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What is a Water Softener?

Have you ever emptied your dishwasher and seen spots or a film on your dishes? Do you ever wash your hands and wonder why they feel so dry and in need of lotion? These are problems associated with hard water. While these are not some of the biggest issues that hard water can cause, they are a few of the ways that hard water can impact your day-to-day life.

In geographic areas where water is especially hard, whole home water softener are utilized to change hard water into soft water as it comes into your house. If you have ever wondered, “what is a water softener?”, or “what makes water soft?”, this article will break down water softening systems. We’ll look at how water softeners work and what types of advantages transitioning to soft water for your whole house brings.

Installing a home water softener system is a great way to avoid the damage and inconvenience that can come with hard water, but it’s also an investment. Understanding exactly how these systems soften water can help you make an informed decision about whether this investment is worthwhile for you.

What is Hard Water?

Before we break down water softeners, it is important to understand exactly what hard water is. This will provide crucial context for understanding how a water softener functions.

In many ways, water softeners reverse the natural processes through which water becomes hard in the first place. With a better grasp of how hard water forms, you can more easily understand how a water softener works to produce consistent soft water for your whole house.

Water is considered hard if it has high mineral content. There are many ways to test the hardness of water, but water with a concentration of minerals from 1-7 Grains Per Gallon is considered moderately hard. As the mineral content of the water rises, the water becomes increasingly hard.

How is Hard Water Formed?

Hard water is formed through a natural process as water moves through the water cycle. When it rains, the precipitation that falls to the ground is soft water, meaning that the mineral content of the water is very low.

The hardness of water begins to increase once precipitation has reached the ground. As groundwater moves through the soil, it dissolves minerals in the soil around it. You may have heard of water referred to as a “universal solvent”. Water’s properties make it an excellent solvent, meaning it is able to pick up mineral ions as it moves through the soil.

Not all geographic areas have the same levels of hard water. Areas that have soil with higher mineral content will produce water which is harder, while areas with lower mineral content in the soil will produce softer water. The majority of minerals found in hard water are calcium carbonate and magnesium. As water moves through soil rich in chalk or magnesium, it dissolves some of the minerals in these soils, infusing the water with higher mineral content.

What is important to note here is that water is capable of attracting and capturing mineral ions due to its polarity. Mineral ions such as calcium and magnesium carry a positive charge, which is important for understanding the water softening process. If you have asked yourself, “what does a water softener do?”, the answer is that a water softener exchanges mineral ions for sodium ions through a process called ion exchange.

Ion Exchange and Your Water Softener

Ok, so hard water forms when water moves through mineral-rich soil and picks up positively charged mineral ions. Now, to make water soft again, you must remove calcium carbonate and magnesium that is now attached to the water molecules.

If you’ve ever wondered about a water softener system and how it works, the answer is ion exchange. Before we dive into the chemistry behind this ion exchange function, let’s break down the water softener unit itself. House water softeners are a mechanical device that is installed in line with the water coming into your house.

Essentially, hard water flows into the water softener and comes out soft. Water softening systems usually consist of two tanks. One is a mineral tank, while the other contains a brine solution that is used to recharge the mineral tank.

Mineral Tank
This is the core of the water softening system. Mineral tanks contain resin or zeolite, which is made up of tiny polystyrene beads. Importantly, these beads have a negative charge. As hard water moves through the mineral tank, the positively charged mineral ions are attracted to the negatively charged beads that comprise the resin and thereby removed.

Brine Tank
The second tank in a water softening system has a brine solution, usually consisting of salt that you add to the tank. Periodically, the resin the mineral tank must be flushed of minerals it has collected from hard water. This is done by flushing the system with sodium-rich water from the brine tank. Sodium has a positive charge as well, so it is attracted to the resin, replacing the minerals that are then flushed out of the system.

Overview of Ion Exchange Systems
Let’s sum up how a water softening system works. Hard water comes into your house and flows into a water softener that has been installed in-line with your incoming water. Hard water flows into the mineral tank, which contains a resin. The resin is comprised of beads that have a negative charge, with a sodium ion attached. When hard water flows through the mineral tank, the positively charged mineral ions are attracted to the negatively charged beads. The sodium attached to the beads replaces the mineral ions that had previously been attached to the water molecules.

Periodically, water softening systems need to be recharged. This is because the negatively charged resin becomes full of positively charged mineral ions. A sodium-rich brine from the second tank flushes through the mineral tank, replacing all of the mineral ions with sodium ions and allowing the mineral ions to be flushed down the drain.

Is Soft Water Really Just Salt Water?
If you were paying close attention you might have noticed that the mineral ions in the hard water were swapped with sodium ions in the resulting soft water. One question that many people have is whether the soft water produced by a water softening system is salty. The answer is, not really.

The soft water that comes out of a water softener does have a higher sodium content than the hard water that went into the system, but the result is not salty enough to taste. The everyday consumer will never notice the extra sodium at all.

Suffice it to say that the sodium level in your soft water will not add a significant amount of sodium to your diet. If you are concerned about the sodium level of your soft water, but still want the benefits that soft water provides, you can consider adding a reverse osmosis home water filtration system which would also filter out the majority of the sodium in the soft water.

What are the Benefits of Soft Water?

At this point, you might be wondering if soft water is worth the investment in a water softening system. Most people find that the benefits offered by soft water outweigh the costs of the system itself. Given this, let’s take a look at some of the most substantial benefits that soft water provides.

Less Mineral Buildup
Mineral buildup, sometimes called scaling, occurs from the minerals in hard water. If you have hard water, the mineral buildup from water usage is an unavoidable fact of life. It will be particularly noticeable on your faucets and plumbing fixtures. Mineral buildup can negatively affect appliances. The nozzles in your dishwasher (or shower head) will become obstructed over time. Similarly, the buildup of minerals in your water heater may reduce its operational efficiency over many years.

No Soap Scum
If you’ve lived in an area with hard water your whole life, then you are intimately familiar with soap scum. It is unsightly and difficult to completely get rid of. With soft water, soap scum simply won’t form. Soap scum is caused by a reaction between the soap itself and the calcium carbonate in hard water. By removing this mineral from the water, you eliminate soap scum at its source.

Shinier Hair
With a soft water system, your hair will appear more vibrant and have more body. Hard water makes the hair appear duller over time. The reason for this is due to the minerals in hard water, which attach to the hair, making it dull in appearance. This coating of minerals also makes it more difficult for moisturizers to reach the hair, so hair washed in hard water tends to be harder as well.

Healthier Skin
Hard water also affects the moisture of our skin. One of the challenges with hard water is that it becomes difficult to fully rinse off any soap you’ve used. What you’re left with after a shower is a very thin layer of soap on your skin. This soap dries out the skin over time. The same is true for shampoo and conditioner, which can be difficult to rinse out completely. When these products coat the scalp, they can dry it out over time. With soft water, you won’t be left with a thin film of soap on your skin, which can be very beneficial for individuals with sensitive skin.

Clothes Last Longer
Over time, the minerals present in hard water will also coat the fibers of your clothing. This mineral buildup causes your clothes to become duller in appearance, and over time the fibers of your clothing can actually become more brittle. Hard water can also leave white or grey streaks on darker clothing, which is unsightly and frustrating. By installing a water softener, you can expect that your clothes will be more resilient and their colors will stay bright over a longer period of time. It’s clear that when comparing the difference between hard and soft water, there are clear, overpowering benefits to soft water.

Closing Thoughts

Water naturally becomes hard as it moves through soil that is rich in minerals. Removing those minerals with a water softener involves a process of attracting the positively charged mineral ions in hard water to a negatively charged resin, and replacing those mineral ions with sodium ions. Periodically, the resin in a water softener must be flushed with a brine, which is a process known as recharging.

Before investing in a water softening solution for your home, it’s important to understand the benefits associated with soft water. It is entirely possible to live without soft water and not have any detrimental health effects, so investing in a water softening solution comes down to whether the quality of life advantages that soft water offers are worth it.

Soft water will cause less mineral buildup around your plumbing fixtures, in your pipes, and in equipment such as a dishwasher or water heater. This can help extend the life of this equipment. Soft water also makes it easier to completely clean off the soap with showering or washing your hands, which improves the moisture of your skin and can lead to less irritation.

An added benefit of soft water is that it eliminates soap scum, which forms from a reaction between soap and the calcium carbonate in hard water. The mineral deposits in hard water also dull the color, in both your hair and your clothing. This mineral buildup can make hair more brittle and dry by reducing the effectiveness of moisturizers, while also causing clothing to be less resilient over time.

Water softening solutions, while not strictly necessary, offer a number of tangible advantages that may be worthwhile for you. If you are interested to learn more about installing a water softener or the different types of water softening solutions available for your home or business, contact Rayne Water today.

Sources
1. https://www.usgs.gov/special-topic/water-science-school/science/hardness-water?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects
2. https://extension.psu.edu/water-softening
3. https://www2.cambridgema.gov/CityOfCambridge_Content/documents/Drinking%20WaterMy%20edition.pdf
4. https://www.popularmechanics.com/home/interior-projects/how-to/a150/1275126/
5. https://www.skincarebyalana.com/blog/whats-better-skin-hard-soft-water/
6. https://www.thespruce.com/solving-hard-water-laundry-problems-2146651