Calcium (Ca2+) and magnesium (Mg2+) ions that cause water hardness can be removed fairly easily by using an ion exchange process in water treatment. Standard water softeners are cation exchange devices. Cations refer to positively charged ions dissolved in the water. Cation exchange involves the replacement of the hardness ions with a non hardness ion.
Water softeners usually use sodium (Na+) as the exchange ion. Sodium ions are supplied from dissolved sodium chloride salt, also called brine. In the ion exchange process, sodium ions are used to coat an exchange medium in the softener. The exchange medium can be natural “zeolites” or synthetic resin beads that resemble wet sand.
As hard water passes through a softener at ion exchange process in water treatment, the calcium and magnesium trade places with sodium ions . Sodium ions are held loosely and are replaced easily by calcium and magnesium ions. During this process, “free” sodium ions are released into the water.