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Picking the ideal water softener for your home is a big decision and can be tricky if it’s your first time. You need to consider many features, including the regeneration process, size and type.
But there’s no need to panic just yet – we’ve got you covered.
So, here is our buying guide on how to choose a water softener and alternatives to try!
- 1 Types of Water Softeners: Which is Better?
- 1.1 1. Salt-Based Water Softeners
- 1.2 2. Salt-Free Water Softeners
- 1.3 3. Magnetic Water Descalers
- 1.4 4. Point-of-Entry Water Softeners
- 1.5 5. Portable Units
- 1.6 6. Dual Tank Water Softening Systems
- 2 Other Features to Consider When Choosing a Water Softener
- 3 More Tips on How to Choose a Water Softener
- 4 Conclusion
- First, you need to decide what system type you want to get:
- Salt-based water softeners entirely remove the hardness-causing minerals found in hard water through ion exchange.
- Salt-free water softeners only condition the water so that it doesn’t cause scaling in pipes and appliances.
- System size is another critical factor. This accounts for the softening capacity and flow rate that you need.
- Lastly, we recommend you also consider regeneration methods, NSF certifications, and product warranties.
Types of Water Softeners: Which is Better?
First and foremost, you need to decide the kind of water softener you want in your home. To do that, you should weigh the pros and cons of each type.
From ion exchange water softeners to salt-free conditioners, there’s an impressive variety of systems in the market.
The best type one for you will depend on your individual needs and budget.
Let’s discuss each water softener type in detail.
1. Salt-Based Water Softeners
These are the traditional water softeners that use an ion exchange process to free water from hard minerals, so magnesium and calcium.
Each system uses potassium or sodium salt to replace said minerals:
The softener holds resin media layered with salt ions. When hard water passes through this resin, the salt ions are replaced by the magnesium and calcium ions in the water, making it soft.
Over time, all salt from the resin will be replaced. That’s when the system needs to regenerate. A brine solution with high concentrations of sodium or potassium is passed through the resin. The salt ions in this solution line the resin once again, ready to replace more hard minerals from water. All calcium and magnesium that has accumulated goes down the drain.
SpringWell SS – a popular salt-based water softener (more details here)
- Since a salt-based water softener permanently removes minerals from water, it increases the lifespan of your faucets, plumbing system, and dishwasher/washing machine and other appliances.
- Heat exchangers work better in the presence of soft water, lowering your utility bills.
- Scale-free water increases the lathering capability of your cleaning products, detergents and soaps, reducing your expenditure on them.
- Salt-based water softeners also reduce staining and spotting on clothes and dishes.
- They promote healthier skin and hair.
- Since highly concentrated brine goes down the drain during regeneration, it has a negative impact on the environment.
- Soft water feels more slippery.
- Since soft water contains high concentrations of sodium, it will raise your daily salt intake slightly. It could be associated with hypertension and other conditions.
- As these systems need to be regenerated every now and then, they come with an additional cost of adding salt.
2. Salt-Free Water Softeners
The whole idea of a water softener without salt seems a bit sketchy, and you’re right to feel that way. These are better known as ‘water conditioners’ since they do not actually remove minerals from your household water.
Instead, they lower the surface affinity of these minerals, preventing them from settling on pipes etc. Therefore, they aid in descaling instead of permanently removing minerals from water.
One commonly used conditioning process applies Template Assisted Crystallization. With the help of catalytic media, hard water minerals are crystallized causing them to remain suspended in water.
Other salt-free systems use polyphosphate and other agents to ‘chelate’ or bind water molecules.
SpringWell FS – a popular salt-free water softener (more details here)
- Salt-free water softeners are practically maintenance-free.
- There is no water wastage.
- They help in lowering sodium intake since no salt is added to the water.
- Experts agree that salt-based water softeners beat saltless water conditioners.
- The technology does not prevent stains and spots.
- Some models require a costly conditioning agent.
3. Magnetic Water Descalers
Magnetic water descalers are relatively innovative but largely unresearched, which is why homeowners are skeptical about them.
Their manufacturers define them as devices that you merely wrap around your water supply line. The descalers then generate a magnetic field to alter the structure of calcium carbonate or rather its electromagnetic properties. The final result is a separation of mineral particles from surfaces, preventing scaling in the long run.
While the manufacturers seem very positive, there’s not enough research to prove the potential of magnetic descalers.
In fact, a US Department of Energy study showed that magnetic devices have no ‘beneficial effect’ in terms of water softening. However, that’s not to say that these devices are utterly useless. Some studies also report positive results.
Despite this, it’s important to wait for future studies to learn more about the effectiveness of these devices.
- Water descalers do not require extensive installation.
- They are ideal for renters.
- No salt is added to the water.
- The technology still needs to be researched.
- Not as effective as their salt-based counterparts.
4. Point-of-Entry Water Softeners
These water softeners are the standard and serve your whole home. Thus, water passes through the softening tank and goes to the kitchen, bathrooms, etc. Naturally, whole house water softeners have high flow rates and softening capacities since they need to supply water to a large area.
- Whole house water softeners provide a constant flow of softened water to all rooms.
- They need to be plumbed into the main water line.
5. Portable Units
Portable water softeners only have a single tank and an overall compact size. You can take them around, such as in an RV or to a new apartment if you shift a lot.
- They are small and lightweight for easy transport.
- The price is cheaper than point-of-entry units.
- A portable softener only serves 1-3 people typically.
- They need manual regeneration.
6. Dual Tank Water Softening Systems
Dual tank water softeners are ideal for larger homes where soft water is required 24/7, and the occupants cannot afford to wait for the resin tank to regenerate. Since they have two resin tanks, one can regenerate while the other meets the water needs of the family.
You should opt for a dual tank system if you have a large home with higher water requirements. Otherwise, if you use water while the tank is regenerating, it will not be softened, leading to scaling issues.
Do note that dual tank systems need more space, so you must account for that when purchasing them.
- You can meet the water needs of larger families.
- As effective as single tank systems.
- Systems are more expensive.
- They take up more space.
Other Features to Consider When Choosing a Water Softener
Now that you’re familiar with all types of water softeners available in the market, it’s time to look at other features that might make one unit better than the other for your individual requirements.
The capacity of a water softener refers to the amount of water it can soften before it requires regeneration. The capacity is measured in grains (of the minerals removed). A typical grain rating of a whole house water softener is 32,000 to 48,000 grains.
You must select the best size for your home:
- If you get a smaller system, it will require more frequent regeneration, leaving you with hard water occasionally. Plus, the maximum provided water flow will be lower.
- On the other hand, if you get an oversized water softener, it will be more expensive. Moreover, if the softener is regenerated infrequently due to your lower usage, the resin bed will get damaged in the long run.
To figure out the right size for your needs, you should check your water’s hardness and determine how much water you use daily. Multiply both to calculate the softening capacity you need. For example:
A household using 200 gallons of water per day at 11 grains per gallon hardness requires a water softener that’s able to remove 2,200 (200 x11) hardness grains per day.
Nowadays, most water softeners are metered, which means they initiate regeneration of demand. Demand-initiated regeneration technology uses a water meter or flow sensor that keeps track of the amount of water you consume.
Thus, the softener only starts the regeneration cycle when required, ideally when the resin is almost deprived of all sodium particles. The result: you save money due to reduced water and salt usage.
Metered systems tend to be more expensive, though.
On the other hand, timer-based water softeners start regeneration at a certain time. You can set the time for regeneration based on your water consumption. Thus, the regeneration cycle will begin at the preset date even if the resin is not completely depleted or long after it.
The amount of water and salt that goes into the regeneration is regardless of how much softening capacity was used. Wastage is predestined. Furthermore, a regeneration cycle will begin even if you do not need water. For instance, if you’re away for the weekend, the tank will regenerate.
Timer-based softening systems are comparatively cheaper, so you could opt for one if you’re on a tight budget.
Finally, some softeners, especially the portable versions, require manual regeneration. Only go for them if there’s a drain nearby and you’re ready to take the responsibility of frequent maintenance. Usually, these units only make sense for RVs on the road.
The capacity of a water softener also affects its flow rate, which is the speed water is dispensed at. Thus, if you choose a softener that’s too small, the flow rate will be affected. As a result, you may not be able to use multiple faucets and showers simultaneously.
Look for water softeners that come with an NSF/ANSI certification or a WQA Gold Seal since they guarantee the accuracy of the company’s claims.
The NSF created Standard 44 for cation exchange water softeners that lower water hardness from private and public water supplies. The certification deals with the following:
- Achieved hardness reduction
- Brine system accuracy, such as salt efficiency and water consumption
- Water pressure drop
- Material safety
- Structural integrity
Here are the minimum requirements a national accredited laboratory needs to certify a company’s water softener:
- The softening unit must not waste over five gallons of water in the regeneration cycle per 1000 grains of hardness removed.
- The system must remove at least 3,500 grains/lb of salt.
- It should not cause a drop in water pressure of over 103kPa.
A water softener can regenerate its softening capacity in full or only partly. Salt efficiency determines the amount of salt a system needs to do that.
In general, salt efficiency is higher with partial regeneration. For example: A 33,000-grain system may need
- 2.8 pounds of salt to regenerate 14,000 grains softening capacity
- 7.9 pounds to regenerate 25,000 grains
- And 15 pounds to regenerate the entire resin.
It’s important to opt for products that have been used by customers for quite some time. Don’t go for a new product as it may have some bugs initially. On the other hand, water softeners that have been in the market for a long time will most likely be free of glitches.
But then again, you should not go for a model that has age-old technology since that won’t meet the requirements of today’s users. If you’re uncertain, check the company’s website and read the reviews on third-party sites.
Control Valve + Built-in Bypass
The digital control head in a water softening system lets you monitor and configure the unit easily. Plus, the display will show error codes, making troubleshooting a breeze.
Probably most water softeners have a built-in bypass valve these days that frees you of the trouble of installing one yourself. Thus, you can use this valve to shut off the system while you’re repairing or servicing it.
It’s important for your water softener to have universal components so that buying replacement parts is simple. That’s why we suggest going for newer models since it’s hard to find components for discontinued units.
Ease of Maintenance
With proper maintenance, your water softener system can last a long time. Opt for one that’s easy to assemble and disassemble.
On the other hand, steer clear of units that may require a complicated process or additional tools for disassembly or hard-to-access components.
Combined or Separate Tanks?
In some water softeners, the brine tank storing the salt and the resin tank doing the softening are combined. They are called cabinet-style water softeners.
In these systems, the sensitive electronic parts are close to the brine solution, thus, being at risk of corrosion. Cabinet-style softeners also pose difficulty in maintenance and cleaning since every component is in a single cabinet. Thus, emptying the brine tank and declogging the smaller parts can be a hassle.
Check with your local regulations if you can purchase a salt-based water softener since some regions have banned their usage due to the excessive amount of brine dumped in the local water supply, and water wastage.
If there are such restrictions in your region, you should buy a salt-free water conditioner.
The price of a water softener depends on many factors, size being the one with the highest weight.
Depending on your requirements, you can purchase systems ranging from $350 to $3,500 and even more. On average, a water softener costs around $1000 to $2000, although there may be fluctuations in the price based on where you buy from.
On the other hand, water conditioners are cheaper.
Additional costs include installation, which can add up to $1000 in some cases, and operational expenses, including servicing, salt and sewer.
So, when you’re figuring out your budget, take that into account too.
Note: If you do not wish to spend large sums, you can rent a water softener. It is better for people who only need soft water for a short time or want to try a system before actually purchasing it.
Seller and Warranty
If you do not want to purchase a water softener online, that makes complete sense. Instead, you can head over to local stores and get quotes from different companies. You should also ask for softener installation and additional fees to be prepared.
Make sure you choose a seller that has a good reputation and has received positive customer feedback. It also helps to have a money-back guarantee as it will allow you to return your purchase in case you don’t like it.
Secondly, try to choose companies that offer lifetime warranties. Some manufacturers may give you a ten-year warranty for the resin tank and a five-year warranty for the brine tank which isn’t bad either.
Read the warranty guidelines to learn more about the company’s coverage for labor, parts and electronic components.
More Tips on How to Choose a Water Softener
- All point-of-entry water softening systems need plumbing. Depending on your experience, it may better to hire a professional for the job since it’s not the typical DIY project. Otherwise, you can do it yourself and save a few hundred bucks.
- When buying a water softener, check its dimensions first to make sure there’s sufficient space in your home to accommodate it.
- Water softeners only remove minerals and not contaminants. If your drinking water is filled with nasty impurities, you need to invest in a water filter.
In conclusion, there are different types of water softeners. Most effective are salt-based systems. Salt-free water softeners using Template Assisted Crystallization are a solid alternative. Magnetic water descalers work for some people, for others they don’t.
Most systems are whole house systems. Point-of-use water softeners are only used when portability is a main factor.
Apart from the type, other features to consider when choosing a water softener are the provided softening capacity and water flow, the regeneration type, NSF/ANSI certifications, a system’s salt efficiency and several others. You can find all in the water softener buying guide above.
- Water Softener Top Picks
- Buying Guide & Reviews of the Best Saltless Water Softeners
- Best Water Softener Systems for Well Water
- What Does a Water Softener Do?
- How to Tell if You Need a Water Softener
Rory has joined the Water Masterz team as a contributing writer. He has covered all sorts of topics in the last several years.
Outside of his writing work, Rory enjoys photographing the Irish landscape and making music!