Hard water contains large amounts of minerals such as iron, calcium, and magnesium. Telltale signs include reddish stains, white mineral buildup in pipes and fittings, reduced cleaning ability of soaps and detergents, and soap-scum buildup. Hard water also can damage faucets and appliances.
A water softener captures minerals and periodically flushes them away. The more often it flushes, the more often you need to change the salt. The most efficient softener is one that flushes according to the amount of water used or the amount of minerals detected, rather than one that uses a timer.
Softened water contains sodium, sometimes at levels undesirable for people with high blood pressure. You can install a bypass line for drinking water, drink bottled water, or install a whole-house filter.
A day to install a water softener
Groove-joint pliers, screwdriver, tubing cutter, propane torch, flux brush, sandpaper, wire reaming brush
Cutting and joining copper or steel pipe
Plan to install the softener where water enters the house
Water softener, flux, solder
Shut off gas or electricity to the water heater and turn off the water supply at the main shutoff valve. Open faucets on the lowest floor to drain the line. Provide a stable, level surface near the main water line for the softener to rest on so it's easily accessible. Position the unit.
If your electrical system is grounded to the cold water pipe, the water softener will interrupt the path to ground. Install the jumper strip supplied with the unit (shown) or use grounding clamps and an 8-gauge or heavier copper wire. If you're unsure how the house is grounded, call an electrician.
Carefully follow the manufacturer's instructions for expelling air from the water softener. Usually this involves running water past the softener with the valve on "bypass," then pulling the valve out to the "service" position, which runs water through the softener and expels air.