Looking for a water softener, but don’t know where to start? You’ve come to the right place. In this detailed guide, we’ll help you decide which water softener is the right choice for your home and budget.
- Reverse Osmosis Water Softener
- Weight: 4 pounds
- Dimensions: 9 x 54 x 46 inches
- No required salt , electricity, back flushing
List Price: $4,128.32 Sale Price: $3,006.95 You Save: $1,121.37 (27%)
- Salt-Based Water Softener
- Weight: 132 pounds
- Dimensions: 10 x 54 inches
- Easy diy instructions, high hardness levels or very high water usage
Sale Price: $624.24
But before we get to our water softener reviews, let’s take a minute to talk about why hard water can be so detrimental to your home.
What is Hard Water? Why Is It Bad for Your Home?
Simply put, hard water is water that has a high mineral content. When water percolates through deposits of chalk and limestone, it creates hard water. These deposits are primarily made up of magnesium and calcium.
So, why exactly is hard water bad for your home? Hard water results in:
- Bathtub rings
- Soap scum on bathtubs and sinks
- Soaps and detergents not foaming or cleaning as effectively
- Spots on shower doors and dishes
- Clogged pipes due to mineral buildup
- Yellowed and dingy clothes that require additional rinsing to get clean
- Higher energy bills. Water heaters are less efficient because of mineral buildup.
- Skin and hair issues
The good news is that hard water isn’t hazardous to your health. But it can wreak havoc on your skin and hair. It can also wind up costing you more money on water heating costs.
Wait – hard water causes skin and hair issues?
Most people only consider the affects that hard water has on their home’s plumbing and appliances, but it can also affect your skin and hair. The water’s higher mineral content makes it more difficult for soaps and detergents to foam up, and even more difficult to wash them out.
Each time you shower, mineral and soap/shampoo residue is left behind. Over time, hard water can lead to dry skin and brittle hair.
How to Find Out if You Live in a Hard Water Area
You know that hard water isn’t good for your home, but how can you tell if you have hard water?
The first and most obvious sign of hard water is mineral deposits, or scaling. These are left behind when water evaporates. You might notice white, powdery spots on your dishes, or a film on glassware.
If soaps are hard to lather, you likely have hard water. Limescale buildup is also a telltale sign of hard water.
If you live in the U.S., the USGS provides a hard water map that outlines water hardness throughout the country. Generally speaking, the Midwest has the hardest water, while coastal areas have the softest.
To get a more precise idea of how hard your water is, check out your city’s Drinking Water Quality Report. Some water softening companies also offer free water hardness testing, so consider this as well. Alternatively you can test the water yourself with water hardness test strips or a digital water hardness meter.If you have hard water in your home, a water softener is a smart investment. Not only will you be saving your clothing, hair and skin, but you’ll also be taking important steps to preventing mineral build-up in your home’s plumbing system.
Eventually, that build-up can lead to clogs and expensive repairs.
You know that you need a water softener, but you may still be wondering how they work. While there are many different types of water softeners, they all accomplish the same thing: remove calcium and magnesium from your home’s water supply.
The Lifeblood of a Water Softening System
Water softeners are mechanical appliances that connect to your home’s plumbing system and work with your water supply. The goal is simple: trade the calcium and magnesium for something else. Most of the time, that “something else” is sodium, or salt. When sodium is used, the softening process is called an ion exchange.
The lifeblood of a water softening system is the mineral tank. This important tank is filled with zeolite or resin, which carry a negative charge. Both magnesium and calcium carry positive charges. When the minerals come in contact with the resin or zeolite, they cling to each other.
Sodium ions also have a positive charge, but it’s not quite as strong as the charge that calcium and magnesium carry. But when a strong salt solution, or brine, passes through the beads, the sodium’s charge is strong enough to pull the calcium and magnesium away from the beads.
How Calcium and Magnesium Are Removed
Without getting too technical, let’s look at a breakdown of how water softeners remove minerals.
- The hard water passes through the mineral tank.
- The calcium and magnesium cling to the zeolite or resin.
Once the zeolite or resin beads are saturated with the minerals, the water softener goes through a 3-phase regeneration cycle.
- The backwash phase. During this phase, the water flow is reversed and dirt is flushed out of the tank.
- The recharge phase. The brine solution flushes through the mineral tank. The sodium replaces the calcium and magnesium, which are then flushed down the drain.
- Flush phase. During the final phase, the mineral tank is flushed of any excess brine, and the brine tank is replenished.
Essentially, the zeolite or resin beads attract the minerals, and the sodium’s positive charge overrides the attraction, sending the minerals down the drain. What you’re left with is mineral-free water.
Regeneration System Types
Most modern water softeners have automatic regeneration systems, and there are three different types.
The first and most basic one uses a simple electric timer that flushes and then recharges the system on a scheduled basis. When the system is in recharging mode, soft water won’t be available.
The second type uses a computer to monitor water usage. When a certain amount of water has passed through the system’s mineral tank, the computer triggers regeneration. Machines that use this type of system typically have a reserve, so that there’s at least some soft water available during regeneration.
The third and final type uses a mechanical meter to monitor water usage and trigger the recharging process. No electrical components are used, and the tank is only recharged when absolutely necessary. These systems typically have two mineral tanks, so soft water is always available.
Now that you have an understanding of how water softeners work, let’s take a closer look at what types of softeners are available.
Different Types of Water Softeners
There are four basic types of water softeners: reverse osmosis, salt-based, salt-free and magnetic. Each type comes with its own advantages and disadvantages.
Reverse Osmosis Water Softener
Technically speaking, reverse osmosis is not a water softener, but a type of filtration system. It does more than just remove calcium and magnesium. It also removes other contaminants.
Many experts claim that reverse osmosis is the most advanced, effective and economical way to process water for domestic use. It has the amazing ability to remove 98% or more of dissolved solids, impurities and heavy metals. These include bacteria, viruses, inorganic materials, parasites, pesticides, algae and more.
To remove contaminants, pressure is used to force water through a semi-permeable, synthetic membrane. This membrane attracts water molecules, while repelling any dissolved impurities – even impurities that are smaller than water molecules.
All of the impurities that the membrane repels are flushed down the drain. You never have to worry about a buildup of bacteria or strange odors in your waste water. Reverse osmosis water filter systems also oxygenate water, which improves the taste.
Reverse osmosis systems are great as whole-house systems because they work as both a filtration system and a water softener.
- Removes hard water minerals as well as other water contaminants, such as bacteria, viruses and parasites.
- Improves the taste of water.
- No additives required.
- Expensive to install.
- Requires filter replacements, which can be costly.
- Also removes beneficial minerals from the water.
- Generates a lot of waste water.
Salt-Based Water Softener
Salt-based systems are a popular choice with homeowners because they tend to be the best water softeners while still being affordable. These systems work just as we described earlier: water travels through a mineral tank with a polymer resin bed, and a salt-water solution helps remove the calcium and magnesium.
Salt-based systems create what many people refer to as “slick” water. Because the minerals are removed, soap foams easier, clothing stays brighter, and your skin doesn’t dry out as easily.
There’s a reason why salt-based systems are usually the top rated water softeners: they’re the only tried and true way to remove minerals from your water.
- Effectively removes hard water minerals
- Saves you money on plumbing repairs and water heating usage in the long run
- Most systems are automatic and require little-to-no maintenance
- Machines can be large
- Some systems can be expensive to install
- Requires access to a nearby drain
- Requires the additives (i.e. salt)
Salt-Free Water Softener
Salt-free water softeners are also referred to as “conditioners,” and that’s because they don’t actually remove any hard water minerals from your water. This type of system only prevents mineral buildup in your pipes.
To call these systems “water softeners” is a bit misleading. Technically, they don’t reduce the hardness of water at all. For this reason, many people now refer to these systems as “descalers” or “conditioners”.
Let’s talk about how these systems work. Most will use electronic frequencies to change the charge and the shape of the minerals in your water. This is what helps prevent scale build-up in your pipes.
Salt-free systems aren’t all bad. If you don’t have particularly hard water and just want to prevent mineral buildup in your pipes, salt-free systems are a great choice.
- Does not require any additives
- Easy to install
- Inexpensive to purchase
- Removes and prevents scale buildup
- Does not require a nearby drain
- Will not remove all hard water minerals
- Not a good option for homes with very hard water
Magnetic Water Softener
Magnetic water softeners are a bit controversial, mainly because many people are skeptical about their effectiveness. Also known as AMT, or anti-scale magnetic treatment, this non-chemical alternative to traditional water softeners takes a unique approach to the process.
Here’s how it works: hard water passes through a magnetic field to remove hard water minerals. These systems fall under the “salt-free” category, but their effectiveness is still questionable.
Because its effectiveness is still up for debate, magnetic (and salt-free systems in general) should only be considered for homes with low to medium water hardness.
- No additives required
- Easy to install
- Relatively inexpensive
- Effectiveness is questionable
- Not a good option for homes with very hard water
When it comes to effectiveness, salt-based softeners are hard to beat. Reverse osmosis systems are a great choice as well, but they can be costly and won’t be quite as effective at removing hard water minerals. Salt-free systems are not ideal for homes with very hard water, and magnetic systems are questionable at best.
If you would rather be safe than sorry, go with a salt-based softener.
What Size Water Softener do I Need?
Now that you have an idea of what types of water softeners are available, you be wondering: “what size water softener do I need?” That depends on a few factors, such as:
- The number of people in your home
- Your daily water usage
- Water hardness
Naturally, homes with more people and/or higher water usage will require a larger system.
To determine your daily softening requirement, you’ll need to calculate the following:
- Water hardness (X grains per gallon)
- Daily water usage. Multiply the number of household members by 75 gallons to determine daily water usage.
If you don’t know you water hardness use “10” as that is the average water hardness in the USA.
Now, multiply your water hardness by your daily water usage. The result is your daily softening requirement.
Keep in mind that most systems are designed to regenerate once per week, so you want to make sure that you purchase a water softener that can manage your daily requirements.
A salt based system tends to be the best water softener system you can buy. However these systems can sometimes be quite large, therefore if you are looking for an undersink water softener then a reverse osmosis water system or an inline water softener may be the best option for you.
We know that buying a water softener is a big decision, and one that you shouldn’t take lightly. Be sure to read through our top rated water softener reviews to find a system that will meet your needs and fit into your family’s budget.