What does a water softener do?

Last updated on: July 1, 2024.

A water softener helps remove minerals that cause water hardness, one of the most common problems homeowners face. Hard water affects appliances by leaving filmy soap scum across bathrooms and kitchens surfaces and makes our skin and hair dry. A water softener can save you from replacing ruined water heaters, scaly faucet heads before they are due. It also saves a lot of time spent on cleaning up soapy residue.

How to tell if you need a water softener?

There are clear signs to tell you if you need a water softener

Water heater malfunction: Hard water leads to rapid ageing of water heaters as it accelerates scale formation inside the tank and on the heater’s heating elements. 

Soapy residue: Hard water makes soap, and laundry detergents leave behind soapy scum residue. This can cause your clothes to lose colour, make them appear grey and dull, and make them rough to the touch. It can also leave them with a foul smell. Hard water makes premature wear on the material. 

Dry skin and hair: The minerals in hard water can leave your hair and skin dry and itchy. Hard water can also block your skin’s pores, causing acne, blackheads, or inflammation. As the soap doesn’t dissolve fully in hard water, it leaves behind a sticky soap film on your skin and prevents the complete removal of bacteria and dirt. The soapy residue can make your hair dull and dry. 

Higher utility bills: If your utility bill shows a spike, scale buildup in the plumbing can be a cause. It clogs pipes and makes the heating system work harder to push the water flow. It can also affect the energy efficiency of boilers and hot water heaters. 

Mineral deposits: Limescale, which looks like a chalky film, on your kitchenware, glassware, dinnerware, glassware, and cutlery, can be hard to remove. Limescale can also build up inside household appliances adding additional expenses in repairs or replacements. 

How to test for water hardness at home?

testing for bubbles

There are simple ways to test for water hardness at home. Here are the steps you can take:  

1. Fill a clear container with water.

• First, find a see-through container like an empty plastic water bottle. We’re using fancy Erlenmeyer flasks because we want to look more scientific.
• Fill the see-through container about a third of the way to the top with water from the faucet. 
• Add a few drops of liquid soap.
• Squirt about ten drops of pure liquid soap into the water-filled container. Detergents are not likely to show accurate results as they have a few additives. Liquid soaps that don’t have dyes or fragrances are best for this experiment. Don’t use a detergent because it contains additives that will alter the results of the test.

2. Shake vigorously

Cover the container and shake it for around 10 seconds for the soap and water to form soap bubbles to mix up the soap and water in an attempt to make soapy bubbles. 

3. Look for soap suds and water clarity:  

If the container shows a good amount of suds at the top, with the water looking clear under the bubbles, you have soft water. 

But, if there aren’t that many suds forming even after vigorous shaking, and the water below is cloudy, you definitely have hard water. Simply put, the more soap you need to get soap bubbles, the harder the water is.   

Why Does This Happen?

Some minerals present in hard water can prevent the soap from creating suds and make it difficult to clean effectively. As the soap binds with the dissolved minerals, it becomes cloudy and leaves a residue behind on household fixtures, your body, and clothes. 

Water softener operation [A Step By Step Guide on How It Works]

water softener working

Components of a water softener:  

The three components of a water softener include a control valve, the primary mineral tank, and the shorter brine tank. These components work together to remove the minerals, monitor the flow of water, and periodically clean the system through a regeneration process.  

The mineral tank:  

The mineral tank is the chamber inside which hard water gets softer. The water supply line supplies the hard water into the mineral tank. The water flows through the resin beads, depositing calcium and magnesium ions. The water leaves the tank after softening to flow through the pipes and out to all household appliances.  

The control valve:  

The quantity of water flowing through the mineral tank is measured by the control valve. The valve contains a meter to track the volume of water entering the mineral tank. As the resin beads continue to exchange their sodium ions for hardness ions each time, the resin can lose its capacity to work effectively over time. Before the beads have too much mineral content, the control valve automatically initiates a regeneration cycle. The maximum capacity of resin beads is pre-programmed into the control valve’s onboard computer. The programming depends on the size of your home, the number of members, and the hardness of the water. Control valves are controllers that are demand-initiated, making water softening systems highly efficient. 

The brine tank:  

The brine tank helps the water softening system in regeneration. It sits next to the mineral tank and is shorter. The brine tank contains a highly concentrated salt (or potassium) solution to restore the positive charge in resin beads. Salt gets added to the brine tank in the form of blocks or pellets. These salt blocks or pellets dissolve in the water at the bottom of the tank. When the control valve registers that the softening capacity of the resin is becoming low, the heavy brine solution gets drawn out of the tank and flushed through the resin in the mineral tank. It is important to ensure that the brine tank doesn’t run out of salt, as a lack of salt can halt the softening process. Regeneration can be either co-current or counter-current. 

Water softener Vs. Water conditioner

While water softeners help in removing hard minerals from water, water conditioners are typically helpful in removing substances and chemicals that make the water develop an unpleasant smell or taste.

Both of these systems are installed where your water line comes into your home to provide conditioned or softened water throughout the house.

Water softening systems have two tanks. The mineral tank contains resin beads that are coated with sodium ions. The secondary tank is the brine tank that contains a salty brine solution to regenerate the resin in the primary tank.

Water conditioners, on the other hand, are salt-free systems and help remove unwanted substances, such as chlorine, chloramines, VOCs, and organic gasses. Water conditioners also help remove lead from the water. 

Do you need a water softener if you have a iron filter?

pentair on demand water softener

Iron filters are installed at the main point of entry to treat water before it travels through the pipes and into your homes. They consist of a tank with a media bed. The media bed is made of a natural oxidizing agent. The water is passed through this media bed, where the soluble ferrous particles are attracted to the media as they become exposed to oxygen. They are then oxidized and converted into insoluble iron particles, making them easy to remove with the iron filter inside the water tank. Iron removal filters are low maintenance, and the oxidizing agent or media can last 6-8 years.

However, iron filters treat high levels of both ferrous and ferric iron; they are not equipped to handle hard water problems or magnesium and calcium issues. You would need a water softener to remove these elements. An ion exchange water softener brings in clear water that does not allow scale buildup and helps remove calcium, magnesium, and iron particles from the water

How to determine the size of water softener?

Water softeners come in different sizes. You can determine the size you need by multiplying the number of residents in your home by gallons of water used each day. On average, each person uses sound 80 gallons per day. Then, multiplying that number by the grains of hardness in the water helps you know how many grains must be removed each day. It may be measured in milligrams (mg), liters (L), or parts per million (ppm). One grain per gallon (gpg) is equal to 17.1 mg/L or 17.1 ppm.

Which is the most efficient water softener?

Whirlpool WHES40E 40,000 Grain Water Softener-Built in USA-Salt Saving Technology-NSF Certified is the best water softener in the market. It has the capacity to remove up to 10 ppm of ferrous iron. This NSF-certified system reduces hard water symptoms such as scale buildup, stains, and soapy residue from utensils. It also automatically calculates how much water and salt is required to regenerate, with the demand-initiated regeneration technology ensuring efficient usage of both. It has a low salt indicator to let you know when more salt needs to be added.

Our Review:

What we liked the most:

⮞ Whirlpool WHES40E 40,000 Grain Water Softener is competitively priced.
⮞ NSF certified for removing hard water symptoms like scale buildup and stains.
⮞ The on-demand regeneration feature measures water consumption and regenerates only on-demand. The unit is low maintenance and energy-efficient. 
⮞ A low-salt warning indicator alerts you when salt needs to be added.
⮞ The installation is quite straightforward and can be done easily.

Scope of Improvement:

⮞ Full warranty requires additional purchase. The initial 1-year warranty can be extended to two if you purchase three bottles of Whirlpool WHEWSC water softener cleanser.

Frequently Asked Questions:

1. What does a water softener do for well water?

A water softener is a whole-house filtration system that helps remove magnesium and calcium minerals that cause water hardness. The process used by water softeners is ion exchange. Water softeners address one of the most common water problems, i.e., hard water.

2. Do you need a water softener for city water?

Yes, we need a water softener even for city water. After all, city water may also have its source in rivers and lakes instead of relying only on wells.

3. Do you need a water softener with reverse osmosis?

Our water may contain impurities even after being processed by a water softener. We continue to use this water in our cooking and washing. Reverse osmosis can remove even these impurities from the already-softened drinking water, including 98% of the remaining sodium. 

4. Why is softened water better?

Unlike hard water, soft water is free of harsh minerals that cause damage to our homes and body. In other words, it is gentler on the skin and on our appliances. By removing calcium and magnesium, soft water prevents scale buildup in our appliances and pipes. 

5. Are there any disadvantages of water softener?

One of the significant disadvantages to water softening is the potential health risks for people on a low sodium diet. Exchanging hardness minerals for sodium adds 7.5 milligrams per quart for each gpg of hardness removed. Also, calcium and magnesium get eliminated from the diet. 

6. Are water softeners worth it for a long run?

Yes, water softeners are worth the investment in the long term. Softened water makes a big difference when it comes to the performance and lifespan of our appliances. Using soft water helps reduce wear and tear as the water softener prevents scale buildup in the pipes and on faucets.  

7. What does the grain mean on a water softener?

The capacity of a water softener rated is the maximum number of grains of hardness the system can remove before the need for regeneration. The water’s hardness is measured in gpg, i.e., grains per gallon.

8. 48,000 vs. 64,000 grain water softener?

The capacity of a water softener is the amount of hardness that can be removed before regeneration. One grain of hardness is 1/7000th of a pound of dissolved magnesium and calcium.  

48,000 or 64,000 grain means that the water softeners can remove that many grains of hardness before it needs to regenerate. These water softeners can remove extremely high levels of ferrous (clear water) iron, up to 10ppm. 

Conclusion [what does a water softener do?]

The need for water softeners cannot be underestimated. We need to have access to clear and clean water for drinking, cooking, and washing, and to ensure the longevity of our appliances. Therefore, knowing what a water softener can do and all its benefits can help make you choose the right water softener for your needs.

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.