A water softener has many benefits are an excellent option for homes with light to heavy hard water.   Because it reduces water hardness by removing of heavy minerals like calcium, iron, and magnesium from the water supply coming into the home, a water softener prevents common water problems including mineral deposits and scale buildup on leading to leaky faucets and clogged pipes, damage to water-based appliances, chalky films on dishwasher cleaned glasses, dry skin and hair after showering, and faded colored clothing from the washing machine.

A water softener solves these issues by preventing heavy minerals from binding or flowing through the water. Softened water can:

  • Save money in the long term
  • Provide cleaner hair and softer skin
  • Brighten and soften clothes
  • Clean dishes and glasses better
  • Reduce time spent cleaning
  • Make drinking water clearer and better tasting

How a Water Softener Works

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Water softener diagram

There are many water softeners on the market, but almost all rely on the same principle—ion exchange, a chemical process that substitutes sodium (sometimes potassium) for the minerals that make water hard. In a conventional system, water passes through a tank with a bed of resin beads saturated with sodium, exchanging any calcium and magnesium ions in the water with sodium ions. When the minerals attach to the beads, the sodium that had been on the beads enters the volume of water.  By the time household water exits the system, it is no longer hard.

Over time, the resin bed becomes flush with the minerals that have been drawn out of the hard water. At that point, the water softener must go through a “regeneration” cycle, during which sodium-rich water restores the resin beads to their initial sodium-saturated state. Upon completion of the cycle, the softener returns to regular operation, softening the household water that passes through it.

Types of Water Softeners

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Water softeners

Water softeners work by either drawing heavy minerals out of the water using a process called ion exchange or by neutralizing these minerals so that they are unable to bind together and remain soluble in the water.

There are two main types of water softeners that do this, although in different ways:

  • Salt-based, including dual-tank systems
  • Salt-free, including magnetic systems

Salt-Based Water Softeners

Salt-based water softeners are the most commonly used and effective softener types.  Most water softener systems are salt-based systems, so there are a high number of salt-based options available. They come in a variety of sizes and are appropriate for just about every dwelling. 

A salt-based water softener typically works by drawing heavy minerals in the water, like calcium and magnesium, into a resin within the softener and exchanging them for sodium (salt).  By removing the heavy minerals, the water returns to a healthy neutral state. 

The downside to these softeners is that the resin then needs to be recharged with salt. For most homes, this will need to be done about once a week. These water softeners are also much larger than salt-free or magnetic softeners, making them not the best choice for smaller spaces. 

However, there are portable water softeners that are salt-based.  Designed specifically for portable functionality, these softeners are an excellent choice for an RV, a large boat, an mini/micro home, or an efficiency apartment. An included hose allows the user to connect directly to an outdoor faucet or campground water supply for instant access to softened water for cleaning, drinking, and bathing.

These sand-based 16,000-grain capacity water softeners can be recharged using simple table salt, but they do require frequent recharging with regular use. However, with the reduced size, there is also a lower price, making this option easier on the wallet for simple, low volume instances.

While salt-based water softeners do add salt to the water, it is only in trace amounts that rarely get noticed.  This level of sodium is safely within the recommended range for healthy individuals, but those with low-sodium diets may wish to opt for a salt-free water softener (read next section) that uses potassium, not sodium.

Dual-Tank Water Softeners

A dual-tank water softener is a salt-based softener with two resin tanks. This style is often the best water softener to use for well water due to its better ability to filter heavy minerals. These tanks function in the same way as a single-tank salt-based softener, except that when one tank is in the regeneration cycle, the other tank is still providing softened water to the household.

Dual-tank softeners aren’t necessary for most homes, and due to their size, they can be challenging to place and install. They also carry a higher price tag than the other styles and do need to be recharged. However, a dual-tank water softener can handle more water per regeneration cycle and never run out of softened water.

Salt-Free Water Softeners

Understanding how the different types of salt-free water softeners work, as well as how much water they can treat on a daily basis, is integral to purchasing the right unit.

As indicated by their name, salt-free water softeners don’t use salt to remove heavy minerals from water; in fact, they don’t remove the heavy deposits at all. Instead, they condition the water so these particles cannot build up on faucets and showerheads. While the minerals remain in the water, they are put through a conditioning process.

Salt-free water softeners tend to cost more initially, do not use salt or electricity. These models are also smaller than salt-based systems, so they can easily be used for small- to large-size houses. However, these units may struggle with very high levels of hard water and households with higher than average water usage.

Electromagnetic and magnetic

Electromagnetic water softeners take up almost no space at all so are great for small spaces. Similar to other salt-free water softeners, electromagnetic water softeners do not remove particles that cause hardness in water but rather use a magnetic field to strip negative or positive ions from heavy minerals to magnetize the grains and neutralize them, which prevents them from clinging to surfaces and causing scaling because they are no longer positively or negatively charged, the minerals cannot bond to each other. Instead, they remain entirely soluble in the water. These systems plug into a standard outlet and don’t need to be plumbed into a home, making them an attractive low-maintenance option for softening water. Magnetic models perform the same task but don’t need electricity and require little to no maintenance. However, they are not as powerful and are only suitable for small homes.

Polyphosphates

Instead of removing impurities from the water, the use of polyphosphates conditions the water so impurities cannot create scaling on plumbing or faucets using a filtration cartridge. This type of system is used primarily in restaurants and other commercial settings to protect appliances from scaling.

Full Filtration

Full filtration systems not only soften water, but they also remove other contaminants in drinking water. This type of salt-free water softener functions by passing the water through a filter that crystallizes minerals, preventing them from sticking to one another and creating the scaling that can damage pipes and appliances. They also remove other contaminants, including herbicides, bacteria, viruses, pesticides, and chlorine. Filters on these water softeners can be pricey and typically last 6 months to 1 year.

It is important to be mindful that there is a difference between a water softener and a water purifier. It is safe to drink water from a water softener if the only contaminants are hardening minerals. The water softener will remove the hardening minerals or neutralize them so they cannot bind together. However, a water softener is not a water filter and will not remove any other harmful particles. As such, it should only be relied on to soften water, not purify it. If you’re unsure about the safety of your drinking water, contact your local health department, test it yourself, or send out a sample for to be expert-tested.

Flow Rate 

A salt-free water-conditioning system functions between the main water line that enters a home and all of the water receptacles in a home, treating the water as it flows into the home’s plumbing.

Salt-free systems that use filtration can affect the flow of water, potentially slowing it. Electromagnetic water treatment systems aren’t plumbed into a home’s water system, so they don’t affect a home’s flow rate. With that in mind, the water softeners with filtration systems must have a flow rate that meets the demands of the household to prevent drops in water pressure.

The average household, homes with one to three bathrooms, requires a filtration system with a flow rate of between 8 and 12 gallons per minute. Larger households require around 15 gallons per minute.

Installation

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Water softener installation

One of the main advantages of a salt-free water softener is that they’re generally much easier to install than salt-based water softener systems. While the latter typically requires professional installation, a salt-free system is typically an easy DIY job.

Electromagnetic salt-free water softeners don’t require any plumbing and typically take about 15 minutes to install. This type of water softener has wires that wrap around the water supply pipe with a power source that sends electromagnetic waves through the wire.

Full filtration systems and whole-house systems are more involved as they need to be attached to the incoming water supply pipe but are still relatively quick and easy to install.

What to Consider When Choosing A Water Softener System

Unlike more common consumer items, water softener systems are often not widely understood products, so it can be difficult for consumers to judge the best systems. Before choosing a water softener, take a few minutes to recognize the most important shopping considerations to keep in mind.

Usage and Hardness

Water softeners come in different sizes to meet the needs of different households. Determining which size a household needs depends on usage and hardness.

Determining water usage is as simple as multiplying the number of people in a household by gallons per day. The average person uses 75 gallons of water per day.  So, for example, a family of three will use an average of 225 gallons of water per day.

Water hardness or softness is measured using grains per gallon (gpg), where one grain is equal to 0.002 ounces of calcium carbonate dissolved in 1 gallon of water.

  • 0–3 gpg is considered soft water.
  • 3.5–7 gpg is considered moderate and ideal.
  • >7.5 gpg is regarded as hard water and should be treated with a water softener.
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Water hardness

Multiply the water hardness by the water usage in the home to determine what size water softener is needed.. For example, a home that uses 225 gallons of water per day with a water hardness of 10 grains per gallon requires a water softener with a capacity of 2,250 grains per day.

Capacity

A water softener’s capacity is the measurement of grains per week that the unit can handle before needing to be replenished.

Small water softeners come with weekly grain capacities of 16,000, 24,000, and 32,000. These are ideal for RVs, apartments, and small houses. Medium water softeners have grain capacities of 40,000, 48,000, and 64,000. Use these models for medium to large households. For big families and large properties, a residential water softener with a grain capacity of 80,000 or 100,000 would be most appropriate.

Keep in mind that the harder the water, the more grains the system will need to handle it. A 40,000-grain system would operate very differently with 3 gpg water running through it than if it had 10 gpg water to manage.

Available Area

Salt-based, and even some salt-free water softeners can take up a lot of space. The area where the water softener will be installed needs to be measured and compared to the manufacturer’s installation specifications.

Most salt-free water softeners are smaller than the salt-based models. They are installed directly on the waterline and hang down only 1 or 2 feet, depending on the brand. Similar in size to the salt-free softeners, portable salt-based water softeners are an alternative option for small homes or RVs that prefer a salt-based model to remove heavy metals entirely.

Magnetic water softeners take up the least amount of space, and you can install them without cutting into your plumbing. Typically, these smaller softeners can be mounted directly on the pipe and do not interfere with your floor space. These softeners are the best option to save space in smaller homes, RVs, or apartments.

Bypass Valve

A valve controls the flow of water through a pipe, closing, or opening when necessary. A bypass valve works in the same way as a regular valve, but its purpose, when used with a water softener, is to divert the flow of water away from the softener, giving you access to the hard water running into the home.

If you have just purchased a water softener, this feature may seem pointless. However, a bypass valve can save you time and money by preventing your water softener from using excess salt or energy to soften the water used for watering the lawn or washing the deck.

For those purposes, the bypass valve may be used to divert the flow of water around the softener and back into the pipes. Once completed, just close the bypass valve and restore the flow of water through the softener.

Regeneration Cycles

Salt-based water softeners must be regenerated or refreshed when their salt content runs out. This can be regulated using a metered system or with a timed system.

Metered Water Softeners

Metered water softeners work by counting the gallons of water that pass through the water softener and automatically regenerating when necessary. This system is great for vacation homes or cottages with long periods of disuse because the system will only regenerate when necessary.

Timed Water Softeners

Timed water softeners are set to automatically regenerate the salt within the softener at a designated time. These softeners allow for more control over the scheduled regeneration but will use more salt than necessary if the regeneration intervals are too short. This system could also result in hard water passing through the pipes if the regeneration intervals are too long.

Whether or not the system provides water softening during regeneration—and whether it’s a manual or automatic process—depends on the sophistication of the appliance.

Fully automatic water softeners are the most expensive, but features alone do not dictate price. Size matters too. The correct size for a given home takes into account daily water use as well as the hardness of the water. A simple sizing calculation involves multiplying the number of household members by the number of gallons used per person, per day. Next, multiply the number of gallons consumed by the grains per gallon (GPG) figure. Then to accommodate for regeneration and days of heavy use, multiply your total by three. For the average four-person home, experts recommend a capacity of 33,000 GPG.

Care & Maintenance Tips for Water Softeners

The average water softener lasts for 10-15 years. However, with proper maintenance and care, there are some ways to extend the life of a water softener well beyond this normal life span.

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Water softener salt

One of the most important and basic things to do is check the salt levels every 4-6 weeks. If the salt level of a water softener drops, then hard water will begin to return to the home’s water system.

While checking the salt levels, also make sure to check on the condition of the brine tank as salt bridges may have formed over time. These bridges can prevent the resin beads from softening the water properly and must be cleared to ensure the proper functionality of the water softener.

Using the correct salt in for the water softener type is key to maintaining its functionality. Cubes or crystal salt is recommended for most available models but be sure to read the owner’s manual to make sure.

Cleaning the Water Softener

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Softener cleaner

Flushing the resin bed with a water softener cleaner can help to remove iron and other heavy metals from the beads, allowing them to regenerate with salt properly.

To clean a water softener, begin by dumping all water and salt out of the tank and disposing of it. To do this, dig a hole in the yard away from any plants, line the hole with sand and gravel, and discard the excess brine. Then remove the brine grid from the base of the tank and set it aside. Next, use warm, soapy water and a long-handled brush to scrub the tank’s interior, and then rinse with plain water.  Once rinsed, use a mixture of ¼ cup household bleach and 2 to 3 gallons of water to fill the tank. This mixture should sit for at least 15 minutes to kill any microorganisms. Rinse the reservoir once more, then replace the brine grid, refill with water, and replenish it with salt. Keep your water softener maintained to improve the water quality in the home and prevent any drops in water pressure due to mineral buildup.