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How Does a Water Softener Work?

Water softeners are probably one of the best ways to get rid of hard water in your area. In this water softener guide I’ll answer the question “How Does a Water Softener Work ?” By the end of this guide you will know how it works, why it works and whether buying one if the right choice for you.

Why You Need a Water Softener?

You need a water softener because the US Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that 85% of the homes in the US have hard water. This means that the water contains dissolved rock, usually limestone. It also could have dissolved minerals in it like iron, calcium and magnesium. These minerals are found in both private wells and municipal supplies.

Having hard water means that you use more soap for washing and laundry detergents when cleaning clothes. Soap scum in hard water will have your clothes looking grey and a little bit nasty. It also produces more wear and tear on water using appliances like hot water heaters, coffee machines and boilers in your home. It decreases their efficiency and shortens their life.

The scale from hard water builds up encrusts pipes preventing the water from effectively flowing throw them. The pipes get narrower and narrower as the water percipertates. This is undesirable stuff to have in your water supply.

This dissolved rock and minerals shows up as a crusty white residue and it clings to everything your water touches. You may have noticed white spots on your glasses and fixtures. The thing that most often causes these white spots on your plumbing fixtures and dishes is water hardness: magnesium and calcium.

hard water stains

Ion Exchange to Soften Water

One way you can address hard water is through ion exchange. Ion exchange is something that happens all the time naturally but its also a technology that chemists developed to enhance and use for human purposes.

So what is ion exchange? You need some kind of material that has charges on its surfaces. The water softener engineers what is called an ion exchange resin. This is a plastic bead that is a little bit larger than a grain of sand.

The outer surface of the beads have been chemically modified with a thing called a carboxylate group. So you fill up a water softener device. This is typically a big can that sits in your basement, several feet tall and a few feet in diameter. It looks like a big tub and you fill it with this resin.

Each of the beads will have a carboxylate with a negative charge. So remember you will always have charge balance in nature. You will never see charges by themselves. So there will always be something to counterbalance the charges.

As the dissolved rock ions come into contact with with the resin beads the rock is captured. As the rock is captured something else, usually sodium or potassium, is released or exchanged. This process called ion exchange leaves the water soft and clean.

After all the resin beads are dissolved with dissolved rock they are regenerated or washed with a brine solution. The beads grab the sodium or potassium ions from the brine and release the dissolved rock which is then washed down the drain.

So that’s softening water works. The resin in the water softener grabs ions of dissolved rock and iron and loses ions of sodium and potassium. The resin is periodically washed with brine and the hardest minerals get washed down the drain. At the same time the resin beads are recharged with fresh sodium or potassium ions allowing the process to begin again.

How Does a Water Softener Work

A Few Things To Consider When Buying A Water Softener

Your water softener will need access to a main water supply, a power outlet, and the drainage system. Of course be sure to check the measurements of your water softener to make sure it fits. Decide if you want a meter or timer water softener.

A timer softener will repeat a cleaning cycle on a preset time whether you use a little or a lot of water in your home. A meter softener will only start a cleaning cycle after a preset amount of water has been used in your home making it more efficient.

A timer version uses approximately 140 liters per regeneration and a meter softener uses approximately 50 liters per regeneration depending on setting and water pressure.

Finally, decide on the particular model for you. You’ll need to know the number of people in your home and your water hardness.


Now you know the answer to the question, “How Does A Water Softener Work?” It works by removing hard water (mostly calcium and lime) during the softening or conditioning process. The “hard” minerals are replaced by “soft” minerals which do not plug up your plumbing, cause spotting dishes, or cause dingy hair, clothes and dry skin.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of information out there about what a water softener is supposed to do. A water softener shouldn’t be confused with a drinking water system. Anyone who tries to tell you that a water softener and a drinking water system can do the same thing is not telling you the full story.

Water softeners are simply designed to remove the hard water minerals from your “working” water. We define working water as water used for laundry, bathing and cleaning. Soft water takes the work part out of the equation because everything comes out cleaner with soft water.

How would life be for you if you never had to scrub hard water soap scum from your shower ever again? Buy a water softener and see how it feels for yourself. Once you try it you may never want to go back to hard or tap water again.

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  1. […] There are a variety of things that impact your water quality including environmental contamination, water hardness, and even harmful chemicals from the water treatment […]

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