Five Types of Water Softener Systems
There are various types of water softener systems that each address water hardness in a different way. Nearly all commercially available water softeners fall into one of the five following categories:
- Ion exchange systems
- Salt-free systems
- Water distilling systems
- Magnetic systems
- Reverse osmosis systems
Ion Exchange Systems
Ion exchange systems, which are by far the most popular, are also called salt-based water softeners because they require the input of sodium or potassium pellets to work. They may have one or two tanks depending on the capacity of the system. Dual-tank systems can handle a greater volume of water but are more expensive than systems with a single tank. In ion exchange systems, water flows into a mineral tank full of negatively charged resin beads. These beads attract calcium and magnesium and trap them, softening the water.
A control valve will determine when the resin beads in the first tank are fully saturated with minerals. When this happens, the first tank is backflushed of debris. Next, the salty water from the second tank, called the brine tank, is released and recharges the resin. The brine tank must be stocked with sodium or potassium, which coats the resin beads and restores their negative charge. In a single-tank water softener, both of these tanks are housed in one cabinet.
Ion exchange systems have some drawbacks. First, they need monthly refills to keep their charge. Secondly, this type of system adds trace amounts of these salts to your drinking water, which can be a problem for people on low-sodium diets. Currently, potassium is recommended for ion exchange water softener systems. Unfortunately, it’s also somewhat expensive to maintain. It’s typical to use one or two refill bags per month, which cost $5 to $10 for sodium and $35 to $45 for potassium.
When you hear the term “salt-free water softener,” that usually refers to a type of treatment that doesn’t actually remove calcium and magnesium from water. Instead, these systems use water conditioners to chemically treat the minerals so that they don’t stick to things and form scale.
Water Distilling Systems
Distillation heats water to a high temperature near boiling point to create steam. Minerals and other contaminants can’t vaporize along with the steam, which is then cooled and condensed back into clean liquid water. Due to the lengthy wait for heating and cooling, water distillers are only useful for small-volume tasks like creating drinking water.
Magnetic water softeners use electromagnets clamped around water pipes to prevent the minerals in the water from forming scale. Similar to salt-free systems, they don’t remove minerals from water but purport to treat them instead. Unlike chemical water conditioners, there’s limited evidence that they actually work.
Reverse Osmosis Systems
Reverse osmosis systems are the most effective, the most complex, and the most expensive of the water softener systems listed here. As it travels, water passes through several pre-filters to remove contaminants like chlorine, VOCs, and sediment. Then, these systems force water at high pressure through a very tight water filter called a semi-permeable membrane.
Just like distillation, reverse osmosis doesn’t happen at the speed of a faucet. Small volumes of water must be pre-filtered, so reverse osmosis systems are usually only used as a single-point system for creating drinking water. You would only need a whole-home system if your water was severely contaminated. Additionally, the process creates a great deal of wastewater that isn’t useful for most household tasks.
How to Save Money on a Water Softener System
Whole-home water softener systems can be costly. However, there are some ways you can save money, particularly in the long term. The following tips will help you spend less on soft water:
- Do your research: Shop smart, wait for seasonal sales, and take advantage of any manufacturer rebates. You’ll also want to choose a unit with a good warranty.
- Consider renting: Some companies rent water-softening systems at a lower price than the cost to buy and install them. This may be a good option for renters. If you own your home and plan to stay in the area for multiple years, purchasing your system is likely more cost-effective.
- Opt for metered control valves: If you’re purchasing an ion exchange system, look for one that has an on-demand or electric metered control valve. Systems with timer-based controls are often cheaper, but they tend to run recharge cycles before they are needed, wasting sodium or potassium refills.
- Know your home’s needs: Make sure you’re using the right size and capacity for your home to get the maximum benefits.
Pros and Cons of Water Softener Systems
✔ Your home’s water will work better for cleaning
✔ You won’t have to worry about water stains or soap scum
✔ You’ll save on plumbing and appliances by protecting them from mineral scale
✘ Whole-house water softening systems can be expensive to buy, install, and repair
✘ Ion exchange systems could cause problems by leaving salt deposits
✘ Creation and disposal of wastewater isn’t environmentally friendly
When to Buy a Water Softener System
Aside from actual testing, here are some signs that your home’s water is hard enough to require a water softening system.
- Your water has an unusual or unpleasant taste or odor
- When you use bar soap, you notice soap scum left behind
- Soap, shampoo, and other cleaners don’t form enough lather
- Your hands still feel slimy or filmy after washing
- Your hair and skin feel dry after washing
- Your pipes, faucets, or showerheads frequently clog
- Your clothes don’t feel clean, and the colors seem to fade quickly
- You notice water leaving stains on countertops and appliances
DIY vs. Professional Water Softener Installation
Some point-of-use water softeners attach directly to faucets or the pipes beneath the sink. These are good for DIY installation. However, whole-home systems deal with such a large volume of water that they’re best installed by a licensed plumber.
It’s also common for Local Departments of Public Health to have codes that residential water softening systems must meet. Therefore, we recommend professional installation for whole-home water softeners.
If you’ve spotted the signs of hard water in your home, on your skin and hair, or from water taste, you’ll likely benefit from a water softening system. Having minerals like calcium and magnesium in your water won’t hurt you, but they can make domestic life less pleasant and lead to unwanted expenses.
Research the type and capacity of system that’s right for you, and make sure it’s properly installed by a professional. Fill out this simple form or enter your ZIP code into the tool below to connect with local plumbers for professional water softener system installation.
You can expect to pay between $500 and $6,000 to have a whole-house water softener installed, depending on the type of system you choose, your system's capacity, and your water hardness.Is it worth getting a water softener system? ›
Water softeners are valuable for many different reasons. They can lengthen the lifespan of your home's appliances and prevent your family's skin and hair from getting dry and itchy. Water softeners can also help prevent minerals from building up inside your pipes and water fixtures.What is the typical lifespan of a water softener? ›
Water softeners can last 10 to 20 years, depending on the type and quality you buy. On average, a single tank electric water softener could last you up to 12 years, while a Kinetico system can last as many as 20 years.How big of a water softener do I need for my house? ›
To determine the appropriate water softener size for your home, multiply the number of people in your home by the gallons of water they use each day (80 gallons per person is the average). Multiply that number by the grains of hardness in your water to figure out how many grains need to be removed each day.What is the labor cost to install a water softener? ›
Nationwide, the cost of installing a water softener can range from $500 to $6,000. Thankfully, for homeowners in the Indianapolis area, the average cost is much closer to the lower end of the spectrum.What is the downside of a water softener? ›
The major disadvantage to softening water is the potential health risks for people that might be on low sodium diets. The exchange of hardness minerals for sodium adds 7.5 milligrams per quart for each gpg of hardness removed. In addition, calcium and magnesium are eliminated from the homeowner's diet.What is better than a water softener? ›
If your goal is only to reduce the presence of harmful contaminants, a water filter is a better solution than a water softener. When your home's water is run through a quality whole house water filter, you are reducing harmful contaminants like chlorine, chloramines, harmful VOCs, and more.What are the alternatives to a water softener? ›
The most common alternative to a water softening system is a water conditioner. While water softeners remove the mineral ions from hard water and replace them with sodium ions through a process known as ion exchange, water conditioners alter the structure of the mineral ions.How long does a 40 lb bag of water softener salt last? ›
On average, a family of four with average water hardness will use roughly one 40-lb bag of salt each month. If this applies to your current situation, maintain a half-full tank of salt.Do water softeners shorten the life of water heaters? ›
Soft water can actually corrode the water heater anode faster. When the anode wears down, the corrosive elements will move on to the tank. So if left alone, a water softener system can actually shorten the lifespan of a water heater.
Besides adding salt to your softener and occasionally cleaning out the brine tank, most water softener manufacturers recommend that you service your softener annually.How do I know which water softener to buy? ›
A quick way to determine the best size water softener for your house is to calculate the average number of gallons your household uses in a day. You can determine this number by multiplying the number of people in your household by the average number of gallons used per day (usually around 75).Where is the best place to install a water softener? ›
Water softeners are most often installed near the incoming main water line before your water heater. Most commonly, this is in the basement, but water softeners can also be installed in the attic, garage or even a closet dedicated to system storage.Can you drink softened water? ›
Can I Drink Softened Water? While most softened water is perfectly safe to drink, the amount of sodium in the treated water will depend on the hardness of the original water. If the water hardness is below 400 ppm calcium before you soften it, then you can drink it with little concern.Is Costco water softener worth it? ›
Our verdict: almost definitely not. There's nothing inherentlywrongwith the water softeners sold by Costco, but 1) the units are very expensive and 2) there's a lack of brand variety. You might think that, because you have a Costco membership, everything you buy there is going to be cheaper than anywhere else.Does Consumer Reports review water softeners? ›
Although Consumer Reports does not test whole-house water softeners, we do have new Ratings of water filters.Is it worth fixing old water softener? ›
If the water softener is less than 5 years old it is most likely under warranty and is usually worth repairing. If your softener is over 10 years old, you will find it is far easier and usually cheaper to replace it.How long does a water softener install take? ›
Preparing for Your Water Softener Installation
Timing can range depending on the on the equipment being installed, the age of your plumbing and other factors, but the installation typically takes about 2-4 hours.
They are much less than you might think, although the type of softener will influence its efficiency, making some softeners more efficient than others. Time operated softeners are perhaps the least efficient.Can I install water softener system myself? ›
Installing a water softener yourself allows you to work on the project at your own pace and without spending extra money on a plumber. If you're simply replacing an old water softener, this can be done in under an hour.
Health professionals actually consider soft water a "very low sodium" beverage that is unlikely to affect blood pressure at all.Why do I feel slimy with soft water? ›
Soft water replaces those magnesium and calcium ions with sodium ions. The result is soft water, loaded with salt. The salt is what makes the water feel slimy. After you buy a water softener, you might feel slimy and slippery after you take a shower, like you haven't gotten all the soap off of you.Should you run soft water to ice maker? ›
Water softeners on ice machines should be avoided in most cases. Excess sodium in water has the ability to alter the freezing and melting temperatures of water. Thus, water softeners will lead to soft, mushy ice cubes that melt faster and can negatively impact beverage quality.Is there a way to soften water without a water softener? ›
If you are considering the best options for introducing soft water into your home – without installing a water softener – there are ways to go about this. Hard water can be softened in various ways – either through boiling the water before use, adding chemicals, or introducing filters.Should a dishwasher be connected to a water softener? ›
With a water softener, dishwasher limescale build-up is reduced or stopped, this keeps water flowing freely through the system, helps maintain your machine's performance and makes it last longer.How can I soften water for cheap? ›
- Install a Water Softening Shower Head. ...
- Use Water Softening Cleaning Products. ...
- Get Rid of Mineral Build-Up. ...
- Whole Home Filtration.
If you're in the market for a salt-free water softener, unfortunately, you are out of luck. A salt-free water softener does not exist. The ion exchange process used by water softeners doesn't work without the sodium ions displacing the calcium and magnesium ions that create water hardness.How do you soften hard water naturally? ›
The simplest method of softening hard water is by boiling it. When you boil water, the salts precipitate leaving clean, soft water. Put some water in a pot and leave it boiling for at least five minutes for the best results. After the water has boiled sufficiently, turn the heat off.Which is better salt pellets or crystals? ›
Pellets Are More Efficient Than Crystals
The pellets are definitely superior when it comes to salt pellets vs. salt crystals. Although they're pricier than their crystal counterparts, they can be used as-is without further processing.
If your water softener has been unused for longer than 7 days, you should manually initiate a regeneration cycle. This will ensure the ion exchange resin is properly charged and capable of softening the incoming water.
When your water softener runs out of salt, it won't be able to wash the hard iron and minerals from its softening resin. This means that the water coming out it's going to contain hard minerals. Ultimately this means hard water and iron stains on all surfaces that make contact with your water.Do water softeners waste a lot of water? ›
Waste: The average salt water softener wastes approximately 150 gallons of water every week, amounting to nearly 8,000 gallons per year.Do water softeners damage hot water tanks? ›
Soft water can actually corrode the water heater anode faster. When the anode wears down, the corrosive elements will move on to the tank. So if left alone, a water softener system can actually shorten the lifespan of a water heater.Do water softeners need annual maintenance? ›
Most water softener manufacturers recommend yearly check-ups or professional maintenance to ensure their units are still working efficiently. We recommend Kinetico water softeners because they are the most dependable units on the market.What happens if you don't clean water softener? ›
Clean the Resin Bed
If your water contains iron, pour resin bed cleaner into the brine tank tube once or twice per year. Without cleaning, your softener will eventually lose its ability to remove iron.
Clean the Tank
Water softeners don't typically need to be cleaned yearly, despite their constant usage. However, you should clean them every five to 10 years. If your water softener is older than 15 years; however, you will likely need to clean it every year or so.
A water softener should last 10 to 15 years. If your unit is facing more wear and tear, it could be due to improper maintenance or particularly hard water.How much is a good quality water softener? ›
You can expect to pay between $500 and $6,000 to have a whole-house water softener installed, depending on the type of system you choose, your system's capacity, and your water hardness.What is the average size water softener for family of 4? ›
In general, a 32,000 or 33,000 grain water softener will suit most families of four.What is the life expectancy of a water softener? ›
Water softeners can last 10 to 20 years, depending on the type and quality you buy. On average, a single tank electric water softener could last you up to 12 years, while a Kinetico system can last as many as 20 years. However, no appliance lasts forever.
“Water softeners are a great investment if your water supply is high in mineral content, a condition known as hard water,” says Paul Abrams, a spokesperson for Roto-Rooter Services in Cincinnati. A whopping 90% of households have hard water, which contains high levels of calcium and magnesium.What is a disadvantage of softened water? ›
The major disadvantage to softening water is the potential health risks for people that might be on low sodium diets. The exchange of hardness minerals for sodium adds 7.5 milligrams per quart for each gpg of hardness removed. In addition, calcium and magnesium are eliminated from the homeowner's diet.Is it safe to cook with softened water? ›
Overall, cooking and cleaning with soft water is safer and more effective. Soft water will leave your kitchen looking much cleaner and leave your food and drinks tasting much better than they would if you were to use hard water. For best results, purified, soft water will win every time against hard water.Is soft water good for your hair? ›
Because soft water can penetrate the hair follicle more fully, it generally helps hair look shinier, softer, and less damaged. In addition to being gentler on your hair, soft water lathers more quickly and easily so you don't need to use as much product as you would with hard water.How do I choose a whole house water softener? ›
- Household Size and Water Usage. ...
- Regeneration Style. ...
- Remove Additional Contaminants. ...
- Other Convenience Features. ...
- Adding a Water Filtration System. ...
- Installation. ...
- Don't Forget the Warranty.
A 40-lb. bag of sodium or potassium chloride will cost between $5 and $25 dollars, subject to the brand, salt purity rate, and location of purchase.Can I drink softened water? ›
Can I Drink Softened Water? While most softened water is perfectly safe to drink, the amount of sodium in the treated water will depend on the hardness of the original water. If the water hardness is below 400 ppm calcium before you soften it, then you can drink it with little concern.What size water softener do I need for family of 7? ›
|Hardness in Grains Per Gallon||1 to 2 people*||7 to 8 people*|
|5-10 GPG||32,000 Grain||40,000 Grain|
|11-20 GPG||32,000 Grain||48,000 Grain|
|21-30 GPG||32,000 Grain||80,000 Grain|
|31-40 GPG||40,000 Grain||96,000 Grain|
How Long Does Water Softener Salt Last? The resin beads in water softeners get their sodium ions from salt that you must add to the brine tank portion of your softener. This is usually in a tank that is completely separate from the one containing the beads. You'll need to refill the salt once every two to three months.How long does a 40-lb bag of water softener salt last? ›
On average, a family of four with average water hardness will use roughly one 40-lb bag of salt each month. If this applies to your current situation, maintain a half-full tank of salt.
Your salt consumption will depend on the level of water hardness (minerals in your water) and the amount of water your household consumes. The average family of four with hard water (7-10 grains per gallon hardness level) will use about one 40-lb bag of salt each month.Do I need to drain my water heater if I have a water softener? ›
With soft water, your tankless system is nearly maintenance-free, as soft water prevents the buildup of hard water. So, while it's always a great idea to check on your water heater yearly, with a softener, you likely won't have to flush it.Can I water plants with softened water? ›
If your plants get plenty of rainwater, then occasional soft water won't hurt. But watering plants exclusively with soft water isn't recommended. Most water softeners use sodium chloride, which can cause a gradual build up of sodium in garden soil. This can cause plant growth problems.Can softened water cause stomach problems? ›
General Consensus. The bottom line is that water-softening systems are safe. Most people can drink hard or soft water with no side effects. Higher sodium levels may be of concern to some; however, drinking bottled water and using soft water only for laundry, dishwashing, and bathing is a simple fix.