I have a penned a series of detailed vendor neutral posts regarding "Why do I need a water softener" and various other aspects of water softener(s), RO etc. Links to all these posts are listed towards end of this post. It is a very valid and 100% genuine thing that some people do not like water being too soft i.e., for their skin or general feel etc.

In this topic, I will try to cover few options that are available to address water being too soft along with the topic, does having water softener provide protection to appliances installed down stream? Water heater (tank based, tank less, geyser etc.) is one of the main appliances that commonly gets impacted due to the scales (hardness) in water. Scale build up could greatly reduce the performance of water heaters, potentially contribute to increase in utility bill and also shorten lifespan of water heater ( you can research on web and there are several YouTube video showing how scale deposits shorten the lifespan of water heaters and how bad it could get in some cases).

With other appliances like dishwasher, coffee maker, faucets, washer etc. while we see the signs (stains, whitish rings), the impact may not be anywhere near to how water heater gets impacted due to presence of scales (calcium and magnesium). As most of us know water heater replacement is expensive (average cost of basic unit being around $1.5K - 2k)! How often do we hear, I only installed my water heater 6-8 years back and it started leaking? My water heater made a loud sound or is makes noises, my water hear is leaking from the bottom etc. I remember recently few of the members posting videos on NextDoor about water heater making pop noise in their garage etc.

One of the primary reasons why water heater gets impacted is due to heat. More heat means, more calcium and magnesium getting separated from water molecules and depositing / settling down at the bottom. Heat enhances accumulation of scale build. The more water flows through the water heater the higher the quantity of scales deposited in the tank. That is the reason, scale build up generally is not that big of an issue on cold water lines! Again, am speaking in relative comparison and not in absolute terms. Of course, apart from choosing the water heater that self cleans , there are many options to slow down the scale deposits including lowering of the water heater temperature, replacing sacrificial anode rod periodically (every 2-3 years), installing water softener, reducing the quantity of hot water use, flushing water in heater tank every year etc.

But how many homeowners do these basic maintenance activities regularly? It is very rare that after the water heater has been installed, it is almost forgotten and assumed everything is fine until it suddenly gives up. The damage caused by scale deposits is over period of time, depends on several factors including how hard the water itself is, heat etc. So generally, you would not notice any decrease in performance or impact to appliances for several years until it suddenly becomes an issue. There are some water heater scale deposits cleaning options using chemicals such as Lye, De-liming chemicals, Vinegar and Hydrogen peroxide, but most of them involve very tedious and time consuming process and not ideal for every situation or for most.

Given all of the above, for whom softened water is an issue (which is fair and 100% valid concern), they possibly could consider softeners that allow you to control the softness level (there are some good ones for very reasonable price available in the open market) to meet your comfort or consider electro magnetic / magnetic de-scalers or whole house inline mechanical de-scaling filters (available in from some good brands for around $300 and requires filter change about every 6 years). All these options cost around $200-$400 for equipment and most can be self installed and if you are not into DIY, just factor in install costs as well i.e., for overall cost. Those who maybe interested in knowing electronic de-scalers, they could refer to the following post. Towards the end of the post also includes links to various other aspects of residential water purification. All vendor neutral and just sheer information on what actually happens.

I have written series of posts on various aspects of Water Softeners from Why do I need water softener, What softener size is good for my home, What softener to buy, water softener vs reverse osmosis and how to interpret TDS readings etc. However, some of you have reached out to me asking about my opinion regarding some popular brands.

This is a great question in general and leads to the discussion about salt based vs salt less water softeners including electronic conditioners / de-scalers. As mentioned in some of my posts, I will try to stay off from brands while trying to address this question. Essentially salt based water softeners remove hardness (calcium, magnesium and iron) physically from water via ionization process i.e. by physically removing one calcium molecule for every two molecules of sodium (salt) and putting removed particles (calcium, magnesium and ferrous) into drain and ensuring only softened (water without calcium, magnesium and ferrous) water is supplied to the house from that point onwards.

Salt based softener's require the softener's drain be connected to the proper drain in the house per the city code (most cities including Pleasanton, Dublin and San Ramon require this). Excellent NSF &/ WQA certified salt based softeners typically range between $600 - $1100 in open market. Most come with 5/10 year warranty for resin & brine tanks and with very good warranties for the control valves. Most of them being open systems, parts are easy to find and systems are easy to maintain. On the other hand, salt less water softeners condition water with what is called as "Template Assisted Crystallization" (TAC). Different salt less vendors may call this technology with different marketing names. However, at the core of the TAC (template assisted crystallization) is polymer beads that hold (calcium) microscopic nucleation sites to form crystals and once formed, detach and do not bond to anything. Thus ensuring the calcium (hardness) not settling down at the bottom of the plumbing lines and thereby appearing to provide the benefits similar to salt based softener.

However, calcium, magnesium molecules are still present in the water as they are not physically removed. This is the reason some people despite of using very expensive salt less softeners (technically conditioners) complain seeing white powder (calcium) rings around faucets including stains when they wash dishes etc. These are very expensive systems and generally range between $2k - $6K but do not require drain as they do not remove anything. One more thing is the mix is electronic de-scalers / conditioners, you can search costco.com or several online sites and you will find several electronic de-scalers / conditioners in the range of $150 - $500 providing benefits similar to that of salt less systems but using electro magnetic waves. Technically electro magnetic waves do not let calcium settle in the plumbing lines as they diffuse or agitate the settled particles and make them float in the water.

In fact, this is the only technology that claims to be able to remove even existing scales in plumbing lines with over a period of time. This technology doesn't involve any maintenance costs. Once installed it does it's thing for the rest of the life without ever requiring to do anything. Only exception being if unit gives up ( unlikely but being an electric device you never know), then you need to replace with a new one. You can do lot of reading about this technology online. All of them are great technologies and have their own place and market. I personally would go with a salt based softener unless installing a dedicated drain (in some cases where drain is not accessible near by) becomes very expensive.

At core of this topic is, getting rid of hardness from water and removal provides benefits to appliances down stream and also provides other benefits such as softened skin, hair, dishes without stains and clothes not getting turned into brown during wash cycles etc. If that goal remains the same, salt based is the best technology that removes hardness. From a price perspective, with standard install costs including softener, salt based softeners costs around $1500 - $1800 to setup and on average cost about $50/year for salt and about $50 for water (that gets wasted in drain).

Whereas salt less setup could cost anywhere between $2.5K - $7K and normally most vendors would like you to sign you up for their Annual maintenance contract for around $200-$300/year. Most salt less systems are by closed vendors (meaning you have to only rely on that company for any parts, repair, service etc.). Both Electronic de-scalers and salt less softener's make similar claims ( using different technologies) in terms of the water conditioning &/ softening and are certainly more eco friendly vs salt based softeners.

Given the average life of water softeners is around 10-15 years and based on what each of these technologies actually do, you decided which one is best for you. I have seen people installing only electronic de-scaler, only softener and some installing both salt based softener & electronic de-scaler and some salt less softener & electronic de-scaler. At the end, either you should be able to make up your own mind on what is best for you or seek advise about best technology / combination for your specific needs and desired outcomes. Cheers.

Following are few questions homeowners ask when selecting components for their residential water purification needs i.e.

What is the difference between Water Softener and Reverse Osmosis System? Do I need both Water Softener and Reverse Osmosis?

Please note, each individual is different and so are their needs. While many may find water from city is fine for drinking , others may view it differently depending on their own need and their family needs . While there are several options available in the market for drinking water, following is meant for those who are interested in knowing little bit more about Reverse Osmosis system for their drinking water needs.

I have attempted to explain why water softener is needed, what it does and benefits etc. via one of my posts here. In essence, water softener's main purpose is to remove hardness (mainly calcium and magnesium) from water to protect water lines & appliances from scale buildup and to provide other benefits mentioned in the above post.

However, it does not remove any other common contaminants like metal ions, aqueous salts including sodium, chloride, copper, chromium, and lead; and others such as arsenics, fluoride, micro-organisms, radium, sulfate, calcium, magnesium, potassium, nitrate, and phosphorous and hundreds of other contaminants. Thus not making it an ideal option for drinking water needs. This is where Reverse Osmosis shines / comes into play. That said, Reverse Osmosis being one of the appliances that typically gets installed down stream i.e. after water softener, having water softener could protect Reverse Osmosis unity from scales and may extend the longevity of the Reverse Osmosis system. It is not a hard requirement that you have to have water softener for installing Reverse Osmosis system.

They are designed to work independently or together knowing that a residence may or may not have a water softener. There are many Reverse Osmosis systems that remove up to 99.9% contaminants by providing filtered drinking water. Unlike, Brita / Fridge filters, Reverse Osmosis removes Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) in water. In an ideal state, H2O should contain ZERO TDS. However, in real life, a reverse osmosis system, producing water measuring anything less than 50 TDS is really pretty good for drinking water. Just to get an idea, Kirkland water bottles sold by Costco typically have reading around 35 TDS. But many Reverse osmosis systems produce much cleaner water than that i.e. with less than 35 TDS.

Before understanding what a Reverse Osmosis is and how it works, let us first try and understand what an Osmosis is: An Osmosis is a process where a liquid (e.g. water) passes through semi permeable membrane which allows only some molecules such as water (H2o) to pass through it while restricting the passage of salts and other molecules. However, it is it natural tendency of the liquid to move from less concentrated solution (e.g. fresh water) towards more concentrated side (water with salts and other molecules) to even out the concentration. However, when the direction of the flow during the osmosis process is reversed i.e., concentrated water passing through the permeable membrane towards the less concentrated (fresh water) side, it is called reverse osmosis.

At the core, many Reverse Osmosis systems have many permeable membranes commonly called as sediment filter, carbon filter, membrane, UV filter, re-mineralization & pH balance filters. Depending on a particular make and model, you many find some or all of them via which water gets filtered. Any filter is better than no filter :-) That said, when selecting a Reverse Osmosis system, look for NSF certified Reverse Osmosis with common filter sizes. Avoid buying Reverse Osmosis systems that come with proprietary filter sizes or filters not sold in open market as that could result in lot of spend on filters over years and also may cause dependency on person who installed the Reverse Osmosis system for you.

One question that gets asked often is, when do I change my Reverse Osmosis filers? or how do I know when to change filters? While most manufacturer's recommend changing filters every 6 months and membrane every 2-3 years, the best way, I think is to buy a TDS device and to check the TDS reading. If it shows TDS less than 50, normally you are fine and you could wait little longer to change the filters. I always follow this approach as it is more scientific rather than blindly changing by date recommended by manufacturer. Reverse Osmosis system is one of the cost effective (Costco sells couple of good brands with remineralization and pH balance around $200 price point) ways to obtain quality drinking water. If you are handy enough, these systems are pretty easy to install by yourself (typically under kitchen sink) and easy to maintain i.e. checking TDS reading to decided whether or not to change filters, for any leaks at the connections replacing them with john guest connects (most of RO units use these fittings) and re-pressurizing tank when necessary. Hope this helps someone out here. Have a wonderful rest of the day!