By Rehan Iqbal
The majority of US homes have a problem with hard water. Even if the water supplied to your home is only mildly hard, minerals like calcium and magnesium will accumulate in your pipes and appliances. The resultant limescale will cause appliances to be less efficient and may also result in blocked pipes.
To prevent costly plumbing repairs and all the other issues relating to hard water, most people have realized the benefits of installing a whole house water softener. If you’ve never bough a water softener, you probably have a lot of questions. What type of water softener should you use? Are all water softeners the same? How do you determine what size water softener you need? Do you actually need a water softener at all?
Now it’s time to find some answers.
How Do You Know if You Need a Water Softener?
You can test for hard water quite easily using a home test kit or having your water analyzed in a laboratory. The latter will provide a more substantial overview of all possible contaminants that may affect the quality, appearance, and taste of your water.
It’s quite easy to tell if your water is hard by checking for any of the following signs:
If these issues look familiar, you should consider installing a water a softener.
Types of Water Softeners
Deciding what type of water softener you use, isn’t too complicated if you understand how they work. The big question is usually about salt-based vs salt-free water softeners. So I’ll start by discussing these two options.
Salt-Based Water Softeners
I supposed you’ve already guessed that this type of water softener uses salt to soften the water. Salt (NaCl) reacts with the hard minerals. Negatively charged sodium in the salt, attracts the positively charged hard minerals, in a process known as ion exchange.
Resin beads are coated with salt which is added to a brine tank. As the hard water passes through these beads, the positively charged calcium and magnesium are trapped in the resin. As a result, the water that is supplied to your home will not contain any hard minerals.
In order for the ion exchange process to continue, the resin needs to be rinsed with salt water regularly. Generally, you can program the water softener to do this at a time when you would not be using water in the home.
You can use regular table salt for this type of water softener, making them quite economical. The downside is that they require regular maintenance as you need to ensure that the system always has enough salt to function optimally.
A salt-based water softener is not recommended for people on a low sodium diet as the water will contain higher levels of sodium. Some people find the taste of water that has been softened using salt to be affected. However, most people do not experience any negative results from using this type of water softener. They remain a very popular choice, mostly because it is the mots cost-effective method of softening the water in your home.
Salt-based Water Softener Pros
Salt-based Water Softener Cons
Slat-Free Water Softeners
Technically, a salt-free water softener is not actually a water softener. They are more accurately referred to as water conditioners or scale inhibitors. This is because these devices don’t actually remove hard minerals like calcium and magnesium.
While the hard minerals remain in the water, they are rendered harmless as they cannot bond to surfaces. This is achieved by a process known as template assisted crystallization (TAC). Resin beads, usually made from potassium chloride, change the hard minerals into crystals. In this state, the minerals remain suspended in the water but will not cling to your pipes, fixtures, clothing, or dishes. Essentially, you’re getting the same benefits as a water softener that uses salt.
Many prefer salt-free water conditioners because they require basically no maintenance, and they don’t contain sodium which can be unhealthy for some. However, there are reasons why you may not feel that this is the best water softener for you.
The resin cartridges used for a salt-free water softener are more expensive than salt. The media also needs to be regenerated. This means that the resin beads are periodically rinsed with fresh water to ensure that they continue to function. The extra water consumption can be costly and is not great for areas where drought can be a problem.
Salt-free Water Softener Pros
Salt-free Water Softener Cons
Dual Tank Water Softeners
Water softeners require a regeneration process which ensures that the softening media remains effective. When the resin tank is being regenerated, the water supply to your home will be disrupted. For this reason, water softeners are usually programmable. This allows you to set a timer that will only regenerate the softening media at a time when you don’t normally use water in the home.
In really busy homes and commercial installations, a dual tank water softener will prevent downtime during the regeneration cycle. While one tank is being regenerated, the other will continue to supply softened water.
Electronic Water Softeners
Not a very popular type of water conditioner, electronic (or magnetic) descalers are quite cheap and very easy to install. You don’t need to cut pipes or install any fittings. The device attaches to the water pipe and plugs into an electrical socket.
While easy to install and relatively inexpensive, electronic descalers are not very effective. Some say that they don’t work at all. In theory, the magnetic field that is created by the device has the same effect as the media used in salt-free water softeners. However, the magnetic field does not entirely crystalize all the hard minerals.
An electronic descaler is the least effective way to manage hard water. They may be able to control small amounts of calcium and magnesium and eve this is debatable.
What Size Water Softener Do You Need?
You obviously want a water softener that will supply adequate water for your home. If it’s too small, you simply won’t have enough water to supply your needs. Alternatively, if it’s too large, the water softener will cost more and be bulky, possibly using valuable storage space for other items.
The size of your water softener will be determined by how much water your family uses. It isn’t easy to ascertain exactly how much water you use. Generally, we estimate water consumption by the number of people in the home and how many bathrooms you have.
If you look at water softener specifications, you’ll see the grain capacity for that model. This number basically indicates how much water the machine can soften between regeneration cycles. If you use more water in your home, and want an uninterrupted supply, you’ll need a water softener with a higher grain capacity.
Typically, a small to medium water softener will have around 20,000 grain capacity. This should be sufficient for up to 3 people in a home with 2 or less bathrooms. A grain capacity exceeding 30,000 will be good for an average to large home with 3 or more bathrooms and 4 or more people using water in the home.
Combination Water Softeners
Besides hard minerals, there are many other contaminants that can cause your water to be unhealthy or unpleasant to drink. Toxins from industrial and municipal waste often end up in our water sources and have been a cause of great concern in many areas. Older installations in some cities utilize lead pipes which leads to lead poisoning. Even seemingly benign contaminants, like chlorine and fluoride, used in many water utility treatment plants, can be undesirable. While rare, pathogens can also be found in some water samples, causing diseases.
In the end, you’ll probably want a water filtration system that does more than merely soften your water. Activated carbon filters are one of the popular type of water filter for removing chlorine and odors. This is usually preceded by a sediment filter that removes dirt and rust from the water. This is essentially a prefilter that prevents all other filters from becoming clogged with sediment.
A reverse osmosis (RO) water filtration system is the ultimate in home water purification. An RO membrane traps dissolved salts and particles as small as 0.5 micron. Approximately 90% of all known water contaminants are removed by an RO filter. The remaining contaminants can be removed using additional stages which can include a water softener, several activated carbon filters, and a UV filter to kill bacteria.
The options for filtration stages used in water softener combos are extensive. You can have as many additional filters as your budget will allow.
Hard water is common in the US. It can cause pipes to become blocked and affect the efficiency of appliances like water heaters. White limescale will leave marks on your dishes and clothing. It also collects on faucets and plumbing fixtures.
The only way to protect your home from hard water damage is to install a whole house water softener. The most common water softeners use salt to ionize hard minerals, completely removing them from the water. Salt-free water softeners crystalize the hard minerals. This means that they cannot cling to surfaces like the inside of your pipes and appliances, or items washed in the water.
While salt-based water softeners are cheaper than salt-free alternatives, they require some maintenance and slightly increase the sodium content of your water.
For complete water filtration, it is advisable to use a water softener combo. This will soften the water, as well as remove contaminants that can affect the taste of the water and your health.