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What Happens When Your Water Softener Run Out of Salt

Don’t you hate it when glassware comes out of the dishwasher covered with streaky stains?

Or your laundry comes out of the washing machine all stiff and scratchy?

You might have tried switching detergents, which can help alleviate the problem but not eliminate it. Some who have struggled with these frustrations will go as far as replacing the appliance entirely...which, unfortunately, won’t make much of a difference.

The truth is, it’s not your detergent or machine that’s responsible for stiff laundry and streaky glassware ‒ it’s your tap water.

Though it might appear crystal-clear, your tap water contains numerous minerals, including calcium and magnesium. 

When the concentration of these minerals is high, it can have a major impact on your home’s plumbing and appliances ‒ including the laundry and dishwasher troubles we just discussed.

As licensed and certified plumbers, we feel that anyone who is having problems with hard water should consider installing a water softener. Water softeners reduce the amount of hard minerals in your water without adding chlorine or other harsh chemicals. Our plumbing technicians install and service water softeners throughout the Greater Toronto Area.

Read on to learn more about how a water softener can help make it easier to clean your clothing, linens, dishes, and even your hair ‒ and the important effect on your plumbing pipes.

How a Water Softener Works

Most water softener systems have two main parts:

  1. The resin tank or mineral tank, which contains small, plastic beads called water softening resin.
  2. The brine tank, which contains a rock salt and water used to “clean out” the resin tank every few days. 

Most water softeners have these tanks as two separate units, but some newer, high-efficiency water softener models house both tanks in a single unit.

People often assume that salt is used to ‘neutralize’ or dissolve hard minerals in the water, which isn’t quite true. The actual process is quite fascinating. 

Water softeners use a process called ion exchange

  1. Water enters the resin tank, where it flows over small, plastic beads that are negatively charged with a sodium ion. 
  2. This charge allows the beads to ‘grab’ magnesium and calcium mineral ions, which are attracted to the sodium because they have a positive charge. When a bead grabs hold of a hard mineral, it lets go of its sodium ion. 
  3. The hard minerals stay behind in the resin tank while the softened water flows out to wherever it’s needed: the faucet, showerhead, dishwasher or washing machine!

In other words, a water softener pulls unwanted hard minerals out of the water by trading them for sodium. 

You’ll notice the difference right away. Softened water doesn’t usually taste different than hard water, but it’s far better at dissolving dirt and grime, making it much easier to do the dishes. It leaves laundry cleaner, brighter and softer. You might even find that your skin and hair benefits, since hard water is known to worsen dry skin and hair!

Why You Need to Top Up Your Water Softener Salt

Eventually, the resin beads inside the water softener become saturated with hard minerals and need to be ‘regenerated.’  

This is where the second tank comes in. 

Water from the brine tank flows into the resin tank to trigger a reverse ion exchange ‒ the beads give up their mineral ions and grab a fresh sodium ion. The mineralized water is then drained out of the tank.

Modern water softeners run this ‘regeneration cycle’ automatically every few days... until the brine tank runs out of salt. 

If you forget to top off your water softener, the water softening resin will stay saturated. This brings the ion exchange to a screeching halt and allows hard water minerals into your pipes, fixtures and appliances.

What Hard Water Can Do To Your Plumbing System

We mentioned a few off the problems with hard water up top: streaky glassware, stiff laundry, and a general sense that things just aren’t getting as clean as they should be.

Those are frustrating issues, of course...but they’re really only the beginning when it comes to hard water problems.

The real concern lies in how hard water can affect your plumbing system.

You’ve seen firsthand how minerals create scale build-up on your faucets, tub and showerhead. You know how tough it is to scrub off those deposits once they’ve accumulated.

Without a water softener, the same thing happens on the inside of your plumbing pipes.

Scale build-up is invisible from the outside, but its effects are impossible to ignore. The more minerals build up, the less room there is for water to flow. Your water pressure drops, and your water-using appliances start burning more energy just to do their job. 

As your hydro bills climb and your water pressure plummets, an even worse problem is building behind your walls: the health of your plumbing system. Hard water is one of the biggest culprits for premature failure in water pipes, which can cause thousands of dollars in water damage in no time at all.

How to Tell If You Need a Water Softener

Certain parts of the Greater Toronto Area (particularly Halton Region) are known for having hard water. 

To help put it in perspective, let’s take a quick look at how we define water hardness.

Hard water is caused by higher concentrations of calcium, magnesium and other minerals with a positive charge. The concentration of hardness minerals in water is usually described in grains per gallon (gpg) or milligrams per litre (mg/L). 

The Water Quality Association and NSF International define soft water and hard water as:

  • Soft water: less than 1 gpg or 17.1 mg/L
  • Slightly hard water: 1.0 to 3.5 gpg or 17.1 to 60 mg/L
  • Moderately hard water: 3.5 to 7.0 gpg or 60 to 120 mg/L
  • Hard water: 7.0 to 10.5 gpg or 120 to 180 mg/L
  • Very hard water: greater than 10.5 gpg or 180 mg/L

With that in mind, here is the average water hardness in various parts of Halton Region:

  • Burlington: 8.6 gpg or 123 mg/L (Hard water)
  • Oakville: 8.7 gpg or 124 mg/L (Hard water)
  • Georgetown: 23.6 gpg or 335 mg/L (Very hard water)
  • Acton: 21.9 gpg or 312 mg/L (Very hard water)
  • Milton (areas serviced by well water): 20.8 gpg or 296 mg/L (Very hard water)
  • Milton (areas serviced by lake water) 8.8 gpg or 125 mg/L (Hard water)

Based on WQA and NSF standards, the entire Region of Halton has more-than-moderately hard water, and some parts of the region have very hard water. 

As we covered in a previous article, Oakville, Burlington and parts of Milton get their tap water from Lake Ontario. This is part of the reason why our water isn’t as hard here in Oakville as it is in Georgetown...which is lucky for us, and not great for our neighbours down the road.

Fortunately, there’s a hard water solution that works for all of us: water softeners! 

Water softeners are quick to install, dependable, and incredibly affordable to run. The Novosoft water softeners we install here at AtlasCare run on less than $2 of electricity per year!

Our Novosoft water softeners come with a 7-year system warranty and lifetime pressure tank warranty, with financing options to help you get your system up and running fast. 

For those of you who aren’t in need of a long-term solution, we also rent out water softeners.

To learn more about installing a water softener, you can always call us at (647) 692-2978 or reach out to us online!

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