How To Choose The Right Water Softening System For Your Home

Why Soften Water at All?

“Hard” water is water that has a high content of minerals such as calcium and magnesium. It is usually the result of water that has come from areas high in limestone, chalk or gypsum.

The effect of hard water is easy to see. It commonly shows up as white spots on clean dishes, or white build up on faucets and sinks that can be inconvenient or difficult to remove.

Hard water makes it difficult for soap to foam properly, so showers are often unsatisfying. Skin can end up feeling dry and chapped. Hair is often left feeling slimy right out of the shower and brittle upon drying.

Hard water strips color from clothing much faster than softened water. It can leave sheets and fabric feeling scratchy from the minerals that aren’t rinsed clean away.

Mineral deposits can build up in washing machines, dishwashers, and other appliances, which can affect performance and efficiency, or cause direct damage outright.

The mineral build up also occurs within the pipes and plumbing system. This can lead to corrosion and other damage to the plumbing system. As the minerals build up, the pipes effectively become smaller, with less area for the water to pass through. The plumbing system has to work harder to pump water through, which can lead to a number of problems, including cracks and leaks.

Cracks and leaks can lead to problems ranging from higher water or electricity bills to growth of mold and mildew. Mold and mildew growth can lead to health problems, or expensive repair work to floors or walls.

What Are The Options To Soften Water?

Most people with hard water choose a whole-house water softener. There are several types of water softener systems available.

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Ion-Exchange Systems

Ion-exchange systems replace the calcium and magnesium in water with sodium (salt) or potassium. Sodium is the most commonly used.

An ion-exchange system consists of a resin tank and a brine tank. As water passes through the resin bed, mineral ions in the water are exchanged for sodium or potassium ions. When the resin is saturated with hard minerals, the system initiates a “regeneration” cycle, in which the sodium or potassium brine passes through the resin bed. During this cycle, the hard minerals are replaced with the sodium or potassium ions, the hard minerals are washed away, and the process begins again.

This process occurs before the water enters the house. The water that enters the house is “soft”. It contains the sodium or potassium ions used in the softening process.

Sodium Versus Potassium

Sodium is more readily available and is less expensive than potassium. For people on a low-sodium diet, or with heart health concerns, potassium is considered to be a much safer choice due to the additional sodium intake.

Potassium is considered the more environmentally friendly option because there is concern over the effects of releasing large amounts of sodium into the wastewater system during the regeneration cycle. However, sodium water will not harm septic systems or drain field soil percolation.

Single or Multi-Tank?

One drawback of a single tank is that during the regeneration cycle water is not being softened as it comes into the house. If the regeneration cycle is automated, it can be set for lowest use hours, such as during the middle of the night.

Single tanks tend to be a better choice in smaller spaces, or for households with lower water usage. Each household’s water use patterns should be considered when deciding between a single or multi-tank set up.

How To Maximize Efficiency

Choosing the right set up for the household’s individualized needs will ensure the greatest efficiency. The average person uses 75-80 gallons of water per day. Usage can go up to 100 gallons per person per day with long showers or multiple loads of laundry.

Water softeners tend to perform most efficiently and cost-effectively when regenerating once every 3-10 days. Some models regenerate automatically, while others require the regeneration cycle to be initiated manually, or will regenerate “on demand” when a specified amount of water has been processed.

Demand initiated regenerated is considered the most convenient and efficient option. High-efficiency models use less water and salt during each regeneration cycle.

How Hard Is The Water?

Water hardness is measured in grains per gallon. This can be determined by calling the city water supplier if using city water. If using well water, a simple water hardness test kit can be purchased at a hardware store.

To determine how much softening power is required, multiply the water hardness by the number of gallons used per day. If iron is present in the water, the hardness must be corrected by adding 3 grains per gallon for every 1.0 parts per million (ppm) of iron.

For example, city water is generally around 10 grains per gallon. For a family of four using 100 gallons of water per person per day (400 gallons per day as a household), a water softener capable of processing 4000 gallons of water daily would be required. Softeners usually regenerate once weekly or so. 4000 gallons x 7 days = 28,000 grain capacity.

Salt Versus Salt Free Water Softeners

Other than the potassium based ion-exchange softener, most salt-free water softeners are not actually water softeners, but rather water conditioners.

They alter the composition of the hardening calcium and magnesium ions, which eliminate the negative effects of the hard water. They are also more convenient and more ecologically friendly than their salt-based counterparts, and require little or no ongoing maintenance.

Salt free water conditioners will offer a good degree of reduction in hard water issues, however traditionally softened water will offer the greatest degree of reduction.

What Is The Best Salt Free Water Softener?

The best salt free water softener will vary based on each individual household’s needs. There are four primary types of salt free water softeners.

Filters With Polyphosphates

Salt free water softeners that filter with polyphosphates coat the minerals with this safe chemical so that the grains of mineral can’t stick to pipes or other surfaces. This type of softener requires cleaning and periodic refilling of polyphosphate.  It is usually a simple filter which softens water but does not remove chlorine or other contaminants.

Full Filtering Systems

Like the polyphosphate-based filtering options, full filtering systems neutralize the hard minerals in the water, removing their harmful effects.

As the name suggests, these full filtering systems provide additional filtering of contaminants including chlorine, iron, sulfur, viruses, bacteria, herbicides, pesticides or other material from the water.  The filters in these units should be changed every 6-12 months.

Electro-Magnetic Systems

These units send waves of electro-magnetic energy through the pipes, magnetizing the microscopic grains of minerals in the hard water. These process suspends them in the water, preventing them from sticking to pipes or other surfaces. They require a small amount of power to run.

Magnetic Systems

Magnetic systems suspend minerals in water like the electro-magnetic systems, however they do so without using electricity. Strong magnets are attached outside of the pipes and magnetize any water passing through it.

They are maintenance free, and will, over time, remove mineral deposits from inside the pipes. 

There is controversy regarding the effectiveness of this system, and overall they are considered the least effective of the systems.

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