What is a Water Softener, and Why Do You Need One?

Ever toured a different city and began to suspect that something’s not quite right with their water supply? Perhaps you noticed it has a strange, heavy or metallic taste. Or that it leaves marks on just about everything it comes in contact with. Well, consider yourself lucky — not many people are lucky to have their water clean and ‘soft’. The US Geological Survey estimates that up to 85% of households countrywide have a hard water supply, and could therefore use a special filtration mechanism known as a water softener.

What is a Water Softener?

A water softener is a piece of equipment that rids water of magnesium, calcium and other minerals that cause “hardness.” This can be done in several ways, but most units employ a process known as ion exchange. Here, ions of magnesium and calcium are swapped with sodium ions, resulting in ‘soft’ water.

So, what’s the difference between calcium/magnesium and sodium ions? The former have a unique chemical structure that tends to form very strong bonds. More specifically, these minerals have a habit of clinging onto any metals they encounter, creating the solid deposits we refer to as limescale. And it’s from this tendency that hard water got its name; from the hardened residue it leaves on pipe walls.

Besides clogging up your plumbing, hard water makes your appliances less efficient, and could cause them to break down entirely. The dissolved minerals also make it difficult to lather soap and other detergents. A water softener offers the most effective solution for these issues — read this QWL Guide.

How a Water Softener Works

We’ve just highlighted that the majority of water softeners are ion exchangers. As you might recall from your science lessons, ions are molecules that carry a positive/negative charge. And like with magnets, ions with dissimilar charges attract. Positive ions, or cations, are attracted towards negatively-charged ions known as anions), and vice-versa. This means ions of the same kind can be exchanged as long as there’s a variation in the strength of charge.

It’s from this principle that the water softening process is based. What happens is that calcium and magnesium ions have a much stronger charge compared to sodium ions, and can therefore displace the latter from anions they’re already bound to.

A standard water softener relies on 2 key components: Mineral tank and brine tank. The mineral tank is where the softening takes place. It holds a medium of tiny resin crystals as the anions, plus sodium ions to facilitate the exchange. As hard water flushes through, calcium and magnesium ions come into contact with the resin and form bonds, displacing sodium ions in the process. Because the resin stays in the tank, what flows out on the other end is soft water.

Obviously, there’s a limit to how much mineral content the resin can absorb before it gets inundated. A water softener needs a way of “recharging” the resin; to displace the hardness ions and make room for more. This is where the brine tank comes into the equation.

Like the name suggests, the brine tank holds a concentrated salt solution that is pumped through the mineral tank to re-stock it with sodium ions. This involves yet another ion exchange process — only that it’s the hardness ions getting displaced from the resin. They bind onto the anions in the dissolved salt and consequently flushed out of the system.

And that’s pretty much how a water softener operates. Every other component a unit may have (switches, valve, pipework etc) will be for the purposes of facilitating these two processes.

Do You Need a Water Softener?

Granted, the best way to determine whether you need the equipment is to have your water supply tested by a professional. But as we pointed out earlier, hard water literally leaves a trail wherever it flows through, with damage following sooner or later. The good news is that it’s possible to prevent the destruction by installing a water softener early enough. You will want to do so promptly if you’ve noticed any of the following:

  • A dull-white crusty residue on your fixtures: Limescale builds up on every surface that comes into frequent contact with hard water. It can be notoriously difficult to eliminate once it accumulates past a certain point.
  • Your plumbing keeps breaking down: Limescale can create all kinds of problems in your plumbing, from reducing water pressure to blocking pipes entirely (steel pipes are especially vulnerable). Additionally, it will prevent valves from closing properly, leading to leakage and inexplicably-high water bills. Limescale buildup could also be behind those mysterious water heater/boiler malfunctions.
  • Slimy scum on bathroom walls and sinks: As highlighted before, the minerals found in hard water prevent soap from dissolving properly — or even dissolving at all, which is yet another indicator. The soap will usually form an insoluble residue that clings to every surface (floor and wall tiling, sinks, shower curtains etc).
  • Staining and discoloration on your garments and kitchenware: Here’s another impact of the rocky relationship between soap and hardness minerals. Hard water doesn’t rinse off soap, and this increases the likelihood of your garments to catch stains. On the flip side, it’s limescale, rather than your dishwasher, that is to blame for those ugly stains on your utensils.
  • Your household has skin problems: Bathing in hard water is known to cause itchiness and dried-out skin, in addition to increasing one’s susceptibility to eczema. Don’t wait till someone in your household falls victim.

Once again, it’s worth highlighting that you don’t have to wait for these symptoms to invest in the best water softener — the damage will already have been done by then. Get your water supply tested by a professional today. The sooner you do it, the more money you stand to save, and the less headaches you’ll have to deal with in the long run.