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.

32 Comments

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    • 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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  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.

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