Image of a reverse osmosis system and water softener. The reverse osmosis system is a water treatment system that removes impurities from water, while the water softener removes hardness minerals from water. Combining these two systems can improve the quality of water for drinking, bathing, and other household uses.

The Complete Guide to Combining Reverse Osmosis and Water Softening Systems

Are you looking to improve the quality of your home’s water? Installing both a reverse osmosis system and a water softener offers several benefits that make it an appealing option for many homeowners. This complete guide will explain how reverse osmosis and water softening systems work, the advantages of combining the two, what to consider when choosing the right systems, installation and maintenance tips, troubleshooting common problems, the costs involved, and the potential environmental impacts. Read on to learn everything you need to know about integrating reverse osmosis and water softening to enhance your household water.

How Do Reverse Osmosis and Water Softeners Improve Water Quality?

Reverse osmosis uses a multi-stage filtration process to remove impurities and contaminants from water. It forces water through a semipermeable membrane that traps particles larger than water molecules. This effectively filters out lead, arsenic, chlorine, bacteria, and other potentially harmful contaminants.

Water softeners work differently – they remove hardness minerals like calcium and magnesium. Hard water causes scale buildup in pipes and appliances. It also leaves behind mineral residue that dries skin and accumulates in hair. Water softeners use an ion exchange process to substitute hardness minerals for sodium ions, resulting in softer water.

Combining reverse osmosis and water softening provides the benefits of both systems. The reverse osmosis removes harmful contaminants, while the water softener deals with hardness and mineral issues. The end result is healthier, cleaner, better tasting water for drinking and household uses.

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What Are the Benefits of a Combined System?

There are several advantages to integrating reverse osmosis and water softening in your home:

  • Improved water quality – Reverse osmosis removes up to 99% of contaminants for healthier drinking and cooking water. Water softeners eliminate hardness for better tasting water that won’t leave behind mineral residue.
  • Reduced scale buildup – Soft water prevents the scale buildup caused by hardness minerals in pipes, faucets, and appliances. This protects your plumbing.
  • Lower maintenance requirements – With only one integrated system to maintain instead of two separate units, there is less filter changing and upkeep needed.
  • Increased lifespan of appliances – Scale damages and reduces the working life of water-using appliances like dishwashers. An integrated system prevents this.
  • Better health – Removing contaminants and minerals provides pure, clean water for drinking and food preparation. This promotes better health.
  • Softer skin and hair – Hard water leaves behind a mineral residue even after washing. Softened water allows soap to rinse away cleanly, leaving skin and hair feeling smoother.
  • Cost savings – Combining the systems leads to savings on installation and maintenance costs compared to two separate units.

How Does Reverse Osmosis Work?

Reverse osmosis uses pressure to force water through a semipermeable membrane. This membrane has microscopic pores that allow water molecules to pass through while trapping larger contaminants. The reverse osmosis process involves a few steps:

  • Pre-filtration – Water first passes through a sediment filter to remove large particles. A carbon filter also helps remove chlorine and other chemicals.
  • Pressurization – The pre-filtered water is pressurized against the reverse osmosis membrane. This allows pure water to be pushed through while contaminants cannot pass.
  • Storage tank – The filtered water is stored in a tank and ready for use.
  • Drain line – The contaminated water washed off the membrane goes to drain.

Reverse osmosis removes a wide variety of impurities:

  • Heavy metals like lead and mercury
  • Chlorine and chloramines
  • Microorganisms like bacteria
  • Particulates such as sediment and rust
  • Salts
  • Pesticides, herbicides, and industrial chemicals

The main advantages of reverse osmosis are extremely thorough filtration along with convenience and continuous supply. The disadvantage is the amount of water wasted – typically 2-3 gallons go to drain for every purified gallon produced.

How Do Water Softeners Work?

Water softeners use a process called ion exchange. Hard water passes through a resin bed contained in the softener. The resin beads have a negative charge, so they attract and hold onto the positively charged calcium and magnesium ions that cause hardness.

At the same time, the resin releases an equal number of sodium ions into the water. This exchange eliminates the calcium and magnesium, replacing them with sodium which does not cause hardness.

The main advantages of water softening are:

  • Elimination of scale buildup
  • Softer feeling water
  • Increased soap and detergent efficiency

Disadvantages include the addition of sodium to the water, which some people seek to avoid, and the periodic need to recharge the resin with salt.

Overall, ion exchange provides an effective method for dealing with problematic hardness in water supplies.

Choosing the Best Reverse Osmosis and Water Softening Systems

Selecting the right reverse osmosis and water softening systems for your home depends on several factors:

Water Quality

Consider having your water tested to determine:

  • Hardness level – Measured in grains per gallon (gpg). A reading of 1-3 gpg is soft, 4-8 gpg moderately hard, and over 10 gpg very hard. The hardness determines the softener needed.
  • Contaminants – Check for problem contaminants like lead that require reverse osmosis for removal.

Household Size and Water Usage

Calculate your:

  • Daily water needs – The amount of filtered water supplied, measured in gallons per day.
  • Peak flow rate – The system’s maximum water production rate in gallons per minute.

This ensures your system can handle your family’s water requirements.

Types of Systems

There are multiple configurations to consider:

  • Separate units – Allow custom selection of each component but require more space.
  • Parallel systems – Softener feeds all household fixtures while reverse osmosis feeds drinking water taps.
  • Integrated systems – Combine softener and reverse osmosis in one tank for simplicity.
  • Whole house systems – For treating all water entering a home. Require professional installation.


Systems range widely in price. Define your budget and identify affordable options that also meet your household needs.

What Are the Costs of Reverse Osmosis and Water Softening Systems?

There are a few costs associated with a combined reverse osmosis and water softening system:

  • Equipment – The upfront purchase and installation of the physical components. Reverse osmosis systems range from $200 to $2,000. Water softeners cost $400 to $2,500.
  • Installation – Most homeowners hire a plumber to install their system. Typical costs are $200 to $500.
  • Maintenance – Reverse osmosis requires filter changes every 6-12 months at around $50 each time. Water softeners need occasional media replacement and salt for recharging. These ongoing costs are roughly $5-10 per month.
  • Electricity – Water softeners consume some electrical power for their timers and valves. This equates to $3-5 per month.

With purchased equipment, installation, and maintenance combined, total costs average $1,000 to $3,000. Purchasing a bundled unified system can save money compared to buying separate reverse osmosis and softener units.

Installation Tips for Reverse Osmosis and Water Softening Systems

How involved the installation process is depends on the type of system:

Separate Reverse Osmosis and Softeners

This requires installing two independent systems with separate components at different locations. Plumbing connections must be made from each system to the home’s water supply. Expect 1-2 days for installation by a professional.

Integrated Reverse Osmosis and Softener Systems

Combination systems with a single tank keeping all the components together simplify installation. These are plumbed to the main water supply like a standard water softener. A separate drinking water faucet is also added. Installation takes 4-6 hours.

DIY Installation Considerations

Handy homeowners can install their own system to save on labor costs. This requires:

  • Basic plumbing skills
  • Following instructions carefully
  • Patience and attention to detail

However, mistakes can lead to leaks or other issues down the road. Having a professional handle the installation is recommended for most homeowners.

Maintaining Your Reverse Osmosis and Water Softening System

Regular maintenance keeps your system working properly. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your specific models. Typical maintenance includes:

Reverse Osmosis Maintenance

  • Sediment filter changes – The first sediment filter needs replacement every 6-12 months.
  • Carbon filter changes – The carbon filter should be changed every 12-24 months.
  • Membrane replacement – Reverse osmosis membranes last 3-5 years before needing replacement.
  • Sanitization – Periodically sanitize the system using bleach to prevent bacterial growth.

Water Softener Maintenance

  • Recharging the resin – Softeners need periodic recharging with sodium chloride salt. Recharge frequency depends on water usage.
  • Clearing resin beads – Salt bridges can form between resin beads. Periodic clearing prevents this.
  • Sanitizing – Salt kills most microbes, but sanitizing may be needed occasionally.
  • Sediment filter – A whole house softener has a sediment filter that needs replacing every 6-12 months.

Troubleshooting Common Reverse Osmosis and Softening Problems

Issues with reverse osmosis and water softening systems can arise over time. Here are some common problems and solutions:

Reverse Osmosis Troubleshooting

Low or no water production – If output drops, change filters. An old membrane may need replacing. Confirm water supply valve is fully open.

Cloudy water – Replace pre-filters. Sanitize if bacterial growth is suspected.

Bad taste – Replace carbon filter. Sanitize and flush entire system.

Leaking – Examine and tighten all fittings, clamps, screws, and O-ring seals on valves and tubing. Have pro repair leaks at filter housings.

Water Softener Troubleshooting

Hard water – Recharge resin if depleted. Check for control valve failure. Increase salt dose or regenerate more frequently if very hard water.

Water constantly regenerating – Timer may have failed. Replace electronic control module.

No soft water flow – Inspect and clean brine valve, safety float, and overflow pipe. Unclog injector assembly if blocked.

Leaking – Tighten fittings and connections. Ensure O-ring and seals are in place. Replace if worn. Have pro handle major leaks.

The Environmental Impact of Reverse Osmosis and Water Softening

Reverse osmosis and water softeners affect the environment both positively and negatively:

Positive Impacts

  • Remove contaminants – Reverse osmosis eliminates contaminants from water that would otherwise flow back into rivers, lakes, and oceans.
  • Prevent scale – Softeners prevent mineral scale that reduces efficiency of water-using appliances and plumbing. This saves energy.

Negative Impacts

  • Water usage – Reverse osmosis wastes 2-3 gallons of water for every purified gallon produced. This taxing of water supplies needs consideration.
  • Sodium discharge – The sodium from water softeners ends up in wastewater streams which can negatively impact ecosystems.

Minimizing Environmental Effects

  • Use reverse osmosis judiciously for drinking water only – not appliances. This reduces wasted water.
  • Look for high-efficiency softeners that reduce salt and water use.
  • Discharge softener backwash water slowly to allow sodium absorption by soil.

Frequently Asked Questions About Reverse Osmosis and Water Softeners

What is the maintenance like for a combined system?

A combined system allows consolidated maintenance of the reverse osmosis section separately from the water softener section. Expect to replace reverse osmosis filters annually and the membrane every 3-5 years. Recharge the softener with salt as needed, based on your water hardness.

What problems can occur with reverse osmosis systems?

Common reverse osmosis problems include reduced water production, cloudy or bad tasting water, leaking fittings, and contamination issues if not sanitized regularly. Replacing filters and membranes, sanitizing, and having a plumber repair leaks can solve most problems.

How often should water softeners be sanitized?

Salt removes most microorganisms in softeners. But doing an occasional sanitization using bleach removes any remaining bacteria. Sanitizing once every 2-3 years is typically recommended for water softeners.

Does a water softener really help protect plumbing?

By removing hardness minerals, water softeners greatly reduce the calcium and magnesium that leads to scale accumulation in pipes, faucets, and hot water heaters. This scale is abrasive, reduces flow, and degrades plumbing over time. So softeners provide substantial protection by eliminating it.

What causes low water pressure with reverse osmosis?

If your reverse osmosis system’s water pressure drops, the most common causes are clogged pre-filters or a faulty membrane. Replacing used pre-filters restores flow. If pressure remains low after this, the reverse osmosis membrane itself likely needs replacing.

Final Thoughts

Installing both reverse osmosis and water softening provides cleaner, healthier water throughout your home along with soft water for bathing and washing. Reverse osmosis eliminates contaminants from your drinking supply while softeners deal with troublesome hardness. Combined systems are easier to maintain than separate units. While some installation and maintenance is required, the benefits of improved water quality, reduced scale, and enhanced appliance lifespan make integrating these two treatments an appealing option for homeowners bothered by contamination or hardness issues.

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