If you have a water softener installed in your home, you may be concerned about the amount of water it uses during its regeneration cycle. While water softeners provide important benefits like preventing scale buildup and removing minerals from hard water, they can also lead to significant water waste if not properly maintained and optimized.
In this comprehensive guide, we will discuss various ways you can reduce the water consumption of your water softener and decrease its environmental impact.
Understanding Water Softener Function and Water Use
To understand how to reduce water waste from a water softener, it helps to first understand how water softeners work and what causes them to use water.
Water softeners use a process called ion exchange to remove calcium, magnesium, and other mineral ions that cause hard water. The softener contains resin beads which are charged with sodium ions. As hard water passes through the softener, the calcium and magnesium ions are exchanged with sodium ions, resulting in softened water.
Over time, the resin beads become saturated with calcium and magnesium and need to be recharged. This is accomplished through a regeneration cycle. Regeneration involves flushing the resin beads with a brine solution (salt dissolved in water) to reset the ion exchange capacity.
It is this regeneration process that uses a significant amount of water – often 30-50 gallons per cycle. Based on the water hardness level and size of the household, regeneration may occur 1-3 times per week.
So in a typical household with a standard water softener, hundreds of gallons of water can be wasted each month just to recharge the system. The environmental impact of this water use is substantial.
Fortunately, there are ways to optimize your water softener to reduce this water waste.
Adjust Regeneration Frequency
One of the easiest ways to reduce water use is to adjust the regeneration frequency so that it occurs less often.
Regeneration should only need to happen once the resin beads have reached their capacity for exchanging hardness minerals. More frequent regenerations result in unnecessary water consumption.
Most water softeners allow you to configure the hardness level to match your actual water hardness. Hardness is measured in grains per gallon (gpg). To determine your exact water hardness, you can have it tested by a water treatment professional or use a home testing kit.
Once you know your precise hardness level, adjust the setting on the softener to match. Avoid leaving the softener on the factory default which regenerates on a fixed schedule – this is likely far more often than necessary.
With the proper hardness setting configured, regeneration will only happen when required, potentially cutting your water softener’s water usage significantly. This saves water and reduces the frequency that salt is used in the process as well.
Install a Demand-Initiated Regeneration System
Rather than regenerating on a fixed schedule, demand-initiated regeneration (DIR) systems only initiate a regeneration cycle once the resin beads have reached their ion exchange capacity.
With DIR systems, sensors inside the resin tank monitor water usage and hardness levels to determine the precise moment that regeneration is required. This avoids wasted regenerations that would occur on a timed schedule.
The result is a dramatic increase in water efficiency. DIR systems regenerate much less frequently than standard softeners. For many households, 2-4 regenerations per month is typical versus 14 or more with timed models.
Retrofitting an existing softener with a DIR module is one way activate this feature. Or, you can purchase a new high-efficiency DIR-enabled water softener. While DIR systems have a higher upfront cost, the water savings generally lead to a full return on investment in 1-2 years.
Select an Efficient Water Softener Model
When shopping for a new water softener, be sure to consider water efficiency as an important factor. The amount of water used per regeneration can vary widely based on the softener design.
Look for units with an efficiency rating of 3000-5000 grains/lb or higher. The efficiency rating refers to the resin’s ion exchange capacity. The higher the number, the more water hardness it can handle before needing regeneration.
Higher efficiency resins make better use of salt, minimizing the water needed to create brine. Advanced brine tank designs can further reduce water use.
Softeners certified by the Water Quality Association as “Water Efficient” are a good option as they must meet criteria for salt and water efficiency.
You can also look for the EPA’s WaterSense label which signifies the most water efficient models. While these units often cost more initially, the water savings make them pay off over time.
Use a Manual Bypass When Possible
Installing a bypass valve allows you to circumvent the water softener when softened water is not needed. Bypassing the system avoids unnecessary regeneration cycles.
A bypass is particularly helpful for outside faucets used for watering gardens or washing cars where the softened water would be wasted. Simply flip the bypass valve and this outdoor water will not pass through the softener.
A manual bypass valve can be added to most standard water softeners. Use it when softened water is not required to avoid triggering extra regenerations.
Reduce Overall Water Use in the Home
The less water used in the home, the less often the softener needs to regenerate. Simple water conservation measures like taking shorter showers, running full loads of laundry, detecting and fixing leaks, and installing water efficient faucets and toilets can all help to minimize water softener water use.
Consider smart home technology like leak sensors, usage monitoring systems, and automated shutoff valves to take water savings to the next level. Reducing your overall water demand will directly translate into water softener water savings.
Properly Maintain Your Water Softener
Keep your water softener well-maintained and operating at peak efficiency. As components wear out over time, excess water use can occur.
Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning and servicing the softener. Replace the resin beads when their exchange capacity diminishes. Make sure the brine tank salt bridge does not solidify. And check that the bypass valve, control valve, and meter are functioning properly.
Preventive maintenance helps maximize efficiency and extend the life of your water softener. Have the unit periodically serviced by a water treatment professional as well.
Modify Brine Tank Size
During regeneration, the brine tank needs to hold enough salt-saturated water to fully backwash the resin beads. Oversized brine tanks use more water than necessary for this process.
If you have an oversized brine tank relative to the resin volume, you can reduce water waste by retrofitting with a smaller insert or flow control to adjust brine levels. Consult with the manufacturer to properly size the brine tank and control water use.
Adjust the Brine Draw Rate
The brine draw rate is the amount of water used from the brine tank to make the salt solution that regenerates the resin. This can be adjusted on some water softener models.
Lowering the brine draw rate from the default setting will use less water to make the brine, saving gallons each regeneration cycle. Finding the optimal brine draw rate for your particular softener can take some trial and error while monitoring resulting water savings.
Use Less Salt
To create brine, salt is dissolved in water. Using less salt for each regeneration will therefore decrease the total water needed for dissolving and flushing through the resin.
Only add the minimum amount of salt based on your softener capacity and water hardness. Avoid filling the brine tank all the way up. And use the proper salt without additives or cleansing agents which can inhibit efficiency.
Dispose of Brine Solution Properly
The salty brine solution used in the regeneration process must be properly disposed of for environmental reasons. In many areas, the brine can simply be flushed down the drain and processed at water treatment facilities.
However, in some regions with sensitive ecosystems, regulations prohibit discharging brine to wastewater due to risks of mineral salts and sodium impacting ecosystems once released back into natural waterways.
Always check local regulations on allowable brine disposal methods. Options for more environmentally friendly brine disposal include specialized pickup services, onsite brine treatment, or using brine for deicing applications.
Upgrade to Highly Efficient Reverse Osmosis
For maximum water savings, consider upgrading from a conventional ion exchange water softener to a reverse osmosis system.
Reverse osmosis (RO) uses extremely fine membranes to remove up to 99% of water hardness minerals and other contaminants through a filtration process. This avoids the high water usage of ion exchange regeneration cycles.
While more costly, RO systems can pay for themselves through water savings in less than 3 years in some cases. RO also provides the purest filtered water for drinking and cooking. Combining RO with a basic water softener for laundry can be a cost-effective and low water waste solution.
Water softeners provide many benefits but can also lead to significant water waste through frequent regeneration cycles. Thankfully, there are many ways to optimize your water softener to dramatically reduce water consumption while still effectively treating hard water.
Consider adjusting regeneration frequency, upgrading to demand-initiated or high-efficiency models, modifying brine tank size, and practicing water conservation habits. With some adjustments tailored to your specific situation, you can enjoy softened water while also conserving water for environmental and cost savings benefits.