So you think you may have hard water, and you’re looking for an effective solution to deal with it— perhaps the best water softener to take care of the issue.
Before we can find the right water softener for your home, however, let’s take a look at what hard water really is, how to determine if it’s an issue to be addressed in your household, and the ultimate ways to handle hard-water-related problems.
What is Hard Water?
Hard water contains a large amount of dissolved compounds of calcium and magnesium, among other minerals.
Specifically, any types of water with more than 7 grains per gallon (gpg) of calcium carbonate is considered hard water.
The hardness level can also be expressed in parts per million (ppm), or milligrams per liter (mg/L).
- What is Hard Water?
- The Problems with Hard Water
- Signs You Have Hard Water
- The Benefits of Water Softening Systems
- How to Soften Hard Water
- How to Choose a Good Water Softener
- Reviews of the Best Water Softeners 2021
- 1. Springwell Softener System – Best Buy in 2021
- 2. Fleck 5600SXT Water Softener – Best Salt-Based Water Softener
- 3. Fleck Iron Pro 2 Water Softener – Best for Well Water with Iron
- 4. Pelican Salt-Free Water Softener – Best Salt-free Water Softener/Conditioner
- 5. iSpring ED2000 Whole House Water Softener – Best Electronic Water Softener
- Best Water Softeners Comparison Chart
- Types of Water Softeners (And How They Work)
- Salt-Based vs. Salt-Free Softeners
- How to Install Your Water Softener
- How to Clean Hard Water Stains
- The Best Water Softener Brands
The Problems with Hard Water
Thankfully, calcium in water is not a health hazard. On the contrary, multiple studies have proved that it can be beneficial to your body in various ways. That is the reason why some quality household water filters may involve a step called remineralization, during which calcium is added back into your drinking water.
Despite all the possible health benefits, calcium, along with other minerals, can still cause problems at a high concentration in the water.
1. Damage to Water Pipes and Appliances
Many households with hard water face the problem of limescale buildup inside their pipe systems, water fixtures, and appliances.
Depending on the level of hardness, the residue can ruin the appearance of the equipment— leaving stains on the faucets, for example. The residue can also wreak havoc on the appliances internally by forming limescale, which leads to broken parts, clogging, and leakage. You will see more serious damage in your pipes, boiler, and traditional or tankless water heater, where the water tends to sit still for long hours, allowing the minerals to stick to their internal surfaces.
2. Skin Irritation
The high pH and mineral content in hard water can be the cause of various skin problems, including dryness, itchiness, clogged pores, and acne. That’s the reason why a dermatologist may sometimes suggest washing your face with bottled water when you’re having an acne breakout.
Hard water is known to worsen existing skin problems such as eczema and dermatitis. The mineral residue is also blamed for hair brittleness and scalp irritation after direct contact.
3. Persistent Stains
The minerals in hard water tend to stick to surfaces. That’s how they create grungy spots and stains on your glassware, tiles, cars, shower heads, toilet bowls, and bathtubs. To add insult to injury, these minerals can neutralize soap and detergents. As a result, these stains usually take extra effort— and extra soap— to remove.
Signs You Have Hard Water
Not sure if you have hard water? There are several telltale signs:
- A clogged showerhead,
- A subtle layer of white residue on your skin after a shower,
- Rough-textured laundry, clothes that fade quickly, and white clothes that turn yellow after a few washes,
- Slower water flow over time,
- Plumbing that requires constant maintenance due to limescale,
- Mineral residue on the bottom of a kettle or coffee maker carafe,
- Leakage and damage to various appliances,
- An unpleasant smell in your water,
- A film of residue on your glassware, mirrors, tiles, or your car after cleaning. If the hard water also happens to contain a decent amount of iron, you will likely find yourself scrubbing yellowish stains from your tiles, toilet bowl, and bathtub.
The Benefits of Water Softening Systems
There are a number of reasons why household water softening systems are becoming increasingly popular.
1. A Scale-Free Pipe System
As explained earlier, the minerals in hard water tend to create limescale on pipes and can cause damage over time.
The whole-house water softening process removes the minerals responsible for the formation of limescale. Thus, it can effectively eliminate the cause of the problem. It’s one of the most effective ways to cut maintenance costs on your plumbing in the long run.
2. Residue-Free Appliances
By preventing mineral buildup, a water softener helps reduce leakage and prolong the life of your household appliances. It also saves you from the foul smell that usually emerges from residue inside your faucets, bathroom sinks, showerheads, and water heater.
3. Smoother Hair and Skin
Shower head filters, while proven to be effective at improving water quality, do not have the capability to filter out hard minerals.
If you’ve been washing with hard water and having poor luck with your skin and hair care, try a water softener. It can really be a game changer in reducing skin irritation and hair dryness.
That said, not everyone likes the sensation of bathing with soft water. While most people think it feels smooth and “clean,” some may find it unpleasantly slippery. It’s simply a matter of personal preference.
4. Softer Clothes
Once your water is free of unwanted mineral particles, you should notice your clothes and towels getting silkier and softer after laundry. Soap scum and stains should become less of a problem, and the fabrics will take longer to fade or fray.
Since detergents and soap dissolve better in soft water, you will need less detergent to wash the same amount of clothes.
5. Clean, Shiny Glassware and Silverware
A water softener either removes or alters the structure of the minerals, preventing them from sticking to surfaces. As a result, you should no longer see a calcium film on your mirrors, glasses, or car after washing.
How to Soften Hard Water
Below are the two most effective methods to take care of water hardness.
1. Whole-House Filtration
Modern whole house water filtration systems are a common solution to sediment, rust, algae, and even harmful contaminants. Unfortunately, most of these systems are not designed for the removal of minerals.
At the moment, the only type of whole-house filter that can deal with water hardness is the reverse osmosis (RO) filter. However, while whole-house RO systems are highly effective at purifying and softening water, they can be quite expensive. This is especially true if you take into consideration not only the initial cost of the system itself, but also installation and maintenance costs.
2. Whole-House Water Softening
Water softening systems can either replace the minerals in the water with sodium or change their structure so that they won’t adhere to surfaces. That’s how softening systems reduce limescale.
Whole-house water softening systems are very efficient at eliminating hard-water-related issues, at much cheaper prices than RO systems. The problem is that some softeners may introduce sodium into your water, while not removing other harmful substances such as lead or arsenic. You could use potassium instead of salt for the softener, but if you also want to filter out the contaminants, a combined setting is recommended.
3. The Recommended Solution: A Mixed Setting
An efficient way to address water hardness is to combine a water softening system with an under-sink reverse osmosis filter. The softener will take care of the unwanted minerals, producing soft water for hygienic purposes in the whole house, while the under-sink RO filter removes harmful contaminants in your drinking and cooking water. This is a well-rounded system, as it targets both types of impurities while being more affordable compared to a whole-house RO system.
How to Choose a Good Water Softener
Here’s our step-by-step guide on how to pick the best water softener for your household.
Step 1: Determine How Hard Your Water Is
So you have all the symptoms of a hard water problem in your household. But how hard is the water you’re dealing with? There are three ways to find out.
The Easy Method: Estimation and Assumption
You may get a rough idea of how hard your water is from this water hardness scale integrated into the US map, modified from the USGS’s concentration of hardness map.
In areas marked white or blue in the map, water hardness may not be a problem. Water in these areas typically have TDS lower than 7gpg, which is deemed soft or moderately hard. There is no need to soften it, as the health benefits from an adequate amount of minerals most likely outweigh the risks of limescale buildup.
However, if you live in one of the areas marked orange or red, which is more than half of the US, it’s very likely that you have hard water that needs softening, but it may vary by city or municipality. The areas with high enough amounts of minerals in the water— TDS equal to, or greater than 7— can become problematic.
The Accurate Method: Testing with a Device
The estimation method may be convenient, but it is not totally reliable, as it’s based on a study conducted on large geographic regions from four decades ago. For more precise results, you might want to get a testing kit, also known as a TDS (total dissolved solids) meter.
These handy tools are very popular in households with individuals who want better control over the various kinds of water used in their houses, whether it’s drinking water or water intended to fill a fish tank.
More often than not, the hardness level will be expressed only in ppm or mg/L on your device. In case you want the results in grains, here’s the formula for conversion:
Hardness in grains = hardness in parts per million/17.1
For example, if the mineral concentration is 190 ppm, your water hardness level would be 190/17.1 = 11.1 (very hard).
The Professional Method: Complete Lab Analysis
For the ultimate accuracy, it’s best to send the water to a certified professional lab for a full composition analysis.
The lab test results will not only be useful for determining the hardness level of your water, but it will also identify the specific elements that contribute to it. It will also reveal if there are any other substances or microorganisms in the water you may need to beware of, such as lead or pathogenic bacteria.
This information is essential if you’re planning to set up a water treatment system to address the exact elements that might be causing trouble in your home water. It may be the deciding factor when determining if and what kind of softener/filters you need in the system.
Step 2: What Size of Water Softener Do You Need? Determining the Grain
A water softening system is most likely installed at the point of entry— the point where water first enters your home. Therefore, the size of the softener should take your household’s daily water usage into account.
When calculating the capacity, you should also consider the time length between regenerations. Regeneration is the process when the minerals attached to the resin bed via ion exchange are washed off, leaving space for new salt to start softening the water again. Ideally, regeneration should be set to occur no more than once every three days, and no less than every two weeks.
The reason you don’t want very frequent regenerations is that the backwash does involve wasting some water, depending on the size of the softener. Additionally, the process typically takes an hour or two at a time, during which you will have no soft water. On the other hand, it’s ill-advised to go more than two weeks between regenerations, even if your system is a high-grain water softener. If you wait too long, a foul smell from the minerals, especially iron, is sure to emerge.
Usually, the capacity of a salt-based water softening system is expressed in grains, which indicate the amount of grains in hard water it can handle in a cycle. The higher the grain, the higher the capacity.
With all that explained, here’s a good formula you can use to determine your softener capacity:
Capacity = Number of People (+1 for appliances) x Hardness Level x 80 Gallons x Days between Regenerations
- The formula is adjusted from one suggested by the City of St. Charles. We changed the amount of water used per day by one person to 80 gallons to better reflect current estimates. Actual mileage may vary, so feel free to adjust the number accordingly.
- The unit of hardness in this formula must be in grains per gallon. Add 5 grains for every part per million of dissolved iron detected.
For a family of four, with hardness level being 9 gpg, and a 7-day-regeneration cycle, the minimum softener capacity should be
(4+1) x 9 x 80 x 7 = 25,200 grains.
If the water has iron at 1.5 ppm, the minimum softener capacity should be
(4+1) x (9 + 5 x 1.5) x 80 x 7 = 46,200 grains.
Step 3: Know Your Budget – How Much Should Your Water Softener Cost?
A residential water softener can cost anywhere between $500 and $2500. Higher-grain water softeners tend to be more expensive than low-grain ones. When calculating the overall cost, you’ll want to factor in monthly maintenance costs by adding $5–$10 for the average 40 lbs of softening salt (or more if you’re using potassium instead of sodium). Also, don’t forget to include the cost of wastewater during backwashes (3 gallons per minute, which translates to 960–1080 gallons per month for a 7-day cycle).
With installation and maintenance costs taken into account, a salt-based softening system is usually slightly tougher on the wallet than a descaler. For those on a particularly tight budget, the descaler might look like the better option.
However, if you have extremely hard water that’s affecting your appliances, it’s better to go for a salt-based softener. When you consider the fact that it will extend the lifespan of your appliances, it’s not necessarily the more expensive choice.
Step 4: Check for Important Certifications and Extra Features
Apart from type, size, and price, there are other features to look for when buying a water softener:
- Crosslink figure
- Automatic features
“Cross link resin”, or S/DVB, in the world of softeners, means a resin that is made from styrene and cross-linked with divinyl benzene.
Cross-linking can get a bit complicated if you dive into the nitty-gritty, but suffice it to say that the number of crosslinks affects the plastic density of the resin in the basin of a salt-based water softener. A higher crosslink means the resin is more resistant to both oxidation and physical damage.
Most softening resins in the US are 8% crosslink, but a few systems (some of which are in our review list) come with a 10% crosslink resin. While the difference may not seem like a lot, it can mean years of extended life for the resin. This is especially true if you’re dealing with chlorinated water, which is known to be very damaging to the crosslinks.
Certifications indicate that a water softener is certified to remove certain elements. While this doesn’t ensure an absolutely error-free experience, it means the device has proved to be effective to the industry standards through rigorous testing.
Likewise, it’s an indicator for high quality if a softener has a Gold Seal from the Water Quality Association (WQA). This means the softener has passed the strict requirements of industry standards and annual manufacturing facility audits. This should give you some confidence in the quality, durability, and safety of the product.
Automatic features can add a major convenience factor to your water softener. Some modern salt-based softeners can add salt on their own, or notify you when the salt is running low. That saves you from being kept wondering whether it’s time to get a little maintenance work done.
Reviews of the Best Water Softeners 2021
To save you time and effort, we’ve tracked down the best residential water softening systems for your home. We’ve combed product specs and thousands of customer reviews to provide you with the information you need to choose the best system for you. In this section, we will explore each model’s most prominent features along with its pros and cons.
Here’s our picks for the Best Water Softeners.
- Springwell Softener System – Best Buy in 2021
- Fleck 5600SXT Water Softener – Best Salt-Based Water Softener
- Fleck Iron Pro 2 Water Softener – Best for Well Water with Iron
- Pelican Salt-Free Water Softener – Best Salt-Free Water Softener
- iSpring Whole House Water Softener – Best Electronic Water Softener
1. Springwell Softener System – Best Buy in 2021
Salt-based systems, whose purifying prowess has proven effective on more than one occasion, are the ultimate choice when it comes to handling hard water. With a 10% crosslink resin and grain ranging from 32K to 80K, this salt water softener by Springwell is a system well worth considering when you’re dealing with an assortment of hard water problems at home.
- Durable resin
- Flexible for households of different sizes
- Smart control using an app
- 6-month money back guarantee
- Lifetime warranty
- NSF-certified components but system is not certified
Few if any other salt-based water softener systems allow as detailed and convenient control as this Springwell does. Instead of configuring the system with three little buttons and a boring, lifeless LCD screen like you would with a regular water softener, you can now make all the settings from your phone or tablet via Bluetooth connection.
Using an app (Legacy View), you can input water hardness level, monitor current water pressure, see how much soft water you have left, and if it’s time to schedule a new cleaning cycle.
You will be able to set the exact time for regeneration. The duration for backwash, rinse, brine refill, and valve settings are also adjustable at the tap of your finger. It’s never been so effortless to maintain a stable supply of soft water while also avoiding waste of resources from premature or overdone backwashing.
A Well-rounded Package
Springwell offers grain choices of up to 80K, ensuring a softening option whether yours is a bachelor’s home or a multigenerational household.
The system comes with everything you need. Apart from the softener tank, head, and brine tank, a bypass valve, mounting bracket, and a drain line are also included. Installation is simple— they recommend having professionals do it, but also have a clear DIY guide.
Because a water softener doesn’t filter water or remove microorganisms, the add-on includes a UV lamp. It can handle a wide variety of bacteria and viruses, from E.coli, and Cryptosporidium, to Giardia lamblia, further enhancing the safety of your water.
However, with its own control head and a smart design, the UV lamp will set you back by almost a thousand dollars.
The Springwell softener boasts a 10% crosslink resin, which lasts years longer than the standard 8% resin on other systems.
Its effectiveness is backed by a six month money-back warranty— you can return the product and receive a full refund within this period, no questions asked.
The system, its fittings, FutureSoft media, tanks, housings, bypasses, valves, and in/out heads are covered with a lifetime warranty against defects. There are more conditions applied if your water comes from a private well, so read the warranty details carefully and discuss it with their sales representative.
2. Fleck 5600SXT Water Softener – Best Salt-Based Water Softener
The AFWFilters softener comes with a softener tank of 48,000 grains in capacity, a brine tank of standard size with float, a 1.5 cubic-foot commercial-standard 10% resin, and a Fleck control system that’s simple to navigate. It’s easily the best salt-based water softener on the market, but for the limitation of grain options.
- Effective (certified to NSF standards)
- Auto + Real demand regeneration
- Simple control
- Durable (10% crosslink resin)
- Offers one single grain choice (48k)
A Complete On-demand Metered System
Like many other salt-based softening devices on the market, this system can regenerate following a preset time cycle. However, what makes it an outstanding softener is its ability to rejuvenate based on actual usage.
The mechanism is actually not that complicated: it measures the amount of water used in your household with a meter, and regenerates itself when it reaches the maximum capacity or by following your preset cycle, whichever comes first.
This seemingly simple feature can save you a lot of salt, water, and electricity. Combined with the timed cycle, the system makes sure you always have soft water while preventing excessive use of salt and energy.
This digital water softener comes with a small LCD screen that displays the current system status. It’s no Retina, but it shows error codes when there’s a problem. That means you can always cross-reference the user’s manual to get an idea of where to start with troubleshooting. It may take a while, but you will eventually find it helpful.
The touchpad is really simple, yet intuitive. If you are capable of turning a TV on with a remote, set-up will most likely be a bliss.
The Fleck 5600SXT is a credited system. Its components have been certificatied by the WQA as a result of passing all testing against NSF standard 44 and proving to be effective at addressing hard water issues.
3. Fleck Iron Pro 2 Water Softener – Best for Well Water with Iron
If you’re using water from a well, iron is an extra nuisance to deal with, in addition to the usual hard water issues caused by calcium and magnesium. You need a softener designed to handle the iron, and that’s exactly what the Fleck 5600SXT Iron Pro 2 water softener is designed for.
- Can deal with extremely hard water
- Large capacity
- Effective in removing iron of moderate concentration
- Needs pre-filter if iron is high
A Strong Capacity
The Fleck 5600SXT comes with 5 different capacity options, ranging from 32,000 grains to 80,000 grains. It offers to bring you the right amount of soft water, no matter the size of your household.
Should you take a look at the hardness scale in the previous section, you will see that water with more than 7 gpg or 120 ppm lies in the category of hard water. The Fleck 5600SXT is powerful enough to handle very hard water, with up to 85 gpg or 1456 ppm. We have yet to find a stronger softener for households with iron-laden water sources.
Designed for Iron
The name of the product, Iron Pro, says it all. The softener can remove, via ion exchange, ferrous iron and ferric iron. It effectively eliminates the root cause of those annoying brownish stains on your tiles and equipment, as well as buildup in the pipes. This iron removal also helps rid your drinking water of a metallic taste.
Made to handle iron of up to 8 ppm, the Iron Pro comes with a fine mesh resin that survives well in iron-rich environments. Unfortunately, that is not always the case with other softeners out there.
Please note that 8 ppm is only the medium concentration of iron. There have been customers stating it operates just as well at 10 ppm. But to be safe, install an extra iron filter if your water is iron-ridden at a higher level. The filter will support iron removal and lengthen the softener life.
There are two ways you can set the Fleck 5600SXT to auto-regenerate: either after a certain amount of water, or after a certain amount of time. The digital touchpad controls are pretty straightforward. Give it a couple of minutes to set things up, then leave the rest to the unit.
4. Pelican Salt-Free Water Softener – Best Salt-free Water Softener/Conditioner
Are you fed up with mineral scale but reluctant to introduce salt into your water? A strong salt-free softener like the Pelican NS3 Natursoft is an easy solution.
- Super effective
- Basic maintenance
- NSF and DVGW certified
- Lifetime warranty
- High initial price
- Does not reduce mineral stains
The Pelican NS3 excels at what it’s intended to: altering the forms of the minerals that are responsible for creating hard water, making it difficult for them to stay in your pipe system.
The system is certified by the DVGW (Deutscher Verein des Gas und Wasserfaches, the German association for gas and water) to prevent 99.6 percent of scale. It also gets a gold seal of approval from the WQA for structural integrity and material safety.
That said, the NS3 isn’t particularly helpful with mineral spots, as is typical for a salt-free softener/conditioner. So, if you’re looking to shorten the time spent cleaning your glassware, mirrors, fixtures, and cars, you’re likely to be disappointed.
A Complete Package
To boost performance, the NS3 comes with a fine pre-filter that can remove sand, dust, rust, and all sorts of sediment down to the size of 5 microns— 1/20 the size of a human hair. The pre-filter eases the pressure on the resin to some extent and improves the quality of the water. It comes with its own mounting kit and wrench, so you don’t have to worry about running to the hardware store for extra tools.
Also in the package are a male npt, rings, and connection nuts—just about everything you need to set the system up. Installation is a basic DIY job, which makes it far cheaper than systems that require professional help.
A High Price Up-front
At the time of writing, this saltless softener (descaler) system costs more than $1600. That’s quite a fortune for a simple filter softener system! For the same price, you could easily purchase the 5-stage filtration and softening system from Aquasana.
However, in this case, you get what you pay for. The quality of water it promises is reportedly unbeatable. Plus, the system does not require salt or electricity, nor does it waste any water during operation. It doesn’t even need part replacements, other than the semi-annual changing of the pre-filter. The BIFL is an investment for sure, but it’s worth every penny.
5. iSpring ED2000 Whole House Water Softener – Best Electronic Water Softener
We’d recommend sticking to a salt-based softener, or certified descaler if you want proven results. However, if you are looking for a more budget-friendly and eco-friendly solution, the iSpring electronic descaler may be worth a try.
- Easy installation
- Salt-free, chemical-free
- No maintenance needed
- Effects not scientifically proven
It’s Affordable and Convenient
The main reason why this descaler is so popular— it’s actually ranked as one of the top water softeners by MSN and The Spruce— is that it costs less than the cheapest salt-based or chemical softeners on the market.
Inexpensive and compact, the unit also earns points for ease of installation. No turning the water supply on and off, no pipe-cutting, no soldering… No professional plumber or handyman needed. Wrap the coils around your pipe, plug the device in, and boom: Your descaler is in operation.
The device works by employing electromagnetic force. This means that you’ll have no noise from the machine regeneration. This also means you won’t have to spend a dime on salt replacement every couple of months.
It Seems to Work— At Least for Most People
It’s easy to be skeptical about magnetic water descalers in general. That said, just because a device is simple and more affordable doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not effective.
In fact, a majority of users have noticed immediate improvements. Toilet stains, bathtub rings, and the buildup on shower heads have allegedly vanished—and have allegedly taken much longer to reappear than in the past. Users have reported that soap and shampoo have lathered better, while shower water has had a more luscious feel.
Smoother, less tangled hair, and reduced skin irritation have also been reported.
iSpring is a renowned brand for water treatment devices, so it’s sensible to put your trust in their products (speaking of which, you may want to install one of their under-sink reverse osmosis filtration systems for better drinking water quality, since the ED2000, like other descalers on the market, does not actually filter harmful substances). If you have low-to-medium hard water, it can’t hurt to give it a try for several months.
Even in the worst case scenario, the ED2000 comes with a 1-year money-back guarantee and lifetime tech support.
Best Water Softeners Comparison Chart
The chart below features a detailed comparison between the best home water softeners on the market in 2021.
|Product||Springwell System||Fleck 5600sxt||Fleck Iron Pro||Pelican Salt-Free Water||iSpring Electronic/Magnetic|
|Flow rate||11 - 20 GPM, depending on model||12 GPM||12 GPM||10 GPM||N/A|
|Operating Pressure||25 - 80 psi||20 -125 psi||N/A||25 - 80 psi||N/A|
|Operating Temperature||36 - 120F||32 - 110F||N/A||36 - 120F||N/A|
|Grain capacity||32,000 - 80,000||48,000||64,000||N/A||N/A|
|Warranty||Lifetime for valves|
10 years for tanks
7 years for electronic head
|5 years for valves|
10 years for mineral tank
|5 years for valves|
10 years for tanks
|+ 90 days money back|
+ Lifetime against defects for whole system
|1 year money-back guarantee|
Types of Water Softeners (And How They Work)
There are four major types of water softeners.
1. The Salt-Based Water Softener
A salt-based softener employs ion exchange, or ion replacement, to remove hard minerals from the water. To be specific, a salt-based softener replaces calcium and magnesium ions in the water with sodium ions that are attached to the resin beads before being flushed out of the system during the regeneration process.
- Affordable in the long term
- Quick to deliver results
- Completely removes hard minerals
- Effective in prevents limescale/buildup
- Eliminates stains and spots
- May increase your sodium intake
- Requires salt refill and cleaning of resin bed
This is the type of softener most commonly used in households, thanks to its effectiveness in eliminating mineral residue in water. In addition, although it typically requires occasional changing of the resin bed, the salt-based softener is still affordable for most households. It’s a financially reasonable choice when compared to the cost of long term damage hard water can cause.
That said, there are some downsides to salt-based water softeners. They do add a small amount of sodium chloride into your water, depending on its original hardness. While this is generally not a problem for most healthy people, the softened water is not ideal for drinking if you’re on a strict low-salt diet.
Thankfully, there’s a simple fix: Add a counter-top or under-sink RO filtration system to remove the salt, as well as other chemicals, heavy metals, and contaminants that a softener cannot handle.
2. The Duo-Tank Softener
During regeneration, a salt-based machine cannot produce soft water. While this is usually set to happen at night, it does sometimes affect cleaning and washing activities around the house. This is especially true if you’re a big family and need a large amount of water every day.
- Large capacity
- No off time
- Increases salt intake
- Requires maintenance
The duo-tank machine is a larger and slightly more complicated version of the simple salt-based softener. It comes with two tanks instead of one, not including the salt container. These tanks take turns to process the water and make sure the supply is stable, no matter what time of day it is.
3. The Salt-Free Water Softener (Water Descaler)
The salt-free softener, also called the salt-free descaler, uses a softening medium— polysaccharide being one of the most popular— to deactivate the scale-forming factors in hard water. This way, it becomes difficult for sale-causing minerals to linger on any surface.
The saltless softener does not remove minerals, which means it does not actually “soften” water. Instead, it conditions the water to prevent scale formation.
- Require minimal maintenance
- Prevent limescale in pipes, and stains on fixtures
- Slower than salt-based machines
- Do not prevent buildup in appliances
Salt-free softeners can be very effective at descaling without introducing any sodium into the water. That’s why they are the best softeners for anyone on a low-salt diet. They’re also ideal for those living in areas where salt-based softeners are not allowed for environmental reasons. Unfortunately, because they don’t remove the minerals, they are not particularly useful when it comes to reducing stains and spots on your glassware, silverware, faucets, mirrors, and cars.
4. The Electronic/Magnetic Descaler
The magnetic descaler (also known as an electronic water softener) is a small device that attaches to your pipe system. As with the salt-free system, it does not remove minerals. Instead, it gathers the minerals and alters their forms to prevent them from sticking onto surfaces. The magnetic descaler is probably not the most effective type of water softener, but it’s still a popular choice, thanks to its affordability, ease of installation, and ease of maintenance.
- Easy maintenance
- Prevent limescale and stains
- Easy installation
- Slow to deliver results
- Do not prevent buildup in appliances
Salt-Based vs. Salt-Free Softeners
The major difference between a salt-based and salt-free softener is that the former removes minerals that cause hard water, while the latter changes mineral structures to make it harder for them to stick to surfaces.
Salt-based water softening systems, however, are the more popular kind. It’s not because salt-free systems don’t work, per se—salt-free systems condition the water, reducing the chance of scale formation. They can deliver about the same results as their salt-based counterparts, so long as you’re targeting pipe limestone. Plus, they require very little maintenance, and you don’t have to add salt every now and then.
So why, then, are salt-based water softening systems more popular?
Salt-based softening systems have the upper hand when it comes to preventative measures. Unlike salt-free systems, they can avert mineral buildup in appliances where the water does not run constantly, such as heaters, dishwashers, and coffeemakers, among others. How? Well, they actually remove the minerals from the water.
Of course, salt water softening systems are not without flaws. They do leave sodium in the water, though thankfully not enough to cause health problems in most healthy adults. Specifically, the mean sodium concentration of softened well water is 278 mg/L (it’s more than 400 mg/L in milk!). This means the amount of sodium you get from the recommended 2 liters, or 68 oz, a day is 556 mg. That translates to 24% of the standard 2,300 milligrams of salt a day recommended by the American Heart Association.
The harder the water, the more salt the whole-house softening process will leave behind. This means if your water is especially hard, the salt can be a health risk to those on a strict low-sodium diet. In this case, use potassium instead of salt– it works in the same way and is just as effective. Otherwise, an extra reverse osmosis filter under the sink can take care of the salt, as well as many other impurities.
How to Install Your Water Softener
Water softeners are not particularly difficult to install. However, they do require some basic knowledge and experience in plumbing. The reason is that these systems are typically connected to the main water supply of the entire house, and thus will require pipe cutting, pipe connection, soldering, and sometimes ground digging to allow for the placement of the pipes.
If you’re not familiar with this type of work, calling in a handyman or a professional plumber may be the right move.
Water Softener Installation Diagram
You can install a typical salt-based water softener following this diagram below.
What You Will Need
Installing your water softener can take as little as one hour if the installation site is easily accessible and the pipes are in good shape—but it can take up to four hours if conditions aren’t ideal.
You can save time during the installation process by preparing all the necessary tools and equipment in advance.
Here’s what you typically need to install a salt-based water softener:
- Tubing to connect the system to the main supply
- Drain tubing
- Tape measure
- Solder and torch
- Pipe cutter
- Slip joint pliers
- Teflon tape
- Pipe wrench
- Valves and fittings (sometimes included in the package with the unit)
Water Softener Installation Instructions
Here’s how to install a whole-house water softener in 10 steps.
Step 1. Shut off the water at the main line. Open the faucets to drain. Disconnect the water heater.
Step 2. Install the bypass valve into the softener.
Step 3. Place the unit at the intended position. Make sure the system will be safe in harsh weather conditions, such as flooding or freezing.
Step 4. Install 2 elbow fittings to the inlet and outlet ports of the bypass valve. Cut into the main pipe and connect the pipe to the ports. Be sure to connect the incoming water to the inlet and the outgoing water to the outlet port.
Step 5. Connect the drain tube to the drain valve fitting on the unit.
Step 6. Install the brine tube on the overflow valve on the brine tank. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions as to where to drain the brine– an air gap may sometimes be necessary.
Step 7. Put the distributor tube into the brine tank and pour salt to about ⅔ the capacity of the tank.
Step 8. Set the unit to the bypass mode, then slowly turn on the water. Wait until you see a steady flow at the drain line (typically a few minutes) to open it completely. Reconnect and turn the water heater on.
Step 9. Slowly open the bypass valve and wait another couple of minutes for the air push through the system. Open the valve completely and run a backwash cycle.
Step 10. Configure the unit following the manufacturer’s instructions.
Note that features may vary among different brands of water softeners. It’s best to follow the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure your system operates safely and efficiently.
How to Clean Hard Water Stains
A water softening system can prevent new hard water stains from forming, but it can’t remove the stains that are already there. Because hard minerals can neutralize soap, scrubbing them off is rarely a walk in the park.
If you are having no luck getting rid of these stains, read on for some proven tips.
How to Clean Hard Water Spots
Water spots are an easily-addressed annoyance—if you know how to deal with them. They often show up on surfaces that aren’t usually submerged in water, such as your mirror or car. The whitish chalky residue tends to appear right after a wash, when the water has just dried up. But if you act quickly, the spots should be quick to vanquish.
The easiest and cheapest way to clean hard water spots is to use a water-vinegar solution.
Make the solution by mixing together equal parts white vinegar and water. Using a spray bottle, spritz the solution onto the surface you wish to clean. Wait about one minute for the solution to take effect before wiping with a clean piece of cloth. Wipe the area dry afterwards with another clean cloth.
How to Clean Hard Water Stains That Have Been There Forever
The same water-vinegar mixture can be applied to more stubborn stains, but it won’t work quite as quickly. You’ll have to give the solution some time to really take effect.
The steps are simple: Mix up your solution using equal parts water and vinegar. Dip a clean piece of cloth into the solution until fully soaked. Drape the cloth over the stain and leave it there for an hour.
When the hour has passed, use the cloth to scrub off the stains.
If you’re dealing with hard water stains in a toilet bowl, pour about ⅓ gallon of vinegar into the bowl so that it reaches all of the stains. Let it sit for about an hour before scrubbing it away with a non-abrasive sponge and more vinegar.
The Best Water Softener Brands
These are the names you can trust when in search of a water softening system for your home:
Fleck is a brand of Pentair, a company founded over 50 years ago in Minnesota. It’s one of the oldest names in the game, and a leading brand in water treatment in the US.
Fleck focuses on one single thing: making water softening products, and few if any other brands can get on par with its performance in that market. It makes highly effective salt-based water softening systems that are also affordable for most households. Its softeners vary greatly in capacity, making it easy for you to pick the right one for your home.
Whirlpool is not a new name. The Michigan-based company has over a century of experience making home and water appliances. In addition to high-quality water softening systems, the company also offers excellent customer service.
Whirlpool softeners are known for their integrated self-cleaning filter screens, which are ideal for water with sediment issues, such as water from a private well. You can also sign up for a reminder from the company when it’s time to change the cleanser.
General Electric Company, as the name suggests, focuses primarily on electrical appliances, a category that typically does not include most water softeners. However, the few softeners GE does manufacture are tested and certified by NSF and WQA, two of the most prestigious organizations in water quality control in the US.
All GE softeners are salt-based. They come with GE SmartSoft™ technology, which allows them to regenerate based on a cycle that’s preset following the user’s water usage pattern.
Before it was acquired by Pentair in February 2020, Pelican Water Systems had previously established its name on the water treatment market. The brand offers a wide variety of purification products, from UV sterilizers to filters that address very specific contaminants in the water.
Pelican salt-free descalers are certified to be 99.9% effective and come with excellent warranty plans. However, they are on the higher end of the price range, as are all other Pelican products.
Founded only about 20 years ago, Aquasana has quickly gained popularity for the affordability and durability of its products. The brand is famous for its complex systems that can be customized to adapt to various water treatment needs: filtration, descaling, and sterilizing for both communal and private well water.
Aquasana does not offer much choice when it comes to water softening, but their highly effective descalers are worth considering when you’re on the hunt for a salt-free solution to hard water in the home.
Established in Illinois in 1936, Culligan Water products can now be found in over 90 countries.
The company, which specializes in water treatment, offers a large selection of quality salt-based softeners. There’s something for every budget, water hardness level, household size, and water usage pattern.
Headquartered in Ohio since 1970, Kinetico Water now has offices and dealers all over America and Europe. Its reverse osmosis water drinking systems, dechlorinators, neutralizers, and filters are enjoyed in over 100 countries around the world.
Kinetico softeners regenerate by the meter, which helps preserve water and energy. They are designed with twin tanks to provide soft water ‘round the clock.