Water Softener Basics
Most water softeners remove calcium and magnesium ions from your water supply by replacing it with sodium ions. These sodium ions are not harmful to humans and they also don't have the same effect when mixing with soap or when touching metal objects. Therefore, the problems you have with hard water are eliminated. A common water softener is sodium carbonate, which effectively "swaps" the sodium with the calcium and magnesium, precipitating the latter two ions out of the water.
Replacing the calcium and magnesium ions with sodium ions can also be done by running water through a chemical matrix also known as a zeolite. This matrix is covered with sodium ions and when water runs through, they swap places with the calcium and magnesium in the water. However, this zeolite has to be replaced or refreshed once all the sodium ions are used up. This is done by flushing off all the calcium and magnesium with brine (extra salty water) and effectively replacing all the sodium ions on the matrix.
Installation Tips and Advice
When installing your water softener, you should always refer to the manufacturers' manual for specific installation instructions. The following overview is just that -- a general overview of how you would usually install a standard water softener.
Before starting the installation process, you should turn off your water heater and ensure that the area that you are putting your water softener in is a protected, dry and level area that runs no risk of freezing even in the cold winter months. You should have two tanks that you have to install. The smaller tank is the media or mineral tank the larger tank is the tank that holds the brine for renewing the supply of sodium. Your brine tank should be the most accessible of the two because you will need to top up your brine every once in awhile.
Once you have positioned your tanks and plugged your softener into a non-switch controlled outlet you should double check that the "in" and "out" is in the right place because water softeners have directional water flow, so if you've got it backwards it won't work. Once everything is connected, fill up your brine tank and your media tank with the provided water softening media. Check for leaks and then you're ready to start up your water softener.
Water Softener Maintenance
Water softeners are designed to last for years with little maintenance. The most routine maintenance you will perform is replacing the salt. Check the salt levels monthly and keep them refilled according to local weather. Those living in humid areas may wish to keep small amounts of salt in the softener, but to replace it frequently. This prevents the humidity from having a chance to clump the salt. All others should fill the softener completely, each time the salt reservoir is reduced to being one third of the way full.
When changing the salt, take the opportunity to inspect the inside of the water softener and to wash away any residue that has formed. Check the walls for any cracks or weaknesses, and also inspect all valves and hoses to see if any need to be replaced. These parts will usually last for several years before needing to be replaced again.