What Do Water Softeners Remove? (Get the Facts)

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The main purpose of a water softener is to prevent hard water issues. But what exactly does a water softener remove?

We’ve answered this common question in this guide.

📌 Key Takeaways:

  • Water softeners remove magnesium, calcium, and low levels of iron.
  • Softeners with a sediment pre-filter also reduce sediment.
  • A water softener can’t remove chlorine or lead, and doesn’t filter contaminants out of water.

🚰 What Does A Water Softener Remove?

Water softeners remove the minerals associated with water hardness.

Dissolved calcium and magnesium are predominantly responsible for hard water. A water softener can eliminate these minerals – and therefore eliminate the effects of water hardness.

There are a few other minerals and metals that water softeners might also reduce, including iron and copper. However, the primary purpose of a water softener is to remove calcium and magnesium, so you shouldn’t rely on a water softener for general heavy metals removal.

Additionally, most water softeners come with a sediment pre-filter, which reduces large sediment particles (such as dirt and rust) that could damage the softening resin.

Springwell SS salt based ion exchange water softener new install

🤔 What Is The Water Softening Process?

Water softeners use a process called ion exchange to produce soft water.

To understand how ion exchange works to remove hardness minerals, we need to know a bit more about hard water vs soft water.

Water in most homes in the US is classed as hard. Hard water has a high concentration of calcium and magnesium minerals, which leave deposits known as scale on surfaces. There are a few problems associated with hard water use, including clogged plumbing, reduced water flow, and diminished appliance efficiency.

Soft water is water that has a low mineral concentration, meaning that it doesn’t cause hard water problems like scale. Water may be naturally soft, or soft water may be achieved by using a water softener.

Water softeners exchange calcium and magnesium ions with sodium ions in a charged resin bed. The resin beads have a negative charge and are known as anions. The sodium ions, and the calcium and magnesium ions, have a positive charge and are known as cations.

When water travels through the resin (mineral) tank, the beads grab ahold of the hardness ions, and equal amounts of sodium ions are released into the water to balance its charge. In its new softened form, water leaves the tank and is delivered around your home.

Ion exchange process
How Ion Exchange Takes Place in A Water Softener System

🔎 What Is The Purpose Of Water Softening?

The purpose of a water softener is to eliminate the damaging effects of hard water.

Limescale in your water supply will deposit on your pipes, fixtures, washing machines, dishwashers, and other water-using appliances. Hard water minerals are also responsible for soap scum and prevent soap from lathering properly, meaning that more soap is needed to compensate.

In short, hard water reduces appliance efficiency, damages pipes, and slows water flow, potentially leading to expensive damage in your home. You can avoid the expense of hard water by installing a water softening system.

With softened water:

  • Your appliances will continue to run efficiently
  • Your pipes won’t get clogged
  • Your laundry will stay clean and white
  • You’ll need less soap to wash your hair, hands, clothes, and dishes
  • Your water and heating bill won’t go up
  • Your skin will feel smoother and your hair will feel sleeker after washing

📖 Does A Water Softener Remove Healthy Minerals?

Yes, a water softener does remove calcium and magnesium, which are healthy trace minerals needed by the human body.

However, you certainly shouldn’t be relying on your drinking water source to get your daily intake of these vitamins, since they’re only available in trace amounts. So, removing these minerals from your water shouldn’t have a negative impact on your health.

You can find much more plentiful concentrations of calcium and magnesium in your diet. Dairy products, nuts, legumes, and fortified juices and cereal products, are good sources of either calcium, magnesium, or both.

If you’re really concerned that you’re not getting enough of these trace minerals, consider using a supplement. But it won’t make much of a difference whether or not they’re present in your water.

Continue Reading: How water softeners affect brewing beer

Healthy minerals found in water

🩺 Is Soft Water Safe To Drink?

So, we know that water softeners prevent the formation of calcium and magnesium deposits by removing these minerals from water and replacing them with sodium. Does this make soft water dangerous to drink?

No. Soft water is considered just as safe to drink as hard water because it contains only trace amounts of sodium. Switching from hard to softened water won’t significantly increase your sodium intake, just as it won’t significantly decrease your calcium and magnesium intake.

The amount of sodium in softened water is minimal; much lower than your suggested daily sodium intake. You should only be concerned if you have a health problem (like high blood pressure) and have been told by your doctor to limit your sodium intake as much as possible.

If you don’t like the idea of drinking even very low levels of salt in your water, swap salt for potassium chloride in the brine tank. This means you can still enjoy the benefits of soft water without the salt use.

⚗️ Does A Water Softener Remove Chlorine?

No, a water softener doesn’t remove chlorine.

Chlorine is a chemical that’s often added to municipal water for disinfection at the treatment plant. Low levels of chlorine are considered safe in water, but water may take on an unpleasant chemical taste and smell.

A water softener is only designed to remove the minerals responsible for hard water, so it won’t make a difference to your water’s chlorine levels.

If you want an effective method of removing chlorine from your drinking water, consider an activated carbon filter or a reverse osmosis filtration system.

Chlorine in tap water

🪨 Does A Water Softener Remove Iron?

Yes, water softening systems can remove iron – but only at low levels.

While a water softener can eliminate water’s calcium and magnesium contents, it should only be used to treat water containing up to 4 PPM (parts per million) of iron.

If water contains any more iron than this, there’s an increased risk that the iron will foul the resin, which could compromise the ion exchange process and shorten the resin’s lifespan.

Low levels of iron can be effectively removed from the resin during regeneration. If your water contains iron, make sure to add 4 to your softener’s water hardness setting for every 1 PPM of iron present.

☢️ Does A Water Softener Remove Lead?

No, a water softener doesn’t remove lead.

Water softeners remove calcium and magnesium minerals, and low levels of iron and copper.

Lead is a dangerous heavy metal that can only be addressed with dedicated water treatment, like some activated carbon filters, KDF filters, and reverse osmosis systems.

Lead leaching in old pipes
source: United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

📑 Final Word: Do I Need A Water Softener?

Water softeners are a highly effective solution for removing calcium and magnesium hardness minerals. But don’t confuse a water softener system for a water filter.

The purpose of a water softener isn’t to filter water – it’s to soften it. Softened water isn’t contaminant-free and will largely have the same taste, quality, and health properties as your original untreated water source.

Make sure you understand the purpose of water softener systems, and double-check that the end result is aligned with your water treatment intentions.

If you want to filter your drinking water and improve its taste or health properties, consider installing another type of water filter system, including a reverse osmosis system, alongside a water softener in your home.

  • Brian Campbell
    President & CEO, CWS, CWR

    Brian Campbell, a WQA Certified Water Specialist (CWS) and Certified Water Treatment Representative (CWR) with 5+ years of experience, helps homeowners navigate the world of water treatment. After honing his skills at Hach Company, he founded his business to empower homeowners with the knowledge and tools to achieve safe, healthy water. Brian's tested countless devices, from simple pitchers to complex systems, helping his readers find the perfect fit for their unique needs.

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