Most households in America are supplied with hard water that contains minerals like calcium and magnesium. Hard water not only causes rashes and dry skin, but scales can begin to build-up in your pipes, faucets, and water-based appliances at home.
One of the best ways to solve this problem is to have a water softener. However, the market is saturated with different types of water softener and picking one is not as easy as it sounds. In our guide today, we will be going through several top factors to look into when choosing the right water softener for your house.
What is a Water Softener and How Does it Work?
Water softeners are designed to help solve limescale problems caused by water by eliminating or removing hard water minerals before the water reaches the tap. A water softener is usually installed at the inlet of the home’s plumbing system, close to the main, to ensure that all parts of the home get to enjoy the benefit of soft water.
Ion exchange water softener extracts calcium and magnesium ions found in hard water and replaces them with harmless sodium ions. Once the resin beads in the softener gets saturated with hard minerals, the system will undergo a regeneration process where the resin beads are washed in a brine solution and recharged with sodium ions.
However, salt-based water softening processes introduce a small amount of sodium into the soft water. While this amount of sodium is mostly safe to drink, some cases such as people suffering from high blood pressure might want to consider alternative methods instead. Or, you can also consider installing a water filter after the softener to remove sodium and improve water taste.
Water Softener Buying Guide – How to Choose a Water Softener
Factor #1 – Do You Need a Water Softener?
Regardless of where you live and what your water source is, your water will always have a certain amount of hard water minerals – from benign levels to potentially damaging levels. It is therefore important to know your water hardness level in order to pick the right model designed to treat that specific range of hard water level.
A simple water test can help you determine the grains of hardness per gallon (grains per gallon, GPG) that acts as an indication of the concentration of magnesium and calcium minerals present in your water.
If you don’t want to spend on a water test kit, you can also do a check for lime scale stains on your dishes, laundry, and coffee pot. If there are obvious scales, then it is high time to get a water softener for your house.
Factor #2 – Types of Water Softeners
Now that you know your water quality, it is time to decide which water softening technology works best for your home. There are different types of water softeners available, each with their own set of pros and cons:
- Salt-based ion exchange softeners
- Salt-free conditioner
- Dual tank water softeners
- Electronic or magnetic descalers
Salt-Based Ion Exchange Systems
Salt-based water softeners are the most common water softening method in households today and they rely on the ion exchange process to remove hardness minerals.
The process works by replacing calcium and magnesium ions with sodium (Na+) from sodium chloride or potassium (K+) ions from potassium chloride. Hard water is fed into a softening tank with resin media made up of tiny beads charged with Na+ or K+.
As the water gets in contact with the resin, the Na+/K+ ions are replaced with magnesium and calcium ions, thereby removing the hardness from your water.
Once all the sodium from the resin bed is depleted, the water softener needs to undergo a regeneration process with a highly saturated brine solution to recharge the resin beads with Na+/K+ ions. The brine water which now contains all the calcium and magnesium will be flushed down the drain.
Ion exchange water softener systems usually cost between $800 to $2,000. The cost of the unit depends on the brand as well as the quality of the build.
- Effectively removes hard minerals in water.
- Environmental impact of releasing large amounts of walt into wastewater supply.
- Additional cost required for salt and water for regeneration.
- Drinking or using soft water for cooking will increase your sodium intake – both found to cause hypertension, high blood pressure, and other diseases.
Salt-free systems aren’t really “softeners” but more like “conditioners” instead. This is because the system does not actually remove any hard minerals from the water, but stops the minerals from forming deposits by sticking to surfaces in pipes and appliances.
In other words, salt-free systems offer a descaling effect. Though they’re not as effective as traditional salt-based systems, having saltless conditioners is still better than no water softeners at all.
The salt-free system uses various treatment methods including the use of citric acid or polyphosphate as chelating agents that will bind to hard water ions, making them soluble in water. Other conditioners may even use catalytic media to cause calcium carbonates to aggregate into large crystals with weak surface affinity.
This crystallization method is called template-assisted crystallization (TAC). Though this process means that hardness minerals are still present in your water, they do not have the ability to form scales anymore.
- Virtually maintenance free.
- No salt added to soft water.
- Zero wastewater.
- Might not solve spotting and staining issues.
- Conditioners that rely on softening agents will require additional costs.
Dual Tank Systems
Dual tank ion exchange water softeners are the same as the first ion exchange water softening method discussed above, except with two tanks. Once the first resin tank is depleted of sodium and needs to undergo a regeneration process, the second tank will act to continue providing soft water.
This system is obviously more expensive and will appeal to households with larger families or those with irregular schedules (i.e. work in shifts). This is because regeneration is usually set to run overnight where water demand is expected to be lower.
Hence, water used during the regeneration cycle will not be softened in a regular system. If this is a problem for you, then the dual tank water softener setup is something to consider.
- Continuous supply of soft water even during the regeneration cycle.
- Expensive compared to a traditional ion-exchange water softener.
- Requires bigger space for the dual tank water softener setup.
Magnetic descalers don’t technically “soften” your water and they don’t require salt, resin, or even a tank. These plug-and-play devices are wrapped around the main water line and the system works by introducing a magnetic field to the water to alter the electromagnetic properties of calcium carbonate.
These mineral particles are then repelled by pipe surfaces and each other to prevent lime scale formation. Magnetic or electronic descalers use either magnets or wire coils to condition water. They don’t need salt and water to operate, and hence no regeneration process.
However, there’s a study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy that has debunked the system by stating that “No beneficial effect was found when using the magnetic device”. Despite that, there are also numerous users who have reported good results.
- Relatively cheaper.
- No regeneration process.
- Does not require salt or other agents.
- Little science-backed evidence to suggest they work.
Factor #3 – How to Choose a Water Softener Size and Capacity
Now that you’ve decided on the type of water softener to get, next is what’s the right size for your usage?
You might think that the bigger the physical size of the water softener is, the better, but in reality, what you should be looking out for is the water softening capacity to determine its suitability. Water softener capacity is sized in grains per gallon (GPG) starting from 24,000 GPG up to about 64,000 GPG.
An undersized water softener will not provide sufficient contact time for ion exchange to work effectively and your home will not have properly softened water. The volume of soft water generated depends on the volume of resin within the softener as well as the hardness level in your area.
To calculate the right amount of water softener capacity, you need to first know your water hardness level and daily water consumption. Multiply the hardness level by your average daily water consumption and then multiply it by 7 days to get your weekly water softening process requirement.
Factor #4 – Budget
One of the most important aspects when picking a water softener system for your home is your budget. The smaller your budget is, the more refined your search will be – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
You need to first decide on a budget before shopping for a water softener. The budget should cover three things:
- Initial payment.
- Professional installation.
- Long-term maintenance.
Water softener systems that don’t require salt are the most affordable. A good unit of water descalers and conditioners that don’t need to regenerate at all can go for less than $1,000.
In contrast, ion exchange water softeners are more expensive not only in terms of upfront cost, but they can also be more expensive in the long run as you’ll need to top up salt in your brine tank every month. These water softeners also require gallons of water during regeneration, which could be reflected on your water bill.
Other than that, you may also need to consider additional cost required for professional installation if you’re not comfortable installing it yourself. Other than electronic descalers, water softening systems need plumbing into your water line which you may require an expert for help. Plumbers typically charge around $200 for water softener installation, but the rate will also vary depending on location.
Factor #5 – Space Availability
As mentioned before, different water softeners have different physical size and build. This means that not all systems can fit in your home, depending on the space available. Magnetic descalers are the smallest and most compact choice as they do not need a resin tank or brine tank.
Such water softeners only need to be attached to the outside of your water pipe. Also, since the electronic descalers do not need any maintenance, you don’t need to prepare extra space for easy access, either.
Water conditioners are bulkier since they have a tank to hold the TAC media for the conditioning process. You need to prepare enough room lengthways to store the tank and you should also factor in enough space for maintenance or media replacement. Most TAC media can last up to 8 years.
Ion exchange water softeners are the largest among the systems as it has two tanks: a resin tank and a brine tank. This softener requires plenty of room since you need to regularly top up the brine tank with salt. You also need access to resin beads which should be replaced every 10 years.
If you go with the dual tank ion exchange system, you’ll need even more space to accommodate three tanks. Two resin tanks and one brine tank.
Factor #6 – To Buy or To Rent?
There are a few companies in the U.S. that offer customers the option of renting a water softener instead of buying one. This is a good choice for those who are only staying at a place temporarily, or renting a house. The monthly cost of renting a water softener for one or two years will also likely work out to be cheaper than purchasing an entire system.
While renting can be more affordable for short durations, it can quickly become much more expensive, especially for those who do not have any relocation plans. In such cases, buying a whole water softener will be cheaper over an extended period of time than renting.
Factor #7 – Maintaining the Water Softener
There are different aspects of the water softener that need to be regularly maintained. Considering the fact that ion exchange softeners are most complicated, it’s not surprising to find out that they need the most maintenance.
The brine tank requires regular salt top-ups every month, otherwise the ion exchange process will not be able to happen. The other maintenance required for salt-based water softeners is resin beads replacement. However, most resins last for 10 years, so replacing them isn’t a regular task to worry about.
Water conditioners are virtually maintenance-free since you don’t need to keep topping up the system with salt. While the TAC media needs to be replaced every 6-8 years, water conditioners are still considered to be very low maintenance and a much lower-hassle choice for those who do not want the commitment of a traditional water softener.
In terms of the physical build, both water softeners and conditioners will begin to show signs of wear and tear over the years, especially for systems with moving parts. Water softener parts can cost as little as $1 to as much as $500 per piece and the price will depend on the size and importance of it.
Electronic descalers do not need any maintenance at all since they do not have moving parts and also do not come into direct contact with water. As long as they have power supply, the descalers should technically last forever.
Other Important Aspects to Consider on How To Choose a Water Softener
Installing a Bypass Valve
Having a bypass valve installed for a water softener is not something most people think about until it’s too late. Bypass valves allow water to bypass the softening unit during maintenance or during regeneration so that the soft water supply is not cut.
Having a separate route for your water to flow means you don’t have to worry about water cuts and no drinking water supply when the unit breaks down.
Most traditional water softeners come with a bypass valve included in their installation kit but certain models require you to pay extra for a bypass valve. Although using a bypass valve means that you’re sending hard water into your house, having hard water is still better than no water at all.
The only water softening system that does not require a bypass valve is the electronic descaler. Even if the descaler is faulty, the system can be quickly removed from your water line without needing to cut into the plumbing.
It’s important to also take a look at the system’s regeneration initiation. Single-tank water softeners will use either demand-initiated regeneration (metered regeneration) or time-based regeneration.
Metered regeneration works based on the water usage and it’s the more efficient option of the two. When setting up the softener, you’ll need to input your water hardness level and the number of people in your home. The system will then calculate the amount of water it will use before it runs out of salt.
Time-based regeneration allows users to program a specific time allocated just for system regeneration. This means that you can set the program to automatically start the regeneration process twice a week at a time where you don’t expect to need to use water. One thing to note is that this programming will also be more wasteful since you’re setting the softener to regenerate even before it needs to.
If you want to get the most out of salt and water usage, you can consider getting a twin-tank water softener. A dual-tank system will ensure that you get through every last ion of sodium in the resin tank before regeneration is initiated so that you’ll never waste any salt. Alternatively, you can also opt for water conditioners or water descalers that do not require regeneration.
Many modern water softeners now come included with a handy Bluetooth connection feature that lets users connect to the unit via a mobile device. From there, you can quickly gain information about your water softener, including the cycle it currently is in, regeneration timer, water usage, and more.
The main advantage of having Bluetooth control is that you can use your phone to set regeneration schedules, alter systerm’s cycle and diagnose errors without standing right next to the water softener. Bluetooth control is usually available on salt-based water softeners since these units require closer monitoring compared to the other water softener types.
To ensure that the water softener you purchased is working how it’s supposed to be, you can check to see whether the product has third-party certifications. Independent certification companies, like the NSF, conduct rigorous testings to water treatment systems to ensure that good water quality and safety.
Residential softening systems that use salt can apply for an NSF/ANSI Standard 44 certification. If you notice that the unit you’re planning to get has an NSF 44 certification, then you can trust that the unit has proven to be effective at removing hardness below 1 grain per gallon. The certification also gives customers the reassurance that the system is meeting material safety and structural integrity criteria.
When it comes to buying appliances, it’s very important to look at its warranty. A water softener with warranty is a positive sign that the manufacturer trusts in the product that they’re selling. A product with no warranty or very short warranty should be a red flag and you need to ask yourself why the manufacturer isn’t confident in covering you if your water softening system becomes faulty.
Most water softeners have different warranty periods for different components. It’s common to have 10-year warranties on the resin tanks / brine tanks and around 3-5 year warranties on other parts. Still, the best warranties available are limited lifetime warranties where the manufacturer is obliged to replace any faulty or damaged parts in your system that weren’t broken by you.
Before purchasing a water softener, it’s important to check your state’s regulations and plumbing codes to see whether the regeneration drain water meets these requirements. You’ll also need to make sure that the installation and maintenance of the system is in line with the requirements.
If you’re confused trying to keep up with all the different regulations, it’s advisable for you to reach out to a local plumber that can offer useful advice, or even do the installation for you so that you’re in compliance with your plumbing codes.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does water softener grain of capacity mean?
The grain of capacity of a water softener means the maximum number of grains of hardness the unit can remove before regeneration is required.
How is water hardness level measured?
Water hardness level is measured as how many grains per gallon (GPG). One grain of hardness equals to 1/7,000 pounds of rock. The municipal water supply usually measures water hardness in milligrams (mg) or liters (L) or parts per million (ppm). One GPG is equivalent to 17.1 mg/L or 17.1 ppm.
How to decide what is the right water softener size to get?
To determine the right water softener capacity, you need to multiply the number of people in your home by the 80 gallons of water per person ( on average) then multiply that number by the grains of hardness in your water to know how much grains need to be removed by the softener unit per day. This way, you can ensure that you’re getting the right softener that can handle the load.
If you’re still not sure how to calculate, here’s a general guideline:
- Households with three or fewer people typically require a softener with a grain capacity of around 20,000 units.
- Households with four or more people will typically require a softener with a grain capacity of 30,000 units or more.
What is water softener regeneration?
The resin bed inside the water softener will eventually be saturated with hardness particles over time. When this happens, the softener needs to go into its regeneration cycle where the salt in the tank is mixed with incoming water to remove hardness particles from the resin bed. After the regeneration process, the unit is recharged and ready to provide a steady stream of soft water into your home again.
What type of water softener salt should I use?
It’s recommended that you get clean pellet or nugget-style water softener salt with high purity/ However, you may also get other types of salt for specialized applications.
How much water is required for regeneration?
The regen process usually takes about as much water as a washing machine needs to wash a load of laundry.
How much electricity does a water softener unit use?
The water softener unit does not use too much electricity. It uses a similar amount of electricity as a digital alarm clock.
Will the wastewater from my salt-based water softener harm my septic system?
No. Provided that you’re using the right softener system that meets local regulations, the discharge water would not affect septic system operation or drain field soil percolation.
What are the benefits of water softeners for hair and skin?
Getting a softener unit with the correct grain capacity can benefit your hair, skin and nails. Soap and shampoo tend to react with excess hard water minerals in hard water, preventing them from lathering as intended. This means that they will leave a soapy film on your body, making you feel less clean and also stripping your hair and skin of moisture.