water softener has to be connected to your water plumbing. As a result, these devices have both an intake and outtake pipe.

The intake pipe is where the hard water passes through to enter the mineral tank. The softening process then takes place, and eventually, the water is passed back out through the outtake pipe. This outtake pipe is then connected back to your water system so that the soft water can flow into your taps and shower etc.

Sometimes, depending on the model, a water softener may only have one pipe that serves as both the intake and outtake tubes.

Control Valve

Most water softeners have a control valve. This valve measures the water flow that passes into the tank for the water softening process. Without this control, the resin beads that soak the hardness ions become too “full.”

Before this happens, the valve detects this and initiates a regeneration cycle. This effectively causes the brine solution in the brine tank to flush through into the ion exchange tank so that the resin beads can be balanced again to boost the ion exchange process.

Why is Hard Water an Issue for Homes?

So why should you be concerned with hard water? Does it actually make any difference? Hard water can cause a variety of issues for your plumbing network, your personal health, and the quality of your water. We look at the main issues water hardness causes below:

Strange Tastes and Odours

One of the first things you may notice with harder water is the smell and taste. This type of water may typically have an unpleasant smell depending on what minerals are present in the water. For example, an excess of sulphur can lead to the classic “rotten egg” smell – lovely!

The taste of harder water can also be different. For example, if the water has an excess of magnesium, you may notice a metallic taste.

Either way, the water will not be pleasant for drinking or for showering.

Discolouration and Cloudy Water

Isn’t it fantastic when you drink a fresh glass of pure, clear water? What about drinking a fresh glass of cloudy or discoloured water? Do you still get that same sense of satisfaction? Probably not!

This is another problem you can experience with harder water. If you drink water from your kitchen sink taps, you may notice that it looks milky or cloudy. This is a result of the excess calcium build-up. Alternatively, the water may have a strange colouration, likely due to the magnesium.

Water like this is not appealing. It looks disgusting, and it is not pleasant to drink or use. Aside from this, if your water doesn’t look right, it probably won’t taste right either. It could also potentially cause your body to ingest too many minerals. This could be problematic if you are on a strict dietary regime.

Damage to Water Pipes

Lastly, hard water can wreak havoc with your plumbing, pipes, taps, and water heater. If your house has more calcium and magnesium content, these minerals will eventually create limescale deposits in your plumbing network.

You will notice scale deposits and soap scum that builds up on your pipes, and the outlet parts of your taps, for example. This is easily noticeable, and you can physically see the damage and hopefully correct it in time. However, hard water will also cause scale build-up on the inside of pipes – this is something you cannot see.

Over time, this could wear down your pipes and cause leaks. Also, it can affect the utility of appliances like a washing machine or water heater. For example, a heater has to heat the water in the tank and the build-up of minerals, making it far less effective and energy-efficient.

Essentially, hard water can affect the quality of your clothes, washing, heating and adversely affect your utility bills.

Water Softener FAQs

Are There Any Disadvantages to Using and Drinking Softened Water?

Water softeners are admittedly not perfect. For example, if they break, they can be expensive to fix. Also, if you have special dietary requirements, changing the water makeup could have adverse effects and not give you the minerals you need.

Why Can Softened Water Feel “Slippy”?

This is a common occurrence. Due to the sodium content of the soft water and salt, you could feel like you haven’t rinsed properly after a shower – this is normal and nothing to worry about.

Can Water Softeners Cause Hair Loss?

No. This is a commonly believed claim. However, there is no scientific evidence – water softeners do not cause hair loss.

Does a Softener Increase the Salt Content of Water?

Yes. A traditional water softener that uses a salt tank will leave more salt in your water. For example, a glass of water may contain the same amount of salt as a slice of bread. This could be something to consider if you have low salt or salt-free diet.

Improve Your Water Quality Today With a Water Softener

We hope you have found this guide useful and that it answered your question, “how does a water softener work?” Understanding the process and the unit itself is important to understand how the device will fit into your home. The main point is that water softeners remove minerals from your water that make it “hard water,” like magnesium and calcium. This effectively filters your water and makes it cleaner to drink and less damaging to your plumbing system.

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