Water softening methods

Last updated on: December 1, 2022.

Often water that comes directly into our homes from underground sources can taste unusual, make it difficult for soap to lather, or even lead to the formation of limescale or mineral deposits on your faucets. Have you ever noticed crusted pieces of chalky-looking substances at the edge of your bathtub or around your shower faucets? That’s a result of the water that is running through your pipes. This is hard water and usually contains minerals like calcium, magnesium, and other metal particles.

While these minerals are good for health, they are best consumed as vitamins and not through running water. Using hard water frequently can lead to skin conditions, dryness, and an itchy scalp. It can also cause damage to the appliances in your home.

One of the easiest ways to remedy this is to invest in a water softener that can remove these mineral particles from the water. There are many water softening methods, such as saltless, reverse osmosis, or chelation. Read more to learn about the different types of water softening methods.

There are various methods to turn “hard water” into “soft water,” which is better for your overall well-being. The most popular one is to run it through a filter with salt and resin. However, there are a few other processes like chelation, reverse osmosis, and Template Assisted Crystallization. This article will take you through these processes so you can choose the one that’s best for you.

What methods are used to soften water?

There are many methods on the market today to soften water. Some of them rely on the ion-exchange process and TAC, which are salt-based, while others are salt-free processes. While some of these methods are more common in commercial spaces, they are slowly becoming available for residential spaces as well. 

What methods are used to soften water?

Ion-Exchange Water Softening

One of the most common types of process used to treat household water is ion-exchange water softening device. They come with two tanks– one brine tank and one resin tank. The water enters through the resin tank, where the resin beads strip it off the calcium and magnesium ions and replace them with either potassium or sodium ions.

Following this exchange, the resin beads need to be rinsed free of the minerals, so they push them back into the water. This is what is referred to as the ‘regeneration cycle.’ At this stage, salt is added to flush the tank of minerals into a nearby drain, thus renewing the resin beads for another round of water softening. 

The process of regeneration can take up to two hours. Most water softener devices come fitted with a bypass valve, so water is still available during the regeneration stage.

Ion-Exchange Water Softening
Ion-Exchange Water Softening

Some devices allow only a limited reserve of soft water to be held during regeneration and can run out quickly. If this water runs out before the regeneration is complete, hard water will flow through the valves into your home until the regeneration process is complete.

Technology today has allowed for LCD screens and digital monitoring apps through Bluetooth, so you can regulate this process. For instance, if the resin in one of the ion-exchange tanks approaches saturation, the system automatically switches to a second tank or will turn off if there is no second tank. 

The ion-exchange process can often remove some types of iron in the water supply. This iron is usually not visible to the naked eye, but we can still notice the trace amounts of iron by the difference in water quality.

For instance, if water has been left standing for a while, like in a toilet bowl, a reddish-brown film or ring will form, indicating iron in the water. This type of iron is usually found mainly in water drawn from a well or underground. 

Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC)

Unlike the previous process, Template Assisted Crystallization or TAC’ conditions’ or ‘neutralizes’ rather than ‘softens’ hard water. This process essentially changes the structure of magnesium and calcium to prevent limescale deposits on your home appliances.

A more technical explanation of this process is that TAC uses a special surface-treated resin bead to speed up the crystallization of minerals, causing the water to be hard. It does this by inducing the formation of very tiny calcium crystals that isolate the hardness of the water. Since this is a quicker and relatively cheaper process, it is fast gaining popularity in the water softening market.

Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC)
Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC)

While it is a speedier method of filtering water, there are a few drawbacks like frequently refilling the softener with salt and the fact that the water is not entirely mineral free. The process also requires electricity which adds another factor for maintenance.

However, no appliance comes without care instructions. Despite the drawback, TAC effectively tackles one of the main issues of hard water– limescale build-up on pipes and household appliances. 

Reverse Osmosis (RO)

Another common type of water softening or filtering method is the RO or Reverse Osmosis process. In this process, water is forced through a series of extremely fine filters which trap the contaminants in the water. This process can be observed on a smaller scale in a Brita filter. The resulting water is very similar to distilled water, where all the chemicals and hardness causing minerals like calcium and magnesium ions are removed, resulting in conditioned or softened water.

Most RO systems for residential properties are designed only for one water inlet with a dedicated faucet. As a result, one device will not suffice for an entire household, so it’s often a preferred method just for drinking water. 

Reverse Osmosis (RO)
Reverse Osmosis (RO)

However, this method is not entirely safe for the plumbing in your home because the hard water has to pass through the piping to get into the RO system for conditioning. As a result, there will still be limescale build-up in your pipelines.

Moreover, with an RO process, many other minerals that are nourishing for the body will also be removed. It is also inefficient because it requires a high input of hard water to produce minimal quantities of soft water. It also is a slower process and requires time for all of the water to pass through the filters. 

Chelation

A less common process in households, chelation is another salt-free water conditioning process. Chelation is a process of conditioning the ions that cause water to be hard so that they don’t combine with other chemicals and form limescale build-up. This process does not remove the ions causing hardness; it simply alters them to be less reactive. This condition is done through ingredients like food-grade citric acid or polyphosphate. This process is used commercially in restaurants, laundromats, and factories. 

Unlike the ion exchange and RO process, chelation does not remove hardness ions from water– it merely alters its state and makes it safe for consumption. For this reason, it is referred to as ‘water conditioners’ rather than ‘water softeners’ since it doesn’t result in soft water.

Chelation
Chelation

Chelated water can be safe to consume and still provides the benefits of calcium and magnesium. In fact, it can also boost the absorption of minerals for certain populations with heightened sensitivity. Moreover, it is a low-maintenance process with minimal water wastage.

However, it is important to remember that chelated water has a short lifespan because it can lose its conditioning over 1-2 days. So it’s best to consume chelated water immediately. 

What is the best method of water softening?

One of the most common methods of water softening at home is the ion-exchange water softening process. While the chelation method is very popular in commercial spaces, it has become available and possible to use in residential spaces. The reverse osmosis system is only effective for a fixed water source with a limited purpose.

What is the best method of water softening?

However, it can be adapted for a larger water supply if budget is not an issue. The TAC is a great option if you are looking for water softening methods that use salt, although some reviewers find the refilling and regeneration tedious. This answer may vary according to your needs and the quantity of water that needs to be softened. Once you have a clear idea of the kind of water softening your home needs, it will be easy to find the best method for your home or commercial space. 

Frequently Asked Questions:

1. How can we remove the hardness of water naturally?

You can remove hardness levels from your water naturally by boiling the water, using baking soda in your drinking water, and washing soda in the laundry. Using a faucet or showerhead filter also helps decrease hard minerals getting past the filters into your water supply. Salt-based or salt-free water treatment systems need a heavier investment and can still be tried if the natural methods are ineffective. 

2. 5 Signs that you need a water softener at home:

LATHER TAKES LONGER TO FORM 

One of the easiest ways to test the softness of your water is by trying to create lather. Start by taking a bucket of water and stirring less than half a cup of soap. If it takes longer than usual to build up a lather, then the level of mineral deposits is a cause for concern.

POOR QUALITY OF LAUNDRY

In most cases, freshly washed laundry should not have mineral deposits. It should smell fresh, have little to no discolorations, and not have wear and tear from the machine. However, you can also experience these if you are washing old or poor quality. So to be doubly sure, make this observation over some time. Frequent discoloration, scratchiness, or clothes that fray easily after a wash are some other signs that the water is too hard. 

– FIND LIMESCALE BUILD-UP ON YOUR FAUCETS, SHOWERHEADS, AND OTHER HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES. 

If despite your best efforts at maintenance, you keep discovering mineral deposits on faucets, piping, washbasins, and other appliances, it’s a sign to consider investing in a water softener

NOTICE A CHANGE IN THE TASTE OF YOUR WATER. 

If you start noticing a change in how your water tastes, it could be the water filter system you are using or hard water. Soft water usually has a unique taste and dramatically differs from hard water. 

3. What is an alternative to a water softener?

The most straightforward and more readily available alternative to a water softener is a water conditioning system like TAC devices or chelation. Unlike water softeners, water conditioners or neutralizers change the composition of the water rather than altogether remove the mineral deposits. 

4. How much does a salt less water softener cost?

A salt-free water softener can cost anywhere between $300-$4000. The price will depend on the size of the device you buy and whether it is capable of removing the minerals in a short period. 

5. Which is better, salt-free or salt-based water softener?

The answer depends on your needs and the amount of water that requires softening. Salt-free water systems are generally considered to be hassle-free and low maintenance. While they prevent limescale build-up and mineral deposits, they don’t completely rid the water of these minerals. Instead, they alter their form, so it becomes less harmful to the plumbing system in your home. For these reasons, processes that don’t use salt are usually called water conditioners and not water softeners. 

 On the other hand, a salt-based water softener is a more intensive process that treats the water and removes most of the minerals. It also eliminates the presence of red ferrous or iron. It may not be the case with all water softeners, so make sure to look at the specifications of the device you are buying if this is an essential factor for you. While installation, set up, and maintenance costs may seem high at first, a salt-based water softener does more than prevent limescale build-up. It effectively removes the minerals that cause hardness. 

Conclusion

The initial costs associated with installing a water softener or conditioner may sound steep. Including labor and installation, it can come up to $1000 on average.

However, the cost associated with the damage that hard water can cause to your home or skin is exponentially higher. Hard water can lead to many health problems such as dry skin, itchy scalp, and brittle hair, or the development of various skin conditions like rashes and redness. Moreover, it can also ruin your plumbing and electrical appliances, small and large. 

Softened water is better for your skin, clothes, and home. Using less soap or shampoo, longer-lasting appliances, and a decrease in the wear and tear on clothes and fixtures are all cost savers. Therefore, choosing a salt-free water conditioner or a salt-based water softener is always worth the investment.

About The Author

Our Web Producer

Judith— a passionate water treatment specialist — is a waste water management enthusiast, clean drinking water advocate, and someone with deep personal experience and knowledge about various water equipments. Her work was mentioned in countless notable water associations. Previously she was an editor at Water Alliance.