Water Softeners Buying Guide
(updated 2018)

Resolving a problem – do you need a water softener or not? Is it safe to drink water from a water softener and is drinking hard water bad for you? Before checking out the detailed buying guide, choosing and sizing tips, recommended models and is it worth it, let’s see first do you need one.

Note: According to some studies done in the US, over 80% of homes have problems with hard water. A common method to neutralize or reduce the water hardness issue is water softening.

What is hard water?

Hard water is water that contains more than 1 grain of minerals per gallon (GPG) of dissolved minerals, which is coming from rocks, and it includes mostly calcium and magnesium. In order to check is your water hard or soft, or moderate, buy a water test kit.

After the treatment, where the minerals are removed through the process of softening, hard water becomes soft.

Hard water in homes can be indicated by formation of limescale in appliances that produce hot water, clogged plumbing, cloudy (milky) water in the pools, dishes with residues and white spots, sticky feel hair that never feels clean after the shower, skin feels sticky and dries out quickly, and lack of foaming when using the soap/shampoo (soap scum seen in the shower).

The effects of hard water

According to WHO (World Health Organization), hard water is not harmful to human health. There are some cases showing skin related problems, such as rush, probably due to changed PH value.

If you live in an area with a hard water supply, it is well-known that hard water may shorten the lifespan of the water heater. Not only that water heaters are affected – all home appliances that heat up water suffer from scale buildup, so the logical solution is installing a water softener, the separate device which descales water and protects your household goods.

To answer the question can the water be softened by boiling it, it is important to mention that hardness can be temporary and permanent. Yes, temporary hardness, which is caused by dissolved calcium hydrogen carbonate, can be removed by boiling water, but it breaks down to form calcium carbonate, which is the cause of the limescale.

On the side, permanent hardness, which is caused by dissolved calcium sulfate, cannot be removed by boiling the water.

And, yes, you can drink soft water, but according to research, it is healthier to drink hard water, as it contains important natural minerals which are removed during the softening process.

Types

There are several types of water softeners on the market, grouped in salt-based and salt-free categories, which can operate as automatic, semi-automatic or manual. As water softening involves removal of calcium and magnesium ions from the water, you can have the same effect as the softener by simply adding washing soda or sodium carbonate.

Salt-based water softeners

Salt-based type is the most popular type and is widely used. These are found as ion-exchange softeners, as described below. While the main advantage is its effectiveness, the disadvantage is the salty taste of drinking water.

Salt-free water softeners

This type uses potassium chloride instead of sodium and it is recommended for the homeowners who prefer the salt-free taste. This type is also known as descaler and the advantage is that the minerals are not removed from water but prevented from being deposited as scale, while the disadvantage is that device is not efficient in a very hard water environment.

Magnetic water softeners

Magnetic type uses magnets to treat water passing through the pipes. The magnetic field will alter the water chemistry. The small size and lower prices are for sure the advantages over other two types, while the disadvantage is that water, once it leaves the magnetic field becomes hard again, usually after two days.

When talking about water softening system in homes, one system can be considered as conventional, and that is salt-based ion exchange softener, which is reviewed below.

How an ion exchange water softener works

First, let’s see what at an ion exchange water softener is.

An Ion exchange water softener is a device that removes undesirable substances (mostly calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg) ions) and replaces them with sodium chloride ions; simply, instead of calcium and magnesium, the salt is fed to the water.

The system consists of a cabinet which houses an ion exchanger. There are two components inside – a container with the little resin beads and the other one with a brine. Water flows through the resin which attracts Ca and Mg ions and releases sodium ions.

When resin becomes saturated the regeneration process starts – brine is being flushed, to bath the resin beads and remove captured ions.

All parts fit in the single cabinet or two cabinets (one for the resin and the other for the salt), but don't be confused – manufacturers also offer duplex system, with two exchangers. You could find it under the name "dual-tank water softener". 

Dual-tank softener provides a non-stop functioning, including the regeneration cycle. When one exchanger is disconnected from the water supply, because of "recharging" and renewing, the other one jumps into its place to provide full comfort to the user.

So, the hard water is softened as it no longer contains magnesium and calcium ions.

Video

How to buy a water softener - Tips

water softener

If you have decided to buy a water softener, acquire some information in advance. We suggest considering the following.

Grain capacity. The first numbers which will attract your attention are those about grain capacity. You may find 32.000 / 48.000 / 64.000 grain (weight unit) softeners, meaning that device can remove that quantity of scale in one cycle, before regeneration is needed. However, this is not reliable sum because it depends on the variable conditions. Following two features are more important.

Volume of the resin. The usual volume of home softener is 1 or 1.5 or 2 cubic feet.

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Efficiency. Efficiency is the most interesting detail you have to look at, according to experts' advice. Search for Softener Efficiency Rating (SER) in technical specification and choose the softener which removes 3,333 to 5,000 grains per pound.

Resin quality. The resin is, actually, plastic, which is better to be harder. The number you are searching for is cross-link percentage. Choose 10% if you can, but 8% is still good.  

Service Flow Rate (SFR) in gallons per minute, which is often in 15-20 range, is the amount of softened water that a softener can produce. This data is the maximum available rate, not the real one. If you want to calculate how many SFRs you need for the perfect soft water, take into account water hardness and number of demanding appliances in your home. Softening the water for hot water heater requires resin volume of more than 1 cubic feet and softener SFR of more than 5 gallons per minute. If you have additional appliances, performance requirements rise.

Tip: Don't forget to check your water line diameter.

Device size. If you plan to buy the central softener to attach it to the house installation, measure dimensions of free space, usually in the basement of the house. Smaller devices for one appliance can be installed, for example, in the kitchen below the sink.

Certification. There are two important tags to check in, both available in USA and Canada. The NSF International (National Sanitation Foundation) tests water-treatment products and issues certificate and Water Quality Association delivers WQA Gold Seal. 

As with any other device, water softeners cannot last forever. It is expected to have them last at least twenty years, as long as you maintain it occasionally, such as filling them with salt. The tank and control valve are subject to the warranty, usually ten and five years respectively. You may find less than the 5-year warranty for the control valve, but the manufacturers of the best brands (Pentair, Clack, Autorol...) offer five years. 

All features mentioned above can serve as a good basis for comparison before a purchase.

Water softener pros and cons

The pros of installing softener are clear – protected appliances, less limescale on taps and dishes, faster water heating, better performance of shampoos and detergents, longer life of a water heater, but are there any cons?

Besides the additional plumbing work and bills for the salt, the maintenance of the softener is also needed. There are dilemmas about health impact – soft water is not recommended for drinking and cooking for the long term and it tastes different. Some recommend separate tap, out of softener influence, for drinking purposes.

To conclude briefly: Hard water means that there is higher mineral presence than in ordinary water. When water is hard it can cause limescale deposits in the plumbing and water heating system, even pipe clogging and element malfunction, followed by the increased cost of heating, reduced performance, efficiency, and shorter unit life. It can be considered more as an expense than the health problem.

Scale deposits inside the electric water heater, especially on the heating element, cause overheating, bad performance, higher energy bills... the similar thing is happening inside the tank of gas water heaters, even in tankless water heaters.

That is why, in order to prevent the negative effects of hard water, it is recommended to install a water softener. And as the salt-based systems are mostly used and most effective, they are your best choice.

Buy the best one as the quality and reliability, including the efficiency and performance are very important as all the water inside the home is passing through that device.

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