Brian Campbell is the founder of WaterFilterGuru.com, where he blogs about all things water quality. His passion for helping people get access to clean, safe water flows through the expert industry coverage he provides. Follow him on twitter @WF_Guru or contact him by email [email protected].
Jun 15, 2021

What is Water Softening?

Breaking down water softening & how water is softened

water softening, ion exchange

Hard water is one of the biggest problems in the US, with an estimated 85% of homes across the country dealing with the issue. Though hard water is not dangerous, it can be aesthetically damaging and create costly complications for you. 

The best time to tackle hard water is before it wreaks havoc on your home. If you want to prevent limescale from damaging your pipes, staining your faucets and fittings, and shortening the lifespan of your appliances, you need to turn your hard water into soft water. 

What is Soft Water?

Soft water is exactly the same as hard water, but with certain elements removed. 

Let’s quickly look at what gives hard water its name. Hardness minerals, namely calcium and magnesium, are responsible for sticking to surfaces and forming scale. These minerals are found naturally in drinking water, and they are actually good for us — our bodies couldn’t survive without them. 

However, we get plenty of these minerals in our foods, so removing them to form soft water can only be seen as a positive thing. Soft water is unable to leave scale deposits because it no longer contains the scale-causing offenders. 

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How is Water Softened?

Water is softened in a water softener, which uses a process known as ion exchange. 

A water softener consists of two tanks: a brine tank and a resin tank. The brine tank contains salt, or sodium, which is needed for the ion exchange process. The resin tank contains a resin bed, where the actual softening takes place. 

Typically, a water softener is a point-of-entry application that’s installed before your hot water heater, providing whole home benefits. 

The Ion Exchange Process Explained

So, how do water softeners work exactly?

When water flows through a softening system, the positively charged calcium and magnesium ions are attracted to the negatively charged resin bed. They stick to the resin, while at the same time, positively charged sodium ions are released into the water, replacing the calcium and magnesium with sodium. 

This is a measured process, and a water softener will add only enough sodium to your water to make up for the lost calcium and magnesium (so not a lot at all). 

To keep a water softener working in good condition, you will need to top-up the brine chamber approximately every three months. 

Water softeners also regenerate every 2-3 days. During regeneration, the system flushes the resin bed, removing the calcium and magnesium minerals and sending them down a drain line. This prevents the bed from becoming too clogged with ions, which would eventually prevent it from being able to properly do its job. 

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Are There Any Health Concerns With Soft Water?

There is nothing majorly concerning about soft water. It is just the water you would usually drink, but with its calcium and magnesium ions removed. Provided you drink treated municipal or well water, you do not have anything to worry about. 

Something to keep in mind, however, is that soft water does contain a small amount of sodium. 

The harder your water, the more sodium will be used to replace the calcium and magnesium minerals. This may be something to discuss with your doctor if you are on a low-sodium diet. 

However, this small amount of sodium certainly is not enough to make your water “salty." In fact, an entire gallon of softened water has about the same sodium content as four slices of white bread.

Something else to keep in mind is that soft water is completely free from calcium and magnesium. However, even extremely hard water does not contain a high concentration of these minerals in the grand scheme of things. So if you cut your calcium and magnesium intake from water, you should not notice a difference. Just make sure you are getting enough of these minerals in your diet — avocados, milk, dark chocolate, nuts, seeds, yogurt, beans and lentils are all fantastic sources of calcium and magnesium. 

Should I Soften My Water at Home?

Softening your water at home will require a water softener, which is a relatively big investment. However, the money you spend on buying and maintaining a softening system over the years should save you time, hassle and money over the years. With soft water, your appliances should last longer; your water flow will not be affected; and your bathroom cleaning duties will be much easier. 

Whether you decide to soften your home’s water is up to you. It’s worth testing your water’s hardness and determining how badly affected by hard water your home currently is. 

If your home’s water is particularly hard, you’ll benefit the most from a water softener. 

Benefits of Softening Water

Some of the biggest benefits of softening water are:

  • Softer, healthier hair and skin;
  • Minimal scale buildup;
  • Helps you cut back on soap (by approx. 50%);
  • Softer, cleaner laundry;
  • Protected, longer-lasting appliances; and
  • Fewer deposits on dishes and glassware.

Disadvantages of Water Softening

The setbacks of water softening worth knowing about are:

  • May not be suitable for low-sodium diets;
  • Less enjoyable water taste;
  • Water takes on a “slimy”, slippery texture;
  • Expensive to install;
  • Healthy minerals removed; and
  • Frequent maintenance required.

Alternatives to Ion Exchange Water Softeners

TAC Water Conditioners

TAC conditioners use Template-Assisted Crystallization to condition water. 

These systems do not actually remove calcium and magnesium from water, which is why they are known as conditioners, not softeners. 

Instead, they convert hardness minerals into nano-crystals, which, in this form, are unable to stick to surfaces. The advantage here is that you can still enjoy the health benefits of drinking hardness minerals, without damage to your home. However, you are unlikely to get the same high-quality results as you would with a softener.

Electronic Descalers

Electronic descalers use a magnetic field to alter the composition of hardness minerals, preventing scale formation. 
This descaling solution is the least expensive water softening alternative and the easiest to install (it is simply attached to your ingoing water pipe). However, there is very little scientific evidence to support this process, and it’s difficult to determine whether it actually works, as your water will still technically be “hard.”

About the author

Brian Campbell founder for WaterFilterGuru.com. Campbell can be reached at [email protected].

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