Just Plumbing

Understanding Water Softeners: How They Work and Why You Need One

It’s normal to ask, “What do I need a water softener for?” This is a natural course of curiosity if you haven’t heard of a water softener before or have no clue as to what it does. Some might even say something silly like, “But water already feels soft in our hands already; why make it softer?”

However, those who know what a water softener is understand that we aren’t referring to how the water feels in our hands but what it contains and the effect of those elements. For the sake of those who don’t know, we’ll be discussing water softeners and the benefits of purchasing them. So stay glued to your seats, grab a snack, and enjoy your reading.

What are Water Softeners?

To fully grasp what the equipment does, you should know what it is. Make sense? A water softener is a whole-house water filter system designed to eliminate certain minerals that cause water hardness through the ion exchange process. We can literally picture the puzzled look on your face. You’re probably asking, “Water gets hard?” We don’t mean water becoming solid matter. That’s freezing (water to ice).

Water hardness refers to the presence of calcium and magnesium in your water supply. These are healthy minerals on their own. However, when in your water, they can wreck damages in your home. This is different from a water filtration like reverse osmosis which cleans drinking water. This is why people purchase a water softener. Get it now?

How Do Water Softeners Work?

Just Plumbing | Understanding Water Softeners: How They Work and Why You Need One

To give it to you briefly, water softeners work by swapping sodium for calcium and magnesium. That’s how the issue of water hardness is eliminated. However, this explanation won’t suffice because we’re suckers for details. Let’s take you through the entire process.

When water flows into the mineral tank of the water softener, it comes in contact with a bed of resin beads. These beads contain sodium ions. They have a negative charge which makes them anions. The water hardness minerals, on the other hand, have a positive charge, making them cations.

Remember that saying, “Unlike poles attract?” That’s what happens next.

So as the hard water flows through the tank, the resin bed draws the calcium and magnesium ions from the water and traps them. In turn, it releases sodium into the water. So what comes out of your mineral tank is soft water. At this point, we hope you now understand that water softness refers to the absence of calcium and magnesium or the presence of sodium in the water.

What are the Components of a Water Softener?

The water softener is a piece of equipment fashioned out of three parts. Let’s introduce you to them and their respective functions.

Just Plumbing | Understanding Water Softeners: How They Work and Why You Need One

The Control Valve

This is the engine of the water softening machine. It’s responsible for regulating the volume of water that goes into the mineral tank and, consequently, the house. This controller is also programmed to initiate the regeneration cycle for the softeners. A process that is activated periodically when the water softening unit has declined in efficiency because the resin bed has accumulated a large volume of water hardness minerals over time.

The regeneration process, as the name implies, refreshes the equipment and restores it back to its optimal state. Look at it like a rebirth. If you’ve been paying attention, you might be wondering how to figure out the time interval for the regeneration process. There’s no specific time, pal.

It depends on certain factors, such as:

  • The degree of water hardness (If extremely hard water is prevalent in your area, brace up, bud! Your water softener will be regenerating very often)
  • The size of the house (If you have a large home, that means the demand for water will be higher. This translates to more frequent use of the water softener and closer regeneration intervals. The reverse is the case for small homes)
  • Number of occupants in the house (If you’re the sole occupant of your home, water consumption will be light or moderate at best. So your regeneration cycles will be few and far between. On the other hand, if you reside with family or friends, that’s some heavy water consumption, and you know what that means).

Just Plumbing | Understanding Water Softeners: How They Work and Why You Need One

Mineral Tank

This is where the feed water from your main supply line enters. This tank, as we’ve described earlier, contains a resin bed comprising plastic beads that attract water hardness minerals ions. It draws them from the water and replaces them with sodium ions from the brine tank. In summary, hard water enters the tank, and soft water comes out. The mineral tank is connected to the plumbing system of the house.

Brine Tank

This tank is just beside the mineral tank. It contains a high concentration of a salt solution or potassium that restores the charge of the resin beads during the regeneration cycle. When the softening capacity of the resin beads declines, the brine tank sends a certain volume of the salt concentration in blocks or pellets to the resin bed.

Once the salt enters the mineral tank, it dissolves in the water and is flushed through the resin bed. Just as regeneration occurs at intervals, the salt in the brine tank needs to be topped up to prevent it from finishing. Once the brine tank is empty, the regeneration cycle will no longer be effective in restoring the softening capacity of the equipment.

Now you see why you should ensure the brine tank always stays half-full, at least.

The Benefits and Downsides of Purchasing a Water Softener

“Right. I know what a water softener does now, but why do I need to buy it?” “Does its use come with any disadvantage?” Stay with us as we answer these questions.

Let’s start with the upsides of using softened water. They include;

  • More economical use of soap: Hard water rarely lathers when soap is added to it. Since this gives the impression of not adding enough soap, you’ll put in more. Over time, you’ll spend a significant amount of money on dishwashing and bathing soaps. Do you now see why you need a water softener? The water it produces lathers easily, so you’ll use much less soap and save money.
  • Reduced energy bills: It’s easier to heat soft water than hard water. That’s because water hardness, over time, results in limescale build-up in the heater tank. This makes the heater less efficient in doing its job, and it will have to use more energy to provide hot water. In essence, water hardness will incur more energy bills. Even if you can afford it, is it really worth it? With a water softening unit, less energy will be expended on water heating. That means reduced utility bills, buddy!
  • It reduces or eliminates scaling and limescale: This is one of the most profound effects of water hardness. Over time, there will be an accumulation of scale in pipes, water cisterns, and water-using appliances (laundry machines, water heaters, and so on). If you see any whitish substance in your plumbing system or water heater, it’s very likely you’re staring at a limescale build-up. Go get a water softener, pal! After some time, you’ll notice that this build-up will reduce. We can literally hear your sigh of relief.
  • Less soap scum: Soap scum is produced from the mixture of soap and hard water. It’s commonly found on the bathroom walls and doors as well as the kitchen sink. Soap scum is an eyesore, and it can be a nuisance since it’s difficult to remove.
  • Soft water is friendly to your skin and hair: Unlike soft water, hard water makes your skin dry and removes the lustre of your hair. This is bad news if you’re big on skin care. If you notice your skin is dry and your hair is dull, it may be because you’re bathing with hard water. If that’s the case, you don’t have to splurge the cash on expensive creams and soaps. A water softener is the skincare routine you’ve been looking for.

Now, to the downsides of using a water softener:

  • Higher water bills: If you use city water, a softener may be bad news. Grab a seat; let me explain quickly. A water softening unit wastes water in the softening and regeneration process. To produce a thousand gallons of soft water, it will send 120 gallons of water down the drain. This will increase your water usage and, ultimately, your water bills.
  • Not ideal for drinking: Softened water has higher sodium levels. Regular consumption of it will heighten your sodium intake. When you consume more salt than you should, it can lead to health complications such as high blood pressure. Don’t fret, friend. We’ll drop a tip for that in the conclusion.

What’s the Cost of Acquiring a Water Softener?

Based on the type or quality of the softening unit, the cost of this equipment ranges between $300 and $4,000.

How Do I Know When My Water Softener Is Due for Replacement?

The lifecycle of a water softener is 10-15 years. Once your softening unit is a decade old, it will be due for replacement, especially if there are obvious signs of wear and tear. The equipment can last for a shorter period if the water is extremely hard. Some good news, though. A hack to extend the duration of your water softener is the addition of a pre-filter.


Water softeners have proven to be an effective solution for water hardness. Although there’s a downside to its method, it can be rectified. For instance, you can use the water softener to produce water for bathing, cooking, dishwashing, and laundry. As for drinking water, hard water is ideal for that. After all, it’s mineral water – rich in calcium and magnesium. We’re sure you’re familiar with their benefits for the body.