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To soften, or not to soften: a water softener is largely a matter of personal preference. Here are some things to consider.

A water softener is largely a matter of personal preference. Here are some things to consider.

Our small farm has its own private well, and we've been told that our water is "hard." What exactly does this mean, and what should we know about water softeners?

Technically, water is "soft" or "hard" depending on the concentration of dissolved calcium and magnesium (also referred to as calcium carbonate) it contains. (See Table 1.)

From a practical standpoint, hard water is what causes the white stuff left behind in teakettles and other pots, and the film on laundry. Some people say using soft water makes their skin softer and their hair silkier.

Some important facts: Hard water is no problem from a health standpoint. In fact, calcium and magnesium are essential daily nutrients, and they give water a refreshing flavor many people find desirable. (On the other hand, some people object to the "flat" or even salty taste of softened water--and this can pose a potential health risk for people on low sodium diets.)

More importantly, water softeners do not remove any of the serious drinking water contamination problems. If your water is contaminated, other measures will be necessary.

The basic reason for softening water is to avoid the calcium buildup that can plug pipes and damage water heaters, as well as decrease the effectiveness of soaps and detergents.

Levels below 7.0 gpg probably won't cause major scaling or soap film, and you might decide you can live with that. (The softening hardware alone can cost from $500 to $1,500, which might help your decision.)

If you want to treat the water to reduce the calcium and magnesium, this can be done with an ion exchange unit: a water softener.

How it works

A physical and chemical process filters the water through an exchange media known as resin or zeolite. Typically, the resin is a synthetic or natural sand-like material coated with positively charged sodium ions. As the calcium and magnesium dissolve into positively charged ions, an ion exchange environment is created. The water flows through the unit while the resin releases its sodium ions and readily trades them for the calcium and magnesium ions. The water flowing out of the device is now considered soft.


Clearly the resin is not an inexhaustible exchange site. When all the sodium exchange sites are replaced with hardness minerals, the resin is spent and will no longer soften water. At this point the water softener will need to be run on an alternate cycle called regeneration. During this cycle, resin is backwashed with a salt solution. The brine is reverse flushed through the system, taking with it the calcium and magnesium ions that were adsorbed on the resin. Once backwashing is complete, the softener can be returned to use.

Some water softeners will automatically switch to the operation cycle. Others have a manual switch. Some regenerate on a programmable schedule and then return to service. If your water use fluctuates greatly, these can waste water and salt, because they regenerate whether the resin needs it or not. Demand-control models usually regenerate after so many gallons of water have been softened.


Normal maintenance involves adding salt to the brine tank periodically. However, clogging of the resin also requires special attention.

If your water supply is turgid, the resin may become clogged with mud and clay. Normal backwashing with water might solve this problem, but if not, slowly stir the resin during the backwash cycle to help break up the material.

Bacteria and fungi can form mats in the resin that reduce its effectiveness. Disinfecting the water prior to softening or periodically cleaning the softener with chlorine bleach will eliminate this. (Be sure to read the owner's manual before adding any chemicals to the unit.)

Iron fouling is also common. Colorless, reduced iron will be removed by the unit, but red-oxidized iron (iron that has been exposed to the air or chlorine) will clog the resin. Filtration prior to softening ensures that oxidized iron won't be processed in the softener. If the resin has already been fouled, commercial cleaners are available. Again, check the manufacturer's instructions.

In some cases, contaminants can't be washed from the resin, and the resin will have to be replaced. See your softener dealer.

Other considerations

Remember that water softening is not a purifying, cleansing or conditioning process. It simply removes hardness minerals and eliminates a few problems that are a nuisance--not a threat to human health. The decision to soften or not to soften is a matter of personal preference, despite some exaggerated advertising and consumer misconceptions.

Have your water tested by an independent lab and determine its hardness from Table 1. Many water softening companies offer free hardness testing, but it's best to get a second opinion. Avoid being oversold.

If your hardness level is less than 7 gpg, a softener might not be worth the cost and hassle.

If it's moderately higher, all the incoming water doesn't have to be softened. You might want to soften showers, sinks and laundry hookups, bypassing toilets, outside spigots and basement sinks. You might not want to soften water used for drinking and cooking, or you might choose to soften the hot water only.

At that point, determine your water use. Measure it, or use Table 2 as a guide.

Using this information, select a softener that meets your needs and provides the conveniences you desire. Recognize that all softeners use essentially the same process. For this reason, they aren't rated for effectiveness, but only for convenience features such as handiness, size, maintenance requirements, safety and cost. These features are a matter of personal preference, so be wary of sales people who try to oversell.

--Adapted from Agricultural and Biological Engineering Fact Sheet SW-141, Penn State

Table 1

Parts per million (ppm) or grains per gallon (gpg) of calcium carbonate don't mean much to most of us, so water specialists generally translate that into levels of hardness.
Classification gpg ppm
Soft less than 1.0 less than 17
Slightly hard 1.0 to 3.5 17 to 60
Moderately hard 3.5 to 7.0 60 to 120
Hard 7.0 to 10.5 120 to 180
Very hard Greater than 10.5 Greater than 180

Table 2: Estimated water use guidelines
Drinking and cooking 1 gal/person/day
Bathing and showering 25-60 gal/use
Dishwashing 6-19 gal/use
Clothes washing 20-33 gal/use

Determine your water use from the above guidelines, or experience. Then estimate the size of the softener you need and the regeneration cycles using the following calculation as an example:

20,000 = Sample capacity (number of grains per regeneration)

75 gallons = average per person usage per day

10 gpg = raw water hardness

4 people = household size

75 gallons (10 gpg) x 4 (household size) = 3,000 grains per day used

20,000 (number of grains per regeneration) / 3,000 (grains per day used) = about 6-7 day regeneration.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Countryside Publications Ltd.
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Home Water Supply
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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