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What Is a Water Softener and How Does It Work?

Scott Winfield
Written by Scott Winfield
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If you’re dealing with hard water at home, a water softener is the solution you’re looking for. Installing one is the most effective way to remove the minerals that cause water hardness and avoid serious plumbing issues like limescale build-ups. But what exactly are water softeners and how do they work?

WHAT IS A WATER SOFTENER AND HOW DOES IT WORK?

Below, we answer both of these questions and cover the different types of water softeners, how to choose the right one for your home, and how much it costs to have one installed.

What Is A Water Softener?

Water Softener

A water softener is a whole-house water filtration appliance that removes hard water minerals such as calcium and magnesium ions from water through an ion exchange process.

It’s important to choose the best water softener system for your home (or office space) to ensure it effectively treats your hard water before it reaches the home’s plumbing system. The type of softener that’s right for your home depends on several factors, like water hardness levels, the size of your home, and your budget.

Water Softener Operation: How Does It Work?

Water softeners work by removing hard water minerals through an ion exchange process. Here’s how it works.

A water softener contains a mineral tank with a bed of negatively charged resin beads. These spherical beads are typically made of polystyrene and hold a negative charge known as anions. To reach this state, they receive a negative charge from the sodium ions inside the water softener.

On the other hand, water containing excessive calcium and magnesium molecules will have a positive ion charge, also known as cations. So, when hard water goes into the mineral tank of the water softener, the positive ions of calcium and magnesium are attracted to and held by the negatively charged resin beads, effectively removing them from the water.

Because these positive ion molecules have a stronger force than the sodium ions that sit on the resin beads, they overpower them and take their place, releasing the sodium ions.

This ion exchange process successfully removes hard mineral content from the water, and it continues through the system into the home as soft water with a minuscule number of sodium ions.

Over time, the resin beads will eventually be full of positively charged ions from the calcium and magnesium and lose their effectiveness. The water softener will then need to perform a regeneration cycle to release these molecules and recharge the beads so it can continue to remove more hard mineral ions.

The Regeneration Process

The Regeneration Process

The water softener regeneration process eliminates positive ions stuck on the resin beads and recharges them to hold a negative charge once more through ion exchange. This task ensures that the beads can continue to be reused to remove hardness minerals from water.

Different systems have different processes for completing the regeneration cycle. As salt-based water softeners are mainly used in most homes, let’s take a look at their process.            

Salt-Based Water Softener Regeneration

Depending on the model, there are two ways that a salt-based water softener can perform regeneration:

  • Co-current regeneration: This involves downflow brining, where the brine solution flows down through the tank.
  • Con-current regeneration: This involves upflow brining, where the solution flows up through the mineral tank.

Typically, water softeners regenerate in the late evening hours or early morning when everyone is asleep, and there is no need for water use. This way, they can effectively run when you need them during peak daytime hours.

The tank has two parts: the reservoir tank and the secondary water softener salt storage compartment. You need to fill this compartment with sodium chloride to create the brine solution used for regeneration.

The brine solution enters the main tank to mix with the beads during regeneration. Because brine solution is a highly concentrated salt solution, it forces the positive ion molecules on the beads to release. As a result, the negative ions from the brine mixture once again take their place on the beads.

The water that now contains hard minerals gets flushed out of the water softener through a wastewater drain. During regeneration, the unit also goes through a cleaning and sanitizing phase as it prepares to remove hard water molecules effectively once again.

Note that the regeneration process will be significantly different if you use a salt-free water softener.

Types of Water Softeners

Although salt-based water softeners are the most commonly used, they’re certainly not the only type available. Different homes and circumstances may require an alternative type of water softener.

Here are the main types of water softeners you will find on the market:

Salt-Based

Salt-Based Water Softeners

Salt-based water softeners are highly versatile because they come in many different sizes. Some models work in RVs, while others are large enough to service an extensive estate. Of course, the unit’s total cost will directly reflect its maximum capacity.

These models use water softener salt to remove hard water minerals from the water via the ion exchange process we covered earlier. As they require the homeowner to add sodium chloride, they are generally larger than other types due to the salt storage compartment.

They need a consistent supply of salt and typically perform a regeneration process once a week, depending on the hardness of your water and your home’s water demands.

Salt-Free

Salt-Free Water Softener

Naturally, salt-free water softeners don’t need the addition of salt to treat hard minerals in water. These units don’t actually remove hard water minerals. Instead, they condition the water by treating hard minerals so they don’t bind to your pipes or fixtures.

This process, known as Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC), uses polymeric beads that crystalize calcium and hard water minerals, which helps reduce soap scum or limescale build-up in your home.

Dual-Tank

Dual Tank Water Softener Work

As the name suggests, dual-tank water softeners use two reservoir tanks. While one tank performs the regeneration process, the other tank can supply soft water as needed. These units are larger than other models and can be challenging to install in small spaces.

Dual-tank water softeners are ideal for homes that run on private wells because they’re able to soften water with excessive amounts of hard water minerals. They also tend to have high flow rates and don’t decrease water pressure, which makes them a great choice for large homes or businesses.

Magnetic

Electromagnetic Water Conditioning

Magnetic water softener units attach to your water pipe and take up less space than other models.

Instead of using salt or crystallization, magnetic water softeners utilize electromagnetic coils to remove the positive charge of the hard minerals in the water, neutralizing them.

This means they can’t bind to surfaces and cause damage to your plumbing system or fixtures. However, as with the salt-free models, hard water minerals will still exist within the water, so these units act more as water conditioners than softeners.

Components of a Water Softener System

A typical water softener system includes several primary components. For this example, we will use the standard salt-based system.

A salt-based unit contains three main components for its operation. These include:

  1. The mineral tank
  2. The brine tank
  3. The control valve

The Mineral Tank

The Mineral Tank

The mineral tank, also called the reservoir tank, is where hard water enters the unit. It then flows through the resin beads, where the hard water minerals are removed before the water is supplied to your home.

The Brine Tank

Water Softener Brine Tank

This is a secondary storage tank smaller than the main mineral tank. The brine tank holds the concentrated salt solution necessary for the regeneration process to restore the resin beads to a negative ion state.

The Control Valve

Control Valve Clog

The control valve of a water softener helps measure the volume of soft water that passes from the mineral tank into the home. The control valve has settings that regulate the regeneration process, and you can adjust them to suit your needs.

Once a certain volume of water has passed through the system, the unit will automatically initiate the regeneration process to return the resin beads to their optimal ion state.

Installation Cost and Maintenance Requirements

The cost of obtaining and maintaining a water softener depends on the type you choose for your home.

Each system has individual maintenance requirements, so this is an important factor to consider when making your decision.

How Much Does It Cost to Buy?

The upfront cost of a water softener can vary widely depending on the unit type that best suits your home. In general, you can expect to pay anywhere between $200 and $3,000 for a water softener unit.

Let’s break down the typical costs of the most popular types of softener systems:

  • Salt-based models start at around $300 for a low-end unit but can reach upward of $1,000.
  • Salt-free systems are slightly more expensive, starting at about $500 for a low-end model and climbing all the way up to $3,000 for some units.
  • Dual-tank water softeners carry a more hefty price tag, starting at $1,000 and reaching $2,500 or more.
  • Magnetic units generally cost between $200 and $400, depending on the model you choose, making them the most affordable type of softener.

How Much Does It Cost to Install?

On average, homeowners pay between $200 and $4,000 to install a new water softener. Of course, these prices will vary depending on the specific water softener, your home setup, and your location.

Many are surprised at how much they have to pay to have a professional install their new unit in the home. In fact, the cost of installation can often be as high as the upfront cost of the system.

Here’s the average cost of professional water softener installation:

  • Salt-based water softeners can run you an additional $200 to $500 for installation.
  • Salt-free units can be very costly to install, ranging from $800 to $4,000 for a professional to get the job done.
  • Dual-tank models can be tricky to install due to their large size. Therefore, you can expect to pay between $300 and $1,000 for installation.
  • Magnetic types are one of the least expensive models to install, starting at $200 and reaching up to $600.

How Much Does It Cost to Maintain?

For most new models, the maintenance costs are relatively low. In many cases, the only maintenance cost is the price of the electricity used to run the system. Water softeners typically last up to 20 years or more and don’t require much preventative maintenance until they see extensive use.

Still, regular care and maintenance are vital for any household appliance, including water softeners. Proper maintenance will ensure the unit functions correctly and efficiently while extending its longevity.

  • Salt-based water softeners require you to continually add salt for normal operation. A 40-pound bag should last around a month on average and costs between $10 and $25. These units also require electricity for operation, although the usage is minimal.
  • Salt-free models require new TAC media every three to five years, depending on use. They don’t need electricity or drainage valves to operate.
  • Dual-tank styles are quite large, so they require more salt than a standard-sized water softener. Because of their excessive salt use and size, they also need more electricity to operate.
  • Magnetic units usually don’t require any maintenance. However, some models need to be installed directly into the home’s electricity supply for proper operation.

How Frequently Should I Maintain My Water Softener?

Annual checks and maintenance for critical parts (especially resin replacement) are crucial to keep your unit running efficiently and prevent potential problems in the future.

Generally, newer units only need a thorough cleaning around once a year. However, as the system ages, you might need to start cleaning it more regularly.

One critical aspect of owning a salt-based water softener is ensuring that it never runs out of salt. If it operates without salt in the tank, you risk damaging its internal components. This means your water won’t be effectively softened, which can create problems in your plumbing system and appliances.

Can I Install a Water Softener Myself?

If you’re comfortable tackling DIY projects, you can install a water softener yourself. Of course, different styles of water softeners will vary in the degree of difficulty of installation, so while some may be relatively simple to install, other models may take you an hour or two.

If you choose to install a water softener yourself rather than hiring a plumber, you can save a lot of money. However, you need to have the right tools and follow the instructions to a T. If you have serious doubts about doing it yourself, play it safe by hiring a plumber.

Pros & Cons of Water Softening

Let’s go over the main pros and cons of using a water softener.

PROS

  • You minimize the chance of soap scum, limescale, and calcium build-ups in your plumbing and throughout your home, including bathtubs, showers, sinks, and other fixtures.
  • You use less soap since it tends to lather better, providing a better cleaning experience for you and your home.
  • Appliances that use water, like water heaters, will last longer and run more efficiently.
  • Laundry and clothing will look and feel better.
  • Dishes will be less likely to have watermarks once they’ve been cleaned.
  • Your skin and hair should be less dry or itchy.
  • A water softener can increase the value of your home.

CONS

  • Water softeners do not remove bacteria or other harmful contaminants from water.
  • Various units may not benefit some individuals due to specific health reasons.
  • Some models have a detrimental impact on the environment because they produce a lot of wastewater.
  • Depending on the model, you may have to spend thousands of dollars.
  • Some individuals simply don’t like the feeling of soft water when showering and bathing.
  • Some models are large and don’t fit into smaller homes or apartments.
  • Electricity is necessary for most types of water softener units, which adds to the costs.

What Are the Health Effects of Home Softening

For some individuals, softened water can affect their health and well-being. For others, the method used to soften water can have a negative impact.

For example:

  • If you have high blood pressure and are under a doctor’s recommendation to avoid sodium, using a salt-based softener could be bad for your health. In this case, you should opt for a salt-free or magnetic system instead. 
  • If your main source of drinking water is softened, it can lead to deficiencies in calcium and magnesium, which are important minerals for bone and tooth health.

What Are the Environmental Impacts of Home Softening?

Unfortunately, water softeners can have a detrimental effect on the environment. The main culprits are salt-based softeners, as they discharge brine solution into local septic lines.

This solution can also seep into groundwater and cause excessive sodium ion concentration in nearby aquatic areas.

Another significant factor is the amount of water these units use during the regeneration process. On average, a water softener will use an extra 50 gallons of water each week for this process, which can greatly increase your home’s water usage levels.

How to Choose a Water Softener

To choose the ideal water softener for your home, these are the main factors you need to consider.

1. The Hardness Level of Your Water

The first thing to consider is how hard your water actually is. This varies greatly depending on your location and the source of your water. For example, you may live in an area that receives well water full of hardness minerals.

To measure your water hardness levels, order test strips online or through a retailer. These items are inexpensive, and some retailers will provide them free of charge.

Once you determine how hard your water is, you can start looking at the other deciding factors for choosing a water softener.

2. The Size of Your Home and the Number of Individuals Living In the Home

Naturally, the size of your home and the number of people using softened water will determine the capacity and type of water softener you choose.

For example, if you live alone in an apartment, a small magnetic model may be sufficient for your needs. However, if you live in a large home with several occupants, a whole-house salt-based softener will probably be the best option.

3. The Available Space for a Water Softener

You also need to consider how much space is available in your home. If you have a large home with a basement, you should easily have enough room for a large unit like a dual-tank system.

On the other hand, if you live in a small home or apartment, you might want to save space by choosing a compact unit like a magnetic softener.

4. Your Budget

Lastly, your budget will greatly impact your purchase and installation, so you need to find a good balance.

For instance, you might be able to afford a more expensive unit if you’re able to install it yourself. Or, if you know you’ll have to pay for the installation, choosing a unit with a lower upfront cost might be best.

When it comes to buying a softener, there are plenty of options to choose from. We’ve tested and reviewed different softeners from various brands, and some of the best brands we’ve come across include:

  • Springwell
  • Waterboss
  • Pentair Pelican
  • Aquasana
  • Fleck
  • Whirlpool

Some brands offer both salt-based and salt-free options, while some specialize in one or the other. Many brands also offer packages that combine softeners with different types of water filters that can remove other contaminants besides calcium and magnesium. These packages are particularly helpful if your home is supplied with well water.

Frequently Asked Questions

If you still have questions or concerns about purchasing a new water softener, here are some answers relevant to your search.

Which Water Softener Method Is Best?

The best type of water softener for you depends on your preferences and needs. For example, if you’re eco-conscious, salt-based softeners might not be ideal due to their impact on the environment.
If your home is short on space, you may want to opt for a magnetic unit rather than a larger, dual-tank system. Ultimately, you need to consider which type of softener best suits your and your home’s specific requirements.

Are Water Softeners Worth the Money?

If you live in an area with extremely hard water, installing a softener is usually worth the money. By reducing water hardness, softeners help prevent scale build-ups. This reduces the risk of plumbing system issues and extends the life of your appliances, saving you money in the long term.

What Can I Get Instead of a Water Softener?

If you don’t have the space or budget to install a full softener unit, there are alternatives, like liquid water softeners and water descalers.
Depending on your hard water measurements, one of these options may work fine for your home and provide many of the same benefits as a standard system.

Will a Water Softener Remove Calcium From Pipes?

Unfortunately, water softeners will not remove existing calcium from pipes. They can, however, ensure that the build-up does not become worse.
If you want to remove calcium from pipes, choosing a salt-free model ensures the hard minerals are still in the water but become crystallized, which can help break away existing calcium buildup.

Does a Water Softener Affect the Toilet?

Using a whole-house system can affect your toilet. For instance, your toilet should flush more efficiently, as there is less risk of scale build-up in your plumbing system once your softener is installed.
Softened water will also prevent hard water stains inside the toilet bowl or tank, which can be unsightly even if the toilet is clean.

What’s Needed to Install A Water Softener?

If you want to install a unit on your own, you’ll need to use the following tools:
Plumbers tape
Slip joint pliers
Soldering torch
Tape measure
Tube cutter
Copper pipe
Copper tee
Fitting brush
Flux
Solder
Valves
Not all water softener installations will require all of these items, so refer to the instructions and check which tools and supplies are necessary before beginning the job.

Where Is the Best Place to Put a Water Softener?

The best place for a water softener depends on the type of softener you choose. Still, most softeners need to be placed where the water supply enters the home. They also need to be placed on level ground and typically need access to a drain.

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Scott Winfield
Scott Winfield
My name is Scott Winfield and researching and writing about water filters and other strategies to purify water has become my full time passion in recent years. I'm glad that you found our site and you can look forward to authoritative and well researched content here to help you get the best in water.
5 Comments
  1. It is accurate when you claim that hard water enters the unit and flows through resin beads so it can process softened water into the home and successfully remove hard minerals. My water is harder than 7 grains per gallon. I need a water softener to make sure my appliances function properly and to enhance the flavor, aroma, or appearance of my water.

  2. Thanks so much for the explanation of how water softeners work and why they are helpful. My sister hates the way water sticks when she showers so she’s been wanting to get a water softener to give her better shower and cleaning experiences. We’ve been looking into how they work and what to know before we go looking to buy one.

  3. Thank you for pointing out that salt-based water softeners’ several size options make them incredibly adaptable. The water in my home is hard, which is bad for my kids. I’ll arrange for the installation of a water softener system at my home.

  4. I like what you said that the water hardness provides a different feeling for your home water. Yesterday, my cousin informed me he and his wife intend to have a water softener in their home for safe drinking water. He asked if I had any recommendations for the best option. I’ll tell him consulting a water softener service is much better because they can answer all their concerns. I’m grateful for this instructive article.

  5. It’s helpful to know what we’d consider before choosing a water softener for our home. We moved to another house last month, but we suspect that it has a hard water issue since all the fixtures keep getting stained, so we’ll follow your advice to fix it. We appreciate your information on thinking about our house’s size when picking a type of water softener.

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