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Water Conditioners
There are two types of packaged water conditioners: non-precipitating and precipitating. Generally these names do not appear on the labels.
Non-precipitating water conditioner characteristics:

ties up hardness minerals in the water and holds them in solution (sequestering). No visible particles are formed.
water remains clear
usually contains phosphates
water feels slippery
safe for all washable fabrics
used in automatic washers
Examples: Calgon (a mixture of non-precipitating and precipitating chemicals), White Rain, Blue Raindrops, Spring Rain

How they work:

This type of water conditioner softens the water, breaks up the soil in the wash and keeps the hardness minerals from depositing on the clothes. These conditioners also trap the iron in the water if it is only a low concentration.

When using non-precipitating water conditioner add the conditioner to the wash water before the detergent and again during the rinse cycle. It is especially important to add the conditioner during the rinse cycle. It will again lock up the hardness minerals to keep them from combining with the detergent left in the clothes from the wash.

The amount of water conditioner you use depends on the water hardness as well as the amount of water and detergent. Read and follow the manufacturers' instructions for the amount of water conditioner to use. A correct amount will feel slippery between the fingers.

Fabrics that have become discolored from detergent build-up can be restored or brightened by washing them in warm water using a cup of water conditioner without a detergent. The conditioner frees the trapped detergent and soil from the fibers. If you see suds appear as the clothes are washed, you know excess detergent and hard water deposits are being stripped from the clothes. When suds no longer appear on top of the water, it indicates the complete removal of trapped dirt and residue of washing additives.

Precipitating water softener characteristics:

combines with hardness minerals to form a visible, insoluble precipitate that floats on top of water
makes water cloudy
particles cling to fabric and to the inside surface of the machine
the deposit makes fabric harsh, somewhat abrasive and dulls colors
highly alkaline
adversely affects wool and certain dyes not recommended for automatic washers
Examples: Arm and Hammer Washing Soda, Raindrops, Blue Dew, Borax, Climalene, Melo, White King Water Softener, Borateem

How to use:

Use only in the wash water, not in the rinse water. If the softener is not thoroughly rinsed from fabrics, it can irritate the skin and affect the natural characteristics of the cloth. Fabrics that hold any residue become harsh and may scorch when ironed and yellow while in the dryer.

Precipitating water softeners work satisfactorily in wringer-type washing machines. The soap curds and mineral residue are squeezed out of the clothes as they move through the wringer. In an automatic washer precipitate softeners form a residue which clings to fabric and the machine and is hard to remove.
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