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Water Softener Alternatives

Water softeners are highly effective at removing mineral content from hard water. But there are also water softener alternatives available. These alternatives to water softeners function differently, yet produce results similar to those provided by traditional water softeners. 

The most common alternative to water softeners is called a water conditioner and offers a viable way to reduce the damage hard water can cause throughout your home through a process distinct from the process used by water softeners.

What is Hard Water?

Before discussing water softeners and their alternatives, it is useful to begin by gaining a firm understanding of what hard water is. This will help shed light on how water softeners and their alternatives function, and the differences between these two types of systems.

Hard water is simply water with high mineral content. Sometimes the water is hardened because it contains metals like iron, lead, or aluminum, but more often it is due to a high content of calcium and magnesium. Calcium and magnesium in hard water may be in the form of sulfates, bicarbonates, and chlorides.

Hard water is a natural phenomenon that varies based on the region you are in; some regions have harder water than others. This is because water hardens as it passes through soil and stone with high mineral content. For example, if your water is sourced from an area with a large concentration of limestone, your water will primarily be hardened with calcium.

As water moves through soil and stone, it picks up mineral and metal ions. Those ions bond to the water molecule, remaining until the water is boiled or evaporated away. What remains behind is known as scale. Scale is an insoluble precipitate that is one of the most common indicators you have hard water.

How is Hard Water Measured?

Water hardness is best thought of as a spectrum. Water may be soft or very hard, or somewhere in between. Hardness level is most often determined by measuring the calcium carbonate equivalent content in a sample of water. This is expressed as the number of grains-per-gallon (GPG) of calcium carbonate.

These are the most commonly used thresholds for determining how hard or soft your water is:

  • Water with less than 1 GPG of calcium carbonate is considered soft.
  • Water between 1-7 GPG is considered moderately hard.
  • Water between 7-10 GPG is hard.
  • Water over 10 GPG is very hard.

The best way to determine whether you have hard water is to schedule a water test with Rayne Water. Alternatively, you can usually tell if you have hard water by becoming familiar with the top impacts of hard water and looking for their effects around your house. Things like scaling, soap scum and water spots on your dishes are all key indicators you are dealing with hard water.

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Options for Dealing With Water Hardness

If you are fed up with the effects of hard water around your house, on your clothes, and on your hair, it’s important to understand what options you have for dealing with it. Hard water can be a pain, but thankfully there are effective ways to deal with it.

In a residential setting, the two most common methods of dealing with hard water are using a water softener or a water conditioner. Both of these systems function in different ways, and understanding what these differences are can help you determine which system is right for you. 

Water Softeners

Water softeners have been around for a while, and most people have heard of them and used softened water at some point. Water softeners function through a process known as ion exchange, during which hard mineral ions in water are removed and replaced with sodium ions.

When water percolates through the ground it picks up positively charged mineral ions. The process of ion exchange involves attracting these mineral ions away from the water molecule and replacing them with sodium.

To do this, water softeners will typically have at least two tanks. The first tank contains a large amount of negatively charged resin beads. Attached to these resin beads are positively charged sodium ions. When hard water enters the water softener it is placed into this resin tank. As the hard water passes over the resin beads, the mineral ions are attracted to the resin beads. As these minerals attach to the resin beads in the resin tank, they displace the sodium ion which moves to join the water molecule. This allows the water molecule to maintain a balanced charge and completes the process of ion exchange.

The second tank in a water softener is referred to as the brine tank. This tank contains a salty brine solution. This solution is used to periodically refresh the resin in the brine tank. The resin is saturated with the brine solution, which displaces the minerals attached to the resin and replaces them with fresh sodium ions. Once this process is complete, the wastewater is flushed from the system and down the drain.

Some people are concerned about the level of sodium in softened water. Here are a couple of key points about sodium in softened water:

  • Softened water contains sodium (Na), not table salt (NaCl).
  • The sodium in softened water does not affect the taste.
  • The exact amount of sodium in softened water depends on how hard your water is. The process of ion exchange requires sodium to be added as hard water minerals are removed, meaning the harder your water the more sodium your softened water will contain.

For most healthy adults the amount of sodium in softened water poses little risk. However, if you are concerned about sodium in softened water it may be worth considering water softener alternatives like a water conditioner. Many people choose to install a reverse osmosis system to use in conjunction with their water softener. Reverse osmosis systems are capable of removing sodium added to softened water, as well as reducing a wide range of other contaminants.

The best salt for water softener may depend on your specific system and needs. The use of sodium chloride is more common, but some people use potassium chloride to reduce the amount of sodium in softened water. Be sure to speak with a water quality specialist familiar with your water softening system to determine the best salt for your system. Additionally, learn more with our guide to How Does Salt Soften Water.

Water Conditioners

Water conditioners are the best alternative to a water softener if you are concerned about sodium in your water. The key difference between water softeners and water conditioners is water conditioners don’t remove the minerals from hard water.

Remember, the main impact of hard is scaling. Water softeners address this problem by removing hard water minerals and replacing them with sodium ions. In contrast, water conditioners cause minerals in hard water to crystallize.

Water conditioners do this through the use of template-assisted crystallization (TAC) media. As hard water passes over TAC media, a small portion of the hard minerals crystallize. These are sometimes referred to as “seed crystals”. Once these seed crystals have formed, the remaining mineral ions contained in the hard water will preferentially attach to the seed crystal rather than any surfaces the water comes into contact with.

Although conditioned water still contains hard minerals, those minerals no longer cause scaling. This means conditioned water won’t cause mineral buildup in your pipes, in your appliances, or on surfaces throughout your home. 

Water conditioners also have a couple of other features that make them advantageous for certain situations. These features are:

  • Many water conditioners don’t require electricity, unlike water softeners. This can make it easier to install in homes with limited access to electricity where the water line enters their home.
  • Water conditioners don’t require the use of brine, which makes them an ideal solution for areas with brine restrictions in place. This also makes it unnecessary to install a drain line from the water conditioner.

Final Thoughts

The most common alternative to a water softening system is a water conditioner. While water softeners remove the mineral ions from hard water and replace them with sodium ions through a process known as ion exchange, water conditioners alter the structure of the mineral ions. This allows the mineral ions to stay in the drinking water but eliminates the ability of those minerals to cause scaling. Additionally, it’s important to analyze the taste of your water — see our guide to Does Water Have a Taste for more information.

Water conditioners are effective at reducing the impacts of hard water throughout your home, making them an excellent alternative to water softening systems. Like water softeners, water conditioners are usually installed at the main water line coming into your home, ensuring your appliances, pipes, and fixtures are protected against damage from hard water. Water conditioners also don’t require electricity or drain access, making them easier to install in some situations.

Lastly, water conditioners don’t require the use of a brine solution. This makes them ideal for those areas with brine restrictions in place that limit the use of traditional water softeners. 

Whether you choose to use a traditional water softener or a water conditioner, both are effective options for dealing with the effects of hard water. If you aren’t sure which system is right for you, please contact Rayne Water today so one of our drinking water experts can walk you through your options.

We provide RO systems and water softener systems in Orange County, San Diego, Phoenix, Ventura and SoCal locations. Contact us today!

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  2. Hard Water.” Britannica Online Academic Edition, July 31, 2019.

Expert Reviewer – Ken Christopher