How Do Water Softeners Work? 

Hard water wreaks havoc on your home’s plumbing, clogging it and shortening the life of appliances like dishwashers and washing machines. It also makes laundry look dull and off-color, inhibits detergents from working properly, and can lead to spotted glassware in your kitchen and bathroom. 

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The best way to counteract hard water is by installing a water softener. These devices use a process called ion exchange to remove calcium and magnesium from your water supply, replacing them with sodium ions that don’t cause problems for the rest of your household. 

Ion exchange involves passing water through a bed of plastic resin beads. These spherical beads have been treated with a salt brine solution and contain negative sodium ions (anions) that attract negatively charged calcium and magnesium minerals. 

As hard water passes through the resin beads, they seize ahold of the minerals, pulling them out of the water and replacing them with sodium ions. Once the resin beads are full, the water is ready for regeneration. 

Regeneration cycles occur at regular intervals, usually every few days. Older-style units use a timer, but many modern models have computer-controlled meters that trigger regeneration based on actual water usage. 

During a regeneration cycle, the resin beads are drained and flushed out with a salty brine solution before being prepped for another round of ion exchange. Some water softeners are equipped with reserve resin capacity so that soft water will be available during this time, while others use a more complex recharging system that includes a separate reservoir. 

The ion-exchange resin is the core of most water softeners. It is usually a material called zeolite or a synthetic resin. 

These materials are made of aluminosilicates, which have been specially designed to remove calcium and magnesium from your water by exchanging them with sodium. Ion-exchange resins work well on hard water, though they aren’t as efficient on soft water. 

Ion-exchange resins can be natural or synthetic, and the process is often referred to as “salt-free.” Both types of resins use the same basic method: they attract calcium and magnesium from your water by exchanging it with sodium ions. 

There are two main kinds of ion-exchange resins: aluminosilicates and zeolite. Generally, aluminosilicates are more effective for extremely hard water than zeolite. 

In addition to removing calcium and magnesium from your water, ion exchange resins can remove iron and manganese as well. These metals are important for the body, but they can be eliminated from your water through a water softener. 

The ion exchange process is safe for everyone, but you should consult a doctor if you are on a low-sodium diet or have high blood pressure. In addition, you should not consume the water that comes out of your ion-exchange resin after it has been regenerated because sodium is released. 

Regeneration can take several hours to complete and is a process that is dependent on the type of resin used in your system. Some systems will not allow soft water during this time, while others can regenerate in less than 15 minutes.