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Salt-Free Water Softeners

Expert advice about salt-free water softener systems, including what they are and when you might want to choose one. Includes discussion of electronic or magnetic water softeners.

Salt-free water softener   Photo: NuvoH20

Salt-free water softener utilizes chelation technology. Photo: NuvoH20

Some people are concerned about the health effects of the sodium that softeners put in water. Be aware that most health concerns are over intake of sodium chloride, not the sodium bicarbonate that results from softening water. In addition, opinions expressed in the New England Journal of Medicine minimize concerns about the amount of salt introduced by water softeners.

One option is to bypass one or more cold water faucets in the house that are used for drinking water. Some people connect a standard unit only to the hot water side of the water supply system; unfortunately, with this option, you forfeit some of the benefits of having soft water in the shower, laundry, and wherever else cold water is mixed with hot since only about half of the water is softened.

Another option is to install a reverse-osmosis water filter that will remove salt from drinking water. For more about water filters, see Types of Water Filters.

Salt-Free Technologies

Although the amount of sodium added is minimal compared to a healthy person’s normal diet, people who have been advised by a doctor to reduce sodium intake may want to consider a unit that regenerates with a potassium-chloride salt substitute rather than sodium.[GARD align=”left”]

With chelation, the metal ions that cause hard water, primarily magnesium and calcium, are bound to a chelating agent. As a result, these minerals are suspended in the water. Water softeners that utilize this technology are actually descalers—they don’t reduce the hard water minerals but rather keep minerals from being deposited as scale to the surfaces of water-using appliances and pipes through which the water passes. Scale can build up where water sits, however, such as in a water heater.

The general consensus is that this type of water treatment is better than no water softener at all, but not as effective as conventional water softening. To buy this type of water softener online at Amazon.com, please see Salt-Free Water Softeners.

Electronic or Magnetic Water Softeners

A more radical—and controversial—option is an electronic or magnetic water softener. According to manufacturers, this plug-in device, which clips onto the incoming pipe, sets up a magnetic field that changes the electromagnetic properties of the calcium-carbonate minerals so they are repelled by pipes and each other.

A study commissioned by the Water Quality Association, however, found that, when such devices were tested against conventional ion-exchange softeners and against claims made by the manufacturers, no significant physical or chemical changes in the water occurred and the units did not reduce scale formation. Despite the effectiveness claims made by manufacturers of these devices, buyers should beware.

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How to Install a Water Softener

Problems with hard water? Here’s expert advice on where and how to install a water softener.

Water softener is connected to home's hot-water supply plumbing.©Photographee.eu / Shutterstock.com

Here a water softener is connected where it can bypass the home’s drinking water supply.

Hard water is more than a nuisance. It can stain sinks, reduce the cleaning power of detergent, cause buildup in faucets and pipes, and shorten the life of a water heater. Though several types of salt-free water softeners are available, a salt-based (ion exchange) softener is the most popular. (See the Water Softeners Buying Guide for more information on choosing a water softener.) Installation must adhere to local plumbing codes.

Though most homeowners choose to buy and maintain their own water softener, a viable option is to rent one. Over the long run, renting will cost more than buying, but it costs much less up front and can save you the trouble of installing, maintaining, and repairing a system.

Where to Install a Water Softener

If your home has an older water softener that you wish to replace with a new one, plan to put the new unit in the same location. If there is no existing water softener in your home, consider the following advice for locating your new softener.[GARD align=”left”]

General location. For starters, a new water softener should be located out of the way but where it is easy to tie it into the plumbing system—in most cases, this is in a basement, garage, or utility room, often near the water heater.  Allow enough space around the equipment for easy servicing.

Do not put the softener in an area where freezing might occur; this can cause permanent damage and void your warranty. If temperatures are expected to drop below 40 degrees F (4 degrees C), protect the equipment by relieving the pressure and draining the system. Also avoid direct sunlight—and don’t put the equipment outdoors.

Required hookups. A water softener will need a drain such as a floor drain or utility sink. In addition, the water softener will need a nearby electrical receptacle (not controlled by a switch) that can handle the needed amperage (check the manufacturer’s specifications).

A water softener is usually installed near the water heater. Photo: Photobucket

Where to connect to pipes. For softening a home’s entire water supply, install the softener before the water heater—this helps reduce sediment buildup in the water heater, too. In households where sodium in the drinking water may cause a health risk, it may be necessary to bypass certain faucets used for drinking water (such as the kitchen sink) or, in some cases, soften only the hot water side of the water supply system. Be aware that your entire cold water system will lose all of the benefits of water softening if you do this.

Another option is to opt for a salt-free water softening system (see Salt Free Water Softeners). Don’t place the softener after (downstream from) the water heater—temperatures above 110 degrees F (43 degrees C) may damage the softener and void the warranty.

Plumbing a Water Softener

Most water softeners come with a bypass valve that you must assemble and attach to the unit. In addition, some local plumbing codes require that you install shutoff valves to the pipes that lead to and from this valve so the water to and from the softener can be turned off easily. If your softener has such a bypass valve, attach it to the softener, following manufacturer’s instructions.

1Clear and sweep the area. Position the water softener where it belongs so you can easily measure for the connecting pipes. Pay attention to orientation of the unit—the INLET should be attached to the water supply pipe and the OUTLET should go toward the water heater.


2Shut off the house water supply valves. (For more about shutting off the water supply, see How to Shut Off the Water Supply.) Turn off the water heater’s water supply and the power to the water heater (the circuit breaker for an electric water heater or the gas valve for a gas water heater). Then open a couple of bottom-floor faucets or hose bibbs to drain the water from the pipes.

3Cut into the water supply line, using a pipe cutter, and install elbow fittings so you can run two lines to the inlet and the outlet ports of the bypass valve. Again, pay attention to orientation: Hard water from the water supply will run into the softener’s inlet, and soft water will run out to supply the house’s fixtures and faucets. If you want an outlet, such as a hose bibb, to carry hard water, install a T fitting prior to the softener and run it to the outlet.

4Cut and install the pipes that lead to the bypass valve. Solder all the fittings and nipples before attaching them to the plastic bypass valve (the heat from soldering could damage the plastic). For more, see How to Cut & Solder Copper Pipes. If the pipes are too large, use a reducing fitting to install pipes of the correct size. Use the compression fittings supplied with the softener to attach the pipes to the unit. Note: If you home’s electrical system relies upon the plumbing for safe grounding, you must install a jumper across the water softener installation piping to ensure proper grounding.

5Clamp the drain hose to the softener, and run it to a drain or utility sink. The end of the hose must be at least 2 inches above a drain hole to prevent back siphoning of waste water, and it should be securely clamped. Note that the drain hose must be sized according to the distance of its run and its height in relation to the inlet. Typically, a 1/2-inch interior diameter (ID) line can run up to 15 feet if its discharge is lower than the inlet. You’ll need 5/8-inch ID for the same distance if the discharge is slightly higher than the inlet. For a distance of 15 to 25 feet and/or if the drain is above the inlet, opt for 3/4-inch ID. The drain line should not be positioned more than 10 feet above the floor. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

6Connect the brine tank’s overflow tube, following manufacturer instructions for any additional assembly. The overflow’s discharge must be positioned lower than the overflow fitting.

7Set the bypass valve to the “bypass” position and turn on the water to run through the softener for a few minutes to flush out sediment and expel air in the pipes. Also open the valves to the water heater and restore its power and/or turn the gas valve back on and relight the pilot if necessary (see How to Relight a Gas Water Heater). Check for any leaks.

8Set the valve to the “Backwash” position after plugging the unit into a nearby receptacle. Then press and hold the “Regenerate” button until the valve advances to Backwash. If necessary, unplug the power to keep the control from advancing further.[GARD align=”right”]

9Partially open the inlet control on the bypass valve to slowly. The idea here is to bleed off any build up of air; once the water flows steadily to the drain and the unit stops sputtering, you can fully open the inlet and outlet bypass controls. Fill the tank with water and salt as directed by the manufacturer.

10Plug in the power cord again. Press the “Regenerate” button again and allow the unit to cycle to its next stage and repeat until the “Service” setting is reached. Finally, program the controls.

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How a Water Softener Works

An expert explanation and diagram of how a conventional water softener softens hard water.

A standard whole-house water softener works on the principle of ion exchange, called “cation exchange.” It conditions, or “softens,” hard water by substituting sodium chloride (salt) for hard minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and iron.

Water Softener Parts Diagram

As shown in the diagram, a typical water softener has a resin (or “mineral”) tank, a brine tank, and some type of control. With a conventional cation-exchange water softener, the house water supply pipe is connected to a control valve and timer at the top of the resin tank. From there, the unconditioned water flows down into the tank, which is filled with plastic-like beads called resin, arranged in columns called “resin beds.”[GARD align=”left”]

These beads, typically styrene and divinylbenzene, have a negative electrical charge that attracts the positively charged mineral ions of hard water while giving off sodium ions. Because of this attraction, minerals in the water, such as calcium and magnesium, adhere to the resin beads as the water passes through the tank. By the time the water reaches the bottom of the tank, it is “softened.” This conditioned water is pumped back up through an “outlet manifold” and “riser tube” and then distributed to the house through a cold water pipe.

After a period of time, the resin beads become coated with minerals and must be cleaned or “recharged” to become effective again. The water softener’s timer and/or controls automatically run the appliance through cycles to backwash, recharge, and rinse the beads. A control that is designed to recharge based on the amount of water processed is better than a timer that cycles the unit on a schedule because it operates based on need, not time. The result is a savings in energy, salt, and water. For more about controls, see “Water Softener Controls” in the Water Softener Buying Guide.

During a backwash cycle, the flow of water is reversed so that water is forced down the riser tube to the bottom of the tank so that it will flow up through the resin beads in the tank.  The unit flushes and expands the resin, washing off the beads and then carrying the minerals out through a drainpipe.[GARD align=”right”]

A “brine tank” is paired with the mineral tank to help with the regeneration process. During the “brine draw” cycle, salty water (brine) is pumped from the brine tank into the resin tank.  As the water flows down through the resin beads, it exchanges sodium with the hard-water ions, regenerating the electrical attraction of the resin beads. Then, when the brine tank is empty, a slow rinse begins, followed by a more forceful fast rinse. With both of these cycles, fresh water rinses excess brine from the resin and expels it down the drain. Then the brine tank is refilled.

Once excess sodium is rinsed away and the brine tank is refilled, the system returns to the “service cycle,” ready for water softening again. Because salt is dissolved in the brine tank during the regeneration process (about 3 pounds of salt per gallon), the salt must be replenished periodically.

NEXT SEE: Water Softeners Buying Guide

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How to Test for Hard Water

A guide to testing your water for hardness to determine whether you need a water softener

Hard water can lead to considerable plumbing and appliance repairs.

If you suspect that your home’s water is so “hard” that it is causing problems with mineral deposits in pipes and appliances and issues with bathing, washing dishes, and laundry, maybe it’s time for a water softener. A water-softening system can improve all of those types of problems. But before moving too far down this road, it’s important to find out how hard your water really is so you can verify that a softener is necessary and, if so, choose an appliance that is appropriate for your needs.

As discussed in the Water Softeners Buying Guide, hardness of water is measured by grains per gallon (GPG) or parts per million (PPM) of dissolved hardness minerals. Water with less than 3.5 GPG is considered relatively soft; water with more than 10.5 GPG is very hard.[GARD align=”right”]

Where water is very hard, the local utility company often brings mineral content to within a moderate range of 5 or 6 GPG. Because a utility company’s water is used for many purposes where softening is unnecessary or irrelevant,  further softening must be handled in the home.

Conditioning water that tests lower than 3 GPG is generally considered a luxury because the cost outweighs the potential benefits.

How a Water Softener Softens Water

A  complete solution to hard water problems is installing a whole-house water softener. Installing a water softener can help minimize deposits in pipes and water-using appliances; cut down on bathtub rings and spots on dishes; reduce the amount of soap, shampoo, and detergent you need to use; and make your skin soft and your hair shiny.

If your water tests harder than 3 GPG but you don’t want to resort to the expense of a water softener, you can save significantly on laundry and dishwashing costs by using less detergent, shorter cycles, and cooler wash water. One solution for softening wash water alone is to use a packaged water conditioner before each wash and rinse cycle. These products essentially trap hardness minerals during the wash. A “non-precipitating” type is recommended because it flushes away the hard minerals rather than suspending them in the washing solution.

How to Determine Water Hardness

Although the telltale signs of hard water are obvious, it takes a little homework to find out just how hard your water really is. If a municipal water company serves you, call the city offices or the superintendent of water and ask for the results of their testing. If they quote the quantities of various minerals in parts per million (PPM), you can easily work out the conversion of PPM to grains per gallon (GPG) by dividing the quantity of PPM by 17.1.

water test kit watersafe

Mailorder Water Test Kit Photo: WaterSafe

If your water is supplied privately, you’ll have to test for hardness yourself. In some areas, city or county health departments offer testing. If yours doesn’t, you can have it tested by an independent water-testing laboratory or a water-conditioning company, but be advised that the latter has a stake in the outcome and may offer free testing as a come-on for selling you equipment you may not need.

Many softener companies will test a mailed-in water sample for free; some will send you a do-it-yourself test-strip kit.

If you have a well, it is very important that you test your water—not only for hardness but also for safety. Though the need varies depending upon the source, check it at least once for mineral content, lead, and radon (where radon is a threat) and once or twice a year for bacteria and nitrates. if you have concerns about contaminants in well water, contact your local health department for advice.[GARD align=”left”]

You can ask your water utility or the state health department for the names of independent testing labs or look for “Laboratories” in the telephone directory or on the Internet.

An affordable testing option is to buy a water test kit online; it will include a mail-in sample kit.

Another solid option is to contact a mail-order laboratory such as National Testing Laboratories at (800) 458-3330 or www.natllabs.com. For $137, this lab offers a 77-item check of inorganics, including hardness minerals; for $167, the lab will check for an additional 20 pesticides, herbicides, and PCBs. The lab supplies you with a sample kit that you return by mail. Included with your results, which arrive in about three weeks, is a brochure describing the corrective actions you should consider. A similar lab is Suburban Water Testing at (800) 433-6595 and www.h2otest.

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Water Softeners Buying Guide

Water softeners make showering luxurious.

This expert, unbiased water softeners report will help you choose the right size water softener, understand salt-free and dual-tank softeners, and more.

Hard water is a familiar reality for millions of Americans. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 85 percent of American homes have problems with hard water.

Solving Hard Water Problems

Hard water comes from aquifers and other underground sources that collect dissolved minerals from rock—particularly calcium, magnesium carbonate, and manganese. These minerals give water undesirable characteristics that collectively are dubbed “hardness.” The severity of hardness is measured by grains (of mineral) per gallon (GPG) or, in some cases, by parts per million of mineral (PPM). One GPG equals 17.1 PPM.

Technically, any water that contains more than 1 GPG of dissolved hardness minerals is considered hard, but, realistically, water with up to 3.5 GPG is relatively soft. Water with more than 10.5 GPG is very hard. Between these extremes is typical, moderately hard water. You can buy a water test kit online.

Hard water is less an issue of health than of potential expense. Many of the problems created by hard water are hidden until some type of malfunction occurs in your home’s plumbing system or in a water-using appliance. When heated, dissolved hard-water minerals recrystallize and form scale that eventually clogs plumbing, reducing water flow. Scale and lime deposits also take their toll on water-heating appliances such as dishwashers and coffee makers, increasing the need for repairs.

water test kit watersafe

Mailorder Water Test Kit Photo: WaterSafe

Worse yet,scale cakes onto interior surfaces of water heaters, making them more likely to fail. According to a study commissioned by the Water Quality Research Council at New Mexico State University, water heaters operate 22 percent to 30 percent less efficiently when plagued with hard-water scale.

Hard-water problems are more obvious as a nuisance when you bathe and cook, do laundry and clean house. Calcium and magnesium react with many soaps, shampoos, cleansers, and detergents, diminishing their lathering and cleaning capability so you have to use more and rinse longer. They also form a scum on tile and what appears as bathtub ring that is difficult to rinse away. In the kitchen, this “soap curd” translates into spotted dishes and scale on cookware. Additionally, certain hard-water minerals, such as iron and manganese, can give water an undesirable appearance, odor, or taste.

Hard water does enter the health arena in one area: People who have hard water are more prone to rashes and skin problems because it changes the skin’s pH so that soap remains on the skin, clogging pores.

Types of Water Softeners

By far the most popular and commonly used type of whole-house water softener is an ion-exchange or “cation exchange” unit, but a couple of other technologies are also available. It’s important to understand the differences.

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Salt-Based Ion Exchange Softener

This type of water softener cycles household water through two tanks: one with special resin beads and the other filled with brine. It works on the principle of ion exchange, softening hard water by substituting sodium (salt) for hard minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and iron. For a complete explanation of how a conventional water softener works, please see How a Water Softener Works.


Salt-free water softener Photo: NuvoH20

Salt-free water softener Photo: NuvoH20

Salt-Free Water Softener

A salt-free water softener regenerates with a potassium-chloride salt substitute rather than sodium. This type of unit may be a better option for people who are concerned about salt intake. This type of water softener is actually a descaler—it doesn’t reduce the hard water minerals but rather prevents minerals from being deposited as scale to the surfaces of water-using appliances and pipes. The general consensus is that this type of water treatment is better than no water softener at all, but not as effective as conventional water softening. For more, please see the article Salt-Free Water Softeners.

Dual-Tank Water Softener

When a water softener is recharging, it is designed to disconnect from the water system, so it is basically out of commission. For this reason, the regeneration cycle is usually set to occur at night. If softened water is needed during the regeneration cycle, this can be problematic.

Dual-tank water softener has one tank that regenerates while the other tank is in use. Photo: Fleck

If the down time of the water softener is an issue, or if a family is large or lives where water is particularly hard, it may be smart to consider a dual-tank water-softening unit with two resin tanks. With a dual-tank unit, when one tank is in use, the other is regenerating. As a result, softened water is being supplied continuously, without any break in service. And because these units operate on demand, they can be sized smaller than single-tank units.

Several models are available. One popular product, the Fleck 9000, has a fully adjustable valve that is controlled by a meter. When the water softener starts backwashing one tank, its control switches the water supply to the other tank, offering a continuous flow rate of 21 gallons per minute. With this model, you can buy various tank capacities—24,000-, 32,000-, 40,000-, 48,000-, 64,000-, 80,000-, and 110,000-grain capacity per tank. These range in price from $950 to $2,000.

When shopping for a dual-tank water softener, keep in mind the space it will require. It should be installed where it can serve the main inbound water line so it can supply the entire house. It will also require a drain for backwashing. If you choose a model that requires electrical power, a circuit will be required nearby. For more about placing your water softener, see How to Install a Water Softener.

Also look for features such as NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) certification and a solid warranty on the control valve and mineral tank such as three years for the valve and 10 years for the mineral tank. A good water softener should last at least 20 years.


Magnetic Water Softener

In the Salt-Free Water Softeners article, you’ll also find a discussion of a more controversial option—the electronic or magnetic water softener. According to manufacturers, this plug-in device, which clips onto the incoming pipe, sets up a magnetic field that changes the electromagnetic properties of the calcium-carbonate minerals so they are repelled by pipes and each other. Please see the article for more about this.

Water Softener Size & Features

When buying or leasing a new water softener, selecting one that is the right size is important. You’ll want to get one that can handle the demands of your household but is not unnecessarily large (and expensive). Physical size isn’t the issue—the unit’s ability to remove “hardness” minerals from water without frequent regeneration is.

Water softeners are sold in several sizes, each rated by the number of grains of hardness they can remove from water between regenerations. The idea is to get a unit that will go at least three days between recharges. Ideally, the water softener can also handle periods of larger-than-normal water usage.

You can calculate the size of water softener your family needs by multiplying the number of people in your household by 75—the average number of gallons used per person per day—to figure out the total amount of water your household uses daily. Then multiply this number by the number of grains per gallon (GPG) of hardness minerals in your water to figure out the capacity of whole-house water softener you need.

So, for example, if you have a family of five, figure 375 gallons of water are used per day (5 X 75). If your water has 10 GPG, you have 3,750 GPG of hardness minerals (375 X 10) requiring removal each day.


Water Softener Controls

Before leasing or buying a water softener, become acquainted with its features:

Check out what controls the regeneration cycles, how long each cycle takes, and how much water and salt are used for recharging. Be aware that even fully automatic types require occasional refilling with salt. Several different methods are used for controlling cycles, but the two main types are:

Water softener timer controls. Clocks or electronic timers automatically recharge the unit at a preset time and day, based on your average usage. This type may fall short if you have unusually large water usage on a particular day. They also waste sodium and water because they regenerate whether or not recharging is necessary. They usually do this in the early morning hours.

Softener DIR controls. A more sophisticated method, called demand-initiated regeneration (DIR), senses when the resin must be recharged, either electronically or with a meter that measures and calculates usage. A demand-initiated regeneration system saves on salt and regeneration water because it does not recharge unless necessary. In addition, it provides for abnormally large water usage.

Softener Buying & Leasing Tips

Should you buy or lease a water softener? In the short run, leasing is often the most attractive option because there are no significant upfront costs. Depending on the level of service and materials the company offers, you can pay from $15 to $50 per month or more on a lease. If you buy, you will pay about $150 per year for materials. And, of course, you’ll have to pay for the unit. Depending upon the features, prices range from about $400 to $2,500 or more.[GARD align=”right”]

Get at least two quotes. And be sure the quotes are based on exactly the same type of considerations: regeneration cycle, type of controls, level of service, and, of course, warranty on both the control valve and the resin tank.[Ad_content POS]

It is usually best to work with an established company. That way, you’ll get a quality product backed by a company that is likely to remain in business for a while.

Find out whether you will need a plumber for installation or whether a special factory service person is required to do the job. And be sure to pay attention to the monthly fee for maintaining the softener.

Some softener firms provide a service where they regularly exchange exhausted with charged units. This type of service is a good bet if you live in an area where waste water from sewers is recycled for municipal watering because sodium may be considered a pollutant.

Also look for certification. NSF International is an independent testing organization that tests and certifies water-treatment products. The water industry’s trade organization, the Water Quality Association, also certifies equipment, so look for the WQA Gold Seal. Although neither of these certifications guarantees performance, they signify that the equipment has successfully passed testing for industry standards and the manufacturer’s claims have been validated—an important step toward ensuring that the unit you buy or lease will offer years of trouble-free service.

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