The Benefits, Pros and Cons of Water Softeners – Do You Need One?

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates the quality of tap water and does a fairly decent job doing so. As of today, there are nationwide standards for more than 90 different contaminants.

However, since water hardness does not pose a threat to the public health the federal agency pays no attention to it.

But why then do you keep hearing about water softeners and their supposed benefits? Would a system be a worthy investment for your home? Read on to find out more.

Key Takeaways

Benefits of water softeners:

  • Household appliances and plumbing system as a whole last longer with soft water (lower maintenance/repair costs)
  • Reduced energy bills due to more effective water heating
  • Fewer limescale stains everywhere in your home
  • Brighter, softer fabric
  • Healthier hair and skin
  • Easier cleaning + reduced soap and detergent use
  • Possibly reduced water usage overall

Cons of water softeners:

  • Operating costs (salt, electricity, wastewater)
  • Environmental impact due to wastewater production
  • Soft water is harder to recycle due to high sodium content
  • Not ideal for drinking
  • Installation required
  • Additional wastewater might overload drainage field of septic system
  • Softened water can be more corrosive
  • Slippery feel

How to Tell If You Need a Water Softener

A question we get asked fairly often is, Do I need a water softener?

Simply put, whether to soften or not is a matter of personal preference. There is no requirement for it and yet still, the decision will affect your home.

Also, we want to make clear that we don’t want to talk anyone into buying a water softener. Softening has both advantages and disadvantages – which you will learn about soon.

If you were to ask, Do I have hard water? And you are on a private well, the answer would be probably yes. But even people living in the city can be plagued (softening on a large scale is too cumbersome and costly for suppliers).

A look at the statistic reveals:

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), most American homes receive at least somewhat hard water with many people suffering from very high hardness levels. So, chances are that the water coming into your home could do with some softening.

By the way, the softest water can be found in Hawaii, whereas the Great Lakes region in Alaska and Tennessee have moderately hard water. Texas, Kansas, southern California and Arizona have the hardest water levels.

Hardness Map USA

Mean Hardness as Calcium Carbonate at NASQAN Monitoring Sites (1975)

But how do we even define hardness?

That’s simple: The USGS classifies water as “soft“, “moderately hard“, “hard” or “very hard” depending on how much calcium carbonate it contains. Concentrations are measured in ppm (parts per million) or mg/L. Another common way to specify hardness is in gpg (grains per gallon).

FYI: 1 ppm = 1 mg/L and 17.118 ppm = 17.118 mg/L = 1 gpg

Classification ppm mg/L gpg
Soft 0 – 60 0 – 60 0 – 3.5
Moderately hard 61 – 120 61 – 120 3.56 – 7.01
Hard 121 – 180 121 – 180 7.06 – 10.51
Very hard >180 >180 >10.51

Being a different organization, the Water Quality Association together with the American Society of Agricultural Engineers has established slightly different standards:

Classification ppm mg/L gpg
Soft <17.0 <17.0 <1
Slightly hard 17.1-60 17.1-60 1.0 – 3.5
Moderately hard 60 – 120 60 – 120 3.5 – 7.0
Hard 120 – 180 120 – 180 7.0 – 10.5
Very hard > 180 > 180 > 10.5

Bottom line: One way for you to find out if your water is soft, hard or very hard is to measure its calcium levels. You can do this yourself using one of the many available hardness test kits, or you can send a sample to a testing laboratory in your area.

Alternatively, you could request a Water Quality Report from your municipal supplier. It’s something that all public suppliers have to provide for free. The only exception are companies operating private wells.

In the end, the hardness level has to be “bad enough” to justify the relatively high costs involved in acquiring and operating a water softener. That is where potential damage to plumbing and appliances coupled with increased energy bills make the investment worthwhile (and necessary) from a financial point of view.

The Minnesota Department of Health recommends households with hardness levels greater than 120 ppm (7 gpg) to consider buying a softener to ensure that appliances run well.

Hardness levels between 80 and 100 ppm (4.7 to 5.9 gpg) are “generally considered to provide an acceptable balance between corrosion and incrustation“. (Source)

Another way of testing for hardness:

Telltale Signs

Although direct testing is the only way to find out how hard your water really is, there are obvious telltale signs that indicate that a softening unit could make a good addition to your home, such as:

  • Stains on sinks and bathtub – Mixed with soap, hard water causes unsightly stains on kitchen and bathroom sinks and fixtures, and also in your bathtub. The stains are the result of water evaporating and leaving behind soap scum (mainly consisting of calcium and magnesium).
  • Stains on glasses and cutlery – You want to empty the dishwasher and wonder, Did I accidentally forget to turn it on? Glasses and cutlery have white stains all over them.
  • Shampoos and soaps not lathering – Are you having a hard time getting a nice lather in the shower?
  • Scratchy and faded towels – Clothes, bed linen and towels fade with time. That’s just how it is. However, hard water accelerates the process and gives fabric that was once soft a scratchy and unpleasant feel.
  • Scale deposits in pipes and household appliances – Scaling is the biggest issue caused by hard water and most dangerous as it can clog pipes, filters, fittings, etc. As flow rates decrease over time, scale builds up ever faster. Eventually, pipes wear out and might break. Your dishwasher may start leaking, because valves can’t function properly anymore. The overall lifespan of your household appliances drops by up to a couple of years. Tip: The easiest way to identify scale is to look for mineral deposits in your kettle and coffee maker.
  • Dry hair and skin – High amounts of calcium and magnesium minerals can also lead to dry skin and brittle hair prone to tangling. Itchiness and pesky dandruff are often the consequence. Even special shampoos and soaps provide little to no relief.

You might have observed some hard water signs in your home. If so, you should check out our reviews to find the best water softener deal.

Whether or not to buy a water softener is also a legal question. Salt-based systems are prohibited by law in some counties in the U.S. There are two main reasons behind the ban:

  1. They have a negative effect on the environment as they use quite a lot of water for regeneration and discharge excess sodium.
  2. Consequently, communities have higher expenses as they need to invest more resources into recycling the soft water.

If you consider buying a water softener for your home, make sure to contact your local water supplier first to find out if your state or municipality has placed any restrictions on what type you are allowed to use.

Pros & Cons of Water Softeners OR Why Use a Softener in the First Place

Softening water is often mistaken as a way of purifying it. The reality is, however, that a water softener only removes hardness minerals (mainly calcium and magnesium) – no more and no less.

The pros and cons associated with softening or rather soft water are:

Benefits of Water Softeners

1. Household Appliances Last Longer + Lower Maintenance Costs

A water softener prevents scale deposits and thereby extends the life span of water heaters, dishwashers, washing machines, coffee makers, air humidifiers and many more household appliances plus the entire plumbing system in your house by up to 30 percent.

As a result, maintenance and repair costs are likely to decrease.

salt-based water softener

2. Reduced Energy Bills

Improved heat exchange efficiency of your water heater will help you save money on energy bills. How much? Testing has shown that using a gas storage water heater the energy cost savings amount to 24.2% over a life cycle of 15 years.

Pumps and other appliances are also likely to be positively affected.

3. No More Stains

This is probably the most important benefit for many women: Less or no more stains on dishes, cutlery, glassware, tubs, sinks, windows, etc.

4. Healthy Looking Hair and Skin

Soft water makes your skin and hair look and feel soft, smooth and naturally healthy.

5. Easier Cleaning + Reduced Soap and Detergent Use

There is nothing more annoying than trying to work up a lather that refuses to form. You end up using a lot more soap than you would have if your water was not chock-full of hard minerals.

By removing these minerals a softening system will help you do your cleaning faster and more effectively. You will also save on soap, detergent – up to 50% for washing – and other cleaning products.

6. Bright and Soft Fabric

Say goodbye to faded and scratchy clothes, towels and bed linen.

7. Reduced Water Usage

All in all, you will find that you will use less soft water than you would use if unsoftened.


1. Operating Costs

Salt-based softeners require salt and water for brine production and backwashing and rinsing of their resin bed, both at additional costs (electricity cost is negligible).

What’s more, the wastewater is discharged into the sewer which means that your sewer bill will rise.

While some units waste no more than 20 gallons per regeneration cycle taking place in certain time intervals, others waste 50 or more – the exact amount varies from system to system and also depends on the individual configuration, the hardness level and water consumption.

The same applies to how much salt you will use on a monthly basis. The industry standard for a family of four is one 40-pound salt bag per month (one bag costs anywhere between $6 and $25 USD).

Even some salt-free conditioners rely on softening agents like citric acid (chelation) to function. Price: $50 USD per cartridge required every 3 to 6 months.

2. Environmental Impact

For one, the wastewater production can add up to thousands of gallons in a single year in areas with exceptionally hard water. This is bad as freshwater is scarce in many parts of the country.

On top of that, depending on where you live the excess chloride (and salt) ends up in lakes and streams threatening freshwater fish and other aquatic life.

3. Soft Water Is Harder to Recycle

As mentioned above, soft water requires more resources to recycle in a treatment plant compared to unsoftened water.

4. Not Suited for Drinking?

Drinking softened H2O or using it for cooking will increase your daily sodium/potassium intake to a certain extent. Because both sodium and potassium were found to be a factor in hypertension, high blood pressure and other diseases, softened H2O can pose a health risk for genetically predisposed people under extreme circumstances.

This is why the WHO suggests high risk individuals to seek medical advice before installing a water softener in their home.

Another minor health factor is the lack of sufficient healthy calcium and magnesium. For both minerals drinking water contributes up to ⅕ of the required total daily intake.

Above that, some people might prefer hard over soft water in terms of taste.

young woman drinking water

On a side note: Boiling food in mineral-depleted water can lead to substantial loss of essential elements in the food itself.

An easy workaround to all this is to install a separate line providing cold water that does not get softened.

Or you could use a saltless softener a.k.a. water conditioner. Conditioners alter the behavior of dissolved magnesium and calcium ions so that they are less likely to cling to surfaces. Their “softening” effectiveness remains controversial though.

Want to learn more about the different types of water softeners including salt-free conditioners?

5. Installation

Any whole house softening system needs to be plumbed in. This costs time and money and is usually not an option for renters. The only exception are some electronic descalers that simply clip on or wrap around the main water supply.

6. Drainfield Overload

If you own a septic system the additional wastewater might overload the drainage field (only applies to traditional ion exchange softeners).

7. Corrosion

Water that is soft and acidic (pH <7.0) tends to be more corrosive. Which in turn can sometimes dissolve enough heavy metals out of pipes, solders and/or plumbing fixtures to create both aesthetic and health-related problems.

8. Slippery Feel

Soft water leaves a slippery feel on your skin that requires getting used to.

If you have any questions or thoughts about water softener benefits and disadvantages please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!

About the Author Gene Fitzgerald

Gene Fitzgerald is one of the founders of BOS and currently head of content creation. She has 8+ years of experience as a water treatment specialist under her belt making her our senior scientist. Outside of BOS, Gene loves reading books on philosophy & social issues, making music, and hiking.
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Leave a Comment:

Bob says October 2, 2018

Can I dump the resin tank over to pour the water out that’s in it ?
Will this make it lighter so that I can lift it out – get it out of the brine tank so that I can clean the bouth of them ? By tipping to spill the water out that’s in it will be causing any problems as far as the resin in the tank is concerned ?

    Gene says October 4, 2018

    Hi Bob,
    Although I can’t say this with 100% certainty, this shouldn’t be a problem. As long as the resin beads stay in place, everything should be fine. You are right, an empty resin tank is lighter than one filled with water.

Johan O. says June 1, 2020

Besides using magnets, which are not softeners and doubt their effectiveness, what are the saltness’ softeners using to remove the hardness?
Do they not produce a waste to clean or reverse a chem process.
Some water softeners are called conditioners because they have an additional active carbon compartment; i assume that very few use this combined in one canister , but rainsoft is one of them. By how much increases this the cost of the unit?
Awaiting your comments,
Regards, johan

    Gene says June 10, 2020

    Saltless water softeners use different chemicals to condition the water. For example, a NuvoH2O system use citric acid which binds to the hardness minerals so they remain soluble. So you’re right, some conditioners will add something to the water, but not all as far as I’m aware.

    All saltless water softeners are water conditioners. It’s not about activated carbon.

    Sorry, I cannot possibly tell by how much this increases the cost of the Rainsoft. Generally speaking, activated carbon is pretty affordable.

Toni says August 1, 2021

Thank for all the helpful information and posting them online for easy access. Quick question- I have a 20-year old house. What would be the effect of installing a water softer to my pipes?

    Gene says September 8, 2021

    Hi Toni,
    Most importantly, no more scaling. The rest depends on your water conditions.

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