A Step-by-Step Guide on How to Soften Water

There are several different ways to soften water. If you want to learn more, check out this guide on water-softening.

Darrell Smith
How to Soften Water
image

In the US, as many as nine in 10 homes have hard water. While this is often safer than contaminated water, its many side effects can still be a burden.

For instance, the scaling in pipes associated with hard water can cause sewer backups. Sanitary sewer overflows are a big problem in the US, occurring at a rate of up to 75,000 incidents each year.

If your household belongs in the above-mentioned 90%, now’s the best time to learn how to soften water. The sooner you do, the sooner you can avoid costly plumbing clogs and water back-ups. Besides, preventing blocked pipes is only one of the many benefits of making your water soft.

Ready to learn all about your water softening options at home? Then keep reading, as that’s exactly what this post is all about!

What Makes Water Soft or Hard?

Hard water contains a lot of dissolved minerals like calcium, carbon, and sulfate. Hard water measurement is usually expressed in milligrams per liter of calcium carbonate.

Soft water contains 0 to 17.1 mg/L of concentrated calcium carbonate (CaCO3). It starts to be classified as hard if it contains more than 17.1 mg/L of concentrated CaCO3. At this concentration, the water is still only “slightly hard”.

However, many areas in the US have very hard water, which contains 180 mg/L or more of calcium carbonate. Water in Austin, Texas, for instance, has an average water hardness that exceeds 180 mg/L.

Why Consider Softening Your Water

Hard water is more of a nuisance than a health risk, with one of its main effects being scale buildup on fixtures. Scaling on water appliances, such as heaters and showers, reduces their efficiency. The hardened mineral deposits make it harder for them to heat the water, so they use more energy.

Hard water can also cause minor skin irritations, such as itchiness and dryness. These effects are more pronounced in people with sensitive skin, which is common in the US. In one study, 44.6% of participants reported having sensitive to very sensitive skin.

In the long run, hard water has shown to cause corrosion in plumbing pipes. When this happens, the pipes can start leaching chemicals and heavy metals like lead into the water. This can then reduce the quality of your drinking water, which can lead to health risks.

All these should be enough reasons to soften the water that you use and drink at home. Hard water may not be a huge problem now, but it could become more than a nuisance over time.

Boiling: A Short-Term Solution for Hard Water

Boiling is the cheapest way to soften hard water naturally. The intense heat forces the calcium carbonate out of the water through precipitation. Once it cools, you get softer water.

Keep in mind though that boiling only softens "temporary hard water". This is water that mostly has dissolved CaCO3 and magnesium carbonate (MgCO3).

You can use this method to soften hard water of small quantities that you use for drinking or cooking. Boiling water all the time, however, can become tedious and can also spike your energy or gas bills. Moreover, it's impractical to boil water for all your bathing and cleaning activities.

Still, if you need a short-term fix for hard water, then boiling can do the trick.

Adding Washing Soda to Water for Laundry Purposes

Washing soda is a type of carbonic acid salt and is also known as sodium carbonate (Na2CO3). Although it's a chemical, it can remove both temporary and permanent hardness in water.

Na2CO3 contains soluble carbonate ions, whereas NaCO3 and MgCO3 have insoluble carbonate ions. The soluble ions react with the insoluble ones to produce insoluble precipitates. The washing soda's ions also bind to the minerals that make your water hard.

In short, the washing soda removes the dissolved calcium and magnesium ions. This results in softer water that’s ideal for clothes-washing.

Softer water makes it easier for the water to get into the clothes, and it helps "lift" dirt and soil from fabrics. All these allow the soap or detergent to work their way into the fibers for a proper, more thorough cleaning.

Limit your use of washing soda to your laundry activities though. It’s an inexpensive way to soften water, but over time, it can lead to limescale formation. This scaling can clog narrow water pipes and form ugly scums on your faucets and sinks.

Baking Soda Baths

Baking soda won't induce a chemical softening reaction to water, but it can make the water slicker. It also helps make the water feel smoother and softer to the skin.

Plus, baking soda has antimicrobial effects, helping fight off both bacteria and viruses. Bathing in water with baking soda may help ease infections and other skin conditions.

To make the water feel softer for your baths, mix in a quarter of a cup of baking soda to a full tub. You can also make a baking soda rinse by adding three tablespoons of baking soda for every one liter of water. You can soak in the bath and then use the rinse to remove soap and shampoo residue after bathing or showering.

How to Soften Water for Consumption and Everything Else

The best and most efficient way to soften hard water is through a water softener. Like whole-house water filtration systems, there are also whole-house water softeners. Some of the best whole-house filters even come with a built-in or an attached water softener.

Water softeners are devices designed to remove the minerals that make water hard through a process called “ion exchange”.

How Water Softeners Work

Most water softeners come equipped with a softening medium such as resin. Others use a crystalline substance, which can be sodium chloride or potassium chloride. These softeners then suspend the resin or the "crystals" in a saline or saltwater solution.

When water passes through the medium, the minerals and chlorides undergo "ion exchange,” the process wherein the mineral ions exchange places with the chloride ions. This swapping of ions then helps reduce the hardness of the water due to calcium and magnesium.

All of these happen as the water flows through the softener's exchange column, meaning that the water becomes softer even before it flows out of your faucet. Even the used water will be soft enough not to form limescale on your fixtures and inside plumbing pipes.

Water Softener Benefits

With a dedicated water softener, you can make your filtered tap water taste better. You also don’t have to worry about clogs in the pipes or reduced appliance efficiency. You can also shower and bathe without worrying about possible skin irritations.

A water softener makes washing your clothes a breeze, without the need for washing soda. You can set up a softener in the laundry room so that you get soft water delivered straight into your washer. Or, if you can simply go for a whole-house system.

Softer water will help prolong the life of your washer by helping reduce the number of wash cycles. Since your detergents will work better, you no longer have to wash your clothes several times. Plus, you can use less soap, since your softer water will make the detergent lather faster.

What About Salt-Free Softeners?

As you shop around for a water softener, you're likely to encounter "salt-free" softeners. Even with the term "water softener" in their name, they don't chemically soften water but are more of a conditioner than an actual softener.

These devices don't use salt, but instead, turn calcium ions into nanocrystals. This crystallization then suspends the calcium ions in the water. They remain in the water, but they don't come into contact with any other surfaces.

These surfaces include the bottom and sides of your appliances, fixtures, and pipes. Since the minerals remain suspended as tiny crystals, they won't cause scum or scale.

However, salt-free softeners may not be enough to make your water as soft as you want it to be. It doesn't get rid of 100% of the calcium ions, so it's less effective in making water more suitable for cleaning. You may also still have a hard time getting the most out of your laundry soaps or detergents.

Go Pro With a High-Quality Water Softener

There you have it, the only guide you'll need on how to soften water. As you can see, you have several options, ranging from the cheapest (boiling) to the best (whole-house water softener).

While installing a water softener costs more than the other options, it's a worthy investment, especially in the long run since it'll also help make your water appliances last longer.

Ready to start shopping and comparing your choices in water softeners? Then be sure to check out our guide on finding the best water softener!

In this post: soft water, how to soften water

WaterZen

WaterZen exists to improve your family's health by making information about the water you drink more accessible, straightforward, and easy-to-understand. We do this by providing clear, simple water-quality information for your area based on data from your local water provider, unbiased comparisons, health standards, and expert opinions.

The way we see it, when you're informed about the quality of your water and then empowered to protect your family (and your community), you've achieved "water zen".