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Water quality is a growing conversation in many households. Hard water and water softeners can often find their way into those conversations. With so much information about water softeners, some true and some not, homeowners can be left with many questions. What makes the water soft? Do all water softeners use salt? What size softener do I need? Can I install one myself? What if I have well water?
At EcoWater of Central Florida we have over 37 years of experience navigating hard water and intricate knowledge of the water softener systems and technologies that treat it. In this article, we’ll discuss what hard water is, why water softeners are important, and how they work. We’ll also give you a brief overview of different systems, and go over several benefits of using a water softener.

What is Hard Water

According to the Water Quality Association (WQA), the term hardness was originally coined to describe water that was hard to wash in. But doesn’t water wash? “Hard” water is hard to wash in because it has soap-wasting properties. Why is that?

As water trickles down through earth and rock it picks up extra minerals like magnesium and calcium that dissolve into the water. Other elements like aluminum and boron can also hitch a ride. The excess buildup of these minerals is referred to as hard water. In most cases, hard water is not treated by municipalities. It can prevent soaps from lathering and can build up on appliances, laundry, dishes, skin, and hair. You can read about signs of hard water here. Hard water affects both those on well systems and municipal water supplies.

Water hardness or softness is measured using grains per gallon (gpg), where one grain is equal to 0.002 ounces of calcium carbonate dissolved in 1 gallon of water.

  • Less than 1 gpg (less than 17.1 ppm) is considered soft water.
  • 0–3.5 gpg (17.1-60 ppm) is considered slightly hard.
  • 3.5–7 gpg (60-120 ppm) is considered moderately hard and ideal.
  • 7-10 gpg (120-180ppm) is regarded as hard water.
  • Over 10 gpg (over 180 ppm) is considered very hard water.

The Importance of Water Softeners

A water softener helps to remove excess minerals like magnesium and calcium from water before they enter your home. Why is that so important?
If not removed these dissolved calcium and magnesium salts can be the primary culprits for scaling in pipes and water heaters and cause numerous frustrations with your laundry, kitchen, and bath.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), when hard water is heated, like in your home’s water heater, it can form solid deposits of calcium carbonate, also known as scale. This scale can reduce the life of water-dependent equipment, raise the costs of heating your water, lower the efficiency of water heaters, and clog your pipes. Hard water can even shorten the life of fabrics and clothes since the minerals build up in the fibers and affect the health of your skin and hair.

How Does a Water Softener Work?

Salt Based Water Softener

There are many brands of water softeners on the market, but the majority of them rely on a process called ion exchange. Ion exchange is a chemical process that trades the excess minerals in water that make it “hard” for something else. In most cases, it’s sodium (salt) but sometimes it’s potassium.

In most conventional water softeners, water runs through a tank that contains resin beads that have been saturated with sodium. When this happens, any calcium and magnesium ions that are in the water swap with the sodium ions so that by the time the water enters the home it is considered soft water.
Once the resin becomes saturated with the excess minerals drawn out of the water, the water softener must go through a cycle of regeneration. During this cycle, sodium-rich water re-saturates the resin and the other excess minerals are flushed out. For the average home, a water softener will regenerate about once per week. The Brine Tank is where the salty brine solution is generated. The salt mixes with water to create a brine solution that’s flushed through and cleans the resin beads during regeneration. Once completed, the softener resumes normal operation.
While a salt-based water softener does add trace amounts of salt to the water it is in amounts well below FDA regulations.

Dual tank softeners function the same way as a salt-based system but may be better for those on well water or large homes, or those with high water demands. This is because dual tank systems provide a constant supply of soft water with no downtime. While one tank regenerates, the other tank is still providing softened water to the household. This type of water softener is also good for those who don’t want their system regenerating at night. Twin tanks can also help reduce chloride discharge.

Salt-Free Water Conditioner

Salt-free systems, as the name suggests, don’t use salt at all. These systems are not referred to as salt-free water softeners, because they don’t actually remove any mineral deposits from water. They work by conditioning the excess particles in the water to prevent them from building up on fixtures and appliances.
While these systems may be better for the environment, they may also struggle to keep up with high levels of hardness or larger households with more than average water consumption.

Magnetic Water Softening System

Magnetic water softeners claim to use electromagnetic coils to separate certain particles that cause hard water, such as calcium and magnesium, from the water. The effectiveness of these types of systems in creating soft water is heavily debated, and depending on your water quality, results can vary.

According to the WQA, more work needs to be carried out to clarify what exactly is necessary to demonstrate a magnetic water treatment effect and how it can be achieved. In their review of over 30 different tests on Magnetic systems, the WQA did make suggestions that they felt may help move this technology forward.

Advancements in Technology

Advancements in technology have set the stage for high-efficiency water softeners and also for smart water softeners that can provide enhanced automation and control like integrating with smartphone apps and smart home devices. This allows homeowners to monitor usage from their water softener, how often their system regenerates, and receive real-time alerts about their system. Examples include maintenance alerts and system checks. A smart water softener allows for more efficient water management, reducing unnecessary salt consumption, and potentially prolonging the life of the water softener.

Benefits of Using a Water Softener

In a study done by the WQRF water treated by a water softener was shown to reduce the scale buildup in water-dependent appliances and to extend their lifespan. Specifically water heaters, washing machines, and dishwashers. Furthermore, these appliances would require less maintenance over time leading to additional savings. Softwater also drastically reduces the amount of limescale in your plumbing and fixtures which can lead to blockages.

Water Conditioning and Purification Magazine summarizes a study by The Water Quality Research Foundation. They point out that stain removal in the laundry is increased more by softening water than by increasing the detergent dose or by increasing temperature. The softened water combined with the least amount of detergent and lowest temperature provided the highest degree of whiteness compared to increased hardness with the highest level of detergent. That’s less hot water and less money on detergent!

When the effectiveness on dishwashers was examined, up to 70% detergent savings were observed when softened water was used compared to hard water. It’s generally accepted that the same effect takes place for showering as well since softening water increases lather and reduces the buildup of excess minerals.
Most of us know how frustrating it is to scrub scale off our showers and faucets, not to mention those annoying spots on our dishes that just won’t go away. Softened water decreases that buildup that we’re always scrubbing and is great for rinsing too. You’ll also say goodbye to spots on your shower doors and dishes.

Benefits of Using a Water Softener

It’s important to contact a local professional like EcoWater of Central Florida when considering a water softener for numerous reasons. You’ll need to have someone experienced to test your water. This doesn’t only ensure you get the right softener for your needs and budget, but that you are informed about other potential contaminants in your water. Even if you use the same system as your friend across town, you may have different requirements for your specific water based on your water test.
Based on the composition of your water you may need additional filtration before or after the softener to ensure you’re getting clean, safe water to your home. For example, it’s common for well owners to need additional filters, like iron breakers, before the softener to avoid damage to the unit or excessive use of salt.
EcoWater of Central Florida knows the water in the Central Gulf Coast Florida area intimately. We can test your water and make sure that you have all the information you need to make an educated decision that is best for your family, your home, and your wallet. Call us today at (813) 491-9518 to ask questions and to schedule your free basic water test.