While using chemicals to soften water makes it undrinkable, there are some cases where their effects can be beneficial. The biggest example of this is in washing machines, which can accept certain chemicals to make the water softer and allow detergents to work more efficiently. If the hard water problem isn't too extensive, softeners can easily be added to appliances like washing machines when needed.
Precipitating water softeners - useful in certain situations
Additives like borax and washing soda form a bond with calcium and magnesium ions and separate them from water, floating in visible, solid particles at the top. They keep hard mineral ions from getting in the way of cleaning. A downfall with precipitating softeners is that they make the water appear cloudy and cause particles to build up on surfaces, including the machine and the fabric being washed. Increased alkalinity may also cause skin damage and ruin materials such as wool. Chemicals tended to work best in old manual wringer washers that pressed impurities out. They can singe when ironed or yellow in the dryer if left on clothing.
Nonprecipitating water softeners - better for washers, worse for the environment
These soften water by holding hardness minerals in a solution to be flushed out with waste water rather than deposited on surfaces, so no particles are visible and the water stays clear. They do usually contain phosphates, though, which can be harmful to the environment.