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A water softener reduces the calcium or magnesium ion concentration in hard water. These "hardness ions" cause three major kinds of problems. The metal ions react with soaps and calcium sensitive detergents, hindering their ability to lather properly and forming an unsightly precipitate— the familiar scum or "bathtub ring". Presence of "hardness ions" also inhibits the cleaning effect of detergent formulations. More seriously, calcium and magnesium carbonates tend to adhere to the surfaces of pipes and heat exchanger surfaces. The resulting scale build-up can restrict water flow in pipes. In boilers, the deposits act as thermal insulation that impedes the flow of heat into the water; this not only reduces heating efficiency, but allows the metal to overheat which, in a pressurized system, can lead to failure. The presence of ions in an electrolyte can also lead to galvanic corrosion, in which one metal will preferentially corrode when in contact with another type of metal. The use of water softeners can aggravate this and cause sacrificial anodes in hot water heaters to corrode more quickly.
The typical water softener is a mechanical appliance that's plumbed into your home's water supply system. All water softeners use the same operating principle: They trade the minerals for something else, in most cases sodium. The process is called ion exchange.
The heart of a water softener is a mineral tank. It's filled with small polystyrene beads, also known as resin or zeolite. The beads carry a negative charge. Calcium and magnesium in water both carry positive charges. This means that these minerals will cling to the beads as the hard water passes through the mineral tank. Sodium ions also have positive charges, albeit not as strong as the charge on the calcium and magnesium. When a very strong brine solution is flushed through a tank that has beads already saturated with calcium and magnesium, the sheer volume of the sodium ions is enough to drive the calcium and magnesium ions off the beads.
Water softeners have a separate brine tank that uses common salt to create this brine solution. In normal operation, hard water moves into the mineral tank and the calcium and magnesium ions move to the beads, replacing sodium ions. The sodium ions go into the water. Once the beads are saturated with calcium and magnesium, the unit enters a 3-phase regenerating cycle. First, the backwash phase reverses water flow to flush dirt out of the tank. In the recharge phase, the concentrated sodium-rich salt solution is carried from the brine tank through the mineral tank. The sodium collects on the beads, replacing the calcium and magnesium, which go down the drain. Once this phase is over, the mineral tank is flushed of excess brine and the brine tank is refilled.