How to Soften Hard Water (Salt and Salt-Free Systems)

If you’re eager to get rid of your hard water, the first question is to decide whether to go for a salt or salt-free system...

Hard water is highly beneficial to our health due to the minerals, but it can also cause trouble in the home. For example, the minerals can cause reduced water flow and clog appliances, leading to faded laundry (1). Luckily, there are multiple ways to soften your hard water, which we’ll discuss.

Many homeowners worry about softening their water due to higher sodium content; however, there are ways to avoid this. Added sodium can be dangerous for people on a low- or no-sodium diet due to health concerns such as elevated blood pressure (2). If this applies to you, please take extra caution about softening water.

How to Know if You Have Hard Water

Many states across the U.S. have moderate to very hard water. These include Florida, Utah, and California. As water enters the ground, it runs through mineral-rich soil and rock. Calcium and magnesium carbonates are then dissolved into the water, which gives it its hardness (3).

When the water travels through pipes and into our home, the minerals can create limescale and other mineral build-up. You might’ve noticed white spots or marks around water fixtures or on your dishes. These are dried mineral deposits that come from the water — they’re not dangerous, although they can be frustrating and unsightly.

Here are a few other signs you have hard water:

  • Reduced water flow: Due to mineral buildup in the spout and pipes, you might notice reduced water flow.
  • Higher energy bills: Since your appliances have to work harder due to limescale, your energy bills could be higher (4).
  • Dry hair and skin: The minerals can cause your hair to become dry and difficult to style. The same can happen to your skin — you could be seeing mineral deposits on your skin after a shower (5).
  • Soap is less efficient: Minerals affect soap and shampoo quite significantly, decreasing suds and lather and creating soap scum that’s difficult to wash off (6). Your laundry could lose color and not be cleaned as efficiently because the minerals prevent water and detergent from foaming (7).
  • Test your water: You can quickly test your water to see if it’s hard. Fill a bottle halfway with water and add three squirts of dish soap. Shake it well and inspect the foam; if it dissolves quickly, your water is hard.
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How to Soften Hard Water

The basics of softening water are removing the minerals that cause the hardness, such as calcium and magnesium. There are several effective methods to do this. However, your chosen method depends on whether you want all the water in your house treated, or only specific points.

1. Ion-Exchange

Ion-exchange water softening is the most effective method for a whole house. These systems generally come with two tanks:

  • Resin tank.
  • Brine tank.

There are also systems available that come with dual tanks. This will reduce downtime when the system regenerates by having an additional resin tank ready.

Resin Tank

This is where the hard water enters the system. The water comes in contact with tiny salt-covered resin beads. As water surrounds these beads, hardness ions (magnesium and calcium) are exchanged for salt ions, i.e. potassium or sodium ions (8). Salt and hardness ions simply trade places.

Keep In Mind

Because of the higher salt content, softened water isn’t recommended for people with cardiovascular issues (9).

When the system treats larger amounts of water, the beads become saturated with hardness ions — also known as being “exhausted.” When this happens, the beads in the brine tank need to be recharged.

Brine Tank

Think of recharging as softening in reverse. The salt trades places with hardness ions and minerals are flushed out of a wastewater drain. You revive it by adding bags of salt to the brine tank.

There are three types of water softener salt you can add:

  • Rock salt: This is the cheapest kind; however, it does contain more insoluble materials, which can cause a buildup inside the tank and valves, and need more frequent cleaning.
  • Evaporated salt: Evaporated salt is finer and entirely purified. An example of this type is table salt.
  • Solar salt: Solar salt is extracted from a brine pond, which is warmed by the sun. As the water evaporates, it leaves behind purified salt crystals.
Which Salt is Best?
  • Small usage requirement: If your system only produces small amounts of soft water, a buildup won’t be as likely. Here, rock salt is a good option if you’re on a budget.
  • Large usage requirement: If your system generates a large amount of soft water, an eventual buildup is more likely. In this case, solar or evaporated salt is the best choice.
  • General best option: Solar and evaporated salts are the best option for ion-exchange systems. However, that doesn’t mean rock salt is useless. It depends on the usage of your water softener.

2. Demand Initiated Regeneration System

A Demand Initiated Regeneration system is one of the most common water softeners sold. These can measure regular water usage and regenerate only when needed (10). Some of these systems can be operated on a timer to be scheduled for specific hours.

One downside to some of these systems is that they can leave you short of water during high-demand periods. But they’re also not very eco-friendly — as the ions are traded, a very salty brine is discharged into the sewer system.

3. Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC) or Nucleation Assisted Crystallization (NAC)

These systems soften water without the use of salt, making them a healthier option to ion-exchange. But are they any better (11)?

Take Note

Salt-free softeners aren’t actually softeners. They’re often referred to as water conditioners or water descalers. Minerals remain in the water, making it tricky to measure if the water is softer.

TAC and NAC systems won’t remove minerals from the water. Instead, they change the minerals’ form so they can’t stick to any surface. TAC and NAC systems aren’t actually water softeners; they’re water conditioners.

The water runs through a TAC medium, where the mineral hardness is converted into a crystal that is unable to adhere to any surface (12). When testing the water for hardness before and after treatment, you’ll receive the same results. The hardness and minerals stay — but they can longer produce limescale or mineral buildup.

These don’t require any electricity, salt or water to work. One of the many benefits of TAC and NAC systems is the presence of beneficial minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and iron. With an ion-exchange system, these are replaced by salts — but be aware that excess sodium can be very dangerous to our health, leading to high blood pressure and other issues (13).

If you’re looking to be more environmentally-friendly, TAC systems are the way to go, especially since they don’t require energy or water either.

One of the more prominent drawbacks of TAC and NAC systems is that the hardness will still be present. You will see brighter laundry and fewer stains on surfaces, but the results won’t match those of salt exchangers.

4. Chelation Systems

A chelation system is also a salt-free water conditioner similar to TAC. With these systems, the mineral ions will adhere to a chelating agent such as nitriloacetic acid (14). This causes the minerals to be suspended in the water, which makes this system a descaler, rather than softener.

Such a system won’t reduce hard minerals but will keep them from being deposited as scale. This results in less buildup of limescale and minerals.

What makes this an excellent option is that it leaves the healthy minerals, such as calcium, in the water, while still preventing scale. If you’re on a low-sodium diet, a salt-free system is best. If any limescale or buildup were to happen, it would be easier to remove since the hard ions can’t stick to any surface.

However, similar to TAC and NAC systems, chelation isn’t as effective as ion-exchange when removing “hardness.” This is because the chelating agent doesn’t remove minerals; it simply softens them (15). The effects are significantly reduced but are likely still present to some extent.

5. Magnetic or Electronic Water Softener

One of the newer water softening systems is a magnetic or electronic softener or descaler. These devices are plugged into an outlet and clip conveniently onto an indoor pipe where the water enters the house.

They work by setting up magnetic fields that change the electromagnetic properties of the minerals. This causes the carbonates to repel each other and the pipes, reducing the formation of scale and buildup.

However, these devices have received much criticism. Studies have found that these softeners made no difference to the water compared to ion-exchange softeners (16).

But then again, these devices aren’t supposed to remove hardness ions, like the ion-exchange system. They will simply change the electromagnetic properties of the calcium and magnesium carbonate so that they don’t cause buildup.

You can find these softeners on Amazon, such as this from Eddy. However, we highly suggest caution when investing in such a device. Some consumers were extremely pleased with the results, while others saw no difference.

6. Reverse Osmosis System

You might be feeling confused as to why we include RO on this list, but hear us out. A reverse osmosis system forces water through multiple fine filters. This will remove any solid contaminants such as chemicals and organic materials — it will also filter out calcium and magnesium ions (17).

Reverse osmosis systems are an excellent choice if you want soft, contaminant-free water without added salt. However, RO systems will only provide water for one point in your home, unless you install several devices. The iSpring system is a common choice among consumers — it’s an under-sink filter that connects straight to the faucet.

A drawback of a reverse osmosis system is the fact that it increases water usage. It also requires regular cleaning to ensure the safety of the water — a dirty filter is worse than no filter!

Keep In Mind

Due to the fine filters, all nutritious minerals will be removed from the water. This is not healthy in the long run since you’ll be missing essential minerals. Eating a balanced diet will ensure your body gets what it needs (18).

7. Showerhead Filter

If you’re feeling the aftermath of hard minerals on your body, such as dry skin, a showerhead filter could be beneficial. These are easily installed in the shower and will filter contaminants and minerals as the water leaves the faucet.

A showerhead filter can also limit limescale by removing minerals, which can clog the water holes and reduce water flow. You will also feel cleaner as soap scum won’t be formed — your skin and hair will surely thank you for the investment.

Quick Comparison

Now that we’ve seen some of the various ways to soften your water, you might be feeling overwhelmed. Here’s a quick comparison between the different systems:

  • Salt-based: Ion-exchange systems are the most common, most effective water softeners available. They consist of two tanks: one filled with resin beads and tap water, the other with brine. They replace hardness ions (magnesium and calcium) with salt ions (sodium or potassium). You recharge the water by adding salt to the brine tank.
  • Dual-tank: Most ion-exchange systems will require several hours to regenerate after you add salt. This means you and your family might be out of water for some time. New systems will have two resin tanks, so you’ll have ready water at any time, even while the other regenerates.
  • Salt-free: These softeners are actually conditioners, and include TAC, NAC, and chelation systems. They don’t remove calcium or magnesium, but they change their form so they’re unable to adhere to any surface. These devices are effective at reducing limescale and will improve water quality while maintaining the health benefits of the minerals.
  • Magnetic softeners: This type of softener is controversial, with many saying they work but the rest not seeing a difference. They work by setting up a magnetic field which changes the magnetic field of the carbonates, repelling them from each other and the pipes.

How to Combat Hard Water Effects in Appliances

People living in hard water areas might be concerned about how their appliances are affected.

Devices such as water heaters and dishwashers require a significant amount of water to work efficiently. However, if limescale or minerals are blocking the pipes, the volume of water going into the machines is significantly reduced. This requires the appliance to work harder, resulting in more energy being used and a higher chance of a breakdown.

Luckily, there are ways you can combat these adverse effects:

  • Water heaters: This appliance is especially vulnerable to mineral buildup due to the high temperature within the tank and pipes. The best way to help your heater is by installing a water softener to remove all minerals.
  • Washing machines and dishwashers: Using a lower temperature in these appliances can reduce mineral buildup. Insoluble carbons are left behind as the water is heated and evaporated (19). Using a lower temperature can avoid this effect. You can also use a non-precipitating water conditioner for your laundry. These will trap minerals during the wash, preventing them from binding to your clothes and machine.
  • Coffee makers and kettles: An effective way to avoid scale is by using bottled water instead of tap, since bottled water isn’t classified as hard.

The Take-Away

Choosing a water softener can be tricky if it’s your first time looking into a softening solution.

Firstly, consider how hard your water is and how you’d like it to change. If you want all minerals gone, choose an ion-exchange system.

However, if you want to reduce the effects of hard water, but still benefit from healthy minerals, salt-free systems such as TAC are an excellent solution.

If you’re only dealing with moderately hard water, installing a filter, such as reverse osmosis, is better and cheaper.

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About the Author

Sylvia Jones

Sylvia Jones is a hands-on, DIY aficionado from Indiana. She is passionate about home improvement, gardening, and environmental conservation. In her spare time, you can find Sylvia getting involved in home improvement projects around the house with her husband, or spending quality time out in the yard.