How Does a Water Softener Work?

Depending on who you talk to, “water softener” 0r “water testing” is either a taboo concept or glorified. Some homeowners welcome the opportunity to learn about a new product for their house. BUT, many homeowners are also turned off by the door to door sales techniques of many water treatment providers. “Free water test” always comes with a sales pitch, right?

Well, yeah that’s the point. But it’s not just to sell something no one needs...It’s to show the homeowner why they need water treatment at all! This is the beginning of a multiple post series on water conditioning. In the next few weeks, we will cover how it works, why you need it, what it does, the positives and negatives, misconceptions and more.

Not to get too chemical here, but knowing how a water softener works helps understand why they are so key in most applications (residential and commercial). To start with, there is a ton of stuff in our water that we can and cannot see. First of all, you need to filter out the sediment. Then, most people wonder… well what’s left? Among other possibilities… Hardness Ions. 

What are Hardness Ions?

Hardness ions have a positive charge. They are referred to as “cat-ions.” Negatively charged ions, called “an-ions” are not really important in the simple water softening process… so we’ll take a look at the cat-ions

These hardness ions are in your water naturally. They come from minerals in the ground. The big three hardness ions are calcium, magnesium and iron. Other hardness ions include copper, zinc, lead, etc.

Hardness ions are measured in water with grains per gallon (gpg). To give you a better idea of what this means, in addition to the drinking water standards released by the EPA, the Water Quality Association has also defined levels of hardness measured in the gpg of hardness ions in water. See below.

  • Soft: Less than 1.0 gpg
  • Slightly Hard: 1 – 3.5 gpg
  • Moderately Hard: 3.5 – 7.0 gpg
  • Hard: 7.0 – 10.5 gpg
  • Extremely Hard: 10.5+ gpg

Think your area escapes hardness? Think again. Check out this map provided by USGS.

water hardness

Why does hardness matter?

We’ll cover this in a future post, but for now all you need to know is that it matters for many reasons. These reasons include saving money, healthy skin and hair, appliance lifespan, pipe lifespan, water heater lifespan, etc… Basically it’s really good for a lot of things.

Water Softeners Use Ion Exchange

Starting with natural water, you will have hardness. To remove it, softeners use what is called ion exchange. That means that the positively charged hardness ions are exchanged for less powerfully charged sodium.

In a water softener, you have a Polystyrene resin (a softening media), which has millions of little holes for the ions to complete their exchange process. This resin has a negative charge so that it will attract the positive ions.

First it is saturated with the salt solution (sodium). Then hard water is run over the saturated media. The larger hardness ions in the water then stick to the media, kicking the sodium ions off. The resulting water is softened water.  This process continues over and over until the resin is completely exhausted. Once this happens, it needs to be recharged with the sodium solution once more (salt). That is when the backwash kicks in. The system uses a backwash to flush the media of the hardness ions and re-saturate it with the sodium ions. This effectively brings us back to the beginning of the water softening process.

The sodium from your salt solution basically bombards the larger hardness ions and kicks them out of your water. 

water softener

Want to know more? Ask us anything in the comments below. So you have anything to add? We’d love to hear from you. Make sure you check back for more information on water conditioning. Next week we will cover the advantages and disadvantages to using a water softener. If you think you’ll forget to check, just sign up for our weekly newsletter and you’ll get the next post straight to your email!

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One Response to “How Does a Water Softener Work?”

  1. avatar
    Tyler Meredith May 4, 2017 at 6:22 pm // Reply

    It’s interesting that water is naturally ‘hard” with all of its minerals and deposits. I’m considering upgrading my water softener because my current system doesn’t do much and it’s interesting to learn about how it works. I’ll have to remember about how the salt saturates the water and helps remove some of the hard ions within it. Thanks for the post!

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