The water softener is a device or a system connected to the house’s main pipe to reduce the effect of hard water on the pipes, water appliances, as well as the users’ skin and hair.
It is typically installed right after the whole-house filter, which serves to remove a majority of larger sediments and contaminants existing in the water beforehand, thus easing pressure on the device.
From the look of it alone, such a system will require quite some investment of time and money. Yet, to many households in the US, it is about as an important equipment as the water heater.
This is because about half of the country has hard or extremely hard water – water with more than 120 parts per million (ppm) of calcium carbonate.
Let’s examine how that can be a problem.
Calcium is, thankfully, not a health hazard. It is, on the contrary, believed to be beneficial to your body in various ways. That is the reason why some quality household water filters may involve the step of remineralization, during which calcium is added back into your drinking water.
Despite all the health benefits when consumed, the calcium, along with magnesium and other minerals in the water, can unfortunately cause skin irritations and dry and brittle hair when you shower/bathe in it. The minerals are also involved in scale formation in your pipe systems, boilers and household appliances, which significantly reduces the appliances’ lifespans. They’re also what neutralizes soap and detergents, and leaves stain on your clothes after washing.
There are several ways you can take care of water hardness.
- Whole-house water filtration
Modern whole house water filtration systems can be very effective at removing sediments, rust, algae, and even harmful contaminants from water. Unfortunately, most of them 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 they’re highly effective at purifying and softening water, whole-house RO systems can be quite expensive, given the initial cost of the system itself, installation and maintenance costs, and wastewater. Plus, you don’t need bottled-quality water for laundry or toilet flushing anyway.
- Whole-house water softener
Water softening systems can either replace the minerals in the water with sodium, or change their forms so that they won’t adhere to surfaces, thus reducing limescale.
Water softeners are very efficient at eliminating hard-water-related issues, at generally much cheaper prices than RO systems. The problem with these softeners is that they may introduce sodium into your water, while not removing other harmful substances from the water. That’s usually solved by installing a small RO system under the sink for salt-free, chemical-free and heavy-metal-free drinking water.
The softener + under-sink RO filter is the most practical and budget-friendly solution to hard water and contaminated water, as we see it.
The Benefits Of Water Softening Systems (Why You Need A Water Softener)
There are good reasons why household water softening systems are becoming so popular.
- Smoother hair and skin
Ever found your skin having a thin layer of white “powder” on it right after you take a shower? Or your hair feeling dry and brittle no matter what shampoo you’ve used to wash it?
Few people think of the water as the villain, but it in fact can be. Hard water contains in it various minerals that, while mostly being harmless (and sometimes even beneficial) when consumed, can cause all sorts of irritations to your skin and hair if you shower or bathe in it. Shower head filters, while proved to be effective at improving water quality, do not have the capacity to get rid of all the minerals in it.
If it’s hard water you’ve been using and you’re having little luck with your skin and hair care, try a softener. It can really be a game changer!
- Limescale-free pipe system
The minerals in hard water tend to stay and create limescale on water pipes, especially those made of steel, and slow the flow down. Over a long period of time, hard water can cause serious damages to the pipe, which will require more maintenance/replacement.
A water softener removes the minerals responsible for the formation of limescale, thus effectively eliminating the cause of the problem in the first place. It’s a much better, more convenient, and likely cheaper way to protect your pipe system in the long run.
- Residue-free water appliances
Limescale is a problem to not only the pipes but also various other appliances that use water, such as your washing machine, dishwasher, ice maker, and coffee machine. It can build up and stay on the metal valves of these equipments, eventually causing leakage.
Mineral residue is also usually found on the bottom of the kettle or the water container of a coffee maker. While it isn’t seen as a health risk, it does take a couple years off their lifespans and also make them look a lot less appealing.
By eliminating limescale, a water softener reduces water leakage and at the same time, preserves the life of your household appliances.
- Shining clean glassware and silverware
Always see a thin film of white stain on your glassware despite constantly washing them? It’s most likely the mineral residue from your hard water.
This is also the reason why your mirrors, tiles, and if you wash your car by yourself, the car, do not look shiny. And that stubborn yellowish rings in the bathtub and the toilet bowl that never cease to reappear and grind your gears? Yes, they’re the product of hard water.
Apparently, the only way to address this is to get rid of the culprit in the water with either a softener or a strong filter.
- Soft, durable clothes that won’t discolor
The minerals in hard water stay on your clothes, making them fade faster, and the whites turn yellow very quickly. They also mess with detergents, reducing their cleaning capability, so you end up using a lot more than necessary.
By eliminating hard minerals, a water softener keep the stains off the fabric. Detergents also dissolve better in softened water, and as a result, you will see a decrease in the amount you need to wash your clothes.
The Various Types Of Water Softeners And How They Work
Water softeners come in 4 major types.
The Salt-Based Water Softener
A salt-based softener employs ion exchange, or ion replacement, to remove hard minerals from the water. In particular, calcium and magnesium ions in the water will be replaced with sodium ions from the resin bed before being flushed out of the system during the regeneration (or “cleaning”) process.
This is the type of softener most commonly used in households thanks to their high effectiveness in hardness elimination. In addition, although it typically requires occasional changing of the resin bed, the salt-based softener is still affordable to most household. It is in fact a very financially reasonable choice when compared to the costs of damages hard water can cause in the long run.
Of course these systems are not without downsides. They do add a small amount of sodium chloride into your water, depending on the original hardness level of the water. While this is generally not a problem to most people, the softened water is not ideal for drinking if you’re on a strict low-salt diet.
The best solution? Add a counter-top or an under-sink RO filtration system to remove the salt (as well as other chemicals, heavy metals and contaminants that a softener cannot handle) from your drinking and cooking water.
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 your cleaning and washing activities around the household, especially if you’re a big family and need a large amount of water every day.
The duo-tank machine is the larger and slightly more complicated version of the simple salt-based softener. In particular, it comes with two tanks instead of one, apart from the salt container, which take turn to process the water and make sure you always have softened water no matter what time of the day it is.
The Salt-Free Water Softener
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 so that it becomes difficult for them to linger on any surface.
The saltless softener does not remove minerals from water; therefore, it does not actually “soften” water. Rather, it conditions the water to prevent scale formation.
It doesn’t remove any of the minerals, the softener prevents limescale in your pipe system, and reduce stains on your appliances such as faucet, glasses, or your silverware.
The Electronic/Magnetic Descaler
The magnetic/electronic descaler is a small device attached to your pipe system. It works to the same effect as the salt-free system: the softener does not remove minerals from the water, but rather gather the minerals and alter their forms to prevent them from sticking onto surfaces.
Salt vs Salt Free Water Softener
Should you get a salt-based softener, or a salt-free one? That’s the question asked by many homeowners when trying to find a way to soften their water.
Here’s a brief comparison between the two types.
The major difference between the salt-based water softener and the salt-free one is that the former removes minerals that cause water hardness, whereas the latter doesn’t.
So, do salt-free softeners work? They do, as in that they condition the water, reducing the chance of scale formation. If it’s limescale and mineral stains your targeting, they can deliver about the same results as their salt-based counterparts.
However, when it comes to improving the taste of your drinks, as well as averting the buildup of the minerals in appliances where the water does not run constantly, salt softeners win hands down.
Choosing Your Water Softener
Step 1: Determine your water hardness level
The easiest and quickest way to check if you have hard water is the water and soap in bottle test.
For this test, fill a 350 ml or 12 oz clear bottle with pure bottled water, drop 10 drops of hand soap in, close the lid and shake for about 15 seconds. Note how much foam and bubbles it creates.
Next, clean the bottle and try that again with water from your tap. If it needs about the same amount of soap to become foamy, your water is soft. The more soap it needs to create the same amount of bubbles, the harder the water is.
To determine the exact hardness level, it’s best to send the water to a professional lab. A detailed lab result will also tell you what elements contribute to the hardness, and if you will need more than a softener to deal with it.
You can also get a hardness testing kit or a TDS (total dissolved solids) meter. While this kind of device won’t help if you want to analyze the composition of the water, it’s still a convenient way to measure hardness and get a closer control of the various kinds of water used in your house.
For your reference, here’s the degree of hardness standard as established by the American Society of Agricultural Engineers (S-339) and the Water Quality Association (WQA).
If your water is soft or only slightly/moderately hard from calcium and magnesium, there’s no need to soften it. Some minerals can actually be beneficial to your health.
When the TDS reaches 100 or higher (about 6 GPG), however, it starts to cause all sorts of trouble to your hair, skin, pipe system, and water appliances. Even if you don’t see any problem yet, it’s time to think of a water softener (or if you’re well-off, a whole-house filter that can handle minerals, usually an RO filter. However, we explained here why a softener AND an under-sink filter is a better idea.)
Step 2: Determine your needs: What grains water softener is the best for you?
Since water softeners are most likely installed at the point of entry – the point where water first enters your home, the size of a water softener should reflect your household’s daily water usage.
If you’re a small family (of four people or less), a small softener should be sufficient. If your family is larger, a mid-sized softener or a large duo-tank system may be necessary to make sure you have enough soft water for hygienic and consumption needs at all time.
A good way to pick the right water softener is to look at the grain figure. The number indicates the amount of grains in hard water a unit can handle between regenerations – usually once every week. The higher the grain, the higher the capacity of the softener.
Here’s a suggestion for water softener size from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of Alberta, Canada.
Note that the grain suggestion is based on a 3-day regeneration cycle. If you plan to set up your water softener with a longer cycle, you may want higher grain capacity for the same number of persons in the household and the same water hardness level.
Step 3: Know your budget
A residential water softener can cost anywhere between $500 and $2500.
At the same capacity, a salt-based ones is usually slightly harder on the wallet, especially if taken into account the installation and maintenance costs. If you’re on a particularly tight budget, a descaler might look like the better option.
However, if you have really hard water and it’s affecting your water appliances, going for a salt-based softener is better and considering the extended life span of the appliances, it’s not necessarily the more expensive choice.
Step 4: See which one ticks more of your boxes
Apart from type, size, and price, there are other features to look for when buying a water softener.
Having certifications does not necessarily mean your water softener is error-proof. However, if a softener is NSF-certified to remove certain elements, it means it has proved to be effective to the industry standards through rigorous testings.
Likewise, it’s an indicator for high quality if the softener has a Gold Seal from the Water Quality Association (WQA). It means it has passed strict requirements of industry standards and annual manufacturing facility audits, which should give you some confidence in the quality, durability, and safety of the product.
- Automatic features
If you’re using a salt-based softener, it would be very helpful if the device can add salt on its own, or notify you when the salt is running low. Who wouldn’t prefer some peace of mind instead of being kept wondering whether it’s time get the little maintenance work done?
Review of the Best Water Softeners 2019
To save you the time and headspace, we’ve picked out the best residential water softening systems to handle hard water, and consolidated detailed reviews based on our analysis of the specs as well as thousands of reviews from the customers. In this section, we will explore the most prominent features, as long as the pros and cons of each single system.
Here’s our picks for the Best Water Softeners in 2019:
- Pentair 5600sxt-48k-10 Water Softener – Best to Buy of 2019
- Fleck 5600SXT Iron Pro 2 Water Softener – Best for Well Water with Iron
- ABCwaters Built Fleck 5600sxt Water Softener – Best Salt-Based
- Pelican Water Salt-Free Water Softener – Best Salt Free Water Softener
- iSpring ED2000 Whole House Water Softener – Best Electronic Water Softener
1. Pentair 5600sxt-48k-10 Water Softener – Best to Buy 2019
For the effectiveness, ease of control, and reliability in operation it offers, the salt-based Pentair 5600sxt is easily the best residential water softener to buy in 2019.
A complete on-demand metered system
The Pentair 5600sxt comes full with a softener tank of 48,000 grains in capacity, a brine tank of standard size with float, a 1.5 cubic feet commercial-standard 10% resin, and a control system that can’t be any easier to navigate.
Like on other systems, the unit can regenerate following a preset time cycle (7 to 10 days in this case). However, it also knows when to regenerate by itself.
How is that possible?
The mechanism is actually not that complicated. The unit measures the amount of soft water used in your household with a meter, and regenerates itself when actually needed.
This seemingly simple feature can save you lots of salt, water, and electricity. Combined with the timed cycle, the system makes sure you always have soft water while preventing the excessive usage of salt when the grain capacity has not been reached.
The unit 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 refer to the user’s manual and get an idea of where to start with troubleshooting, which is really helpful.
The touchpad is really simple, but intuitive. If you are capable of turning a TV on using a remote, set-up will most likely be a bliss.
The Pentair 5600sxt is a credited system. It got a certification from the WQA as it passed all the testing against NSF standard 44 and proved to be effective in water softening.
If the WQA gives confidence to a system, I’d say it’s probably safe for us to trust it.
2. Fleck 5600SXT Iron Pro 2 Water Softener – Best for Well Water with Iron
If you’re using water from a well, iron is an extra nuisance in itself apart from the usual water hardness issues caused by calcium and magnesium. Thankfully, there’s a solution for it all: the Fleck 5600SXT Iron Pro 2 water softener.
A strong capacity
Whether you are an individual or a big family of 7 – 8, if you have a hard water problem, the Fleck 5600SXT will have it solved. The unit comes with 5 different capacity options, ranging from 32,000 grains to 80,000 grains, offering to bring you the right amount of soft water no matter the size of your household.
Should you take a look at the table of degree of hardness standard presented in the previous section, you will see that water with more than 7 gpg or 120 ppm is categorized as hard water. And the Fleck 5600SXT can handle water hardness up to the level of 85 gpg or 1456 ppm!
Designed to remove iron
The name of the product, Iron Pro, speaks it all.
The softener can remove, via ion exchange, ferrous iron and some ferric iron, effectively eliminating those annoying iron stains on your tiles and equipments, as well as buildup in the pipes. This removal of iron also helps improve the metal taste of your drinking water.
It can handle iron of up to 8 ppm in the water, and is made with a fine mesh resin that survives well in iron-rich water, which is not always the case with other softeners out there.
Note, however, that 8 ppm is only the medium concentration of iron. There have been customers stating it operates well and is effective at 10 ppm; however, in most cases, if your water is extremely iron-ridden, a whole-house iron pre-filter would be very useful in supporting iron removal and lengthening the softener life.
There are two ways you can set the Fleck 5600SXT to regenerate by itself: either by a certain amount of water used, or by a certain amount of time. The touchpad controls are pretty straightforward, so give it a couple of minutes to set things up, and feel free to leave the rest to the unit.
3. ABCwaters Built Fleck 5600sxt Water Softener – Best Salt-Based Water Softener
Salt-based is no doubt the best choice when it comes to handling hard water at home. And of all salt-based softeners, the ABCwaters Softener is the MVP.
10% cross link media
Okay… How is that meaningful?
“Cross link media”, or S/DVB, in the world of water softener, means media that are made from styrene and cross-linked with divinyl benzene.
People can write a whole book on how it works (if you’re feeling nerdy and do want to read about it, here’s an interesting article). For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that the number of crosslinks affects the plastic density of the resin. A higher cross link means the resin is more resistant to both oxidation and physical damages.
Now, most softening resins in the US are 8% cross-link. Not the case on the ABCwaters softener: it’s 10%. While the difference looks insignificant in numbers, it can mean years of extended life for the resin. This is especially true with chlorinated water, which is known to be very damaging to the crosslinks on the resin.
TL;DR: 10% cross link = a much more durable softening resin = money saved on replacement.
The winner for customizability
The ABCwaters softener can come by itself as a single unit, but there are also combos you can pick for the ultimate water quality in the home.
For the best result, we recommend the full system with the 10% resin with upflow and RO. This includes, apart from the softener, a whole-house carbon filter that can remove a wide variety of sediments, heavy metals, and chemicals in the water, and a reverse osmosis filtration system that you can install under the sink for sodium-free, chemical-free and heavy-metal-free drinking and cooking water.
Depending on your needs, your budget, and the conditions of your water, you can also opt for the softener with upflow filter, or with the RO system. They’re all available, at prices I would say very competitive compared to buying all the items individually.
For the record, the softener is NSF 44 – certified.
4. Pelican Water Salt-Free Water Softener – Best Salt Free Water Softener/Conditioner
Do you not want to deal with mineral scale, but also are reluctant from introducing salt into your water? A strong salt-free softener like the Pelican NS3 Natursoft can be your solution.
The Pelican NS3 does and excels in what it’s supposed to do: to alter the forms of the minerals that are responsible for water hardness, making it difficult for them to stay on surfaces.
Its effectiveness is not only a claim from the manufacturer. 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.
While we’re at it, it also gets a gold seal from the WQA for structural integrity and material safety.
You know what all those labels scream? Quality.
A well rounded package
To boost performance, the package includes a fine pre-filter that can remove sand, dust, rust, and all sorts of sediments down to the size of 5 micron (1/20 the size of a human hair). The pre-filter eases the pressure on the resin to some extent, and betters 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 plumber’s store for extra tools.
Also in the package are a male npt, rings, and connect nuts, just about everything you need to set the system up. Installation is a basic DIY job – you will most likely save money on that.
A high price
At the time of writing, this saltless softener (descaler) system costs more than 1600 US dollars. That’s quite a lot of money for a simple filter softener system, considering that at this same price, you can easily get a 5-stage filtration and softening system from Aquasana.
You do get what you pay for, though. The quality of water it offers is simply unbeatable. Plus, the system does not need salt or electricity; nor does it waste any water during operation. It doesn’t even require replacements other than the semi-annual changing of the pre-filter. A BIFL that’s worth your investment to every penny.
5. iSpring ED2000 Whole House Water Softener – Best Electronic Water Softener
Personally, I would recommend sticking with a salt-based softener, or a certified descaler like the Pelican if you want proven effects. However, if you are looking for a more budget friendly and eco-friendly solution, the iSpring electronic descaler may be worth a try.
It’s affordable and convenient
The main reason why this descaler is so popular: it costs a fraction of the cheapest salt-based or chemical softeners on the market.
The unit itself is cheap. Plus, it is compact, and can’t be any easier to install. No turning the water supply on and off, no pipe cutting, no soldering, not any of the plumbing work that would take hours. No handyman needed. Wrap the coils around your pipe, plug the device in, and boom! Your water descaler is in operation.
The device works by employing electromagnetic force. No noise from the machine regeneration, and you won’t have to spend a dime on salt replacement every couple of months.
It’s simply too good a deal to ignore!
It works! At least for most people
While I personally am skeptical about magnetic descalers in general, I have to say that just because the device is simple and more affordable doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not effective.
In fact, a majority of users have reported immediate improvements: the toilet stains, bathtub rings, and the buildup on their water appliances, such as the shower head, take a whole lot longer time between appearances. Soap and shampoo seem to lather better, and shower water does have 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 safe to give confidence to their products (speaking of which, you may want to install one of their undersink reverse osmosis filtration systems for better drinking water quality, since the descaler does not actually filter harmful substances in the water). If your water hardness level is not yet in the “very high” level, it can’t hurt too bad to give it a try for several months.
Even in the worst case scenario, it 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 as of 2019.
|Product||Pentair 5600sxt Salt-Based||Fleck 5600SXT Iron Pro||ABCwaters Fleck 5600sxt||Pelican Salt-Free Water||iSpring Electronic/Magnetic|
|Weight||140 lbs||20.8 lbs||133 lbs||32 lbs||2 lbs|
|Dimensions||10 x 10 x 54 in||14 x 7 x 21 in||10 x 10 x 54 in||18 x 18 x 49.5 in||7 x 3.5 x 2 in|
|Flow rate||20 GPM||16 GPM||12 GPM||10 GPM||20 GPM|
|Grain capacity||32,000 - 48,000||32,000 - 80,000||48,000||-||-|
|Certifications||NSF/ANSI Standard 44 |
NSF/ANSI Standard 372
|NSF/ANSI Standard 44||NSF/ANSI Standard 44||NSF/ANSI Standard 61 and Standard 42 |
U.S. Green Building Council
|Warranty||+ 5 years for valves + 10 years for mineral tank||+ 5 years for valves|
+ 10 years for tanks
|+10 years for tanks||+ 90 days money back|
+ Lifetime against defects for whole system
|+1 year money-back guarantee|
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 whole house, and thus will require pipe cutting, pipe connection, soldering, and sometimes ground digging to allow the placement of the pipes.
If you’re not familiar with these work, calling for a handyman or a professional plumber may be a good move.
Water Softener Installation Diagram
Below is a map after which you can install a typical water softener.
What you will need
The installation of a water softener will take at least one hour, but usually 2 – 4 hours, given that the installation site is easily accessible, and the pipe system is in good conditions.
Preparing all the tools and equipments necessary in advance will save you a lot of time in the process.
Here are what you will usually need to install a water softener:
- Tubing to connect the system to the main water supply, and 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)
How to install a water softener
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 the water. Disconnect the water heater.
Step 2. Install the bypass valve onto the water softener.
Step 3. Place the unit at the intended position. Make sure the system will be safe in hard weather conditions (flooding or freezing).
Step 4. Install 2 elbow fittings to the inlet and the outlet ports of the bypass valve. Cut into the main pipe, and connect the pipe to the ports. Make sure the incoming water is connected 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 to the overflowing valve on the brine tank. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions as to where to drain the brine – an air gap may sometimes be required.
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, and slowly turn on the water. Wait a few minutes until you see a steady flow at the drain line to open it completely. Reconnect and turn the water heater on.
Step 9. Slowly open the bypass valve and wait for another couple of minutes for the air to be pushed through the system. Open the valve completely and run a backwash cycle.
Step 10. Configure the unit following the manufacturer’s instructions.
Note that the features may vary among different water softener brands, and it’s best to follow the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure your system operates safely and efficiently.