What are Water Softeners

Water Softeners Can Protect Your Home’s Plumbing Pipes and Eliminate Scaling and Soap Scum

By Mark J. Donovan

Does your home have “hard water”? If so a water softener may be just the ticket for you. Are you not sure what “hard water” is? Hard water is water that is high in mineral content. The most common minerals found in hard water are magnesium and calcium. Hard water can cause a number of nuisances and problems in the home.

For example hard water can cause whitish spots to appear on glasses that have been washed in the dishwasher. Hard water also has the tendency to cause the buildup of soap scum, stiff clothing, and even clogging pipes in some cases.

With hard water it can be outright impossible to fully clean surfaces in your kitchen and bathrooms, and often scale/scum build up can be observed on the inside of pipes and water heaters, and even on coffee makers and tea kettles. Also with hard water, it is impossible to lather up the soap when taking a bath or shower.

Water softeners can solve many of the problems encountered with hard water. There are a number of water softener systems to choose from, however it is important to first find out what the actual water hardness is in your home’s potable water system.

Water hardness is a measure of how much mineral content is in the water supply. You can buy water hardness test kits from a variety of places including hardware stores and pool suppliers. Water hardness is measured in grains per gallons (GPG), or in parts per million (PPM) or in milligrams per liter (MG/L).

Water softener systems

Water hardness levels of 3.5 to 7 GPG are considered hard water. Water hardness levels from 1 to 3.5 GPG are considered moderate in level, and water hardness levels of less than 1 GPG are considered soft.
Water softeners work by removing the minerals in the hard water, or more specifically replacing the minerals’ hard ions that cause the hard water with softer ions.

The water softener systems are inserted right into the home’s main water supply line. Ionic exchange water softeners are one of the most common types of water softeners and consist of a brine tank filled with sodium or potassium chloride, negatively charged plastic beads, and a regenerating system that is on a timer. The water softener system works by first filtering the water through the charged plastic beads. As the water is filtered through the beads, the magnesium and/or calcium ions are replaced with the softer sodium or potassium ions.

The cost of an ionic water softener system can vary, however expect to pay somewhere in the vicinity of $1,000 to $2,000 for a system. In addition, bags of sodium and potassium chloride need to be purchased regularly, which can cost around $5 to $10 per bag depending upon the size of the bag and market conditions.

There are also magnetic water softeners on the market that consist of two magnets attached to either the outside or inside of the main water supply pipe in the home. However the technology is dubious at best. If this type of water softener can do anything, it may help to prevent scaling in the water pipes, and that’s about it. Personally I would not waste my time with them if you are looking for a water softener.
There are a couple of negatives associated with ionic water softeners. First, as you might imagine, there are slightly higher levels of sodium and/or potassium in the potable water.

As a result, those individuals on low sodium-restricted diets may have a concern, if they are using a sodium based water softener. Consequently it may be wise for those individuals to use either a potassium based water softener or bottled water for drinking and cooking. Note that Potassium based water softeners are more expensive than sodium ones.

The second negative of water softeners is that soft water can cause soap to lather up too well and thus it may be a bit more difficult to remove soap from your skin when taking a bath or shower. By adjusting the water softener often this problem can be resolved.

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