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Water Softeners

Water softeners

  • Introduction
  • What is a water softener?
  • Why do I need a water softener?
  • Which water softener should I get?
  • How do I install a water softener?
  • How do to maintain a water softener?
  • How much does a water softener cost?


What is a water softener?


Water softeners are filtration systems designed to remove hard water elements from water.  Hard water elements are naturally picked up by water moving over the Earth's surfaces.  An example would be rainwater and river water flowing over rocks and filtering through the earth into natural aquifers and wells.  Picking up minerals and solubles along the way. 

Some of us have private well water supplies, but most of us are supplied by a regulated entity such as a municipality.  Regulations keep our water free from contaminants and harmful bacteria.  However, hard water isn’t harmful to people and therefore does not require regulation.  Hard water levels are different all over the nation depending on where you live.

Hard water damages appliances such as water heaters, dishwashers, and makes faucet fixtures dirty looking with built up hard water stains.  Appliance efficiencies and life span will decrease the harder your water levels are.  Hard water will build up inside water pipes and slow the flow rate over time.

Hard water impacts health and beauty too.  Adding a water softener to a household provides a huge difference in how the water feels to members of the home.  It feels different on the skin when washing hands, almost silky to the touch.  People will tend to rinse their hands long after washing with soft water thinking the soap is still in their skin.  You will feel the difference in showers washing your hair and skin.

The same also applies to dishwashing and laundry.  You will notice your dishes and glassware will have no hard water stains.  Your laundry feels it too, leaving clothes and towels will look brighter and feel soft to the touch.  Soaps work more efficiently with more bubbles and rinse off much easier than when rinsing with hard water. 


How does a water softener work?

Water softener 'ion-exchange' explained

Water softeners use an ion-exchange process that enables the filtration of calcium, magnesium, iron, sulfur, sulfide, and magninesse from the water.  The ion-exchange process can be described using three element types that carry a positive-charged ion.  This positive charge creates a magnetic attraction to other elements with similar charges.

The 3 primary elements that hold a positive charge in the water:

  1. Hard Water elements – calcium and magninesse ions are examples of hard elements that hold a positive charges. Other hard elements found in water that contain positively charged ions are Iron, Sulfide, sulfur, and magninesse.
  2. Water softener resin media – the media is manufactured with a positive charge equal to the charge found in hard water ions.
  3. Sodium brine solutionsodium ions hold an even stronger charge than hard water elements. The importance of the stronger charge will be explained later in this article.


A water softener is designed to operate using a dual tank assembly system.  The first tank, known as the mineral tank, stores a food-grade quality water softener resin media.  The second tank, known as the brine tank, stores a brine solution that is created by combining salt pellets and water.  The dual tank assembly is connected by water lines and controlled by a single programmed valve.  Before explaining the water softener’s components, let’s first understand what is happening inside the 2 tanks. 


To simplify the objectives of a water softener, you will need to atomize the process into steps:

  1. Objective 1: Filter hard elements from the water
  2. Objective 2: Remove hard elements from the system when full capacity is reached
  3. Objective 3: Flush hard elements from the system
  4. Repeat


The first objective: Filter hard elements from the water

This is achieved by routing the main water supply through the water softener's ion-exchange resin media prior to entering the home.

It is important to note that the ion-exchange resin is charged with sodium ions during the manufacturing process. So the water softener resin contains sodium ions over its entire surface area of the bead.  As the water rinses through the media. The hard ions (calcium & magnesium) in the water exchange positions with the sodium ions found on the surface area of the resin beads.

The resin beads trap the hard water ions, while the sodium ions flow freely through the water. This 'exchange', between the hard water ions and the sodium ions, is the process of removing 'hard elements' from the household's water supply. Thus creating soft water.

Recap: This completes the first objective of removing hard elements from the water supply.


The second objective: Remove hard elements from the system when resin meets full filter capacity

The second objective gives some explanation of the name ‘ion-exchange'.  The water softener valve is programmed to draw a sodium solution from the brine tank and rinses it through the mineral tank’s resin media.  This is known as the regeneration process.  The regeneration process can take up to an hour or more to thoroughly circulate and rinse through the resin media beads. 

As mentioned earlier in the list above containing the 3 elements with a positive charge, sodium ions hold the strongest positive charge.  This is important because the sodium solution is used to clean off the calcium & magnesium from the water softener resin media.

The hard element ions physically exchange their connection with the water softener resin media for the stronger positive charge of the sodium ions.  This exchange frees the hard element ions from the resin but still captures the hard element ions by the free-floating sodium ions.

Like a magnet, the strong positive charge from the sodium ions holds the calcium and magnesium ions from escaping.  Once there’s been adequate time for the brine solution to soak through the resin media, a final rinse is required. 

Special note: water softener manufacturers and professionals have attempted to use alternative positively-charged elements to replace salt, like citrus.  However, sodium has proven to hold the strongest positive charge and most efficient at the ion-exchange process.

This completes the second primary objective.


The third objective: Flush hard elements from the system

Now that the sodium solution has collected all the hard elements from the resin, fresh water must be used to flush out the sodium ions with hard elements.  The water softener opens a small mechanical valve allows the main water inlet to flush in freshwater through the brine-soaked resin media.  The force from the water line pressure is sufficient enough to rinse out the sodium ions out through the drain port.  A water softener requires a drain line for this purpose. 

Special note: While the water softener opens the main water valve to bring in fresh water to flush the mineral tank, the valve also diverts part of the incoming water to the brine tank to create a fresh brine solution for the next regeneration period (Second Objective).  This completes the third objective.


Repeat: Ready for service

Now that the sodium and hard water ions are flushed clean from the mineral tank, the water softener is regenerated and ready to filter out more hard elements from the water. 


Parts of a water softener

1. Water softener control valve

Water softeners are managed by a central controller that acts like the brain of the system.  This device typically fastens to the water softener’s mineral tank.  The water softener control valve has evolved over time as innovations became available.  Below is the evolution of the water softener control valve.

Evolution of control valves:

  1. Mechanical timer (First generation)

The mechanical Time Clock controllers are considered the first generation when comparing to today’s residential control valves.  The time clock mechanism enables the homeowner to program the time span between regeneration periods. For example, you can set your water softener to regenerate every 14 days.  The time clock controller is simple to program. They typically have 1 or 2 mechanical dials with incremental marks representing periods of time.

Excluding price, there is a minor drawback to time clock water softener controllers.

First, mechanical time clock controllers do not provide data on the household’s water usage.  The ‘water usage’ metric is used to calculate optimal regeneration times, which is predicated on how much water the household consumes.     

Second, the fixed time clock controller is less efficient compared to the newer meter valves.   A water softener time clock controller will regenerate regardless of water utilization. Imagine if you had 4 people stay with you for a week.  The water use would increase, which would result in running out of soft water before the specific time programmed. Or think about the opposite when you go away on vacation.  Your water usage would be lower than normal and therefore would regenerate sooner than needed.


    1. Mechanical meter (Second generation)
      1. Next generation. The valves started coming with water meters.  This answered the complaint for inefficient regenerations.  Meter valves enable regeneration programming to be set based on utilization. 
        1. The meter would keep track of the water volume and regenerate whenever the predetermined volume was met.
        2. However, the data utilization accuracy was still in question


    1. Digital meter (Third generation)
      1. Next generation. The new digital meters arrived and solved the old mechanical valve complaints.  Digital valves enabled homeowners to view displayed data utilization in real-time. 
      2. The metering remained as the popular feature among digital valves due to customer demand for a system that regenerated based on utilization rather than estimated time.
      3. Digital time clock valves are still being manufactured to satisfy the customers that choose to stay with what they are used to.


    1. Digital touchscreen meter (Fourth generation)
      1. Providing everything a digital meter valve provides
      2. Touchscreen improves readability
      3. Intuitive controls
      4. WiFi enabled
      5. In & Out valve assembly


    2. Water softener resin media

    Resin media is the primary ingredient of a water softener system.  A traditional residential water softener will typically contain between 1 to 2 cubic feet of resin media.  The volume and type of water softener resin will depend on the treatment.  Water softener resin media is a specially manufactured bead, which is similar in size to a sand granule.  When handling the resin beads, the media has a consistency of wet sand.


    1. Watch out for quality. You consuming this water in a number of ways
      1. Bathing, washing clothes, dishes, brushing teeth, and drinking
      2. NSF certified resin helps identify
    2. Beads the size of sand granules
    3. Water softener resin media

    Types of resin. 

    8% -  lowest grade resin that meets government food grade

      city and well water?
            1. 10% - upgrade from 10% designed for city water supplied households. Last longer than 8% of chlorine is present.  Removes up to 2 ppm of iron.
              1. The resin can be fouled - iron
              2. Difference -
                1. 8% & 10% spherical (mishaped and size)
                2. Iron monospherical
                  1. Fallacy - fine mesh does not slow the water flow rate.  Fine mesh being all the same size.  Due to old practices (packing fine mesh to the top)
            2. Fine Mesh - designed for well water applications.  Can remove up 6 ppm of iron.  magenesse.
            3. High efficiency - leverage SST-60 resin explanation
              1. Hollow core technology - the resin attracts resin easier and regenerated easier to clean.


      7. Brine solution storage tank

      1. Contains a float to prevent overfilling
      2. Salt ages and dissolves in the storage tank



            Water systems proclaiming to soften water
              1. Water softeners
                1. Ion exchange is the only way to truly soften water.


              1. What is ‘saltless’ Descaling media
                1. Inhibits scaling.  It doesn’t use a charge, but it breaks one of the 2 hard elements.  (magnesium) Connects to media, but never goes away.
                2. These are an alternative option for reducing scale, but not a water softener without using ion exchange.

            Plastic bypass valve

            Plastic yoke with threaded male ends


            3. Plastic distributor tube to control water entering the system

            1. Distributes the water from the bottom of the tank to assure equal


            4. Filter baskets are located on either end of the plastic distributor tube

            1. To prevent resin from entering in the home water lines


            5. Mineral tank polyglass tube construction

            1. A plastic inner lining is contained within the polyglass wrap
              1. Allows tank to flex with typical water pressure variations.
            2. Sometimes hidden inside plastic housing.



              Why do I need a water softener?


              1. Equipment life spans
                1. Water heaters - large expense and bulky equipment change.
                  1. Gas - hard water build up on the bottom of the water heater tank.  The hard water builds up in a conical shape like a large ant hill on the bottom of the water heater.  Gas water heaters heat from the bottom of the tank.  Hard water builds up, covering and insulating the water from the burner’s heat.
                  2. Electric - hard water accumulates around the heating elements. Covering and insulating the water from the heating elements.
                2. Dishwasher - dishwashers typically breakdown due to hard water build up around jets.
                3. Washer - water ports get hard water build up. 
                4. Fixtures - white hard water stains build up and make fixtures look terrible.
                5. Waterlines - water flow will decrease as hard water buildup within the interior of the water lines.


              1. Water spots and stains
                1. Glassware & glass shower doors
                  1. Dishwasher hard water stains look dirty and unappealing to guests
                2. Stains on faucet fixtures
                  1. White calcium stains build up removing the shine in the fixture.
                3. Bathtub stains
                  1. in the form of calcium build up or stains from Iron present in the water


              1. Health and beauty benefits - the greatest difference felt by household members relates to how we feel using soft water.
                1. Hair will feel softer - hard water sticks in hair. Soap doesn’t rinse away
                2. Skin - aggregates skin
                3. Cleaning with soap and shampoo


              Which water softener should I get?  Pay attention orders

              1. City or Well water
                1. City water supplies use 8% or 10% resin media
                2. Well water will use 8% or Fine Mesh resin media


              1. What is in your water
                1. Calcium & Magnesium
                2. Iron (well water only)
                  1. How many parts per million?
                    1. Greater than 6 ppm will require an air injection valve with different media
                3. Chlorine
                  1. Chlorine destroys plastic over time.  Water softener resin media is manufactured from plastic. Over time your water softener resin will deteriorate.
                    1. One sure way to protect your water softener resin is integrating an upflow carbon filtration system
                4. Sulfure sulfide (fine mesh)
                  1. Removes portions.
                  2. Air injection required in combination with a water softener
                    1. Filox -  same, but costs and
                    2. Matolox - iron, sulfur, sulfide, mageness
                    3. Used to oxidizing helps the removal process.
                5. Ph levels - very low pH will destroy resin (high acidic water).    Nominal 6.5 to 8.5 safe reading for pH 7.5 sweet spot.  .High pH bad taste.  pH above or below is more typical on well water.  EPA regulation.
                  1. Acid neutralizer



              1. Your household lifestyle will help to understand water utilization. 
                1. Gallons per used per person.
                2. Household size
                  1. Small
                    1. Starting a new family
                    2. Downsizing


                  1. Large
                    1. 5+ person
                    2. High water utilizing home 
                      1. Teenagers are high utilizers
                    3. Number of bathrooms/showers
                1. Basic plumbing pipe size - 4k foot house run into multiple fixtures
                  1. ¾
                  2. 1”
                  3. 1.25” - can be stepped down to 1”
                  4. 1.5” - cannot downsize to 1”
                  5. 2" is a commercial


              How do I install my water softener?

              1. Planning
                1. Softener final location
                2. Water connection
                3. Water Drain
              2. Identify your installation location
                1. Garage, basement, outside?
                  1. Temperature range
                    1. Water freezes regardless of hard or soft water levels
                  2. Connecting to the home’s incoming water line
                  3. draining
              3. Where will your water softener drain?
                1. You will need to know how you will route the drain line
              4. Where are you connecting to the home’s incoming water?  How are you routing water line?
                1. Loop - considered the easiest installation
                2. Poke through
                3. Trenching - toughest
              5. Adapting connectors and water softener to the water line
                1. Copper, CPVC, PVC, Pex, galvanized
                    1. PVC and Galvanized using threads. Copper CPVC, PEX same OD.
                  1. Cutting tools
                  2. elbows, straight lines, and threaded connections
              6. Carefully controlling your water during installation and implementation
                1. Watch out for the water hammer
                2. Watch out for switching In and Out ports
              7. Prevent backward connections - If it happens to do this
                1. Resin goes into the home
                  1. 20% of residents make this
                  2. If you see resin,
                    1. Stop using water and bypass water softener.  Turn off the main water valve.
                    2. Remove the screen inside the fixture that you saw the resin present.  get a collection bucket
                      1. Open valve to release water pressure and resin into a catch-all bucket.
                        1. Each water fixture that you opened, while resin in the water line, will collect resin beads.


                      1. Close the water fixture valve.  Crack open (20% open) the main home water valve to let the lines slowly build water pressure.  After a few minutes fully open valve.
                      2. Leaving the screen off the faucet fixture, open the cold side to flush any remaining resin out.  Once clear, insert faucet fixture screen for regular use. 



              What does it take to maintain?

              1. How long does my resin last?

              That depends on what’s in your water.  Water softener resin will break down over time and loses the ability to attract/capture hard water ions.

                1. High levels of water hardness
                  1. Define water hardness level
                    1. Parts per million
                    2. Grain capacity
                2. City water elements
                  1. Chlorine destroys resin.  Why?  The resin is manufactured with plastic material
                    1. How to fix this?
                      1. Adding carbon filtration.  Carbon absorbs chlorine
                3. Well water
                  1. Iron removal
                    1. Iron ppm level greater than 6 ppm
                      1. If you have more than 6 ppm of iron?
                        1. Air injection valve &Gears and pistons will clog up with iron dust build up



              1. What kind of salt should I use and how often do I add salt
                1. It depends
                  1. Higher hard water levels
                    1. The system will need to regenerate more often on water levels that are higher.
                  2. Number of times your water softener automatically regenerates
                    1. You may be able to extend this time, because some may regenerate too often.