When water is referred to as 'hard' this simply means, that it contains more minerals than ordinary water. These are especially the minerals calcium and magnesium. The degree of hardness of the water increases, when more calcium and magnesium dissolves.
A water softener is a unit that is used to soften water, by removing the minerals that cause the water to be hard. A water softener collects hardness minerals within its conditioning tank and from time to time flushes them away to drain.
Ion exchangers are often used for water softening. When an ion exchanger is applied for water softening, it will replace the calcium and magnesium ions in the water with other ions, for instance sodium or potassium. The exchanger ions are added to the ion exchanger reservoir as sodium and potassium salts (NaCl and KCl).
A good water softener will last many years. But many need little maintenance, besides filling them with salt occasionally.
Which irrigation system are you using? I can assist you with some literature on unclogging the irrigation systems etc.