A close-up of a soft water loop, a plumbing system that connects a home's internal water distribution pipes to a water softener. Soft water loops can help to prevent scale buildup, soap scum, and skin dryness.

What is a Soft Water Loop?

If you’ve noticed scale buildup, soap scum, dry skin, or other issues caused by hard water in your home, installing a soft water loop could be the ideal solution. But what exactly is a soft water loop and how does it work? This comprehensive guide will explain everything you need to know about soft water loops.

What is Hard Water?

Before understanding soft water loops, it’s important to know what hard water is. Hard water contains a high concentration of minerals like calcium and magnesium. These minerals make their way into groundwater as it flows through areas with limestone, chalk, or gypsum deposits.

While calcium and magnesium aren’t harmful, they can cause a variety of annoying and costly problems:

  • Scale buildup – Hard water minerals leave behind white scale on fixtures, appliances, and pipes. This restricts water flow over time.
  • Soap scum – Hard water reacts with soap, leaving behind a sticky, insoluble film on surfaces in bathrooms and kitchens. More soap is required to clean effectively.
  • Dry skin and hair – Hard water minerals bind to skin and hair, leaving behind an itchy, flaky residue. Hair also lacks shine and body.
  • Spotty glasses and dishes – Dishes and glasses washed in hard water develop unsightly spots and film.
  • Limescale – Scale that builds up inside appliances like kettles, humidifiers, and hot water heaters leads to limescale. This reduces efficiency and lifespan.
  • Stiff laundry – Hard water binds to fabric detergents, preventing clothes from getting fully clean. A residue is left behind, making clothes stiff and scratchy.

What is a Soft Water Loop?

A soft water loop is a plumbing system that connects your home’s existing water distribution pipes to a water softening device. This provides softened water throughout the interior of the house while retaining hard water for outdoor use.

Here is how a typical residential soft water loop works:

  • The main water supply line enters the home. At this point, the water is still completely hard.
  • The water line connects to the water softener, usually installed in the basement or utility room.
  • Inside the water softener, resin beads attract and bind to calcium and magnesium ions, removing hardness.
  • The softened water exits the water softener and flows into the home’s water distribution pipes through a looped copper line.
  • Fixtures throughout the interior plumbing system now receive softened water.
  • An additional copper line reconnects the water distribution pipes back to the unsoftened main water line.
  • This unsoftened water line runs outdoors for irrigation, washing cars, etc. where soft water is not required.

So in summary, a soft water loop provides softly conditioned water for indoor use, while reserving hard water for outdoor applications. This dual plumbing arrangement maximizes efficiency.

How Does a Water Softener Work?

The water softener is the heart of a soft water loop. Softening is achieved through a process called ion exchange. Here are the steps:

  • Hard water enters the mineral tank and flows down through an ion exchange resin. This resin is coated with sodium ions.
  • As the hard water passes through, the resin beads attract and grab ahold of the calcium and magnesium ions. The minerals stick to the resin.
  • In exchange, sodium ions are displaced from the resin and released into the water.
  • This ion exchange process transforms the hard water into soft water.
  • Eventually, the resin beads become saturated with calcium and magnesium, reducing their softening capacity.
  • A regeneration process cleans the resin beads. Brine solution (salt water) flows through the tank, flushing the hardness minerals into the drain.
  • The resin beads are recharged with sodium ions and ready to soften again.
  • Regeneration typically occurs every 2-5 days depending on usage. The process takes 1-2 hours.

So in a nutshell, water softeners use ion exchange resin to remove hard water minerals and replace them with sodium ions. This effectively transforms the hard water into soft water.

Benefits of Installing a Soft Water Loop

There are many advantages to having soft water throughout your home’s interior plumbing:

Prevent Scale Buildup

Soft water won’t leave behind stubborn mineral deposits on fixtures, pipes, and appliances. This prevents restricted water flow and scale buildup.

Reduce Soap Scum

With soft water, soap lathers easily and rinses cleanly. No more sticky soap scum residue on tubs, showers, and countertops.

Smoother Skin and Hair

The soft water, free of minerals, won’t dry out your skin and hair like hard water. Expect softer, smoother skin and shiny, bouncy hair.

Spot-Free Dishes and Glassware

Dishes and glasses come out of the dishwasher cleaner with fewer spots and film when washed in soft water.

Brighter Laundry

Soft water allows detergents and bleaches to work more effectively. Clothes come out cleaner, brighter, and softer without stiff or scratchy mineral deposits.

Improve Appliance Efficiency

Soft water prevents scale buildup inside appliances like water heaters, humidifiers, and kettles. This maintains efficiency and prolongs the lifespan.

Conserve Hard Water

Soft water loops allow you to conserve hard water for outdoor uses like washing cars and watering lawns where soft water isn’t needed.

Reduce Environmental Impact

Soft water is also beneficial for the environment. Because soft water requires less soap and energy, it reduces wastewater contamination and carbon emissions.

What is the Cost of Installing a Soft Water Loop?

The total cost to install a soft water loop in your home depends on several factors:

  • Water softener – Prices range from $500 to $2,000+ depending on size, type, and features. Budget $800 – $1,200 for most homes.
  • Plumbing – Expect to pay $200 – $500 in parts and $500 – $1,500 in labor for the new water lines and connections.
  • Bypass valve – A bypass valve to isolate the water softener costs $50 – $100.
  • Permit – In some areas, a plumbing permit is required. This will cost $50 – $150.

So in total, a professionally installed soft water loop system for a typical single family home usually ranges from $1,500 – $3,000.

Operating costs are also a consideration. The water softener will need to be periodically recharged with salt. A 40 lb. bag of salt costs around $5 and will last 1-2 months for most households.

While not cheap, a soft water loop is a smart investment that can save money in the long run by preventing scale buildup and improving appliance efficiency. The benefits of soft water also enhance quality of life around the home.

Should You Install a Soft Water Loop Yourself?

Is DIY installation of a soft water loop a good idea for homeowners? Here are the pros and cons to weigh:

Pros of DIY Installation

  • Cost savings – DIY installation costs considerably less than hiring a plumber. The main expenses are the equipment and parts.
  • Convenience – You can install on your own timeline instead of coordinating with a contractor.
  • Customization – You control the parts selected and layout of the plumbing.

Cons of DIY Installation

  • Plumbing skills required – You need moderate to advanced DIY plumbing skills to install a soft water loop properly.
  • Time commitment – Installation takes 1-3 full days depending on your skill level.
  • No professional help – If you run into issues, you won’t have a pro on hand to troubleshoot.
  • Permit challenges – Getting the required plumbing permit yourself may be difficult in some areas.

The bottom line – If you have solid plumbing skills and can invest several days into the project, DIY installation is feasible. For those lacking experience, hiring a professional is worth the cost.

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Choosing the Best Soft Water Loop System

If you decide to install a soft water loop, choosing the optimal system design involves several considerations:

  • Water hardness – The hardness level of your water (grains per gallon) determines the type of softener needed. A water test provides this info.
  • Household size – The softener must be sized appropriately for the number of occupants and water usage. An undersized unit won’t keep up with softening demand.
  • Water consumption – Homes with extra water use from gardens, pools, etc. need a larger softener and resin bed.
  • Water supply lines – Existing plumbing must be evaluated to design the looped lines. Copper is ideal for this application.
  • Filtration – Some systems combine softeners with filters to also remove sediment, chlorine, etc. for better water quality.
  • Salt-free softeners – New salt-free softening alternatives are available for those wishing to avoid sodium or salt.
  • Budget – Keep costs in mind, balancing features and performance with your budget ceiling. Quality softeners start around $800.

To select the optimal soft water loop system, work with a water quality professional to evaluate your home’s specific needs. This will ensure long-term satisfaction with your investment.

Maintaining a Soft Water Loop System

Once installed, minimal maintenance is required to keep a soft water system running properly:

  • Check salt levels – Ensure there is always enough salt in the brine tank, refilling the tank as needed.
  • Test water hardness – Periodically test taps to confirm soft water hardness remains below 1 GPG.
  • Inspect lines – Check loop lines for leaks and corrosion. Replace worn components as required.
  • Sanitize system – Sanitize the softener resin bed annually following manufacturer guidelines.
  • Replace filters – If you system has filters, replace cartridges per the manufacturer’s schedule
  • Service softener – Have a water professional service the softener every 2-3 years to keep it optimized.

Following the above maintenance practices will help ensure your soft water loop continues to operate efficiently for years. Also consult your system’s manual for model-specific care guidelines.

Other Hard Water Treatment Alternatives

While soft water loops are highly effective, there are alternative options for mitigating hard water issues:

  • Water softener shower heads – These shower heads contain resin beads to soften water at the point of use. They don’t affect whole house plumbing.
  • Electromagnetic water conditioners – These devices supposedly use magnetism to prevent scale. However, effectiveness is debated.
  • Salt-free water softeners – New salt-free softener systems use template assisted crystallization to condition hard water without sodium.
  • Reverse osmosis filtration – RO systems force water through a membrane, removing minerals. This “demineralizes” water for uses like drinking.
  • Distillation – Water is boiled and the steam condensed to purify water. This fully removes all minerals.
  • Ion exchange resin beads – Loose resin beads can be added to washing machines, dishwashers or plumbing to soften water in localized applications.
  • Vinegar – Running vinegar through appliances helps dissolve some mineral deposits and scale buildup.

These alternatives have limitations compared to whole house soft water loops. But they may suit applications where full softening isn’t needed.

Is a Soft Water Loop Right for Your Home?

Here are some signs that installing a soft water loop may be beneficial:

  • Visible scale buildup on fixtures and showerheads
  • Chalky mineral residue on dishes, glasses and utensils
  • Dry, itchy skin after bathing
  • Lackluster hair even after conditioning
  • Stiff, scratchy fabrics after washing
  • Soap scum buildup in bathrooms
  • Lower than expected hot water heater efficiency
  • Increased need to scrub surfaces due to soap film
  • Salt-based water softener currently in use

If you are experiencing any combination of these issues, the installation of a properly designed whole house soft water loop can be an excellent solution. Enjoy softer water, prevent scale and soap scum, and extend the life of appliances.

Final Thoughts

I hope this comprehensive guide has helped explain what a soft water loop is and how it can benefit your home. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Soft water loops filter all hard water minerals from your interior plumbing to prevent scale and soap scum buildup.
  • They work by connecting your existing pipes to a water softener that exchanges hardness ions for sodium ions.
  • Benefits include smoother skin, shiney hair, cleaner dishes, efficiency gains, and conservation of hard water.
  • Installation costs range from $1,500 – $3,000 depending on the complexity of your existing plumbing.
  • With some plumbing skill, DIY installation is possible. Otherwise, hire a professional.
  • Proper sizing, design, and regular maintenance are key to getting the best performance from your soft water system.

If you have any other questions about soft water loops, don’t hesitate to ask! I’m happy to provide any additional details you need to determine if a soft water loop is right for your situation.

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