Water softener tablets and filter with a blue background.

What is a Water Softener? (How It Works + Pros & Cons)

Many people who have a water softener in their own home are perhaps unaware of how they work. Softeners are a solution to problems caused by hard water.  While hard water is not necessarily harmful, it can cause pesky issues around your home including scale buildup and clogged pipes. Before investing in a water softener, though, consider how they work plus all of their pros and cons.

hard water deposits in a kettle

Hard water is often indicated by a formation of limescale in kettles and other appliances.

The Solution to Hard Water

To begin with, a water softener is a type of water filtration system that removes natural minerals from water.  Water that has a high natural mineral content is called hard water.  Water that has a low natural mineral content is called soft water.  Many choose to buy water softeners because hard water notoriously causes problems in their homes. Just a few of the problems that hard water causes include:

  • Scale (mineral) buildup
  • Clogs in pipes
  • Soap scum

Hard water and water minerals are not necessarily harmful in and of themselves.  The most common hard minerals in water include calcium and magnesium; both are healthy dietary minerals that are associated with a number of health benefits including boosting brain function and building strong bones.  However, despite the fact that these minerals are good for you, the problems they cause often outweigh their health benefits.

Depending on where you live and where you get your water from, your water may naturally be more highly concentrated with minerals.  First off, if you live in the southwestern United States, particularly within the Rocky Mountains, you’re more likely to have hard water.  This is due to the fact that these mountainous regions have very rocky soil which results in harder water. 

Secondly, if you get your water from a well rather than from a city water supply, you’re more likely to have hard water. This is because well water often comes from deep groundwater, which is higher in natural minerals than surface water. Moreover, water softener systems help to fix water quality problems. Depending on where you get your water from, it may make more or less sense to purchase one. They are certainly not necessary, but they tend to come in handy if your water is particularly high in minerals.

How Water Softeners Work: Ion Exchange

There are 3 main types of water softeners.  They are:

  1. Ion exchange softeners
  2. Dual tank ion exchange softeners
  3. Salt-free softeners

Ion exchange softeners are by far the most commonly used water softener.  Dual tank ion exchange softeners work the same way as ion exchange softeners, but are larger and more expensive.  Salt-free softeners are also more expensive and generally only used by people who prefer not to have salt added to their drinking water during the softening process.

So, the ion exchange process is the basis of how most water softeners work.  During ion exchange, calcium and magnesium ions are filtered out of the water and exchanged with sodium ions. Here’s a more detailed description of how ion exchange works:

  1. First, water flows from your city or well and into your home water softener.  The water then flows through the softener’s filter, which is called a resin bed.  A resin bed is covered in resin beads, which are negatively charged ions.  
  2. Next, hard water minerals, including calcium and magnesium, get stuck to the beads because they are positively charged ions.  Moreover, as the positively charged minerals in the water move through the resin beds, they attract and stick to the negatively charged beads.  Similar to how a magnet works, the negative beads attract the oppositely charged mineral ions.
  3. Lastly, while the resin beads have calcium and magnesium trapped, the rest of the water particles flow out of the softener and into your home.  From there, the softened water is accessible from all of your faucets.

The most important detail of the process is that, as magnesium and calcium ions attach to the resin beads, they release sodium ions from the beads into the softened water.  This exchange of the magnesium and calcium ions for sodium ions is what gives the ion exchange process its name.

As a result of sodium slipping into your home’s water supply, your home’s drinking water may taste slightly salty.  However, this is perhaps a good thing as many people tend to prefer the salinity of soft water over the hardness mineral taste of hard water.

water softener

Pros of Water Softeners

The water hardness reducing benefits of water softeners are many.  Here are some of the most beneficial outcomes of a water softening system:

1. Less soap needed

The minerals in hard water do not react well with soap.  They prevent a lather from forming and, as a result, more soap is needed to get things cleaned. A water softener removes water’s hard minerals and the resulting soft water reacts well with soap.  With soft water, you need less soap to get things cleaned because the lather forms easily. 

2. Softer, healthier hair and skin

Hard water is not compatible with your hair and skin.  This is partially due to the fact that hard water prevents a good lather. In terms of your hair, washing it with hard water almost makes it feel worse than how it felt before you washed it. Because your shampoo will not lather in hard water, your hair won’t get as clean. 

Also, because it doesn’t lather well, there will be a greasy, film-like residue left on your hair even after washing it.  Overall, you just won’t feel quite as clean as if you washed your hair with soft water. Washing your hair in soft water has more benefits including:

  • Maintaining hair’s natural oils
  • Creating natural volume
  • Decreasing dryness and breakage

Your skin will also thank you for washing it in soft water.  Hard water will leave behind the same type of residue on your skin as it did on your hair, including on your face, hands, and body.  It’ll also dry out your skin and disrupt it’s natural pH balance.

Soft water is gentler on the skin.  It doesn’t mess with your skin’s natural oils so it maintains moisture better.  If you have sensitive skin including psoriasis or eczema, soft water is far gentler and won’t disrupt your skin any further. Overall, your hair and skin will both feel and look better when you wash them with soft water.  

3. Cleaner homes, dishes, and clothes

Soft water leads to an overall cleaner home and life.  This is in part due to the fact that soft water reacts with soap better than hard water does.  However, there are other reasons why including:

  • Reduced scale (mineral) buildup
  • Reduced soap scum
  • Reduced mineral stains

First off, soft water reduces scale buildup.  Scale buildup, also known as limescale, is the formation of a residue around your water faucets.  It is formed when the minerals in hard water form together in clumps and adhere to your fixtures.  Soft water reduces the likeliness that you’ll have any scale buildup as most of its minerals are removed.

Second, soft water prevents soap scum from forming in your sinks, bathtubs, and other surfaces.  Because hard water doesn’t react well with soap, when you use it to wash surfaces, a thin layer of soap is left behind.  Soft water prevents this scum from forming in the first place.  Overall, surfaces will be cleaned more effectively and have no leftover residue with soft water.  

Third, soft water reduces mineral stains on dishes and clothes.  Perhaps you’ve pulled dishes out of the dishwasher before only to notice small, white stains left behind; these stains are leftover by hard water minerals.  Also, these same stains can form on your clothes when you wash them in a washing machine that uses hard water.  Not only will minerals leave stains on clothes, but they’ll also actually deteriorate their quality.  Washing dishes and clothes with soft water prevents mineral stains and maintains the quality of clothes.

4. Elongated lifespan of pipes and appliances

Hard water deteriorates the condition of your home’s pipes and appliances.  Over time, hard water minerals will buildup in your pipes and appliances to cause clogs.  If you don’t check on the condition of your pipes regularly, they could clog and corrode due to all of the minerals.  In a worst-case scenario, this could cause water contamination.

Additionally, minerals in hard water will build up in your home’s appliances causing their condition to deteriorate quickly.  Your hot water heater, for example, will need to be replaced sooner and will require more energy to run when it uses hard water. Soft water, with its minerals removed, typically won’t clog pipes or deteriorate your appliances.  As a result, you will have:

  • Lower electric and heating bills
  • Lower likeliness of needing pipe replacements
  • Lower likeliness of having to replace appliances

5. Improved water taste

Thanks to the water softening process, your home’s drinking water should taste better.  A good way to describe the taste of hard water is bitter, whereas soft water feels smoother and just slightly salty.

Cons of Water Softeners

While water softeners come with their fair share of pros, they also come with some cons.

1. Increased sodium intake

Due to ion exchange, soft water has a higher concentration of salt than hard water.  So, when you drink soft water, you’ll be consuming more salt relative to hard water. For most people, this isn’t much of an issue. However, for some groups including those with high blood pressure, consuming too much salt can cause health issues. Drinking too much saltwater could cause increases in blood pressure, bloating, and dehydration. An option for people who are concerned about their salt intake but still want a water softener is a salt-free water softener.  

2. Increased water bills

Water softeners have the potential to raise your monthly water bill.  Specifically, if you do not monitor your softener’s regeneration cycle, you could wake up one day to an extremely high water bill. The water softener’s regeneration process requires a significant amount of water in order to flush out chloride salts from its system. 

Sometimes, a softener’s wastewater valve can get propped open and, as a result, water continuously rushes through the softener and then out its septic pipes.  This wastes a ton of water and increases your water bill. Therefore, it’s important to regularly check on your water softener and its valve to make sure that they’re functioning properly. You may also want to hire a professional to come and inspect them on a regular basis.  These extra maintenance costs can add up and are another downside of having a softener.

View of inside of brine tank

The brine tank is where a highly concentrated solution of salt or potassium is stored

3. Negative environmental impact

Water softeners cause pollution and require a ton of water in order to function. During a water softener’s regeneration process, it flushes chloride salts out of its brine tank and sends them to your city’s septic and sewage system plants.  These chloride salts often then seep out of the septic systems and pollute groundwater.  Then, when that groundwater is harvested, it requires extensive decontamination.

Also, many water treatment facilities aren’t equipped to remove chlorides from water.  As a result, chloride salts are released back into the environment and pollute the ground as well as freshwater systems including lakes.  Chloride is toxic to most marine organisms, so it often kills off a lot of the fish and animals that live in the freshwater.

Lastly, water softeners require a significant amount of water to function.  According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a typical ion exchange softener uses on average 25 gallons of water in order to run the regeneration process.  All of that excess water would not have been depleted from the environment if it weren’t for the water softeners.  

4. Reduced mineral intake

Soft water is treated to remove all of its hard minerals.  These minerals are natural, healthy, and essential in your diet. If you struggle on a regular basis to get enough minerals in your diet, then drinking a sufficient amount of water could be a simple way to intake more minerals. Unfortunately, though, soft water has most of its minerals removed during the softening process.  Therefore, if you’re lacking minerals, soft water won’t help you get more of them.

5. Expensive installation and maintenance

While your pipes and appliances will require less maintenance and therefore save you money with a water softener, installing and maintaining your water softener might cancel out those money savings. First off, the upfront purchase cost of a water softener and installing it is high. Secondly, you’ll need to regularly purchase sodium chloride or potassium chloride crystals to add to your softener’s brine tank. 

The brine tank assists your softener in the regeneration process, which removes the minerals from the resin bed. Without the regeneration cycle, the softener would eventually stop removing minerals. Therefore, you’ll also need to have your softener checked every once in a while to make sure it is running properly.  The upfront and upkeep costs of a softener can add up to be large expenses over time. 

Should You Have a Water Softener?

Before investing in a water softener, you should consider the pros and cons of having one.  Additionally, you should consider some factors of your own personal situation as well.  Consider asking yourself the following questions.  Your answers, in addition to the pros and cons, will help you decide whether a softener is right for you or not.

1. Will drinking water with more salt affect my health?

Depending on the status of your health, a water softener could potentially aggravate existing medical issues.  Before purchasing one, it may be best to talk to your doctor to see if the extra salt from water softeners will negatively impact your health.

2. Am I willing to pay for installation, regular maintenance, and salt crystals in order to keep my water softener functioning?

Water softeners solve many water-related problems, however, those solutions can come with a cost. You’ll have to pay upfront costs plus regular maintenance and upkeep to ensure that your system is running smoothly. On the other hand, having a water softener could potentially prevent a disastrous, highly expensive event such as pipe corrosion. While a water softener cannot guarantee this situation will never happen, it does reduce the likelihood of it occurring. 

3. How concerned am I about the environmental impact of water softeners?

Unfortunately, water softeners use up a lot of water and release toxic substances into the environment.  Before purchasing a water softener, consider the type of environmental footprint you’d like to leave behind.

In Conclusion: Is Water Softening Worth it?

Water softeners and soft water both come with their pros and cons. Depending on these pros and cons plus your personal situation, a water softener could be the solution to your hard water problems. Overall, though, if hard water is giving you a really tough time, then it might be a good idea to at least consider getting a softener.

In conclusion, be sure to consider all of the pros and cons plus your own situation before you decide to get a water softener.  If you are able to, they are a great solution to solve just about any hard water problem.

Bonus tip: Check out our top picks for the best home water softeners

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Joshua Perkins

Joshua spent ten years as a water systems technician in California before settling down with his wife and two young children in Nashville in 2018. Through all of his experience, he learned the benefits and shortfalls of so many different types of water filtration systems, from pitchers to whole-house installations. He started Water Filter Authority in 2019 to empower other families to make the right decision for their long-term health and wellness.