Installing and Using a Water Softener

How to add a water softener to your home

What does a water softener do?

Mineral rich water containing Calcium, Sulphur, Iron, Magnesium and other dissolved compounds can be a problem and, besides the poor soap and detergent performance, can cause your skin to become dry and itchy and your hair dull. It causes mineral build-up in your pipes and heating systems, reducing their efficiency and leave bathtub rings and spots on dishes.

A water softener typically uses a resin bed of small polymer beads, mostly made from styrene and divinylbenzene or sometimes zeolite. A brine tank is used that is filled with water and salt that regenerates the beads, covered in the ions of sodium. As hard water enters the tank containing the resin, Calcium and Magnesium ions are attracted to the sodium ions and these then swap places. The result of this is higher sodium content, but soft, mineral-free water.

When the sodium ions are used up, a control valve opens and transfers the offending ions to a brine tank, which forms part of the water softener. In turn, the brine tank drains out the calcium and magnesium ions and swaps them with sodium ions. The waste is then discharged into the drain.

The best salt for this is rock salt, which comes from salt mines. It is less effective than 100 percent Sodium Chloride would have been, but that is impossible to source. Potassium Chloride is another substitute for salt, less effective, but a good option for those on a restricted sodium diet. Softened water should not be used on plants.

There are also water conditioners that alter the crystallisation behaviour of Magnesium and Calcium ions, which causes it to loose its ability to cause adhesive scale. It takes some time before you notice the difference, but this method can go further and reverse the effects of hard water, dissolving scale build-ups. It doesn't treat Copper, Iron and Zinc though.

Installing a water softener

If you moved into a new house it may be pre-plumbed for a water softener if there is a loop in the garage or laundry room, an electrical outlet within 6 feet and a piece of ½" drainline pipe protruding from the wall. If not, you will have to determine how to get the water from the mains to the water softener and where the drainline is to be installed. Within 6 feet of this there must also be an electrical outlet.

You also need to decide whether you want a separate non-softened line going outside or to a tap where you can get hard water if needed.

This should be done by a professional, but is not too difficult for the average handyman. Determine how much water you use per day. The hardness of the water must also be determined. There should be no sunlight, traffic and moisture at the spot where the softener is installed. Also choose a place where the temperature won't go below freezing point. A jacket can be purchased to protect it from extreme temperatures.

If it consists of two tanks they must be close to each other and the brine tank must be the most accessible. The tubing leading to the drain can be PVC or flexible tube. The backwash directed to the drain will go through this tube.

Your tank may have the media installed, but if not you should consult the manual to see how this is done and whether your tank has a turbulator. Yours may need a gravel underbed and once that is in place you can add the media to the tank.

Turn off the water supply and drain the pipes by opening all the faucets connected to it, including those outside and especially the lowest one. Check to see that the shutoff valves work by checking if any water keeps coming out of any faucet. The valve at the water heater must also be turned off and the power or gas turned off.

Connect the machine's inlet side of the by-pass valve (marked with a directional flow arrow) to the incoming water mains and make sure you don't connect the mains to the outlet of the water softener. The outgoing side that delivers the softened water is then connected to the mains line feeding the house.

Slide the appropriately sized flexible drain tube (normally braided) over the drain nipple and make sure its fits tightly. A hose clamp may be used to make sure of that. You can run your drain line to a washing machine drain, a sink drain, a floor drain or a sanitary sewer line. After installation, test it to see if the wastewater discharges properly into the drain to prevent flooding.

Add salt to the brine tank, following the specifications in the manual, close all faucets, open the mains supply and check for leaks on all connections. Connect the power supply and set the control valve according to the instructions that came with the water softener.