Private wells regularly produce drinking water that contains hard minerals, also called hard water.
While there’s nothing wrong with drinking hard water, pumping lots of mineral-rich water into your home from a well can create issues. For example, hard water causes stains, prevents detergents from working properly, and leaves deposits inside hot water appliances, which decrease performance over time.
Because most well water in the US is rated between “moderately hard” and “very hard” attaching a softening device to your water treatment system should result in water that’s easier to use for household chores, more pleasurable for bathing, and doesn’t clog up your heater or dishwasher
This page looks at how well water becomes hard and how water softeners work to reduce that hardness.
What are well water softeners?
All water softening devices are pretty similar. They contain tanks where your water can come into contact with softening media, and may also include technology to help replenish or clean itself.
Softeners designed for wells share a few extra elements, which help them tackle the specific requirements of well water: We recommend reading these reviews from Clean Cool Water’s top well water softener guide.
Like other types of well water filters, well softeners are designed to be fitted to the main water line of your home. This is because well water, unlike most home water systems, is not regulated by municipal plants or local governments, so you’ll want to treat all of the water entering your home, even if it’s just used for bathing. Some people keep their well treatment systems in a boiler room, basement, or even an outbuilding.
Reliability and capacity
Another reason that well softeners are designed to be fitted in a whole-house capacity is their size. Well water is almost always harder than surface water from lakes and reservoirs, so it often requires a lot more processing to soften. As a result, most well water softeners use big tanks that don’t fit on a countertop or under a sink.
The best well water softeners have fiberglass or chrome tanks that can withstand years of use without cracking.
Salt-based or conditioning
One slightly confusing thing about water softeners is that different products use different types of softening technology.
Traditional water softeners contain highly-pure salt that attracts and swaps places with the minerals dissolved in hard water. Water conditioners use electricity or crystallization technology to reformat the structure of those minerals so that they don’t stick to surfaces.
What is hard water?
When rain and river water seeps down into the soil, it collects in underground aquifers that are surrounded by bedrock. Water will often sit in these reserves for many years and will begin to absorb metals and minerals from the surrounding earth. If the bedrock supporting the aquifer is composed of minerals like calcium and magnesium, then the water pumped from that aquifer into a well is likely to be hard.
There are specific levels of calcium and magnesium that qualify water as “moderately hard,” “hard,” or “very hard.” However, most people judge the hardness of water by its taste, appearance, and effect on their household appliances.
Groundwater is regularly harder than surface water
Even though it’s possible to get soft water from a well, you can usually categorize groundwater as hard and surface water—which comes from lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, as soft. All that time spent underground and under pressure means that the geological conditions have to be very specific (such as volcanic rock) to create water that remains soft.
As a result, most homes with wells in the US are situated within a hard-water region. This includes those living in southern and midwestern states, as well as much of the East Coast. Soft water is more prevalent in parts of the West Coast, as well as New England.
How do well water softeners work?
Most water softeners use one of three technologies: ion exchange, crystallization, and electrolysis.
Ion exchange (salt)
This is the most common method of water softening—and the only one that truly removes hard minerals from water. In an ion-exchange softener, water passes over a resin bed that’s filled with pure salt, usually made from sodium and potassium.
Because the salt ions have an opposing charge to the hard mineral ions dissolved in the water, both ions are attracted to each other. As a result, the molecules swap places, with the hard minerals being left on the resin bed and the soft salts joining the water supply as it leaves the device.
Ion exchange water softeners may also include other technology, such as flow meter sensors and automated cleaning functions. This helps the device detect when the resin bed has become saturated with hard minerals and needs to be washed and replenished with salt.
Crystallization water devices are often referred to as “conditioners” rather than softeners because they don’t actually remove hard minerals from the water supply. Instead, they contain special surfaces that attract hard minerals and cause them to crystalize—unbinding from the water molecules.
In this form, the crystalized minerals can attach to the surface of pipes or appliances and cause scale. The result is water that still contains the same amount of hardness but won’t have a damaging effect on your plumbing.
While conditioners are often considered slightly less effective than traditional water softeners, they let you keep the great taste and health benefits of mineral-rich water. They also tend to last for longer without maintenance and do need to be refilled with salt.
The third category of water softeners is also conditioning devices. These gadgets use electricity or magnets to perform the same reformatting trick that prevents scale. Instead of coming into contact with the water directly, however, they are mounted to the outside of a pipe and can transmit through the plastic or metal to the water inside.
This feature makes electromagnetic water conditioners a great option for renters and people in apartments who don’t have access to the main water line. They’re also less expensive than water softeners with tanks. However, they can struggle to handle the very hard water that often comes from private wells.