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Water Softener and Hardness Explained

Water Softening Process

What is "Hard Water"?

The presence of calcium (Ca) or magnesium (Mg) in water results in that water being termed "hard". Magnesium and calcium are positively charged ions. Because of their presence, other positively charged ions will dissolve less easily in hard water than in soft that does not contain calcium and magnesium. These mineral ions in the water react with heat, metallic plumbing, and chemical agents such as detergents to reduce the cleaning effectiveness of laundry, dish washing, and bathing.

When water is hard, it can clog pipes and soap will dissolve in it less easily. It also causes a higher risk of lime scale deposits in household water systems. Due to this lime scale build-up, pipes are blocked and the efficiency of hot boilers and tanks is reduced. This increases the cost of domestic water heating by about 15% to 20% percent!

Water hardness often is expressed as grains of hardness per gallon of water (gpg) or milligrams of hardness per liter of water (mg/L). Table below, adapted from the Water Quality Association (WQA), shows hardness classifications. Hardness ions are typically combined with sulfate, chloride, carbonate, or bicarbonate ions. For consistency, concentrations are generally converted to the equivalent concentration as calcium carbonate (CaCO3) and expressed in terms of hardness as calcium carbonate.

US water hardness map
US water hardness map ©U.S. Geological Survey

Table below indicates Water Hardness Classification based on Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) measurements.

Water Classificationmg/l or ppmgrains/gal
Soft0 - 17.10 - 1
Slightly hard17.1 - 601 - 3.5
Moderately hard60 - 1203.5 - 7.0
Hard120 - 1807.0 - 10.5
Very Hard180 & over10.5 & over

TDS Scale
This is a typical TDS, Total Dissolved Solids Scale , what you can expect your water to be.
TDS Scale

Water Softener
Traditional Water Softener uses salt to regenerate

What is "Water Softening"?

Traditional Water softeners are systems that remove positively charged ions, mainly calcium (Ca2+) and magnesium (Mg2+), from your water. Two major types exist: salt and salt-free. Salt using systems substitute hardness ions with salt. Salt free water softeners use specially designed media to convert minerals to some other form, such as "nano" calcium.

Salt-free "softeners" are a new technology that became popular in the past several years. Proper name for this technology is ANTI-SCALE WATER CONDITIONERS because they are really not softeners. Anti-Scale Conditioners do not physically remove calcium, but transform it to prevent scale build-up. Water feels just as soft as after a softener, and no regeneration is required, which is a significant advantage of water conditioners over softeners especially in California where municipalities are trying to ban water softeners that use salt to regenerate.

How to Purchase a Water Softener?

There are simple guidelines to follow when choosing a water softener for your home:
  • Use proven technology
  • Buy a recognized brand from a respectable dealer, or a supplier that you trust
  • Make sure you can tell that the unit is working properly
  • Check to see if equipment has been certified by a third-party testing organization, such as the Water Quality Association (WQA)
  • Make sure you understand all hidden costs for installation and maintenance
  • Have your water tested before and after installing equipment
  • Choose the right softener equipment - make sure you don't overbuy!

Anti-Scale Water Conditioner
Anti-Scale Water Conditioners do not require regeneration

How to Purchase a Water Conditioner?

Water conditioners have its limitations, they don't work in all cases. Specifically, if you have a whole house tankless water heater. If your hot water system uses a standard tank, you are in luck and usually may opt for a new, salt-less technology.

Hard water waste can cost hundreds of dollars per year, as it affects laundry operations, water heater operation, household cleaning and the life expectancy of plumbing. When it all adds up - hard water is something that can be done without. The solution is as simple as buying water softener.