Disclaimer: This page may contain affiliate links. If you buy a product or service through an affiliate link, we may earn a commission but at no additional cost to you. You can view our full affiliate disclosure here.
Installing a water softener in your home has several benefits:
- A plumbing system and home appliances without scale work at maximum efficiency, they require fewer maintenance and repairs, and have a longer service life.
- What’s more, a properly functioning water softener eliminates hard water staining and makes cleaning a lot easier.
- And soft water helps dry hair and skin to recover, it improves lathering of soaps and shampoos, and your laundry will remain soft and brightly colored.
Many good reasons to think about investing in a system.
So, here is our collection of the 11 best water softeners. Enjoy!
- 1 Best Water Softeners – Top Picks
- 2 Best Water Softener Reviews
- 2.1 1. SpringWell SS Salt Based Water Softener System
- 2.2 2. SpringWell FutureSoft Salt-Free Water Softener
- 2.3 3. SoftPro Elite High-Efficiency City Water Softeners
- 2.4 4. Fleck 5600SXT Water Softener System
- 2.5 5. iSpring ED2000 Whole House Electronic Descaler
- 2.6 6. Crystal Quest Whole House Water Softener with Pre/Post Water Filtration
- 2.7 7. On The Go OTG4-DBLSOFT-Portable 16,000 Grain RV Water Softener
- 2.8 8. Review: AFWFilters Iron Pro 2 Combination Water Softener with Fleck 5600 SXT Digital Metered Control
- 2.9 9. Eddy Electronic Water Descaler – Water Softener Alternative
- 2.10 10. Pelican NaturSoft Salt-Free Water Softener
- 2.11 11. Nuvo H20 DPHB
- 3 Whole House Water Softener System Comparison Chart
- 4 Buyer’s Guide – How to Choose a Water Softener for Your Home
- 5 What is Hard Water?
- 6 Signs You Have Hard Water (and Why It is a Problem)
- 7 What is a Water Softener?
- 8 Common Types of Water Softening Systems and How They Work
- 9 Salt-Based vs. Salt-Free Water Softeners
- 10 Hard Water Issues: The Benefits of Using a Water Softening System
- 11 Grain Capacity: How to Size a Water Softener
- 12 How to Install Your Water Softener
- 13 Maintaining Your Water Softener
- 14 The Best and Most Trusted Water Softener Brands
- 15 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
- 16 Conclusion
Best Water Softeners – Top Picks
Best Water Softener Reviews
The order of the following water softener reviews is deliberate. Our favorite products that soften the water best are at the top.
1. SpringWell SS Salt Based Water Softener System
The best water softener in 2021 is the SpringWell SS. The system is salt based meaning it applies the traditional and time-proven ion exchange mechanism to remove hard water minerals, mainly calcium.
This prevents scale deposits from building in your plumbing system and home appliances so they work at optimum efficiency and last longer with less servicing needed. Another positive effect of soft water is that it’s easier on hair, skin, and fabrics, and it doesn’t leave spots and stains on surfaces.
- Price: $$$
- Water softener type: Salt
- Flow rate and grain rating depend on which system size you choose
- SS1: 11 gallons of water per minute (1-3 bathrooms), 32,000-grain capacity
- SS4: 13 gpm flow (4-6 bathrooms), 48,000-grain capacity
- SS+: 20 gpm flow (7+ bathrooms), 80,000-grain capacity
- The control valve takes care of system regeneration. Everything is fully automated. You just have to choose regeneration frequency, backwash length, and the salt dose.
- System programming can be done using the head unit directly or a mobile device. You just need to install the free app which is available for both Android and iOS.
- Regen cycles are only started if necessary and adjusted to your prior water usage in order to not waste any resources.
- The large tank contains a Vortech plate which boosts backwashing efficiency by as much as 30 percent.
- In addition, it’s filled with 10% crosslink resin which is more chlorine-resistant than regular 8% resin. According to industry experts, 10% crosslink resin lasts up to two times longer.
- A neoprene jacket protects the resin tank from damages.
- The installation is easy for people that are handy with tools. An installation kit and detailed instructions and video tutorial are provided.
- A bypass valve which makes system maintenance much simpler is included.
- You can test the water softener during the 6-month money-back guarantee. If you’re unhappy with how it performs just send it back for a full refund before the end of the trial period.
- You also get a limited lifetime warranty.
- At this point in time we’re unaware of any disadvantages.
2. SpringWell FutureSoft Salt-Free Water Softener
The best salt-free water softener in 2021 is the SpringWell FS also known as the SpringWell FutureSoft. It makes use of Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC), a process which crystallizes hardness causing minerals.
The crystallization causes the minerals to remain suspended in the water rather than depositing on pipes. This effectively reduces scaling by as much as 99.6% according to research. Another advantage is that already existing mineral buildup in pipes and appliances dissolves with time. More benefits are:
- The catalytic media does not need to regenerate. This saves a lot of salt and water – and money. Furthermore, you won’t have to heave 40-pound salt bags.
- In contrast to water softened with a salt-based water softener, the TAC-conditioned water doesn’t feel slippery.
- Any remaining hard water stains can be easily cleaned.
- The treatment process doesn’t lower water pH. Alkaline water is less corrosive than acidic water.
- The system removes no beneficial minerals from the water.
- Price: $$$
- Water softener type: TAC
- Flow rate depends on which system size you choose
- FS1: 12 gallons of water per minute (1-3 bathrooms)
- FS4: 15 gpm flow (4-6 bathrooms)
- FS+: 20 gpm flow (7+ bathrooms)
- SpringWell says their FutureSoft salt-free water softener can be used on extremely hard water with as much as 81 grains per gallon hardness.
- Theoretically, the catalytic conditioning media lasts indefinitely.
- A sediment pre-filter catches sand, rust, dust, and other particles to prevent fouling of the rest of the system. Replacing the filter once or twice per year is the only maintenance task that needs to be done.
- For do-it-yourselfers the salt-free water conditioner is easy to install.
- SpringWell offers a satisfaction guarantee.
- You also get a limited lifetime warranty.
- The incoming water must be mostly free from heavy metals like iron, hydrogen sulfide, and manganese.
3. SoftPro Elite High-Efficiency City Water Softeners
The SoftPro Elite High-Efficiency City Water Softener saves up to 64% more water compared to other models due to built-in features like the automatic backwash override. It allows you to skip up to 10 backwash cycles in a row. The idea behind the feature is that on a municipal water supply there is no need to backwash and clean a softener’s resin bed in each regen cycle.
- Price: $$$
- Water softener type: Salt
- Grain capacity: 24,000–110,000
- The whole home water softener can be programmed to skip up to 10 backwash cycles in order to save a great amount of water.
- When you are about to run out of soft water a quick emergency regeneration cycle is initiated. It restores enough softening capacity for the rest of the day and until the next regular regen cycle starts. This way you never run out of soft water.
- Other features include the vacation mode which when activated will stop the water softener from regenerating while you are away. Only if no water is used for 7 days will the system do a short refresh to prevent bacteria from accumulating.
- All in all, the SoftPro Elite control head is easy to operate thanks to its large and user-friendly LCD screen.
- 10% chlorine-resistant crosslink resin is used.
- A neoprene tank sleeve protects the large tank from aggressive brine.
- The softening unit is easy to install.
- The seller offers a 100% money-back guarantee.
- Valve, brine tank, and mineral tank are warranted for lifetime.
- We will update this section if we ever read about cons.
4. Fleck 5600SXT Water Softener System
This setup was put together by Quality Water Treatment. Combining the Fleck 5600SXT control valve with a no-name resin and brine tank allows you to offer a product that’s much more affordable than the competition. The Fleck 5600SXT itself has been on the market for quite a while but is still one of the most sought-after head units, albeit not the most efficient.
- Price: $$
- Water softener type: Salt
- Capacity: 24,000–64,000
- The Fleck 5600SXT is metered digitally, meaning it measures your water usage to prevent wasting water when regenerating.
- Furthermore, it implements an easy-to-use electronic interface. Programming is straightforward. The same goes for system monitoring.
- The included resin is 10% crosslink resin which lasts longer when used with chlorinated or chloraminated tap water.
- As with most other water softeners, system installation is relatively easy. A bypass valve is part of the package and you can even add free quick-connect hoses to your cart as a bonus.
- Quality Water Treatment provides a “100% NO-RISK MONEY BACK GUARANTEE”.
- Both brine and mineral tank are warranted for 10 years. The 5600SXT valve is covered for 5 years.
- As mentioned before, this Fleck water softener is one of the older models. Since its initial launch regeneration technology has been improved. Most importantly, the downflow design doesn’t allow for the most precise recharge – there are more efficient units available.
5. iSpring ED2000 Whole House Electronic Descaler
The iSpring ED2000 is the best water softener alternative when it comes to water descalers.
For one, it is highly affordable. And while it doesn’t soften water in the real sense, it emits electromagnetic waves which cause hard mineral ions to not adhere to pipe surfaces and allows existing scale build-up to break down. The result: Prolonged life of pipes, water heaters, washing machines, and dishwashers – all without the need for salt or chemicals.
Side note: The technology was scientifically tested and has proven to reduce scaling by about 50%.
- Price: $
- Type: Electronic water softener
- Flow rate: –
- No salt is great for people on salt-restricted diets.
- Limescale on fixtures will soften after regular contact with the treated water which allows for easier cleaning.
- The iSpring ED2000 can be easily installed to the main water line with no plumbing modifications required. All you need to do is wrap the two antenna cables around the water pipe so that they form a coil.
- After startup, the system is virtually maintenance-free.
- You get a 1-year satisfaction guarantee as well as tech support from iSpring Water Systems based in Georgia.
- Several reviewers complained saying they saw no improvement on their water condition. This may be because the unit is designed for hard water with no more than 10 to 19 grains per gallon hardness.
- The conditioning effect wears off after 50 feet. Larger homes may require one or more additional units.
- Above 0.3 ppm of iron in the source water reduces the conditioning effect. Prior iron removal is recommended.
6. Crystal Quest Whole House Water Softener with Pre/Post Water Filtration
The Crystal Quest water softener comes with pre and post water filtration to filter a bunch of harmful contaminants and improve water taste and smell. At the same time, the softening resin which applies basic ion exchange technology is protected from fouling.
- Price: $$$
- Water softener type: Salt-based
- Flow rate and grain rating depend on which system size you choose
- 1.5 cu. ft. system: 9-11 gpm (1-3 bathrooms), 48,000 grains
- 2.0 cu. ft. system: 10-13 gpm (4-6 bathrooms), 60,000 grains
- To safe water and salt, the water softener only regenerates when the remaining softening capacity is low.
- The 20-inch sediment pre-filter removes silt, sand, and other dirt.
- The 20-inch coconut shell activated carbon block post-filter catches chlorine, volatile organic compounds, pesticides, insecticides, and industrial solvents.
- By default, tank material is fiberglass. For longevity you can upgrade to stainless steel.
- For system maintenance, you need to replace the pre and post-filter every 12 to 18 months at low cost – nothing to worry about.
- Crystal Quest provides a 1-year limited warranty.
7. On The Go OTG4-DBLSOFT-Portable 16,000 Grain RV Water Softener
One of the best portable water softeners is the On The Go OTG4-DBLSOFT-Portable. Measuring 22 by 9.5 respectively 6.75 (diameter) inches, you can basically use it anywhere on the go thanks to the small size – provided that required output water flow rate is moderate.
- Price: $
- Type of water softener: Salt based system
- Grain capacities
- Standard model: 8,000-grain
- Double-standard model: 16,000-grain
- Both the standard and the double-standard model are compact which is ideal for use in RVs. Just be aware that both units are quite heavy.
- Installation is easy with no need for tools. The system uses a standard garden hose connection.
- Regeneration is simple: Backwash adapters are included and there is a built-in drain valve.
- Hard water test strips are also part of the package.
- Portable water softening systems require manual regen.
8. Review: AFWFilters Iron Pro 2 Combination Water Softener with Fleck 5600 SXT Digital Metered Control
The Iron Pro 2 by AFWFilters is a combination of water softener and iron filter system. Thus, it eliminates hard water scaling and iron staining at the same time.
FYI: The Iron Pro 2 comes with the Fleck 5600 SXT digital control valve for ease of use.
- Price: $$
- Type: Salt based water softener
- Flow rate: Up to 16 gpm
- Rating: 64,000-grain water softener
- The iron filter system and water softener removes up 70 gpg hardness, up to 7 ppm ferrous (clear-water) iron, and up to 6 ppm manganese. Sediments will likewise be removed.
- As with most other water softeners on our list, the Fleck Iron Pro 2 uses a meter-based regeneration process: The system only regenerates when it is needed to conserve water.
- The fine mesh resin lasts longer in the presence of iron and is also more effective at removing it.
- An installation kit with sanitizer and lubricant is included.
- The Fleck 5600 SXT system comes with a 5-year, the tank with a 10-year warranty.
- Reviewers said customer service is not the best. They didn’t receive return calls and the instructions were too short or missing entirely.
9. Eddy Electronic Water Descaler – Water Softener Alternative
The Eddy Electronic Water Descaler is another sound economic and salt-free softener alternative. Just like the iSpring ED2000 from above, the Eddy water descaler induces an electro-magnetic field to reduce the scaling effects of hard water.
- Price: $
- Type: Electronic water softener
- Flow rate: –
- The price tag is extremely low and there are no ongoing costs for salt.
- Electromagnetic wave treatment is eco friendly.
- Any remaining scale can be easily wiped off.
- You don’t need any prior experience as a handyman to set up the Eddy Electronic.
- Once installed there is absolutely no maintenance required.
- Within 12 months after purchase, the manufacturer guarantees to refund your money if you’re unhappy with how the descaler performs.
- For peace of mind, you get a lifetime warranty covering repair and replacement.
- The maximum allowed pipe diameter is one and a half inches, and iron and galvanized pipes are incompatible.
- Not all users saw positive results. Maybe that’s because the maximum recommended hardness level is 20 gpg.
10. Pelican NaturSoft Salt-Free Water Softener
We assume that Pelican’s NaturSoft water conditioners apply the same catalytic process to crystallize calcium and magnesium in hard water. In their crystalline form, the minerals cause almost no scaling. Most importantly, this protects your plumbing and home appliances.
- Price: $$$
- Water softener type: Salt-free system
- Flow rate depends on which system size you choose
- NaturSoft NS3: 10 gpm (1-3 bathrooms)
- NaturSoft NS6: 15 gpm (4-6 bathrooms)
- The technology is effective even when used on extremely hard water with up to 75 grains per gallon hardness.
- A pre-filter system removes sediments.
- Salt-free or salt-based systems, Pelican water softeners are easy to install, especially if you buy the optional installation kit.
- Generally speaking, water softeners don’t require a lot of attention over the years. With the NaturSoft NS3 and NS6 all you need to do is make sure to replace the pre-filter every 6 to 9 months at minimum cost.
- Pelican provides a satisfaction guarantee for the first 90 days after purchase. You can return their products for a full refund, no questions asked.
- A 12-year warranty covers the head unit, tank, bypass valve, and fittings.
- The NaturSoft needs clean water free from hydrocarbons, oils, lubricants, and hydrogen sulfide. Phosphate levels should be below 1 part per million, copper levels below 1.3 ppm.
- People said the pressure release button on the pre-filter is prone to leaking.
11. Nuvo H20 DPHB
The Nuvo H20 DPHB is another salt-free softener. However, the softening process it applies is entirely different to what we’ve seen so far: The Nuvo H20 DPHB system uses a chelation agent, citric acid, which binds calcium and magnesium ions so that they cannot form limescale buildup. What’s more, already existing scale build-up dissolves over time.
Another positive side effect is that the conditioned water doesn’t leave a slimy feel on your skin as traditionally softened water does. And not adding sodium and leaving all beneficial minerals in the water also means that it’s perfectly suited for drinking and cooking.
- Price: $$
- Type: Chelation
- Capacity: 35,000 Gallons
- Flow rate: 12 gpm to 15 gpm (1-4 bathrooms)
- This unit is small compared to most of the other systems reviewed before – ideal for small apartments.
- Installation of Nuvo H20 DPHB isn’t overly difficult also thanks to the built-in bypass valve.
- The system only requires minimal maintenance. One citric acid cartridge lasts about 35,000 gallons or 6 months of water. You may need to do more frequent replacements depending on your water temperature, water pressure, and water hardness level.
- Nuvo provides a 90-day money-back guarantee. You won’t receive a full refund, though. Shipping and handling fees will be deducted.
- You get a limited lifetime warranty for peace of mind.
- Customer feedback is mixed. A number of people reportedly saw no beneficial effects. That’s probably because they were unaware that the incoming water should have a pH between 7.2 and 8.5 for optimal performance. Furthermore, the Nuvo isn’t suited for private well water.
- Another common complaint is that home owners suddenly had blue water coming out of their faucets and taps. This has to do with copper piping and air residues. The good news is the bluish color usually subsides after a few days/weeks.
Whole House Water Softener System Comparison Chart
How do the top rated water softener systems perform when directly compared to each other?
|Product||$$$||Type||Water Softener Capacity||Flow (GPM)||Best For||Details|
|SpringWell SS||$$$||Salt Based Softener||32,000-80,000 Grain||11-20||Best Salt Based Water Softening System||Top Pick, High Quality, Removes Hard Minerals from the Water, Digital Water Softener, NSF Certified|
|SpringWell FutureSoft Salt-Free||$$$||TAC||–||12-20||Best Overall Salt-Free||Top Pick, High Quality, Keeps Hard Minerals in the Water|
|SoftPro Elite||$$$||Salt Based Softener||24,000–110,000 Grain||?||Tap Water Supply||Digital Water Softener, Removes the Minerals, LCD Display to Check System Status|
|Fleck 5600SXT||$$||Salt Based Softener||24,000–64,000 Grain||?||Best Option for Small Budgets||Water Softener is Designed for Low Budgets, Removes Minerals|
|iSpring ED2000||$||Electronic Descaler||–||–||Best Choice for Electronic Descaling||Does Not Soften Your Water, Easy Installation Process|
|Crystal Quest Whole House Water Softening System||$$$||Salt Based||48,000-60,000 Grain||9-13||Tap/Well Water Supply||System Comes with Whole House Filtration for Drinking Water, Removes Minerals|
|On The Go OTG4-DBLSOFT-Portable||$||Salt Based||8,000–16,000 Grain||?||Portability||One of the Best Portable Units, Removes Minerals|
|AFWFilters Fleck Iron Pro 2 Water Softener and Filtration System||$$||Salt Based||64,000 Grain||Up to 16||Salt Water Softener for Well Water with Iron||Water Softening and Water Filtration System for Your Home, Removes Minerals|
|Eddy Water Descaler||$||Electronic Descaler||–||–||Electronic Descaling, Does Not Soften Your Water, Eco-Friendly|
|Pelican NaturSoft||$$$||Salt-Free Softener||–||10-15||Tap/Well Water Supply||Can Handle Hardness Up to 75 gpg|
|Nuvo H20 DPHB||$$||Chelation||35,000 Gallon||12-15||High Feed Water pH|
Buyer’s Guide – How to Choose a Water Softener for Your Home
Installing a water softener in your home has many benefits provided that you choose one that’s up to standards. But what does that even mean? Well, here’s our buyer’s guide with everything you need to know about how to buy the best water softener system.
Types of Water Softeners
The most common and most popular type of water softener are ion exchange softeners. Ion exchange is a process where hard water minerals, primarily calcium and magnesium, are removed from water and replaced with sodium or potassium chloride.
On the one hand, ion exchange water softening is highly effective. On the other hand, it’s resource-intensive: Every couple of days the softening resin needs to regenerate which requires water for backwashing and salt.
This is why scientists have tried to come up with new ways to reduce the scaling effects of hard water. Not all attempts were successful. But two methods, Template Assisted Crystallization and electromagnetic wave induction, deliver promising results. Both have in common that they don’t actually remove any hardness ions but alter their likelihood to adhere to surfaces and thus cause scaling.
Generally speaking, traditional water softening systems based on ion exchange are still the industry standard. They work with almost all water conditions and deliver the best results. But with increasing effectiveness salt-free water conditioners gain ground. Your ideal system type depends on the conditions of your water supply as well as your personal preferences. To learn more about the topic check this section below.
Determining Your Water Hardness Level & Required System Capacity
One of the first steps for choosing a salt-based water softener is to find out how hard your water really is. You can do this with the help of a hard water test kit.
Once you know how much hardness grains per gallon (gpg) your water contains, you can size your new softener system accordingly. Simply put, the system needs to be able to handle your hard water level and daily water usage.
If you buy a water softener that’s too small it will deplete its softening capacity quickly so that frequent regeneration cycles will be required which usually results in higher water and salt wastage. Buying a system that’s too large means you pay for something that you don’t really need. Again, you can learn more about the topic of correctly sizing a water softener below.
Water Pressure & Flow Rate
At home, the average American uses anywhere between 50 to 100 gallons of water per day for:
- Showering: Really old shower heads may use up to 7 gallons of water per minute. Up-to-date low-flow models use no more than 1.5 gallons.
- Toilet flushing: Old toilets may use up to 7 gallons of water per flush. Newer models use as little as 1.3 gallons.
- Faucets and taps: Some faucets use 2.5 gpm and more. With the help of a highly efficient aerator you can reduce that number significantly. Low-flow bathrooms taps use no more than half a gallon of water per minute.
- Dishwashing: Dishwashers from back in the day used many, many gallons per load, up to 15. Nowadays, many units require less than 5 gallons.
- Washing: Front loaders save a lot of water compared to top loaders. The most efficient models use no more than 15 gpl.
What does this have to do with water softeners? Quite simply, the water softener you are planning to buy must be able to provide enough softened water even at times of peak water use – think on a regular weekday in the morning when your family is getting ready for school and work; showers, taps, and faucets are running, and you put a new load into the washer before leaving home.
A water softener with too small of a gallon rating may cause a drop in water pressure or let unsoftened water bleed through. Thus, our recommendation is at least 8 to 10 gpm water flow for the average-sized household. Large families may need 15 gpm or more.
Backwashing, recharging, and rinsing – with salt based water softeners resource-efficient regeneration is key. This can only be achieved if a system measures how much water you’ve used and, based on your water hardness level, calculates the best time to start the next regeneration cycle as well as how much salt and water is needed. This is called metered or demand-initiated regeneration and is nowadays the standard for the best water softeners. Make sure that the water softener you are planning to buy uses it, too! Metered system regeneration can save you money in the long run and is also environmentally friendly.
Then we also have timer-based and manual regeneration. Timed regeneration means you specify a fixed time interval between two regeneration cycles. Regardless of how much water was consumed, the softener will always use the same amount of water and salt to replenish its softening capacity. This either wastes resources or you run out of soft water if you’ve used more water than anticipated.
Back in the day, manual regen was the standard. You would have to manually initiate a cycle by switching a lever or pushing a button which is not only inconvenient but also wasteful. Today, we only find manual regeneration with portable water softeners.
There are 3 factors to consider when talking about water softener costs:
- The initial price tag
- The cost for installation
- Ongoing expenses for maintaining the system
More than anything, a softener’s initial price tag depends on its type and size. Larger units are more expensive and salt based softeners tend to cost more than salt free water conditioners.
Unless you like to take on do-it-yourself projects or you are thinking about buying a water descaler, the cost for system installation ranges from $300 which is the bare minimum to more than $1,000, depending on the complexity of the project.
Lastly, we have the ongoing expenses for operating a water softening system. For salt water softeners the largest expenses are salt and extra water used during regeneration. Salt free softening systems are usually low maintenance, although some models require regular cartridge replacements.
With all this in mind, water softeners pay for themselves in the long-term.
Installation Area + Bypass Valve
A whole house water softening system is not exactly small which means you need to make sure there’s enough room available in your home for accommodating a unit. By the way, we recommend separated resin and brine tanks over combined.
Also, a system that comes with a built-in bypass valve makes the installation process much easier.
Some municipalities have banned salt based softeners. Double-check that yours hasn’t before you spend your money.
Where to Buy
Where is the best place buy a water softener system? You have 4 options:
- Buying from the local hardware store – Many large hardware stores offer of-the-shelf softeners at affordable prices. Quality may do with some improvement, though.
- Buying from your local water equipment dealer – Buying from your local water expert has the benefit that you can purchase a complete package with everything you need including installation and annual servicing. Also, the expert should know about water conditions in your area which can be a huge plus.
- Buying directly from a manufacturer – Most water treatment manufacturers or brands run their own ecommerce stores. They guarantee lifetime warranty and the lowest prices. Another advantage is that you can address your questions to the people who know their products best.
- Buying from an online marketplace – Of course, most popular is Amazon. It’s also where you get the largest selection of products.
What is Hard Water?
Hard water is water with high levels of calcium and magnesium. The WHO classifies it as follows:
|Hard Water Class||Calcium Carbonate in Grains Per Gallon||Calcium Carbonate in Parts Per Million|
|Soft Water||< 3.5||< 60|
|Moderately Hard Water||3.5 to 7.0||60 to 120|
|Hard Water||7.0 to 10.5||120 to 180|
|Very Hard Water||> 10.5||> 180|
Water containing calcium at concentrations below 3.5 grains per gallon is generally considered soft water, 3.5 to 7.0 gpg moderately hard water, 7.0 to 10.5 hard, and more than 10.5 gpg very hard water.
How to Test for Hard Water
Again, one of the first steps when choosing a salt water softener is measuring your hard water level. You can easily do this using a simple test kit. Another way is to hire a lab to do the testing for you. A last alternative is to check your latest Water Quality Report. However, this is only applicable or people on tap water.
Once you know how much hardness grains per gallon (gpg) your water contains you can size your new water softener accordingly. Like we said, the system must be able to handle your level of water hardness in conjunction with your daily water demand.
Signs You Have Hard Water (and Why It is a Problem)
Why Do You Need a Water Softener?
It’s a long-term investment. The number one reason to use a water softener in your home is to prevent scale from building in your plumbing including the water heater. Deposits can reduce water flow and eventually clog water lines completely so that they might even break. This affects pipes as well as valves, fittings, and filters.
Hard water is also likely to damage other home appliances using water like the dishwasher and washing machine. After a few years of exposure they may start leaking. The overall service life can decrease by up to several years.
Other hard water problems include:
- Hard water can cause staining and water spots on dishes, glasses, shower doors, sink, toilets, and fixtures.
- Many people that use hard water for showering complain about dull hair and dry, irritated skin. This is because, when mixed with soap or shampoo, hard water forms soap scum that’s hard to wash off.
- Fabrics lose their color and become scratchy when washed with hard water.
Hard Water Marks
On a large scale, water softening is simply too costly and hard water ions are not harmful to our health anyway. This is why most Americans receive water that is at least moderately hard.
An easy way to identify hard water is to look for scale build-up in your home. Check your coffee maker and kettle, and the fixtures in your bathroom. You might also have noticed that shampoos and soaps have a hard time lathering or that your household water leaves persistent stains on your dishes.
What is a Water Softener?
We can group water softeners into salt-based and salt-free systems. The former applies a process called ion exchange to remove hard water ions. The latter only neutralizes scaling without removing anything from the water. One characteristic of a salt-based water softener is that they have to go through regeneration cycles in order to restore their softening capacity.
Both types have their pros and cons. Salt based softeners work with almost all water conditions and hardness levels. Salt-free softeners can dissolve even existing scale buildup.
The number one benefit of water softening is scale-free pipes and appliances.
For sizing a water softener correctly you need to measure your water hardness level and estimate your average daily water consumption.
You shouldn’t be afraid to install and maintain your water softener yourself. For do-it-yourselfers with prior experience it’s not as difficult as it may sound.
Common Types of Water Softening Systems and How They Work
What are the different types of water softeners on the market and how do they work?
Salt-Based Water Softeners
Regular salt-based water softening systems use salt to soften water. They require three main components to function:
- A softener tank – It contains the softening resin and thus does the actual softening.
- A brine tank – The smaller often rectangular tank is the brine tank. It contains salt and is used for mixing brine, a highly concentrated salt solution. The brine is used to restore the softening capacity of the resin bed.
- A head unit – The programmable head unit sits on top of the softener tank. It measure water use, controls flow direction, and initiates regeneration cycle.
First, incoming water enters the control head where it’s directed into the resin tank. The tank is filled with thousands upon thousands of small beads. Together they create a bed called softening resin. Each bead is supersaturated with positively charged sodium ions (or potassium in case you use potassium chloride salt). As the incoming water gets in contact with the beads calcium and magnesium ions substitute the sodium as they have a stronger affinity for sticking to the beads; the sodium goes into solution – ion exchange system.
Ideally, when the water has passed through the resin bed all hardness causing minerals in your water have been removed. Now it’s ready to flow to the outlet port and leave the system.
At one point all resin beads are fully covered with hard water ions. This is when they have reached their capacity and need to recharge.
Water softener regeneration starts with backwashing. The flow of water direction is reversed. Water is pumped into the resin tank in order to loosen and expand the resin bed and remove potential sediments and other dirt that might have accumulated.
In the brining phase, the flow direction is returned to normal. Brine is sucked out of the brine tank and into the softener tank. The highly concentrated salt solution washes over the resin beads which releases all hard water ions and replaces them with a fresh layer of sodium ions.
Finally, the brine and hard minerals are rinsed away.
After 1 or 2 hours the regeneration process is complete and the system can resume its work.
Salt-Free Water Softeners
The correct term for salt-free water softeners is water conditioners. That’s because, unlike salt-based water softeners, they don’t actually reduce water hardness but only neutralize its scaling effects.
Most effective are water conditioners that apply Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC). As explained earlier, with the help of catalytic media TAC crystallizes hard water ions so they remain suspended in the water instead of forming deposits. A study has shown that up to 99.6% scaling can be prevented using this method. Above that, already existing limescale build-up dissolve in the long run.
Another type of water conditioner are electromagnetic descalers – more in the next section.
And let’s not forget conditioners that use chelation to bind hardness ions so they remain soluble. Commonly used chelating agents include citric acid and polyphosphate.
Electronic and Magnetic Water Descalers
Water molecules tend to form clusters so they are less likely to bond with calcium, magnesium, etc. As a result, these ions come out of the solution and form limescale build-up.
Electronic and magnetic water descalers emit electromagnetic waves that match the wave frequency of the water molecule clusters. The clusters break down and have higher bonding capabilities, for example to bind hardness ions which remain dissolved in the water.
The declustering effect, however, wears off after some time, with the ED2000 after the water has travelled 50 feet. Also, don’t expect the overall scale reduction to exceed 50%. A positive side effect is that the remaining scale is soft and can be easily wiped away.
Dual Tank Softener
A dual tank water softener uses two tanks instead of a single tank. The idea is that while one tank is regenerating, the other one can fill in.
Salt-Based vs. Salt-Free Water Softeners
Traditional water softener or salt-free water conditioner, which one should you prefer?
Regular water softeners are more effective at softening water. That’s simply because with the right system all hard minerals in the water can be removed, no matter what hardness level you are dealing with. Removing all hardness ions also benefits dry skin and hair; soaps, shampoos, and detergents lather better; and fabrics remain soft and brightly colored.
Another important advantage of salt based water softeners is their effectiveness almost regardless of the feed water condition. In contrast, the performance of many different types of water conditioners highly depends on factors like water pH.
Therefore, a water conditioner can help dissolve even existing mineral deposits. Most systems are also entirely maintenance-free and certainly don’t need to regenerate which saves water and salt. Water without added sodium is also the only option for people who are on a salt-restricted diet, and it’s better for the environment. One more benefit of salt-free softeners is that the conditioned water doesn’t feel slippery.
Hard Water Issues: The Benefits of Using a Water Softening System
Why do you need a water softener?
A scale-free plumbing system is the number one benefit of using a water softener. This also includes your water-using home appliances. Maintenance and repairs will be required less frequently and overall the system will last as much as 30 percent longer.
Water Heater Efficiency
With soft water, the efficiency of your water heaters increases. Consequently, your energy cost goes down.
No More Staining
Clean glassware and silverware without water spots and no staining in sinks, toilets, and showers.
Smooth Skin and Hair
Irritated, dry skin and hair is a common side effect of hard water. Soft water makes them much smoother.
Soap, detergent, and shampoo lather much easier.
More Efficient Cleaning
Without spotting and staining, your daily or weekly cleaning routine only takes half as long.
Your laundry and all other fabric will be much brighter and softer to the touch when washed with soft water.
Grain Capacity: How to Size a Water Softener
The grain rating or capacity of water softeners range from 8,000 all the way up to 110,000 and possibly even higher. It describes the maximum amount of hardness grains a system is able to remove before it needs to recharge. Another way to describe grain capacity is in cubic feet.
It is obvious why correct water softener sizing is critical:
For one thing, a water softener that’s too small will use up all its softening capacity quickly so that frequent regeneration cycles are required. This in turn results in increased salt and water wastage. Then again, buying too large of a system means you are spending your money on something that you don’t really need.
The first step to sizing a water softener the right way is to determine your water hardness level measured in grains per gallon. Then you also need to know your average daily water usage (check your last water bill!).
Let’s say your water hardness level is 12 gpg and the average amount of water you use on a daily basis is 320 gallons. In this case a water softener would have to remove 3,840 hardness grains per day. About once a week a water softener needs to regenerate to flush out all accumulated hardness and potential dirt, and of course to replenish its softening capacity. 7 days times 3,840 hardness grains per day equals 26,880 grains that need to be removed in a one-week period.
That’s not the end of the story, though, because it is inefficient to use up and recharge 100 percent of a softener’s capacity. Without going into too much detail, to regenerate an entire resin bed requires a disproportionately high amount of salt, whereas partial regeneration is much more efficient. This aspect is called salt efficiency.
To give you an example, fully recharging a 32,000-grain water softener may use 15 pounds of salt. To recharge close to 90% of the capacity only requires around 9 pounds of salt – for the same system!
Simply put, you want to buy a system with a higher grain capacity than you need according to your calculation from above. To remove 26,880 grains per week choosing a 40,000 or 48,000-grain unit makes sense.
How to Install Your Water Softener
Installing a water softening system makes a great do-it-yourself project, plus you can save money by not hiring a professional installer. The following section shall give you a general idea of what is expecting you.
Water Softener Installation Diagram
A whole home water softener needs to be installed at the main water line. The best place is usually in the basement or garage as long as no freezing temperatures occur.
Tools & Supplies
You should prepare these tools and supplies:
- Pipe cutter or hacksaw
- Slip joint pliers
- Tape measure
- Teflon tape
- Copper or flex tubing
- Adaptors and fittings as needed
- Air gap fitting
- Soldering equipment if you want to use copper tubing
Water Softener Installation Instructions
Please consider these general installation instructions and keep in mind to follow the instructions as provided by your system manufacturer:
- Seal all threaded ends with Teflon tape unless instructed otherwise.
- Close the main water valve.
- Turn off any electric water heater.
- Open nearby outlets to drain all remaining water.
- Remove a section from the main line. Sand down sharp edges.
- Install the bypass valve to the water softener control head.
- Optional: Install additional shut-off valves and a bypass.
- Connect the incoming water to the inlet port of the water softener. Also connect the outgoing water to the system outlet port. We recommend flex tubing combined with shark bite fittings for this. This way you don’t have to weld.
- Make a drain connection using the drain line. Do the same for the brine tank overflow.
- Connect brine and resin tank using the brine line.
- Fill the brine tank with salt.
- Put the water softener into bypass mode and slowly open the main water valve.
- Check for leaks.
- Put the water softener into service mode.
- Check for leaks.
- Allow any air and installation debris to be flushed out of your water pipes
- Power up the water softener and continue with the system programming.
Maintaining Your Water Softener
Refilling salt is the easiest water softener maintenance task. You just need to check the salt level once a month or so. Add new salt when the brine tank is filled to less than 25% and don’t fill more than two-third to prevent salt bridging.
Removing Salt Bridges
Salt bridges stop salt from falling to the bottom of the tank which is where the brine forms. Without highly concentrated salt brine your water softener won’t be able to regenerate properly which is why it’s important to regularly check for and remove any salt bridges.
One indicator is that the salt level stays the same over a longer period of time. However, if there is a bridge all salt beneath it may have already been used up.
You can easily test for salt bridging by gently hitting on the side of the brine tank. If it’s firm there may be a bridge. What you should do is use a broom handle to push all the way down to the bottom of the tank. If you hit something solid then there definitely is a bridge. Crush it using the broom handle but be careful not to damage the tank itself or the salt grid.
Cleaning the Brine Tank
About once a year your brine tank requires cleaning. This is especially the case if there is salt mushing which is a thick layer of recrystallized salt at the base of the tank. The mush may clog the brine well and cause overflowing. Another reason to clean a brine tank is when there is mold or a lot of dirt.
The best time for cleaning is when the tank is almost empty. This way you don’t have to take it all out by hand. You also need to remove any remaining water. You can use a shovel for this. Even better is a shop vacuum. If the salt at the bottom is too hard break it loose with a broom handle or any sharp tool first.
Then you can clean the inside of the tank with a mild detergent solution. In case of mold use a mold remover. Rinse thoroughly and add salt afterwards. Lastly, set a regeneration cycle for the coming night.
Cleaning the Resin Bed
Cleaning the resin bed of a water softener is only really necessary if your water supply contains high iron or manganese or organic compound (like tannins) levels which can all lead to fouling.
A specialized resin cleaner is what you need. It removes all contamination and restores the resin’s softening capacity and extends the overall service life. But you have to check that the cleaner is suited for your specific water softener and the resin bed it contains so double-check with the manufacturer. Then all you need to do is follow the provided instructions.
How often is cleaning the resin bed necessary? It depends on your water conditions. Most experts recommend between 1 and 4 times a year.
Cleaning the Brine Injector/Venturi Valve
Water softeners use either a brine injector or a venturi valve for drawing brine into the resin tank. Both contain a screen to block dirt which will eventually clog up and require cleaning. You should check the screen twice a year and remove any accumulated sediment. It’s best if you consult the system manual for this.
The Best and Most Trusted Water Softener Brands
Fleck by Pentair
Fleck is brand which is owned by Pentair. Fleck control valves are super popular among users due to their great performance combined with affordability. Fleck SXT valves are some of the most sought after softeners on the market.
SpringWell Water is our favorite brand. The systems are not the cheapest but they perform exactly as advertised and the company’s customer service is unmatched.
Crystal Quest sells dual tank water softeners.
GE softeners are of-the-shelf products designed by the General Electric Company. Their main advantage is reasonable price tags.
WaterBoss provides all kinds of water treatment including 3 different water softeners.
Genesis water softeners are sold by Discount Water Softeners, Inc. For proprietary reasons, though, the actual manufacturer is not disclosed.
Morton started as a company selling seasoning salt. Since 2002, the company also offers their own line of home water softening systems.
Culligan uses a franchise model to sell its whole house water filter and softener systems for home, commercial, and industrial use.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
What brand of water softener is best?
In our opinion, the best brand is SpringWell. You can read our reviews on this page to find out why.
How do I know which water softener to buy?
Most importantly, you need to buy a system that’s sized according to your hard water level and average daily water use.
Is it bad to oversize a water softener?
Oversizing is not as bad as going too small. Larger systems are more costly.
How much does a good water softener cost?
A good water softener that will take care of the water in your entire home costs around $1,000-1,300. If you live in a large household you might have to invest even more, up to $1,800.
What size water softener do I need for a family of 2?
A grain capacity of 32,000 should be sufficient.
Why are water softeners banned in some counties?
That’s because water softeners releases excess sodium into the water system and also use extra water when regenerating. Both are a burden for the environment especially in areas where water is scarce.
A water softener can make a great addition to your home. You just need to install one that’s suited for your water conditions and daily water consumption. Personally, we find the SpringWell SS to be the best salt based water softener. If you want a salt-free softener, check out the SpringWell FutureSoft. The iSpring ED2000 is our number one electronic water softener and the On The Go OTG4-DBLSOFT is one of the best portable units.
If you have questions about our water softener reviews please leave a comment below!
- Top All-in-One Water Filter & Softener Combos 2021
- Top 7 Whole House Water Filter Systems
- 8 Best Salt-Free Water Softener Reviews in 2021 (Saltless Systems)
- Best Water Softener for Well Water (with Iron): Reviews 2021
-  http://wcponline.com/2011/06/07/role-cross-linking-ion-exchange-resins/
-  https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/grants_loans/water_recycling/research/ion_exchange_water_softeners.pdf
-  https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/dwq/chemicals/hardness.pdf
-  https://www.healthline.com/health/hard-water-and-soft-water
-  https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/publications/home-farm/water-softening-ion-exchange
Jason is the founder of Water Masterz and head of content creation. After six years in the industry, he has tremendous knowledge and first-hand experience on all things related to water treatment.
His credo: Not a single American should have to drink unhealthy water at home.