water softener full buying guide

How to Choose a Water Softener – Types & Other Options | Buying Guide

Type, size, metered vs. timer-based regeneration – When you buy a water softener there are a few things you need to know.

After all, you want to pick a system that’s perfectly suited to your needs.

Don’t worry, our water softener buying guide will assist you in the decision making process!

Contents:

Types of Water Softeners

There are different types of water softeners that all have their pros and cons.

On the one hand, we have ion exchange water softeners using salt. This is the most common and popular kind.

On the other hand, we have salt-free conditioners, although these are not softeners in the real sense of the word.

We may also differentiate between dual tank systems and those for whole house applications versus portable units.

Which makes the most sense for you depends on your individual circumstances as well as your personal preferences.

Salt-Based Ion Exchange Systems

Simply put, a conventional salt-based water softener relies on a process called “ion exchange” to remove hardness minerals – mainly calcium and magnesium ions but also iron and others – from water and substitute them with sodium (Na+) or in rare cases potassium (K+). This is by far the most common method to soften household water today.

For the ion exchange to happen, hard water is fed into a softening tank containing resin media. The bed is made up of tiny beads charged with Na+.

As the water gets in contact with the resin, the Na+ ions are replaced with calcium and magnesium ions and thus removed from the water making it soft and ready at your disposal.

After a while, all sodium will be depleted and the resin beads covered with hardness minerals. This is when the softener has to regenerate.

Therefore, a highly saturated brine solution is cycled through the resin tank. All hard water ions dissolve into water once more and the resin beads are recharged. Lastly, the brine which now contains all the calcium and magnesium is flushed down the drain.

Too complicated? The following video explains the softening + regeneration sequence really well. Don’t worry, you only have to watch 54 seconds of it:

The pros and cons of ion exchange water softeners include:

  • Prevention of the accumulation of scale increases the longevity of your home appliances and plumbing system (saves you money on servicing and repairs). Also, heat exchangers will work more efficiently reducing energy costs.
  • You can make savings in toiletries, detergents and other cleaning products due to improved lathering and overall easier cleaning.
  • Reduced spotting
  • Healthier looking hair and skin

You can find reviews of our favorite water softeners and conditioners here. Or do you need more good reasons to buy an ion exchanger?

  • Probably the biggest concern is the environmental impact of releasing relatively large amounts of salt into the wastewater supply.
  • Salt and water required for regeneration cause additional costs. Also, your sewer bill will rise.
  • Soft water has a slippery feel that requires getting used to.
  • Drinking soft water or using it for cooking will increase your daily sodium/potassium intake. Both were found to be a factor in hypertension, high blood pressure and other diseases. This is why the WHO suggests high risk individuals to seek medical advice before installing an ion exchanger in their home. Or simply install a separate cold water line providing untreated water at your kitchen sink.

Salt-Free Softeners

Next we have salt-free softeners which we shouldn’t call “softeners” but “conditioners” really. Why? Because no matter what treatment method they use, they won’t actually remove any hard minerals from water. What they try to achieve instead is stop those minerals from sticking to surfaces and building up in pipes and appliances forming deposits.

In other words, they have a mere descaling effect. The general consensus is that saltless conditioners are better than no water softener at all, but not as effective as traditional salt-based systems.

Treatment methods include the use of citric acid or polyphosphate as chelating agents that bind hard water ions so they remain soluble. Other conditioners make use of catalytic media that causes calcium carbonate to form into large crystals that have a weak surface affinity.

Advantages and disadvantages:

  • Can be virtually maintenance-free
  • No salt added to your water which is great if you are concerned about your sodium intake
  • Generate zero wastewater
  • Might not affect spotting and staining
  • Some conditioners rely on a softening agent to function – at additional cost.

Magnetic Descalers

Magnetic descalers are somewhat controversial to say the least.

According to their manufacturers, these electronic “plug-and-play” devices simply wrap around the main water line (ideal for renters) generating a magnetic field that changes the electromagnetic properties of calcium carbonate. As a result, the mineral particles are repelled by pipe surfaces and each other which in turn prevents scaling.

However, a study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy has shown that “No beneficial effect was found when using the magnetic device“. In contrast, numerous users have reported good results.

All in all, further studies are needed to assess the true impact potential of magnetic descalers.

Dual Tank Systems

The idea behind dual tank ion exchange water softeners is that while one resin tank is regenerating the other is still available to provide soft water if need be.

Obviously, this only appeals to families or households with irregular schedules – think shift work. Why? Because regeneration is usually set to run overnight so when there is no or only very low demand for soft water.

Still, if water is used during a regeneration cycle it will not be softened, at least with a regular system. If that poses a problem for you then you should seriously consider a dual tank softener.

Tip: When shopping for a dual tank setup keep in mind that it requires more space.

Point-of-Entry (POE) vs. Portable Units

Most water softeners are designed to serve entire homes. We call them point-of-entry (POE) or whole house systems.

With a POE softener, all water has to pass through its softening tank before being distributed to the various bathrooms, kitchen, garage, etc. Consequently, it has to have a higher capacity and flow rate than a portable point-of-use (POU) unit designed for use in campers or outdoors such as a car wash.

Portable softeners are relatively small and usually consist of a single tank only. Due to their compact size the amount of water they can handle is very limited. Above that, most POU units require manual regeneration.

As you might expect, whole house softeners are much pricier than their portable counterparts.

Other Options & Considerations

Having discussed the different types of water softeners one can buy, we wanted to talk about a few more options and considerations that you should take into account when choosing a model that you see a good fit.

man thinking

1. Price

How much a water softener costs depends on its type, size, brand and features.

Long story short, you can spend anywhere between $350 to $3,500 USD and more. A standard ion exchanger usually ranges around $350 to $1,000 USD, although prices can vary quite significantly from one retailer to the next. Conditioners are cheaper, especially magnetic descalers.

A standard installation adds another $200 to $500 USD if you don’t want to do the setup yourself.

Lastly, we must not forget recurring operating costs (salt or other softening agent, water, sewer, servicing).

This might sound like a lot right now, but remember that a softener that functions properly will pay for itself down the road.

2. Capacity (Size) & Flow Rate

The size or capacity of a water softener indicates how many grains of hardness it can remove before it needs to regenerate. Capacities range from 8,000 all the way up to 80,000 grains.

And because softening is a function of time, size also determines flow rate, so how many soft water outlets you can use simultaneously. The bottom line is that choosing the right size is crucial:

  • A system that’s undersized will exhaust ahead of schedule, might bleed hard water and reduce pressure & flow, require more time and money to maintain, and wear out quicker.
  • An oversized unit is not only expensive, infrequent regeneration cycles will also cause damage to its resin bed.

How to size a water softener the right way? First and foremost, you need to determine your water hardness level and average daily water consumption to figure out your required total grain capacity.

faucet running

Typical Water Use of Modern Outlets

  • Faucets: 1.0 gpm
  • Toilet: 3.0 gpf (gallons per flush)
  • Shower: 2.0 – 2.5 gpm
  • Dishwasher: 6.0 – 16.0 gpl (gallons per load)
  • Washing Machine: 25.0 gpl (gallons per load)

3. Metered vs. Timer-Based Regeneration – Which One Do You Pick?

Today, most modern water softeners work with metered a.k.a. demand-initiated regeneration (DIR) which is a good thing because you do want metered regeneration.

The technology makes use of an electronic sensor or a mechanical water meter to measure your water consumption. This allows the softener to only start a regeneration cycle if and when necessary, and that is when the resin is almost depleted or after a predetermined amount of water has been used.

The benefit is high salt and water efficiency saving you money and contributing to a better environment.

On a side note: Some DIR systems have smaller tanks for shorter regeneration cycles. The goal here is to limit hard water leakage. Others come with a second resin tank (see dual tank systems). Some will even study your water usage patterns and fine-tune regeneration accordingly.

On the other side we have timer-based softeners. As the name suggests, regeneration starts based on a time clock and a preset time and day regardless of your prior water consumption. Thereby, a system will always use the same amount of salt and water.

This is why careful thought must be given to the selected settings, such as the time interval, in order to prevent wastage but also to make sure that you don’t run out of soft water prematurely.

The problem, however, is what if you do a lot of laundry or fill up your swimming pool in the summer? What is often done in practice is to be more generous with the regeneration schedule and salt dose to add a buffer for unexpected overuse. Obviously, this is more costly to operate.

Likewise, if you go on vacation and don’t use any water at all, every grain of salt and every drop of water that is flushed down the drain during the next regeneration cycle is a complete waste.

Fortunately, at least some time-based softeners come with an automatic adjustment feature to slightly increase salt efficiency.

What is the price difference between a timed and a metered system? The former is usually a little cheaper. But considering how much more you spend over time, the price difference becomes negligible.

stopwatch

For the sake of completeness, we also wanted to mention manually regenerated water softeners which have neither timers nor meters. Instead they feature a simple lever to let you initiate regeneration whenever you want to.

This is very inconvenient for most applications and usually only make sense if you lack a nearby drain for example. The exception are portable softeners where manual regeneration is common practice.

4. Proven Technology

Look out for products that have been on the market and in customer homes for more than a few months to rule out potential bugs. Something that has been around for a long time will have any glitches worked out years ago.

At the same time, you don’t want to go too old and end up with prehistoric technology that is both inefficient and difficult to maintain.

You can check customer feedback on review sites and popular marketplaces to find out how well a product does its job.

5. Certifications

No matter what kind of water treatment system you buy, we always recommend our readers to look out for NSF/ANSI certifications that substantiate a manufacturer’s performance claims.

Standard 44 was established for cation exchange water softeners designed to reduce hardness from public or private water supplies and regenerated with sodium or potassium chloride.

Basically, it gives you peace of mind that your system is quality and safe.

The scope of the standard includes:

  • Material safety
  • Structural integrity
  • Accuracy of the brine system (water consumption and salt efficiency)
  • Rated pressure drop
  • Reduction of hardness
  • Reduction of specific contaminants (e.g. barium and radium 226/228)

Minimum requirements to earn a certification awarded by a national accredited laboratory are:

  • System must remove a minimum of 3,350 hardness grains per pound of salt used (look for “grains per pound of salt”-rating – learn more)
  • Softener must not waste more than 5 gallons of regenerant water per 1,000 grains of hardness removed
  • Pressure drop no more than 15 psig (103 kPa) at rated service flow
  • End point at 1 grain per gallon hardness

Information regarding a system’s salt efficiency can usually be found in the manual or online. If you can’t find it ask the supplier for a performance data sheet. Details on water consumption are often missing (publishing not required).

Salt Efficiency Ratings

Salt efficiency ratings of a 33,000-grain system may be presented like this:

  • 13,000 @ 2.6 lbs.
  • 27,600 @ 8.3 lbs.
  • 33,000 @ 14.1 lbs.

It shows how much salt the softener uses at full regeneration (14.1 lbs) and partial regeneration (2.6 lbs regenerating 13,000 grains respectively 8.3 lbs recharging 27,600 grains).

If you do the math, at 2.6 and 8.3 lbs the achieved grains/pound of salting ratings fulfill the requirements of NSF Standard 44 with a 10% tolerance.

Another certification to look out for is the WQA Gold Seal.

Bottom line: Don’t be fooled by unsubstantiated claims.

6. Digital Control Unit

A digital control head allows for easy configuration and monitoring of day-to-day operation. Furthermore, a display that shows you an error code is a great help when troubleshooting.

7. Bypass Valve

A softener with a built-in bypass is easy to operate and saves you from the extra hassle of installing one. The bypass can be used if you need to service or repair your system requiring temporary shutoff.

8. Maintenance

Speaking of maintenance, a unit that is easy to service is likely to last longer.

Points are awarded for components that are easy to take apart as well as fittings and connectors made from durable materials.

Drawbacks include a complicated disassembly as well as injectors and valves that are hard to access.

Again, make sure to read some customer ratings to learn more about how a certain product ranks.

9. Universal Components

Universal components are important when it comes to buying replacements parts for your water softener in future. You might find it difficult to repair a name-brand product build with proprietary components that was discontinued years ago.

10. Separated vs. Combined Resin and Brine Tank(s)

The brine tank stores the salt and is also used to mix brine. The resin tank is where the softening action takes place. Both can either be separated from each other or combined.

A softener with a separated brine and resin tank is also known as a side-by-side unit. It’s the preferable option if you have the space.

A cabinet-style system houses everything in a single cabinet which can make cleaning more difficult, especially if you want to empty the brine tank. This is also why you want to use nothing but high-purity salt to prevent smaller parts from clogging.

What’s more, with side-by-side softeners the sensitive electronics are on top of the media tank and thus out of reach for the highly corrosive brine solution. This is not the case for many cabinet-style units.

11. The Seller

If you do not want to buy online which is our first choice because you have a vast selection and the best prices, make sure to get a couple of quotes from local companies for comparison. Remember to inquire about additional installation fees and stay away from sellers that try to pressure you into making a rushed decision.

You want someone reputable and accredited with good customer feedback. Pay attention to warranties and other after-sale services. A money-back guarantee wouldn’t hurt either.

Buying local has the advantage that the water treatment professionals know what the water is like in your area. They will be able to tell you what works and what doesn’t. They can also review your plumbing and discuss further concerns.

12. Warranty

Some manufacturers provide separate warranties for different system components. You might get 5 years on the brine tank and 10 on the resin tank.

Thus, carefully review all details to ensure coverage on parts – electronics in particular – and labor.

drop shield

13. Municipal Regulations

Some local authorities have banned the use of salt-based water softeners. This has to do with the relatively high amount of wastewater they produce when regenerating and the discharge of excess sodium.

In case of restrictions you should consider opting for a salt-free conditioner.

What Else to Look For + Tips

  • Check the dimensions of your future water softener to make sure it actually fits in your home.
  • Every POE system needs to be plumbed in. This requires access to the main water line, a nearby drain and an electrical outlet. If you are handy with tools you can do the installation yourself in order to save money. If not, almost any plumber should be able to do it for you at a reasonable price.
  • Renting gives you the opportunity to try before you buy. It’s also ideal if you need access to softened water for a short time only. However, keep in mind that it’s less cost effective in the long run.
  • A softener is not a filter. If you have some nasty contaminants in your water and you want them removed you need to add an extra filtration stage.
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If you have any questions about how to choose a water softener please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!

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2 comments
jaclyn says last month

Hello!
I’ve read so much on your site and love the helpful content provided, thanks!
My situation is slightly odd and I don’t know how to choose a water softener based on my needs: 6 bathrooms, 5 people, 7k sq ft house, on a private well, no water filter needed, just very hard water. We are not handy people, so a system that needs lots of filter switching and maintenance would be a bust. Please advise!!

Reply
    Gene says last month

    Hey Jaclyn,
    Thank you for your kind words and I’m very sorry for replying late. 5 people and 6 bathrooms, that means a super high water demand. You should check our reviews of water softeners which you can find via the main menu. I would suggest a Fleck 5600SXT and then go with a high enough grain capacity. Our sizing guide will help you here. And don’t worry about filter changes or something. After the initial configuration there usually isn’t much do to.

    Reply
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