Tired of descaling your coffee maker every fortnight and battling stubborn limescale spots in your bathroom? A whole-house water softener could be just the ticket. Discover if this investment is right for you, what to consider before taking the plunge, and how to keep your system shipshape post-installation.
Switzerland's superb drinking water is the envy of the globe – and rightly so. But, while great tasting and rich in essential minerals, hard water isn't so friendly to your plumbing, your appliances, or your laundry. The downside? Limescale accumulates in your cherished coffee maker and your water pipes, shortening the lifespan of your household devices and leading to costly repairs. What's more, appliances clogged with limescale operate less efficiently, bumping up your energy bills.
The solution? A central water softener! Typically installed in the basement, you’ll want a system like this - also known as a descaler - if you want to eliminate limescale from your home water supply. In this article, we'll help you decide when and whether it's a wise investment, the pros and cons and what to bear in mind after installing.
Water is classified as 'hard' or limescale-rich when it has a high concentration of dissolved minerals like calcium and magnesium. In Switzerland, water hardness is usually measured in so-called 'French Degrees of Hardness' (°fH). Here's the breakdown:
0-7 °fH: Very soft water
7-15 °fH: Soft water
15-25 °fH: Moderately hard water
25-32 °fH: Considerably hard water
32-42 °fH: Hard water
42 °fH: Very hard water
Water softeners – usually chemical-based - are installed centrally as a general rule, to eliminate limescale from the entire house's water supply. Chemical water softeners employ ion exchange to dissolve limescale and magnesium from the water and replace them with sodium via an ion exchange resin. When this resin has released all its sodium ions and reached capacity, it has to be regenerated. This is done by feeding sodium chloride (salt) tablets into the softener tank, freeing the resin of any calcium and magnesium ions it has absorbed and soaking up sodium ions instead. The resin can then be reused to soften the water.
And one alternative to chemical water softeners are physical descaling units, although expert opinions on their effectiveness vary.
Deciding on whether to shell out for a water softener is a question of balancing affordability against the hardness of your local water. Investing in a softener normally makes sense when your water is so limescale-laden that the cost of maintaining, repairing and replacing damaged appliances you currently incur exceeds that of purchasing and maintaining the water softener. According to the Swiss Association of Drinking Water Suppliers, the tipping point typically comes with a water hardness of 25 °fH. You can check exactly how hard or soft your local tap water is on this website – just enter your postcode.
Tip: If your water has a hardness level just shy of the 25 °fH mark, you’re better off softening the hot water only, rather than the entire water supply. You won’t need either as big a softener or as much salt to maintain it, making the whole thing wallet-friendlier.
Still not sure? Here are the key arguments for and against installing a water softener.
Lower energy consumption due to less limescale in household appliances like washing machines, dishwashers, or coffee makers
Makes household appliances last longer
Less limescale build-up in pipes
Easier cleaning as fewer limescale stains form (e.g. on shower walls or taps).
Enhances comfort with fluffier laundry and water that’s kinder to hair and skin
Costlier to install: In Switzerland, the price of a water softener starts at around CHF 2000
Ongoing operational and maintenance costs of the system
Increased risk of water contamination during extended periods of disuse. Make disinfecting the ion-exchange resin a top priority! As soon as the resin (salt) is exhausted, the system should be regenerated and preferably for three to six days. Forced regeneration can be set depending on the system type.
Ultimately, it’s about weighing your individual needs and what you gain against the downsides. And here’s a useful rule of thumb: the harder the water and the more water and appliances you use, the more sense it makes to invest in a central water softener.
So once you’ve weighed the pros and cons and made the decision to go for a water softener, it's time to actually install it in place. And here, it’s always best to consult experts to help you choose the right system and install it correctly. You’ll find it even smoother if you can answer these questions in advance:
How much water do you actually consume?
How much available space do you have to accommodate the softener?
Do you have any special sanitary facilities with high water throughput in use, such as a swimming pool, whirlpool, or rain shower?
What is your budget for the water softener, installation, and annual service?
You’re bound to breathe a sigh of relief once your water softener is finally up and running. But don’t forget these pointers after installation:
Replenish the system salt as needed. The system will alert you appropriately as soon as the salt runs out. The frequency of refilling depends on various factors such as the size of the system, how hard the water is and how much water the household actually use. Some softening systems include an auto-regeneration process that refills the salt as required and this will save some of your manual refilling efforts. Ask at your local plumbing shop or the manufacturer of your water softening system for the salt.
Get your system regularly serviced by a professional, who can make sure it remains in perfect working order and free of any problematic damage. Servicing also involves cleaning the system and replacing any worn parts, like filters and valves.
Even with a water softener, you’ll still need to descale your household appliances. For health reasons, the softening system softens the water to 0°fH, then mixes it a little non-softened water. All of which means softened water still contains small amounts of residual limescale that accumulates over time and needs removing. But it’s all far less work when you have a water softener in place.