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In many communities hard water is a fact of life--mineral build-up is just something that happens. As common as this can be, long-term build-up creates plumbing nightmares that dramatically affect even the simplest home maintenance tasks.
If you are handy with tools and comfortable with written instructions, a water softener can be installed utilizing the do-it-yourself (DIY) method. Nevertheless, because of the nature of do-it-yourself projects, it’s best to have a professional install your softener due to the number of problems that can arise if additional plumbing issues occur.
DIY Cost – About $500 for a basic installation kit and unit. Skills necessary: cutting and joining copper or steel pipe. Your kit should include a list of materials that your particular softener installation will require, such as reaming brushes, solder, flux, etc.
Minimum professional installation cost – About $800 to $1,000 for a small home (1 – 2 bedrooms)
Average professional installation cost – About $1,000 to $2,500 for larger homes (3+ bedrooms)
Maximum professional installation cost - $3,000+ for a larger unit with multiple options: purifiers and wi-fi controls.
Capacity Determines Price
The cost of a water softener depends on the size of the unit itself and quality of the model. Capacity is measured in grains-per-gallon (GPG). To determine the capacity of the water softener you need for your family, multiply the number of people in your home by 80 (the average number of gallons used per person for washing, drinking and cooking), then multiply that result by 10 (the average grains per gallon in the United States). This tells you the grain requirements of your family. As a handy guide, compare the chart below to see which grain capacity water softener is best for your family:
Grain Requirements Water Softener Capacity
0 – 3,500 24,000 Grains
3,501 – 4,500 32,000 Grains
4,501 – 6,850 48,000 Grains
6,851 – 9,150 64,000 Grains
9,151 – 11,500 80,000 Grains
A high-end water softener of 75,000 grains per gallon can cost $1,800. This is for a salt-free version able to be installed indoors or outdoors, providing 99.6% effectiveness when preventing scale build-up.
Lower-end models are significantly more affordable. A 33,000 grain softener can handle a 1-to- 5 person household and costs around $350
These prices reflect the cost of the water softener alone. Installation will include: labor, materials and the removal/disposal of any existing system--which all-tolled can cost between $250 and $400. Some additional factors like remoteness of the job site, location of the softener within your home or further modifications may add to the cost as well
Water softeners consist of three main components: a mineral tank, a brine tank and a control valve. Smaller units may combine the mineral tank and brine tank into one cabinet, but they will always be separated inside.
Your softener will be placed as close to the main source of your home’s water supply as possible. Some smaller units may be installed beneath specific fixtures (commonly kitchen sinks), but only soften the water for that fixture, not the entire home.
Mineral Tank – This is where your soft water begins its life. Starting with your home’s main water source, hard water passes into the mineral tank and through special, plastic beads.These beads carry a negative charge and attract the unwanted minerals, which carry a positive charge. The minerals then stick to the beads and the water passes through the media, into the brine tank.
This process is step-one of what is known as the “ion exchange”: Magnesium and calcium ions are exchanged for sodium or potassium ions found in the brine tank.
Brine Tank – The brine tank contains sodium or potassium (don’t worry, we’ll cover which chemical is best for you later in the guide).The mineral ions that were removed in the mineral tank are now exchanged for sodium or potassium ions, thus completing the ion exchange. The water is now softened and can pass into your water system.
Control Valve – The control valve determines when it’s time to clean the plastic beads. Older units use a timer, but newer units use a computer to determine this based on your water usage. Cleaning the beads themselves is a three-step process:
Backwash – Backwashing is the flow of water in reverse. This flushes the debris out of the tank and into the drain.
Recharge/Regeneration – The salt or potassium solution is then flushed into the mineral tank where the positive charge is attracted to the plastic beads (this stage also forces the magnesium and calcium ions off of the beads). The calcium and magnesium-rich salt water is then flushed out of the system and down the drain.
Rinse – The tank is now rinsed with water and the beads are covered with salt or potassium in a highly diluted state. The magnesium and calcium force the salt or potassium off of the beads and suspends them in the water. The process can now begin again.
Salt or Potassium?
Most homeowners use sodium in their water softeners because of its significantly cheaper cost: Water softening sodium costs about $5.50 for a 40 pound bag compared to potassium which costs around $27.00 for a 40 pound bag. While the cost of sodium is notably cheaper than potassium, certain low sodium diets can be impacted by this decision. If you do require salt-free drinking water, potassium is recommended.
Also, it’s important to be aware that some states and municipalities forbid the use of sodium water-softening agents where septic tanks are present. Be sure to check with your local and state codes before purchasing sodium.
Simply put, hard water is water that includes minerals (most commonly magnesium and calcium). Because of the presence of these minerals, hard water makes cleaning difficult due to its tendency to adhere to soap and form a sticky residue.
Hard water will cause a graying of white laundry and prevent proper cleaning of bathtubs and showers as well. Tea kettles and utensils used to boil water will also develop a scaly build-up and glassware will show white spots that cause a perpetually dirty appearance. Hard water passing through electric water heaters and other electrical fixtures also builds up quickly due to the charges in the minerals. This can lead to early failure of the fixture itself.
So far, there are no known health risks associated with drinking hard water. In fact, hard water can supplement small amounts of additional calcium and magnesium in your diet. When talking with your doctor about any health issues you may have, be sure to mention if your home has a water softener. You may need to take dietary supplements to make up for any subsequent mineral deficiencies.
Hard water build-up is similar to cholesterol in the way it collects in pipes and faucets--causing severe blockage overtime. The residue left around faucets by mineral buildup results in even minor repairs (changing a faucet, replacing o-rings, etc.) requiring extensive cleaning and sometimes professional help.
There are four different types of water softeners: ion-exchangers, salt-free, dual tank and magnetic.
Ion exchangers are the most common type. They function as described above and most often use salt as the exchange medium. These are generally known as conventional water softeners.
Salt-free water softeners use a medium other than sodium (typically potassium), which is safer for septic tanks and people on low-sodium diets. It’s important to note that while potassium is more friendly to the environment and specific dietary needs, it is substantially more expensive than sodium.
A salt-free softener works not by removing the calcium and magnesium, but rather by suspending the ions and preventing them from building up as they flow through your plumbing. However, this will not keep them from settling where water sits still--such as in a hot water tank.
A dual tank water softener has two mineral tanks. This is especially useful in homes with large families, or where the downtime of regeneration is an issue. While one tank is down for cleaning, the second tank is used to ensure an uninterrupted supply of softened water is available.
Dual tank softeners take up more space than a single tank unit and cost from $950 to $2,000
A new (and controversial) water softener is the magnetic, or electronic water softener. This is a plug-in device that attaches to your existing pipes. According to manufacturer claims, the magnetic field produced by the device reverses the charge of the ions causing them to resist the pipe and each other, thus preventing build-up.
Magnetic/electronic water softeners cost around $200 and reviews are mixed. Some water-testing associations have performed studies that say the device doesn’t work. Regardless, many users claim satisfaction. If you decide to invest in a magnetic/electronic water softener, make sure to research the product before buying.
The chart above is only a guideline for a typical off-the-shelf water softener and is based on the schedule of a typical household. If you have family members coming and going at all hours, a dual tank system would be very useful to reduce the wear-and-tear on single tanks.
An additional factor in selecting water softeners is the actual hardness of the water itself. If you are connected to a city water supply, the water department should be able to provide a report on the hardness of your water. If you rely on a well, you can buy test kits that will test pH, hardness and iron content in your water. These kits normally cost from $10 to $50, depending on how many elements they test for.
Here is a useful chart for comparing the hardness to the size unit you need:
When draining, pay attention to local laws. Directing drainage to your city’s sewer system is usually not a problem. In rural communities however, there are laws addressing draining salt-laden water into the ground or septic systems.Remember that installing a new water softener is an addition to your plumbing system, although not necessarily a major one. A softener must be installed as near as possible to your home’s water supply input. New piping will need to be run to-and-from the unit and a drainage system will be necessary for the recharge/regeneration process.
When having a professional install your water softener, there are certain things that should be included in the service:
Your cost should include: transportation of equipment, material and personnel to the job site.
Worksite prep should also be included. This should involve protecting existing structures, finishes, etc.
Labor set-up, mobilization, and hourly wages should be included.
They should also include cleanup and debris removal after the job is completed.
Generally not included are:
Any modifications to framing, surfacing, HVAC systems, electrical, or plumbing systems (aside from the standard installation of the unit).
Testing and remediation of hazardous materials such as asbestos.
Additional costs if a general contractor supervises the project (which adds 15% to 23%).
A water softener will have some additional costs. The brine material needs to be replaced periodically. Check the levels in the brine tank. If it’s below half, you should add more salt - $5.50/40 lb. bag
Every three to four months, inspect the brine tank itself. Salt can begin to build up causing what is known as “bridging.” This can normally be broken up with a broom handle, but in some instances the tank will have to be emptied and cleaned out. This should be done as regular maintenance once per year. There is no cost to this other than time and labor.
Repairing your softener is something that should be done by a professional. If your softener is under five years old, repairing it will be a better option than replacing it--it may still be under warranty. The injectors may also become clogged, which will require a special cleaning. Valves can also malfunction, or the brine may not mix correctly. The cost of repairing a softener runs from $83.00 to $220.00, with an average of $134.00.
While there are no known health hazards to consumption of hard water, there are high costs in day-to-day living. Plumbing costs, laundry wear, and basic cleaning are more substantial with hard water. A water softener can save you more in the long run by removing the harmful abrasives found in water--softening the impact on your wallet, as well as on your plumbing.