Methods to soften hard water can be salt-free and salt-based. Two common ways to soften hard water are via ion exchange and reverse osmosis. These methods work by eliminating minerals and ions that cause water hardness.

Some other methods work by conditioning the mineral elements in the water. These are mainly salt-free systems which are often the preferred option. Boiling water and using washing soda are also simple but effective ways to water softening.

The method you choose depends on your budget, on the water hardness, and whether you want to deploy a whole house system or a specific point setup.

Calcium and Magnesium Ions in Hard Water

Hard water contains significant amounts of dissolved minerals, including iron. They are responsible for mineral buildup, which clogs pipes and results in stiff laundry. Levels of magnesium and calcium will rise above 3.5 gpg in hard water.

Salt-based water softeners are popular in many households. They essentially swap the calcium and magnesium ions with sodium or potassium and eliminate minerals.

Water Softener

Water softeners are devices responsible for effectively dealing with the mineral deposits in your water supply. Studies show that 90% of homes in America have hard water with high calcium and magnesium ions levels.

You can install whole house water softeners or specific point softeners. Whole house systems treat water for the whole house. Specific point systems only target a specific area, for instance, the kitchen.

To soften hard water, softeners use various methods, including the use of salts, magnetic descalers, and reverse osmosis. The result is soft water that can be used in the household and consumption. Without the water softener, you would have to deal with problems like clogging, skin and hair irritation.

9 Methods of Softening Water

The method you choose to soften hard water depends on several factors, including:

  • Budget
  • The capacity you require
  • Whole house or point-specific softeners.
  • Type of softener

1. Ion Exchange Systems

These are also known as salt-based softeners. These systems are a popular whole-house solution to hard water. The system uses two separate tanks, brine and resin tanks. The system needs to regenerate in order to replenish the salt. This system also eliminates dissolved iron minerals in the water supply.

Resin Tank

Water from your main supply mixes with resin beads coated with sodium or potassium ions. Calcium and magnesium mineral ions are swapped with the sodium ion present in the resin beads. With that, the hard water is softened.

The resin tank is filled with tap water and resin beads. Continuous use results in the saturation of hardness minerals on the resin beads. It, therefore, means that the salt ions on the brine tank have been expended and need replacement.

Brine Tank

Bags of salt (sodium) are topped up here. Some of the common types of salt include rock salt, evaporated salt, and solar salts.

After topping up the salt, ion exchange occurs, replacing hard mineral ions and flushing out wastewater.

Dual Tank

Some versions come with dual tanks. There are two connected ion exchange tanks. These are important to avoid any downturn in the supply of soft water. If one tank is regenerating, the other one is activated to continue supplying water to the household.

They are preferred where the household uses a large amount of softened water. Dual tank ion exchange systems are advantageous when you have house helps. You could also pretime the washing machine to do laundry when there is no one in the house or during electricity off-peak hours.

Note that ion exchange water softeners are not recommended for people who have cardiovascular conditions. The sodium concentration in the water may negatively affect their condition.

2. Reverse Osmosis (RO) Systems

reverse osmosis explainer

An RO system is typically known for its water filtering capabilities. It filters down water up to the molecular level. Due to the use of multiple fine filters, mineral ions that make water hard are also filtered out.

With this system, you are guaranteed soft water without the need for salt-based ion exchange processes. The water you get is also free from pathogens and chemicals. RO systems are point-specific. They are normally deployed in the kitchen to ensure the tap water consumed in the house is clean.

There are several drawbacks to RO systems. Due to the rigorous filtering system, all human-friendly minerals are filtered out as well. The filter also becomes ‘dirty’ with time and needs periodic replacement.

3. Salt-Free Water Softeners


Salt-free softeners like the Springwell FutureSoft are also referred to as chelation systems. They use active agents such as food-grade citric acid or nitriloacetic acid to modify the charge state of mineral ions so that they are rendered inert. When inert and less reactive, there are decreased chances of chemical reactions with other minerals ions or the pipes.

Unlike ion exchange water systems, salt-free water systems do not eliminate the hard water ions. In an actual sense, the salt-free system works like a water conditioner. Ion exchange systems are therefore superior in eliminating the hardness minerals.

With salt-free systems, calcium and magnesium are only conditioned. These mineral ions can provide health benefits in drinking water without the risk of adding sodium-based salts.

Limescale buildup is also limited. If it occurs, it is easy to remove since it does not build up in the pipes. Water conditioners only last for a limited period. This scenario is expedited when the water is left standing for a long period or it goes through the heating system continuously. The result is that the calcium and magnesium ions get reactivated.

To determine if your water conditioner is expended, you will notice the continuous presence of soap scum when washing. Water testing is not a viable option. We recommend periodic replacement of the conditioning cartridges. The advantage of salt-free systems is limited wastewater, ease of installation, no sodium use, and little maintenance.

4. Magnetic Water Conditioners

They are sometimes referred to as electronic water softeners or descalers. They primarily work by generating an electromagnetic field.

A softener is a small unit that is connected to the water supply line. To soften water, the system generates an electromagnetic field that conditions the mineral ions. The ions present in the water repel the pipe and each other, limiting the chances of mineral deposit building up.

Users should note that a magnetic softener will not deal with the water hardness. Hard water will persist but will not scale on the pipes. Reviews for these systems have elicited opposing opinions. Some users were very pleased, while others claimed the system is not really effective.

5. Showerhead Water Softener

Mineral ions and contaminants are filtered out when the water leaves the faucet. A filter limits the buildup of limescale which affects the water flow due to clogging.

Softened water is beneficial to your hair and skin. Showering with hard water leads to skin irritation and dry skin. You will also feel cleaner due to the elimination of soap scum which is formed with hard water.

6. Metered or Timed Regeneration System

Like ion exchange systems, demand-initiated softeners are also popular. The system is able to regenerate when required and continually provide soft water.

The only drawback is that the system may not be able to match your needs during peak periods when you require a lot of water.

7. Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC) System

TAC systems utilize a unique technology that performs clustering. The cluster is between calcium and magnesium ions that are then separated from the water. The mineral cluster is stable and is not reactive when exposed to scale or scum.

8. Washing Soda

Not long ago, people were adding lime or washing soda to their water. The method is effective where water has been stored.

Washing soda contains sodium bicarbonate. They bind the mineral ions and other sediments present in the hard water, which eventually settle at the bottom of the storage container. The process takes several days. Soft water can be fetched from the top of the storage container after that period. The drawback of this method is the need to wait for several days before the softening process is completed. It also means the method requires large storage containers which will hold enough water.

The soft water from this method is also effective when doing laundry. Water will lather easily, although it is only a temporary solution. Since the limescale is not completely eliminated, it will affect your laundry in the long run through fading.

9. Boiling Water

Boiling is an easy way to deal with temporary hardness in water. It is useful for softening water for consumption on a small scale. Allow the water to cool and settle down. The minerals will settle at the bottom of the boiling point.

Temporary hardness means that the water contains calcium bicarbonate that dissolves upon boiling. If your water has a permanent hardness, boiling will not result in softer water.

DIY Methods to Soften Water at Home

Boiling water and the use of washing soda are some of the top DIY methods used in reducing water hardness at home.

Limited funds and personal preferences might influence the decision to avoid a store-bought water softener. The ultimate goal is to eliminate the hardness in your water supply. First, it is paramount that you have the results of a water test that shows the level of water hardness. It will inform you of the best method to use.

Using white vinegar: White vinegar is acidic in nature and neutralizes the calcium minerals in hard water. It is useful in cleaning. For instance, you can pour a bit of vinegar when you are hand washing your clothes or utensils.

Hard water cleaning aid: The cleaning aid assists in removing soap scum. Hard water contains minerals that result in the creation of scum. There are also store-bought products that do this for you. They counter the calcium in the hard water. They prevent the scum from forming, and that leads to easy rinsing.

Benefits of a Water Softener

Water softening yields major benefits. Here are the top 5:

  1. Reduces the limescale buildup in your pipes and appliances.
  2. Water hardness results in minerals building up in your appliances. Softened water prevents this, therefore, extends the lifespan of your appliances.
  3. Eliminating hard water minerals in your shower water protects your skin and hair.
  4. Hot water and heating systems work better with soft water.
  5. Soft water saves on the cost of detergents and toiletries.

Checking Your Water Hardness Levels

Before you decide to soften your water, you must carry out an analysis of your water supply. You can use a water test kit to check, analyze your local municipal water report or test your water hardness at home. Water hardness is determined by the amount of magnesium and calcium minerals in the water.

It is measured by grains per gallon gpg. Hard water starts becoming a real concern when the level surpasses 3.5 gpg. At over 10 gpg, the water is considered very hard.

The Adverse Effects of Hard Water

Some of the potentially serious issues hard water may lead to include:

  • Damage to pipes: Hard water deposits minerals along the pipes. This allows a build-up of scale. The issue is aggravated when dry air passes in the pipes and makes the minerals harden.
  • Surge in Bills: These include repairs and electricity bills.
  • Spotty dishes: The minerals leave spotty marks making the dishes look dirty.
  • Clothes fading: Hard water makes your clothes look worn out and faded. When using hard water, the washing machine will have to work harder to clean your clothes.

Our Final Thoughts

We have examined how to soften hard water. Two methods really stand out; salt-free and salt-based methods. The primary goal is to remove or condition minerals such as magnesium, calcium, and iron.

There are choices available depending on several factors. The standout choice is the ion exchange water softener. It is extremely potent in dealing with hard water and removing mineral ions. The brine and the resin tank are what make this system tick.

It is also possible to soften water on a small scale. Methods like boiling work against temporary hardness. Using washing soda is also viable but works where water is stored. Others methods like reverse osmosis work as a softener but still work to provide drinking water.

About the Author

Lucas Greer

Lucas vs. Wild - Lucas is a true nature lover and survivalist. When he's not teaching biology at school, he can be found in nature, hiking, climbing, camping, and rafting. He knows all the tricks and DIYs for making unclean water drinkable with simple means in an emergency. At school, his students love him for his exciting water filtration projects.

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