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What are water softeners and how do water softeners work? 

  1. Using a water softener
  2. Major components of a water softener
  3. What are the two types of cycles?
  4. Are there risks to owning a water softener?
  5. How much do water softeners cost?
  6. What size water softener do I need?
  7. What should my water softener hardness be set at?
  8. How should I clean my water softener?

You’ve probably heard of “hard water” but may not be familiar with the term. So put, hard water means that your water contains excessive amounts of minerals such as calcium and magnesium. It’s safe to drink and cook with, but the extra minerals can make household chores more annoying.

File:Badger Water Softener Co., display at Nama National Convention, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (77704).jpg
Water softeners have been around in one form or another for quite a while; the above ad is dated between 1930 to 1945.

For instance, hard water can destroy electric appliances, leave filmy soap scum in your kitchen and showers, dry out your family’s hair and skin, damage your water heating unit, and make your laundry look dingy. Unfortunately, approximately 85% of the United States has hard water, so you’re not alone if experiencing any of these problems.  

Using a water softener

The solution to hard water is to use a water softener to remove the excess minerals. Since the offending minerals carry a positive electrical charge, water softeners remove them using negatively charged resin beads made of polystyrene or a similar substance. The opposite charges attract one another, leading to ion exchange that pulls the minerals out of your water.  

Major components of a water softening system

Most water softeners have a mineral tank, brine tank, and control valve. The mineral tank is where ion exchange takes place, which houses your system’s resin beads and allows your water to enter and exit before using it. The resin beads can last over 20 years, so this part of the system requires minimal maintenance.  

The brine tank is a smaller tank that’s commonly adjacent to your mineral tank. It houses highly concentrated sodium or potassium solution that recharges your resin beads when they begin to lose their negative charge. It requires manual refilling every month, depending on how often you need a recharge.  

Finally, the control valve includes a meter that tracks how much water flows through the system. You can preprogram when you want a recharge, and the control valve will initiate the process automatically. Several variables are involved in choosing your system’s capacity, including how hard your water is, the size of your home, and how many people use your water.  

What are the two types of regeneration cycles in a water softener?

Most water softeners use two regeneration cycles: co-current regeneration or counter-current regeneration. A co-current regeneration cycle means your system’s brine solution is sent to the mineral tank, where ion exchange takes to reverse, restoring the negative charge. This is generally seen as the less efficient of the two options. 

Alternatively, a counter-current regeneration cycle means your brine is run up the resin bed, starting with the most depleted areas, ensuring a more equitable recharge. This process requires an average of 75% less salt and 65% less water than co-current regeneration cycles, earning systems using the nickname “high-efficiency water softeners.”  

Are there any risks associated with water softeners? 

Most people can use water softeners without worrying about a thing. The process adds a few sodium ions to your water, but usually not in sufficient quantities to mean anything in daily sodium intake. The only exceptions will be if you had tough water (and therefore need more brine) or a physician specifically advised you to limit your sodium. In those scenarios, you may wish to invest in a reverse osmosis system to remove the sodium ions added by your water softener.  

Improper installation is the most common reason for leaks, so hiring a pro will pay dividends over the long run. However, a leaky water softener can cause headaches, so you shouldn’t install your system unless you know what you are doing.  

What is the cost of owning and operating a water softening system? 

Whole-home systems generally cost about $1,500, though the price is variable based on your home size and the type of system you choose. Installation is another variable that largely depends on whom you hire to perform the work. You can expect to pay $10-25 per month to replace the salt in your brine tank, and the system doesn’t use enough electricity to affect your utility bill.  

Most homeowners find that the benefits of water softening are well worth the cost. You spare yourself the expense of broken appliances and eliminate the soap scum that can make your kitchen, bathroom, and clothes look dirty. Some people even find that they no longer need to use moisturizer once their skin is no longer exposed to hard water regularly.  

What size water softener do I need?

There is no single “correct” size for a water softener, as different homes and families require different capacity levels. In addition, factors such as the hardness of your local water supply, the number of people living in your household, and your water usage habits can influence your system’s sizing. That being said, there are some general guidelines that you can follow to help you find the right size for your needs.

A softener with 5 or 6 liters of resin per square foot installation surface area should be sufficient for most homes. However, if you have particularly hard water or a large family with high water usage rates, you may need a system with more capacity. Ultimately, the best way to choose the right size for your home is to consult a professional who can help you determine your specific requirements and recommend an appropriate unit. With that advice, you can be sure to get the right size water softener for your home.

What should my water softener hardness be set at?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the optimal setting for your water softener will depend on several factors, including the hardness of your water and the size of your family. However, as a general rule of thumb, most water softeners should be set between 20 and 40 grains per gallon. You may need to set your water softener to the higher end of this range if you have very hard water. Conversely, if you have relatively soft water, you may get by with a setting closer to 20 grains per gallon. Ultimately, the best way to determine the optimal setting for your water softener is to consult with a professional.

How should I clean my water softener?

Depending on the type of water softener you have, there are different ways to clean it. For example, salt-based water softeners need to be replenished with salt regularly, and the brine tank should be cleaned out every few months to prevent the build-up of salt crystals. You can clean these out with a gentle detergent or just warm water.

Ion exchange water softeners also need to be regularly maintained, and the resin beads should be replaced every few years. If you have a reverse osmosis water softener, it is essential to change the filters regularly and clean the membranes every few months. Water softener cleaners are also available for both types; in both cases, you should consult your owner’s manual.

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