Excerpt from my regular column in the Santa Barbara News-Press.
Installing a Water Softener
Question: Like most homes in Santa Barbara we have very hard water that leaves mineral streaks in our dishwasher and crusty lime buildup on our faucets and shower heads. Recently we were house guests at a relative’s home in Northern California who has a water softener and we really enjoyed the way the soap suds up in the shower and my wife loved how light and full of life her hair felt after shampooing. Now that we are back at home we want to have a water softener installed but don’t know what all is involved. How does a water softener work and what plumbing work will be needed?
Your Handyman: I personally have enjoyed softened water for most all of my life and really notice how the soap and shampoo sticks to me when staying as a house guest or at a hotel where the water is not softened. The water softening process greatly reduces the amount of minerals in your home’s water and it is these minerals that explain why the dishes that you thought were cleaned in the dishwasher come out covered with spots, why the water in your shower leaves a unpleasant film on everything it touches, and why your expensive plumbing fixtures are slowly being encrusted with mineral scale. These minerals in our water prevent soaps and detergents from dissolving entirely which makes the soap less effective, and they also partially bond with soap creating a sort of soap scum that clings to your skin and hair. The crusty mineral scale that you see on the outside of your faucets and shower heads is also slowly building up inside your pipes and faucet valves.
Rain water is almost entirely free of minerals but as it soaks into the earth and heads into the aquifers deep underground, it picks up a little of whatever soluble minerals that it passes through and depending on the local geology, it can reach varying degrees of mineral content. Typically water districts that rely on wells that pump ground water will have much harder water than districts that source their water from mountain streams and lakes. The San Fernando Valley to our south gets its water from the Eastern Sierras and has some of the softest mineral free tap water that can be found.
The solution is to remove the minerals which are primarily calcium and magnesium from the water and the easiest method is to properly install a water softener. The heart of the water softener is the mineral tank which is filled with thousands of tiny polystyrene resin beads, and these beads naturally carry a negative electrical charge. Minerals have a positive charge and as the hard water flows through the mineral tank, the positively charged minerals bond with the negatively charged resin beads and cling to the beads. Periodically a water softener goes through a process called regenerating, which is when concentrated salt water (brine) is used to flush out the mineral tank. Salt (sodium) has a positive charge and the sheer volume of sodium ions are able to break away the minerals bonded to the resin beads and wash them out of the tank. The tank is then flushed with water to remove most all of the salt.
A water softener can be purchased at a local appliance or hardware store for about $600 and is typically an easy installation depending on your home’s plumbing. The water softener needs to be installed into your plumbing ideally at a location where the main water line for your home’s interior water supply enters the home. You want to make sure that the supply line does not also provide water for outside hoses and sprinklers. Often in newer construction the plumber will provide an exposed pipe loop on the main water supply line which is intended as the location for the softener. An electrical outlet will be needed to supply power for the circuitry that determines when it is time for the softener to regenerate, and a sewage drain line is required for the brine and flushing water created during the regeneration cycle. If you don’t have a location with a drain line, there is the option of having a local water softening company deliver and install a recharged resin tank on a periodic basis and they flush the tank out back at their place of business.
The frequency that the softener regenerates and the amount of salt that is used will be determined by how much water is consumed inside your home. A typical family of four will need to refill the salt tank about once a month with 2-3 bags of salt that can be purchased at the hardware store or at Costco. The salt bags usually weigh 50 lbs or more and can be difficult for seniors to handle. Potassium can be used instead of salt in the brine tank but a bag of potassium costs about $20 while a bag of salt pellets costs about $4. Many seniors have the salt bags loaded into their car’s trunk at the store and later have their gardener or a strong teenage neighbor unload and pour them into the brine tank.
There are no health hazards associated with softened water however the trace amount of salt left in the resin tank which goes into the tap water can pose a problem for a person on a sodium free diet. A reverse osmosis water filter system will remove this very small amount of salt and can be installed under the kitchen sink for drinking water and for the ice maker. The only other complaint people may have about water softeners is that they use quite a lot of water during the regeneration cycle that can be considered wasteful especially in light of our ongoing drought. This is also the case for the reverse osmosis filter system which also creates waste water in the filtering process.
Owner, YourHandyman & Construction
CA License #935259