Plumbing Tips from an Avid DIY-er

Understanding Your Water Softener

Water softeners are an effective way to eliminate problems caused by hard water, which can lead to unsightly build ups, clogged fixtures, and premature failure of such appliances as water heaters and washing machines. Yet many homeowners fail to understand how a water softener works — and thus assume that these useful machines aren't as great as they are cracked up to be. If you would like to improve your understanding of the water softening process, read on. This article will provide a useful introduction to the subject.

The Problem

Water softeners are used to combat the problem of hard water--in other words, water that contains elevated levels of magnesium and/or calcium. Although these minerals are nontoxic and largely inert, they can become problematic in a number of ways. For one thing, over time they lead to the development of the sediment known as scale. Not only will scale lead to an ugly whitish buildup on the outside of your plumbing fixtures, but also it will accumulate inside your water heater and other appliances — eventually leading to the need for replacement or expensive repairs.

Water Softener

A water softener is the best way to prevent hard water. Because this handy machine is attached to your home's main water supply line, it effectively eliminates scale not just for one appliance or fixture, but throughout your entire home. It does this by means of a process known as ion exchange. This involves the replacement of problematic magnesium and calcium with relatively harmless sodium. This process takes place inside of the water softeners mineral tank.

Ion Exchange

Inside of most mineral tanks are a multitude of polystyrene beads. In other systems the softening may take place by means of resin or zeolite elements. All three of these substances have one thing in common: they carry a negative electrical charge. Calcium and magnesium, on the other hand, have a positive charge. This causes the hard minerals to bond tightly with the beads, thus leaving the water free of its scale-causing substances.

Recharging The Beads

In order to continue providing an effective means of softening water, the magnesium and calcium ions must now be removed from the beads inside of the mineral tank. This is accomplished by means of the sodium solution contained in a separate tank: the brine tank. Here the brine--essentially a concentrated sodium salt solution--is flushed into the mineral tank. The large concentration of sodium ions, which also bear a positive charge, push the calcium and magnesium off of the beads. Those unwanted minerals are then flushed away, and more hard water is allowed to enter the mineral tank.

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