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The Ultimate Water-Softener Buying Guide: 20 Things You Should Know

Home water-softener systems hold the potential to improve people’s quality of life. A good system can eliminate the daily irritations to the body and psyche you may experience as a result of hard water. Those include dry skin and hair, low-lathering soaps, stains, scum, bad smell, funny taste and the long-run expenses of replacing costly hot-water-using appliances when they fail.

Most industry experts, professionals and individuals agree that hard water is not much of an actual health concern. While the effects of hard water vary, they’re consistent in the quiet chaos they create each day and in the long term. Anybody responsible for their own water supply could benefit from a deeper understanding of water softeners and from conducting a water-softeners comparison.

Mr. Rooter of Greater Syracuse wants to help not only with comprehensive sales and service, but also with all the things you should know about water softeners.

Here are 20 questions to ask to be sure you know what you need to about water softeners:

1. What makes water hard?

Figuring out how to find the right water softener requires knowledge of water hardness, both in general and as it relates to your household. The main culprit causing hard water is calcium carbonate (CaCO3), a naturally occurring element throughout the world in chalk, marble and limestone. While the three main forms of it share identical chemical properties, they have differing characteristics such as thickness, purity and color. Calcium carbonate comprises about 4% of the Earth's crust.

In addition to calcium, there are several types of non-carbonate minerals and metals that may exist in the ground. Water picks them up as it travels through a watershed to wells and municipal water supply:

  • Aluminum
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Manganese
  • Zinc

These as well as calcium carbonate can harden the water, particularly when it’s heated. As water temperature increases, the minerals in it crystallize and adhere to surfaces, often unseen until a problem pops up — and not usually an inexpensive one. The hardness is less of a health concern than it is a daily nuisance that generates big problems over time.

2. How do I know how hard my water is?

The surest way to know what is in your water is to have it tested, and it only makes sense to know what it is you are treating before you buy a water softener to do the job. Home-improvement stores sell water-testing kits for about $25, and you can have a trusted plumbing professional such as Mr. Rooter take care of the testing.

You can also always check with a city, county, university or soil-and-water conservation professional to see if water-testing services are available. Often you can find an option that costs less and is more thorough than a store-bought test kit, plus it only requires you to bring or send in a water sample.

Water hardness is generally measured in grains per gallon (gpg), but some entities such as municipalities, may measure it in parts per million (ppm), milligrams per liter (mg) or liters (L). One grain of water hardness per gallon is equivalent to 1/7000th of a pound of rock. One gpg translates to 17.1 L, mg or ppm.

The range of water hardness varies from region to region and depends on what is in the soil. The U.S. Geological Survey studies well-water hardness, among other water-related characteristics, and assigns the hardness a rating based on milligrams per liter:

  • 0-60
  • 61-120
  • 121-180
  • 180+

The research data show that “hard water was prevalent in the east-central and western United States, reflecting the distribution of carbonate aquifers and aquifers with relatively high concentrations of dissolved solids.”

The Onondaga County Water Authority calls the water in its area "moderately hard" and says the measurement of calcium carbonate in the region ranges from 100-190 ppm, or six to 11 grains per gallon. Generally and universally, water with more than seven grains of hardness per gallon is considered to be hard.

A water test will also tell you levels of minerals or metals that are in the water, as well as detect such things as bacteria and other contaminants, chlorine, acidity and more depending on the test and the entity. Some people might test only for hardness while others may want to know a full range or something specific in addition to or instead of the standard factors an agency might examine. Additionally, a comforting thought can be that there are water softeners for very hard water, as well as models and accessories that will resolve other issues, too.

An analysis of the water can reveal valuable information for the purchase of a water softener as well as anytime you suspect the quality of water has changed for any reason. You can conduct a test anytime, like maybe if the water develops a smell or taste it didn’t have before or if conditions change in the watershed.

3. What are the effects of hard water?

Millions of people opt for a water softener because it not only eliminates headaches around the house, but it also saves money by prolonging the life of your water-using appliances.

The worst and costliest problem with calcium carbonate is how it accumulates over time and causes clogs, corrosion and shorter appliance life. The more of it there is in the water, the worse the deposits will be and the faster they build up. Envision the water lines of your water-using appliance as small arteries in which the calcium carbonate, magnesium, iron or other hardness accumulates and eventually impedes or blocks the water from passing.

One example would be the washer-line hose that inside becomes laden with CaCO3 deposits and takes longer to fill or some part that becomes encrusted and stops working altogether. Water hardness and its resulting buildup will not benefit any utility or surface in your home. Using a water softener will generally double the life expectancy of your hot-water-using appliances.

In another example, the Water Quality Research Council commissioned New Mexico State University to study the effects of hard water, and it found that when a water heater has scaling or buildup, it operates 22% to 30% less efficiently. Crusty, scaly deposits can build up over time in the water-supply lines and the heating elements, and when this vital appliance stops working, nobody enjoys the resulting lack of hot water.

Once you start to think about how many things in the house use hot water, an effort to preserve them makes more sense:

  • Coffee maker
  • Dishwasher
  • Plumbing fixtures
  • Plumbing pipes
  • Washing machine
  • Water heater

Most of the things that use or handle water in the house are expensive, and for that reason, most people want to do everything they can to make them last as long as practically possible and get a good value for their money. Even one experience with a costly appliance replacement can cause you to answer with an emphatic yes if anybody asks: Are water softeners good?

Additionally, hard water makes human skin and hair dry and itchy compared to soft water, so many people prefer to install a water softener to soothe their skin, especially since there is little they can do to stop other drying elements such as winter and its biting winds.

The deposits from hard water will also create a film on your shower doors, glassware and other items that come in contact with the hot water. You might hear these problems generally referred to as spotting, when the dishes don’t look clean, or scaling, when harness accumulates inside pipes, lines and pumps.

The calcium and magnesium content in hard water reacts with the ingredients in various soaps and decrease the amount of lather produced by body soaps, shampoos and laundry or dish detergents. This generally causes us to use more and more of the product, which wastes money and ends up placing more inorganic matter into the environment wherever the soap-heavy water drains. Besides that, the lack of lather can be downright annoying when you’d simply like to finish the cleaning job and get on with life.

Hard water has also been known to give laundry a drab look. It’s tough on fabrics and accumulates in them, too, causing dull colors and a lack of brightness in whites. Garments often looked aged before a consumer can get their money’s worth out of the shirt, pair of pants or other item. Many launderers find those qualities dissatisfactory and even expensive as they replace clothes more often for work, school, church, athletics and more.

Iron, manganese and sulfur can give water a funky smell or taste, and though not generally harmful, some people cannot or would rather not tolerate it. Typically, the water from a municipal system has been chlorinated so the smell or test is not as apparent as at someone’s house with a well supply. A water softener and proper treatment or filtration can reduce and eliminate any foul odors or tastes in the water.

The chalky-white residue of calcium carbonate or the telltale red-rusty color of iron deposits build up wherever the hard water is used including sinks, tubs, tile, fixtures, appliances and other places you don’t want to see it. Many people lament how ugly it looks and how they replace such items as spigots or faucets only to have the residue return. A water softener prevents the filmy residue, buildup and stains the hard water cause.

4. What kinds of iron are in water?

Water can contain one of four types of iron:

  1. Oxidized iron which appears as red particles in the water, noticeable as it’s drawn.​
  2. Clear water/soluble iron develops after the water is exposed to air, which also appears as red particles and is common.
  3. Colloidal iron is made up of tiny particles of oxidized iron suspended in the water, which often causes the water to appear cloudy or milky. Since the particles of this type of iron are so small, it is difficult to remove by filter and elimination alone, and it may require chlorination.
  4. Bacterial iron forms in the water and in the pipes of the well and house, and it is the most difficult type of iron to eliminate from water. A telltale sign this is the type you have is when the inside of the toilet tank has a coating of reddish-green slime. You can take a sample of the slime for confirmation that you have bacterial iron and if you do, chlorination of the entire system is about the only way to completely remove it.

5. What does a water softener do?

A water softener essentially treats the water and removes the hardness and minerals through an ion exchange process and typically the addition of some form of sodium or potassium. The softener normally has a mineral tank that contains resin beads and a brine tank that contains the salt, which may be together in one unit or in two separate tanks. You choose whether to soften all the water or just the hot supply.

The resin beads create the ionic process that removes hard particles of calcium and lime scale. Water comes into the tank of the softener and flows to and over the beads, with an appropriate amount of contact with them to remove the unwanted elements and soften the water.

The electrical charge of the resin beads opposes that of the incoming water, and that difference attracts the dissolved, hardening particles in the water and holds them among the resin beads so the appliance can release soft water. When the resin beads get full of the suspended particles, the waters softener automatically enters a regeneration cycle that involves bringing in water and flushing the hardened particles out of the resin beads using a salt-water (brine) mixture.

They can only hold so much material, so the regeneration process, also called brining, is necessary. The resin beads in a quality water softener should last for the life of the water softener. Under normal conditions, they do not need to be replaced. The salt supply will need to be replenished regularly, and experts recommend as clean a salt pellet (or other form) as can be used.

6. What is regeneration, and will a water softener hurt my septic system?

As the water softener operates, hardness particles build up in the resin bed of the softener. When the buildup reaches a certain level, the softener automatically begins a process of mixing salt in the tank with several gallons of incoming water to clear the particles off the resin bed. It then flushes the tank and is ready to soften the water again.

Regeneration might take anywhere from a few to 30 minutes or more, and you can probably hear its operation if you’re nearby. Some people worry that regeneration harms or impedes their pluming or septic system, but under normal circumstances, it does not affect the operation or life span of either, including drain-field soil percolation. The correct answer to the question of “are water softeners bad for septic systems?” is no.

Most water softeners come with 10 feet of hose, which is what drains the water following regeneration. If you will need to drain farther away than 10 feet, you’ll need additional drainage line that matches, but at the same time taking care not to move the drain more than 30 feet away from the softener. While the amount of water used during regeneration varies widely among models, most average models will use about 50 gallons during each regeneration cycle.

Regeneration usually happens during the middle of the night, when no water will be in use, or you can sometimes set the time of day you want it to happen. If water does get used during regeneration, it comes straight from the well, and some families find that concerning. A dual-tank water softener addresses that concern since it basically has a reserve tank — one can dispense while the other regenerates, and vice versa. This works to make the soft-water supply continuous even if somebody is up during overnight hours.

7. Will a softener remove harmful bacteria?

No. A water softener treats the water for hardness by removing the ions of the materials that cause hardness. Water should normally be free of harmful bacterial and chemicals before it reaches the water softener, but a comprehensive water test will reveal any causes for concern and put a consumer’s mind at ease. If a municipal water supply contains something of concern, you can contact the water authority about the results of your test.

If a well or public supply shows trouble, you can consult a professional about options to filter, treat or do whatever is necessary to make the water safe. While the water quality in most wells remains fine throughout their practical lives, it never hurts to test it regularly and consult with the water authority in the area if something foul is found. They may know of events in the watershed that could affect water quality throughout the region — some type of spillage, for example. Consultation with others may also help determine if the issue is a temporary or permanent one.

8. Does a water softener remove bad taste or odor?

To some extent, yes, but to a full extent in every case, no. Depending what is in your water, what makes it hard plus whatever else it naturally contains, it may have an undesirable taste or smell. If the use of a water softener alone does not remove one or both, you can use an activated-carbon filter in conjunction with the softener that should eliminate any funny odor and/or taste.

For example, a water softener would remove some of the iron taste from water but would not help if there is hydrogen sulfide present. For that you can easily remove the rotten-egg smell with a manganese greensand filter.

If there is an unexplainable taste or smell, take a close look at the water heater and house pipes. Water heaters can give a bad taste to water if they’re old and shedding iron flakes or if they contain a failing self-sacrificing rod, which can give the water a bad smell. In addition, old homes contain old pipes that are sometimes made of materials that do not meet current standards. It is advisable to seek professional plumbing help in any of those scenarios.

9. How do I know what kind and size of water softener I need?

Besides knowing exactly what’s in the water, another important aspect of how to find the right water softener is conducting an analysis of capacity. It can bring undesired results to simply guess at how big of a water softener is needed — an undersized system will disappoint you, and an oversized system will waste materials and money.

One recommended formula advises that you multiply the number of people in the household by how much water they use each day. Also relevant to water-softener selection is the flow rate of your household system, which is essentially a measure of the maximum rate at which it can dispense water.

You can determine the household flow rate with a store-bought meter, or do a self test at home: Place a one-gallon bucket underneath an outside spigot and time how long it takes for the bucket to fill. Divide the result by 60 (one minute) to see how many gallons per minute your flow generates. For example, if the bucket fills in 15 seconds, your flow rate is about four gallons per minute, because 60¸15=4.

Water softeners will be available in a range of capacities generally expressed as gallons per minute (also called flow rate per minute) and the maximum number of hardness grains it will remove per day. Generally, the higher the gallon-per-minute capacity, the bigger the tank is likely to be and the deeper the resin beads.

Equipped with the knowledge of what causes the water hardness, how much hardness your water contains and the amount of water being used, you will be able to select the right water softener for your situation.

10. How can I calculate my family’s water-usage capacity?

Start with averages, and then adjust up or down if you’re certain the family uses less or more than average. Average water usage stands at 80 gallons per person, per day. So, a two-person household would use 160 gallons, a four-person home would use 320 gallons, and so on. You can calculate with decent accuracy about how many grains of hardness per day you will need to remove once you’ve had the water tested and know your family’s per-day usage.

For a hypothetical example, say you have a four-person household using the average amount of water, 320 gallons. Your water test reveals that your water contains nine grains of hardness per gallon. So, 320 x 9 = 2,880 grains of hardness per day your water softener should be able to remove. If your household realistically uses more or less water than average or your water test reveals a higher or lower number, the factors of the equation can be adjusted.

If the capacity of a water softener is expressed in gallons per minute it can soften, you can use the basics of how much water your family uses along with the level of hardness in your water to calculate how many grains you need removed per gallon, per minute.

11. What water softener should I buy?

Water softeners come in an array of sizes, types, capacities, colors and brands, and the most popular type is the salt-based, whole-house, ion/cation exchange unit. Some softeners are specialized to focus on certain issues, while others may be standard and generalized. To help you decide which water softener to buy, it would be ideal to have at least a little understanding about the technology they have inside them.

In particular, the regeneration frequency is probably more important than any other feature. Examine how often the cycle happens and how much water and salt it uses during each one. You may be tempted to jump on the cheapest model, but you might find that less regeneration and more efficient operation pays off over time as it needs less salt and water.

Besides water type and flow rate to determine water-softener needs, a local professional is always a huge help since they know what models and brands demonstrate good success in a specific region. To a certain extent, a water-softening-treatment-filtration system can and needs to be customized to the characteristics of your water and family. For example, a family with two people who have calcium but not minerals or metals in their water would probably use a different setup than would a family of six with water that contains calcium carbonate and a few types of hardening minerals.

12. How do I control the salt?

The water-softener controls also make a difference in costs over time and impact operation. Some have a timer control that prompts regeneration at a preset time of day on the basis of average daily usage. This method works fine until you end up using more water than average on a given day or week, say if you have houseguests. In addition, this type of control automatically uses X amount of salt to regenerate according to time and not necessity.

Other softeners offer the more advanced demand-initiated regeneration (DIR), which is recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency. This type of control senses when the resin needs to be recharged and only regenerates when needed. The sensor mechanism is usually an electronic component or a usage meter that measures and calculates how much water and salt are being used.

Not only does this technology reduce the amount of water and salt the softener uses, but it also decreases the number of times you have to fill it and eliminates any concerns about above-average usage days. Several types of water softeners also offer filtering options in addition to treatment, such as reverse osmosis to remove salt from drinking water. Most softeners run on electricity, need a 110-volt outlet and use about as much power as a digital alarm clock, though some do run on batteries.

13. How much salt will a softener use?

The quantity of salt used depends on a few factors, but it’s mainly the capacity of the softener and how many resin beads there are to be treated, as well as how often it regenerates. For example, the softener might have 3/4, 1 or 1.5 feet of resin beads and then need corresponding amounts of salt for regeneration, typically six to 12 pounds per cycle for the average residential system.

It is difficult to pinpoint an exact number for salt usage, but someone with hard well water can probably expect to use 80-120 pounds of salt per month. It typically comes in 40-pound bags of pellets and crystals.

14. What do I look for in a water softener?

To a certain extent, your needs and budget may drive your water-softener selection, but each will have a number of distinguishing characteristics. One of the things that will gain you confidence in a certain brand is NSF certification. NSF is a non-profit organization that since 1944 has conducted independent research and has made resources available to protect public health and safety. NSF examines many types of consumer products and certifies only those that meet a strict standard.

The Water Quality Association, a trusted trade organization of the industry, certifies equipment, so you can seek the WQA Gold Seal as another indicator of quality. Neither the NSF’s nor the WQA’s certification is a guarantee of performance, but their marks do mean that softeners have passed industry-standards tests and that the manufacturers’ claims have been substantiated.

It makes life easier to have a water-softener model that can gauge the salt level on its own, which helps you achieve ideal soft water by maintaining the right levels of sodium. Some models include various means to remind you when it’s time to add salt, which is nice since that is one of the essential components for softening hard water.

15. How often do I need to add salt to my softener?

The frequency of salt refills depends largely on the model of water softener you buy, its capacity, the technology inside it and how often it regenerates, as well as how much water your household uses. Naturally, a household using more gallons of water will go through salt faster than one using fewer gallons.

The salt-adding intervals vary from household to household and overall, may range anywhere from once a week to every few months. Besides the variable of households, many other things affect how much salt a softener will use including and especially the technology inside it, as well as how it operates and its age. For example, some softeners take all the salt into the water at once while others may suspend it out of the water and release it as necessary like those with DIR control.

16. Are there salt-free water softeners?

Yes, and it pays to know more about them before purchase since the sometimes-subtle differences among them can be confusing. Also, some vendors’ claims of salt-free operation require a discerning eye and knowledge of how those choices work. There are a few options consumers may see advertised as “salt-free” methods for treating hard water:

  • Template-assisted crystallization (TAC) is a fairly new technology that has proven to be effective and reliable. The process involves transformation of the calcium in the water into crystals, which do not have the same binding properties or scaling abilities, so they then travel down the drain with the water.
  • A traditional softener can be operated with a substitute, potassium chloride, in place of the salt, sodium chloride. The alternate product is more expensive than salt and can be a hard-to-find item depending on the shopping options in your area. Experts usually recommend that when using a substitute in the water softener, the salt-control setting should be increased, which creates additional expense. Potassium chloride, a metal halide composed of the minerals potassium and chloride, adds no salt to the softening process.
  • A magnetic softener-descaler is a device that wraps around an incoming pipe and plugs into an outlet to set up a magnetic force field that changes the electromagnetic properties of incoming water to make the hardening elements repellent to each other and the pipes. Manufacturers claim it is an effective and inexpensive way to get better water quality. It does not remove hardness, but it’s supposed to prevent the minerals from adhering to critical household components.

Either option is an ideal solution in households with orders for ultra-low salt intake as well as anyone who wants to eliminate the expense of salt and avoid the task of replenishing the supply regularly. Generally speaking, most professionals agree that salt-using models soften more effectively than ones that use no salt. People concerned about salt intake can also use a traditional softener along with a reverse-osmosis filter to remove the salt from drinking water.

17. What about water conditioning?

Many people mistakenly call or think of this option as “softening” the water when a conditioner does not actually soften but does remove damaging calcium carbonate from the water via various means and without salt. Conditioning may be a good option for folks on a zero-potassium diet or who want to avoid using water for the regeneration process.

Again though, a water conditioner generally prevents the calcium from building up but usually does not soften the water. With a water conditioner, you are likely to still see residue on dishes, have itchy skin and be annoyed with soaps that don’t produce much lather. All that said, there is new technology emerging all the time, but explore with caution claims of a “softening” conditioner.

18. What do I need to know about maintenance of a water softener?

Besides adding salt when needed, hopefully you won’t need to have too much more technical information beyond what you learn for and after purchase. One important rule of water softeners is to never let it run out of salt because that is like not having a softener at all and can potentially damage the softener.

19. How much will I pay for a water softener?

A typical water softener lasts about 15 years and may cost anywhere from $400-$2,500 or more, depending on specialty functions. There are options for leasing a softener that would only be advantageous if you either need one for the short term or simply don’t want to own or fuss with a water-softening system.

20. Can I install the softener myself?

Technically yes, but professional help is advised when it comes to any important water-using appliance and especially those involving pressure. Should you venture to do it yourself, you’ll need some specific tools and tips:

  • Two, 1-inch national pipe thread (NPT) taper female connectors
  • 1/2-inch tubing to connect the water softener to your existing plumbing
  • A drain for the regeneration discharge
  • Keep the drain within 30 feet of the softener
  • Do not elevate the drain line more than eight feet above the floor

On pipe types: They might be made of copper, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC), steel or cross-linked polyethylene (PEX). You must know what type you have since each one requires distinct tools and materials for water-softener installation.

Professional Partners Make It Easy

Whether you are shopping for your first water softener or are seeking a superior replacement, Mr. Rooter of Syracuse can answer any other questions and fulfill your water-softener product and service needs. We can help perform the test, interpret the results and advise on softeners in your area, as well as install and test the equipment.

Mr. Rooter will also help with all things plumbing from emergency calls and clogs to seasonal inspections and small or large maintenance and service projects. We offer video inspection of water and sewer lines so you don’t have to wonder if there are any cracks, buildup, leaks or other problems hidden from view. We have professional, licensed plumbers certified by Onondaga County for plumbing-leak detection and any plumbing-related project for home or commercial business. Don’t hesitate to contact us about your water-softening or other plumbing needs.

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