Quality & Affordable Water Softener Systems

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What Is a Water Softener and How Does It Work?

What is Water Softener?

Water Treatment Process

water softener is a whole-house filtration system that removes hardness-causing calcium and magnesium minerals from your water through a process called ion exchange. A water softener addresses one of the most prevalent and devastating water problems: hard water. Hard water wreaks havoc on the modern home. Scale builds up in your pipes, clogging them and decreasing water pressure. Scale dramatically shortens the lifespan of appliances like dishwashers, coffee makers and ice machines. Hard water destroys hot water appliances. The higher the temperature of the water, the more calcium and magnesium will solidify and harden into solid deposits inside your hot water heater. If you live in hard water territory, it can sound like your water heater is popping popcorn. 

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1054 Automatic Water Softener

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How do water softeners work?

Water softeners work through a process called ion exchange which eliminates calcium and magnesium from the water. When the hard water enters into the mineral tank, it flows through a bed of spherical resin beads. These plastic beads, usually made from polystyrene, are charged with a sodium ion. The resin beads are anions, meaning they have a negative charge. The calcium and magnesium minerals have a positive charge, making them cations. Since opposite charges attract, the negative charge of the minerals is attracted to the positive charge of the resin beads. As the hard water passes through the resin, the beads grab ahold of the mineral ions and remove them from the water. When the bead seizes the mineral ion, the sodium ion is released. The column of resin strips all the hardness out of the water as it passes through the mineral tank, and softened water flows out into your home. 

What are the components of a water softener?

Component 1: Cation Resin

This is the media that does the work of ion exchange. It traps the hardness as thee water flows through it

Component 2: FRP Pressure Vessel

The cation resin is filled inside here

Component 3: Riser Tube and Strainer

The water flows through here

Component 4: Manual or Automatic Valves

This is used to backwash and regenerate the cation resin

Component 5: Brine Tank

We store the salt in there

Component 6: Salt or Sodium Chloride Tablets

Used to generate the resin

Benefits of Commercial & Industrial Water Softeners

The benefits of commercial and industrial water softener solutions are endless, but some key highlights include:

  • Reduced Chemical Consumption / Costs
  • Reduced Energy Usage
  • Extended Equipment / Appliance Life
  • Lower Repair & Maintenance Costs
  • More Consistent Water Quality

How Does A Water Softener Work?

Frequently Asked Questions

Regeneration cycles inundate the resin beads with a highly concentrated brine solution, washing off the hardness minerals and draining them out of the system. The resin beads are recharged and primed to again eliminate the hardness minerals. Resin beads are extremely durable and can effectively soften your water for twenty years or longer. Water softeners regenerate by one of two methods: co-current or counter-current regeneration (also referred to as downflow brining and upflow brining.) 

Co-current regeneration cycle

In a co-current regeneration cycle, the brine solution enters the mineral tank in the same direction as the service flow. The brine solution flows down the depth of the bed of resin beads and an ion exchange process occurs again, only this time in reverse. As the brine flows over the beads, the salts force the beads to release the magnesium and calcium ions in exchange for the sodium ion. As the brine passes through the resin, an increasingly-concentrated surge of hardness minerals forms and flows through the entirety of the system. As the brine solution pushes more hardness minerals through the bed, continuous exchange and re-exchange of minerals and regeneration ions transpires. By the time the water has exited the tank, the solution’s strength is significantly reduced. In a co-current regeneration cycle, the highest charged beads will be on the ones at the top of the tank. Co-current regeneration uses more water and salt to complete the regeneration process than counter-current. 

Counter-current regeneration cycle

In a counter-current regeneration cycle, water enters the tank through the bottom of the mineral tank, where the water usually exits. The countercurrent cycle runs the brine up the resin bed, beginning at the bottom where the resin beads are usually the least depleted. This means there are fewer hardness minerals initiating re-exchange during the regeneration cycle. The brine is less depleted by the time it reaches the top of the resin bed, where the softener first makes contact with the hard water. A counter-current cycling water softener uses 75% less salt and 65% less water than co-current cycling. It also distributes the recharging sodium ions more equitably. In a countercurrent cycle, the most highly charged beads will be at the bottom of the tank, right before the water exits into the house. These are also known as high efficiency water softeners. 

Water softeners primarily remove calcium and magnesium ions from hard water. Calcium (Ca2+) and magnesium (Mg2+) are the two water hardness-causing minerals. The ion exchange process will furthermore attract and eliminate any positively charged ion (also known as a cation). This can include other minerals like iron and manganese. 

Water softeners remove ferrous iron (dissolved iron) when it is in low quantities and most of the iron is in a soluble state. Iron darkens the coloration of water and leaves visible stains on your toilet, bathtub, and in your sinks. Ferric iron (insoluble iron) is more difficult to remove with a softener. Ferric iron will accumulate on the resin bed and resist the backwashing of the regeneration cycle. This can produce slugs of iron in your softened water and diminish the potency of the resin beads. When dissolved iron is exposed to oxygen, it oxidizes and becomes ferric iron. So, even though a water softener can remove iron in its dissolved state, if you have high iron levels in your water, some of it will inevitably convert to an insoluble state. If your water softener is processing large quantities of iron you will want to use a chemical solution like Rust Out to cleanse your softener bed and prolong your resin beads' life. Iron is best removed from water by an iron filter or a more comprehensive filtration system like reverse osmosis.

Soft water is safe to drink. During the ion exchange process, the resin beads do release sodium into the water when grabbing ahold of the hardness minerals. But the amount of sodium in softened water isn’t unhealthy, and actually is far less than what is widely imagined. If you have moderately hard water, for example five grains per gallon (about 86ppm), that’s only adding 37 milligrams of sodium per quart of water. That’s less than 2% of the suggested daily sodium intake. A slice of white bread has around 170 milligrams of sodium, and a slice of pizza has about 640 milligrams. So, comparatively, the amount of sodium added by water softeners is negligible. 

The amount of sodium added by a water softener is linearly related to the number of hardness minerals being reduced. For every milligram of hardness in the water, the softener releases two milligrams of sodium. This only becomes problematic if you live in an area with extremely hard water. If your water has a hardness level of over 400 ppm, you will want to install a reverse osmosis system to treat the water that you drink and cook with. The reverse osmosis system pushes water through a semipermeable membrane capable of eliminating almost all dissolved solids and salts from the water. If your doctor has recommended you reduce your sodium intake due to blood pressure or kidney problems, it is also advisable to install a reverse osmosis system after your softener. 

If you’re living with decreased pressure from scale-ridden pipes, dry hair, stiff laundry, and endless appliance repair bills, you need a water softener. Hard water is not a problem that will go away on its own and the costs incurred by hard water will only continue to escalate. With a water softener, appliances will inevitably fail sooner than their expected lifespan. If scale continues to accumulate in your pipes, your flow rate will continue to restrict and you risk losing water pressure throughout the house. Hard water ravages water heaters, and without a softener, your utility bills will continue to barrel skyward. If your water supply is hard, the perpetual cycle of repairs and replacements will continue until your house is safeguarded by a water softener. 

A whole-house water softener costs between $600-$1,500. If your home is in an area that has hard water, a water softener is not a luxury, it is an integral investment in your home and your property. The size of your house and the hardness of your water factor into the size and model of water softener that is right for you. Keep in mind, despite the high price tag, water softeners last for 20 years or longer. They also have very low monthly operational costs. They require minimal electricity to function (no more than a bedside alarm clock). Water softener resin can last over 20 years if properly backwashed. The only true monthly expense incurred is replenishing the brine tank with salt. The industry standard is that a household of four using a standard efficiency softener will go through about 40 lbs of salt a month. However, water with high TDS content and iron levels will demand more salt to effectively soften. A 40 lbs bag of sodium chloride pellets ranges in price from $10-$25. Upgrading to a high efficiency counter-current brining unit will use even less salt. 

Compared to the daily expenses and frustrations incurred by hard water, a water softener is ultimately an investment that will save you a considerable amount of money. The cost of the water softener system is greatly outweighed by the money and energy saved. 

A water softener should be installed as close to the water’s point of entry into the house as possible. This ensures the majority of your plumbing and appliances are reaping the benefits of carrying the softened water. It’s especially important to make sure your water softener is located before your water heater, as hard water does the greatest damage to hot water appliances. You will want to install the softener in a dry, level location, like a basement or garage. It will need to be close to the water’s main line, an electrical outlet to turn on the system, and a drain for the brine solution from the regeneration cycle. 

Most softeners have a bypass built into the inlet and the outlet. By turning a valve, you can bypass the softener in the event you have to provide some kind of maintenance to it or even while you're working on installing it. If the softener you choose does not have a bypass, then it's wise to build one out of plumbing to bypass the equipment in case you need to maintain the unit.

Steps to installing your water softener: 

  1. Position the water softener.Make sure that the softener is correctly positioned. The inlet should be connected to the water supply and the outlet should be facing the direction of the hot water appliances.  
  2. Turn off the water supply to your house at the main line.To prevent leaks from springing during the installation process, shut off the water supply to your home. Make sure your water heater’s water supply is turned off, as is the electricity running to the unit. 
  3. Drain your pipes.Open nearby faucets or faucets on the bottom floor of your home to ensure all water exits your house’s supply pipes.
  4. Cut into the water supply main line.Using pipe cutters, cut into the water main leading into the supply line. This is a whole house filtration unit, so you need to connect the inlet and outlet lines directly to the water main line. 
  5. Measure, cut, and connect the pipes.Before attaching any pipes to your water softener, measure and cut your pipes to fit. If you are using copper pipes, solder on any nipples and fittings before connecting the unit to the bypass valve to avoid melting the plastic. Seal all threads with plumber’s tape. Plastic tubing like PEX can also be used. Though it may require additional adapters, flexible tubing is far easier to work with and can utilize push-to-connect fittings, saving you time and the hassle of soldering. 
  6. Clamp the drain hose.The water softener needs to drain the depleted brine solution after the regeneration cycle. Clamp the drain hose securely and feed it into the dedicated drain, like a floor drain or utility sink. To prevent the hose back siphoning waste water, all drain hoses must have an air gap. The end of the hose be at least two inches above the dedicated drain. An air gap may be used to achieve this, and may be required depending on local plumbing codes. 
  7. Connect the overflow tube. Overflow tubes are an additional precaution ensuring the brine tank does not flood and overflow. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for specific placement of this hose. The overflow tub may also require an air gap. 

Water softeners leaks are primarily caused because of an issue at the point of installation or because of maintenance. When installing the plumbing to your softener, take your time and ensure your fittings are threaded well and your push-to-connect fittings are seated properly. If the bypass valve is cracked, it can also cause the system to leak. Bypass valves are fitted with o-rings that may need to be re-lubricated or replaced over time. A cracked rotor valve or rotor valve seal may also be the culprit. The rotor valve directs the water throughout the system during softening and regeneration processes. A worn water valve can lock up and spring a leak. If the rotor valve’s seal is leaking, it is likely cracked and simply needs to be replaced.

Day to day usage should not cause a water softener to leak. Leaks can also happen if you bump into the softener and jostle it, pulling the fitting apart. To prevent this from occurring, install the unit in a safe and stable location. If you live in an earthquake-prone area of the country, secure the softener so that if the foundation starts moving, the softener doesn’t fall over and rip out the plumbing. If your water softener is leaking during regeneration, you should wait until after the cycle is completed and then inspected the system for cracks or broken fittings. You should also check to make sure your drain line is never blocked up with debris. A clogged drain line can blow off of the softener during regeneration and flood your basement or garage.  

To prevent electrical shock, you should never attempt to fix a leak while the softener is plugged in. Always unplug the softener from its electrical supply before attempting any repair or cleaning. You should also shut off the bypass valve on the water softener to prevent any further leaks and to isolate the unit from the rest of your home’s plumbing. If your softener does not have a bypass valve, turn off the water at the main line. If you cannot locate the cause of your leak call a plumber or the service that installed the unit. 

Water softeners typically have a lifespan of 15 years, however, water softener systems can last much longer if they are properly maintained. Making sure the brine tank never runs out of salt will extend the unit’s life. Protecting the resin bed from high levels of iron and manganese will also protect the unit. Iron will foul the resin and lower its ion exchange performance. Resin cleaners enhance the regeneration cycle and help relieve the resin beads of hardness-causing minerals. Resin can last for 10-20 years if maintained well, however, heavily chlorinated water will exhaust the beads ion exchange capacity quickly. Heavy levels of sediment will also cause the screens and injectors within the control valve to fail prematurely. It is wise to place a sediment filter in front of your water softener, especially if you are on well water with lots of dirt and debris. If you live with extremely hard water (over 14 gpg), your system may not last as long as someone softening moderately hard water. 

The variance of factors make it difficult to determine a specific time frame for replacing a water softener. If the unit is over a decade old and you notice that it’s softening powers seem to be consistently declining, it may be time to invest in a new system. That being said, vigilant care and maintenance can extend a water softener’s lifespan. 

If you have questions about water softening or buying a water softener, give us a call and we'll walk you through the process. For any water quality concerns, talk to a water specialist at +27 12 657 1010

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