And what the heck is “zeolite”?

As a Stillwater home inspector, I explain to the home buyer how the components of a house work together. I point out where shut off valves are, and regular maintenance tips, such as how and when to change filters.

And I get a lot of questions about water softeners.

Unlike electricity, which was created by the power company, water has been around for a long time. It wasn’t actually created by the water company. Wherever it was before you turned on your faucet, it was in contact with a lot of minerals. A LOT of minerals.

Some of those minerals are water soluble and mix with the water. They include calcium and magnesium. In high concentrations those minerals reduce the water’s ability to clean your clothes or dishes. We call that water “hard”.
After the calcium and magnesium have been removed, it’s considered soft. Go figure.
A typical water softener has a tank filled with polystyrene beads, known as resin or zeolite. They have a negative ion charge. There is also a tank that contains salt and water, or brine. The calcium and magnesium have a positive charge, and cling to the beads when the water passes through the mineral tank. Thus the water is softened.
Eventually the beads fill up, and need to be “cleaned”.

Does that make sense? It’s a little like cleaning your glasses with a dirty cloth. The cleaner needs to be clean.
Water from the brine tank is then flushed through the mineral tank, washing the calcium and magnesium off the beads and down the drain. The beads then contain a small amount of sodium. This could be important to some people with severe sodium restrictions.

Some advice;

Keep salt in the tank. You don’t have to top it off; just add a bag when the salt is low enough to see water.

Empty the whole bag. Don’t leave an open bag around, because if salt becomes airborne, it could damage the metal on the water heater and/or furnace.

Sometimes salt “bridges”. It forms a kind of dome, where the top part looks full, but the bottom part is used up. Give a little bump on the outside of the tank once in a while to make sure it’s all loose.

Want to know more? (really?) Go ahead and click here.

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About the author

Joe has many years of experience as a Home Inspector. Joe is a proud member of ASHI, MAHI, WAHI & SAAR. He follows the Best Practices as described by the American Association of Home Inspectors and the Wisconsin Association of Home Inspectors. He is licensed in Wisconsin and is Radon Certified. Joe also complies with ASHI's Code of Ethics.

49 Comments

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    • Joe Lundequam says:

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  3. This information is invaluable. When can I find out more?|

    • Joe Lundequam says:

      I learn a lot by visiting the websites of the water softener companies. This old House and Handyman have good websites for your basic info, if you don’t mind all the ads.

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    • Joe Lundequam says:

      Thanks for writing. To answer your question; not so much. I’ve got WordPress for the website itself, and recently hired a computer guru (MN-Tech Solutions), and together they let me do what I love 1-Inspect a lot of houses 2-Talk about inspecting houses. I don’t mind learning how do do 1 and 2, but I’m happy to share what I make inspecting when it creates more tome to do what I want.

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    • Joe Lundequam says:

      Nah, it’s not hard. Now that school has started I can catch my breath from inspecting every day. I’m blessed to have a wife who’s crazy smart, and she gives my stuff a once-over prior to publication. That’s my only advice; get someone to proof-read and edit.

      Good luck!

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  21. Marcus Coons says:

    It really helped when you mentioned how you should add more salt to your water softener whenever you can see the water in it. I can see that doing this can help you keep your system properly maintained and avoid serious problems with it. We are building a house and want to install a good water softener, so I’ll make sure I follow your advice as we try to care for it.

  22. Joe Lundequam says:

    Thank you! Give me a call or text, let’s see where it goes!

  23. Joe Lundequam says:

    Thank you so much for your encouragement!
    I’m always happily surprised to learn that someone got something from what I say. I learned a lot by visiting the sites by the water softener manufacturers. If there’s any question about my advice, I would defer to what they say.

  24. Joe Lundequam says:

    Thanks for the heads up. I’m working with a really cool guy named AJ from Mn-Tech Solutions.
    Look for vast improvements in the near future.

  25. Marcus says:

    Thank you for mentioning how you need to use entire salt bags on your water softener at the time to avoid damaging it. It is important to remember that understanding how your water softener unit works can help you get the best results when using it. We are planning on getting a water softening system in a few months and want to make sure we know how to properly care for it, so I’m glad I found your page.

    • Joe Lundequam says:

      I’m glad you found the blog useful. Would you like to return the favor? I could really use a good review on Yelp, and it only takes a couple of minutes.

  26. Thanks for helping me learn more about water softeners. I actually didn’t know that these tanks have zeolite that has a negative charge that allows magnesium and calcium to clean to it allowing the water to be softened. I’m kind of interested to learn if having more of these beads is beneficial or if you need to make sure that you have the right amount.

    • Joe Lundequam says:

      I’m so glad you asked! Ads it happens, I did not know, so had to learn something new.
      I write these blogs while the house is still asleep. When my wife wakes up. I bring her a cup of coffee and talk about what I’ve learned
      Today Today will be a good day to talk about Adele.
      My daughter loves to sing in the shower, and loves to sing “Hello”.
      On a typical day, she will empty the water heater.

      But Michelle is only staying here for a little while, until she can move into her next house, a few months away.
      And I usually shower at the gym.

      So, how on earth can you find an “average” water use at our house?

      As it happens, the system works very well for a wide range of situations, by adjusting how often it recharges with the same size softener.
      It’s best if the system recharges at least every 14 days to avoid compacting of resin and fouling of iron and sediment. If it recharges more often than 3 days, you’re going to go crazy refilling the brine tank all the time.
      So. Ready for some math?
      You have to test the water first. Get a strip from the hardware store and find out how hard your water actually is.
      The number you need is called grains per gallon.

      5 people in home, 10 grains per gallon hardness.

      5 people X 70 gpd = 350 total gpd
      350 gpd X 10 grains = 3500 grains per day
      1 cubic ft. @ 24,000 grains / 3500 = 6.8 days between regenerations
      1.5 cubic ft. @ 32,000 grains / 3500 = 9 days between regenerations
      2.0 cubic ft. @ 40,000 grains / 3500 = 11 days between regenerations

      The best choice would be the 1 cubic foot unit (closest to 7 days).

      See how easy? In other words, a larger family simply means that you go through more salt.

  27. My wife and I have been wanting to get water that’s not as rough on our skin and we haven’t been sure what to look for. I liked that you had mentioned that it can be important to make sure you’re getting the right minerals in it that stop the water from becoming hard. We’ll have to start looking around at water softeners, and we’ll be making sure that we avoid any harsh minerals on our skin.

  28. Deb Pearl says:

    Thank you for the information about water softeners. I didn’t know that the water softener eventually has to cleaned, so it can help filter more water. That sounds like it would be pretty easy to do. I will have to see if we can get a water filter for my home.

  29. Thank you so much for the information for water softener work. Its is very much important to us to know for our safety..thanks for sharing.

  30. Burt Silver says:

    It’s interesting what you said about the calcium and magnesium being removed and how the water is considered soft after that. I have so many questions about water softeners and what the difference feels like. Most of my life I’m pretty sure I’ve only used hard water so trying soft water would be a great experience for me I think. Maybe I’ll have to look into getting a service that could install a water softener in my house for me.

  31. Hazel Owens says:

    I had no idea that calcium and magnesium were what made water “hard water”. I’ve noticed that the new apartment I moved into has hard water problems and now my humidifier doesn’t work. I’ll have to see if I can get one of these installed.

  32. Joy Butler says:

    You did a great job of explaining water softener. I am so impressed by how you discussed it in full details particularly the drawing part. It really helped when you said that we should not leave an open bag around, because if salt becomes airborne, it could damage the metal on the water heater or furnace.

  33. Jay says:

    Thanks for phrasing it that way. I didn’t really get it until you said that the cleaner needs to be cleaned! Do you have any more information about how long it takes to get a water softener installed?

    • Joe Lundequam says:

      For a plumber, it only takes a few minutes. The installer will want an electrical outlet within a few feet; extension cords should not be used for appliances.

  34. My dad thinks that our water is too hard and harsh for daily use. It was explained here that water softeners should be cleaned regularly to make sure that the water is always clean. Moreover, it’s advisable to go to professionals for high-efficiency water softener.

  35. Alan Chapman says:

    Very interesting article! I will look for your next post next time. Thanks for this one.

  36. Hey Joe, thanks for sharing such an informative post. your guide will help us for the water softener installation.it’s very helpful for me.keep posting this type of article.good wishes.. 🙂

  37. My dad thinks that the water at home is too hard for consumption and she wants to have it treated. It was mentioned here that once the calcium is removed from the water, it’s considered to be soft. Moreover, it’s recommended to consult professional plumbers when in need of quality water conditioning services.

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