Getting to know hard water terms
If you’re dealing with hard water in your home, it may seem like you’ve entered a whole new world. Between system research and the completely new vocabulary, it’s a lot to take in. To help ease the learning curve and make you a confident and informed shopper, get to know some common terms you may come across in your search to find the perfect softener for your home and why they’re important.
Hard water 101
Just starting your hard water research? Here are some of the key terms you need to know to help put the puzzle pieces into place.
- Hard water: Hard water contains high concentrations of calcium and magnesium. As water trickles through rocks, limestone deposits and soil, it picks up these minerals. Depending on how long the water travels through the ground before reaching your tap, it can pick up a lot of these minerals, making water harder in some regions than others.
- Grains per gallon: Often noted as gpg, grains per gallon is the unit of measure for water hardness. This is defined as one grain (17.1 milligrams) of calcium carbonate dissolved in one liter of water. For example, one aspirin is equal to 5 grains, and when dissolved into a gallon of water, the unit of measure would be reported as 5 grains per gallon. Soft water is less than 1 gpg, whereas hard water is about 7 gpg or higher. You can check your water for free with a quick test.
- Parts per million: While less likely, you may also find hardness measured in parts per million (ppm) when shopping for a softener. One gpg is equivalent to 17.1 ppm. When iron is present in water, it is usually measured ppm. Concentrations of clear water iron as low as 0.3 ppm will leave reddish brown stains on fixtures, tableware and laundry that can be very difficult to clean. Water softeners are equipped to remove varying amounts of clear water iron, keeping the rings off of your toilets, sinks and showers.
- Capacity: A water softener’s size, often measured in gallons, cubic feet or grain capacity, takes into account the number of people in the household, the average water use per person and the hardness of your water. You can easily determine the best capacity for your family’s water usage with our step-by-step tool.
Getting from hard water to soft
Have you ever wondered how adding salt to your tank softens your water? These terms help break down the process.
- Resin tank: The resin tank is where water is softened and incoming hard water passes through ion exchange resin. These resin beads swap the calcium and magnesium in the water for the sodium or potassium they’re holding. This “swapping” of ions softens the water, and it’s the beads in the tank that make it happen.
- Brine tank: This component of a water softener is where you add the salt six to eight times per year. This tank should be filled at least 50 percent of the way to ensure there’s enough salt in the system to soften your water.
- Brine solution: When your system is regenerating, it pulls the salt you add to the brine tank to the water to make a brine solution. This solution “scrubs” the resin beads during regeneration, preparing them to soften more water.
- Regeneration: A water softener removes hard water minerals through a process called regeneration. Resin is recharged after it has exchanged all of its sodium ions for calcium and magnesium from hard water. All water softeners using the ion-exchange process regenerate using the same principles. To see the regeneration process in action, watch this short video.
- Timer-based regeneration: These water softeners regenerate on a predetermined schedule that you will set. These outdated models aren’t ideal if you want the most efficient softener. If you underestimate your water usage, the softener will regenerate too infrequently, leaving you with hard water at certain times. Overestimating your water use will result in unnecessary regeneration that wastes energy and water.
- Demand-initiated regeneration: This is the best model if you want an efficient system. Sensors in this system monitor water usage. When the resin is full of hardness minerals, the softener regenerates on its own. This softener works on an as-needed basis, and some advanced models can learn your water use patterns to further optimize regeneration frequency.
If you’re ready to solve your hard water woes, here are a few styles to consider as you determine the best fix for your home.
- Single-tank cabinet water softener: This compact, space-saving system contains the brine tank and resin tank in a single cabinet. “On-demand” single-tank softeners monitor how many gallons of water you use. Once you reach capacity, the softener will regenerate in the middle of the night, avoiding the possibility of running out of soft water.
- Twin-tank (dual-tank) water softener: A dual-tank water softener features two resin tanks, so when one tank is in use, the other can regenerate. This model requires more floor space to accommodate the larger size and is often more expensive than single-tank systems. If you have a large family and use a significant amount of water throughout the entire day, you may want to invest in a twin-tank system.
Upgrades and features to consider
Looking to go above and beyond a standard softener? These add-ons may be for you.
- Water refiner (hybrid) (softener and filter in one): In addition to softening your water, this multitasking system has built-in whole-home filtering for the purpose of removing or reducing chlorine, impurities, tastes and odors from water. And as an added benefit, these types of systems do not require you to replace any filters for the life of the softener.
- Sediment filter: This feature ensures any lingering silt and sediment is removed from your water before entering the water softener. Too much sediment in water can cause muddying in the softener, which can cause premature damage. This can also cause buildup in your pipes and other water-using appliances.
- Blending valve: For people who don’t care for the slick feel of completely soft water (which is actually just the skin’s natural oils that haven’t been stripped away by hard water), this allows some of the hardness minerals to remain. Completely softened water is usually zero gpg, but this accessory makes your water about two gpg—just enough to take the slick edge off.
- Routine maintenance
Although low maintenance, there are a few easy ways you can make water softeners work more efficiently and last longer.
- Salt bridge: A salt bridge occurs when a hard crust forms in the brine tank and creates an empty space between the water and the salt, preventing salt from dissolving into the water to make brine. Use a broom handle to carefully push on the top of the salt, using a little bit of pressure to break it up if it has solidified.
- Salt mushing: When dissolved salt recrystallizes and forms sludge on the bottom of the brine tank, salt mushing has taken place. This thick layer of salt messes with the regeneration process by creating a serious blockage in the tank. The only way to fix this is to drain the softener of its water, dig out all the old salt, and replace it with fresh salt.
- Water softener cleanser: By using a water softener cleanser every four months you can maintain your water softener’s peak efficiency and performance. It also helps remove harmful deposits from your water softener’s resin bed, valve and system.
Making water-softener speak work for you
With a new understanding of the key terms associated with hard water and water softeners, finding the best solution for your home will be a breeze. To help narrow down your search even more, get your personalized softening solution based on your unique needs.