Good water softener operation is often a key factor in efficient boiler system performance. In its simplest terms, softening is the removal of naturally occurring scale-forming ions that are present in all water irrespective of its source. Although we take it for granted, the operation of a water softener is really a remarkable phenomenon. As you can see in the example below – a properly functioning can, in fact, remove thousands of pounds of potentially costly calcium and magnesium (hardness) from boiler water.
The whole softening process is based on ion exchange – the means by which sodium ions in the softener resin are exchanged for calcium and magnesium ions. The beauty of all this is that the process is reversible. Once the softener resin has given up its sodium ions in exchange got hardness ions, the resin can be regenerated to begin its work all over again.
The ion exchange process has evolved from its discovery in England around 1850, through the development of natural and synthetic exchange materials called zeolites (a name that stuck), to today’s complex ion exchange resins consisting of hydrocarbon networks to which ionizable functional groups are attached.
Understanding the sophisticated physical chemistry of the ion exchange process is not our goal here. Our real objective is a basic understanding of how the system is supposed to work and how a smoothly running softener can help overall boiler operation.