- 1 Best Water Softener Reviews
- 1.1 ABCWaters 48k-56SST Water Softener
- 1.2 Fleck WS-96k-91SXT Water Softener
- 1.3 Fleck 64k Water Softener
- 1.4 Tier-1 Series 165 Water Softener
- 1.5 Whirlpool WHES30 Water Softener
- 1.6 Eddy Electronic Water Descaler
- 1.7 Nuvo H2O Dphb-a Home Water Softener System
- 1.8 Iron Pro 2 Combination Water Softener
- 1.9 Aquios FS-220 Salt Free Water Softener and Filtration System
- 1.10 Pelican Salt-Free Water Softener & Conditioner
- 2 Best Water Softener Buying Guide
- 2.1 Do I Need a Water Softener?
- 2.2 Benefits of a Water Softener
- 2.3 How Does a Water Softener System Work?
- 2.4 Does a Water Softener Remove Iron?
- 2.5 How to Choose a Water Softener
- 2.6 Different Types of Water Softeners
- 2.7 Water Softener Brands
- 2.8 A Guide to Water Softener Sizes
- 2.9 A Guide to Water Softener Settings
- 2.10 How Much Does a Water Softener Cost?
- 2.11 How to Install and Replace a Water Softener
- 2.12 Water Softener Maintenance
- 3 Water Softener Comparison Chart
- 4 Conclusion
A water softener is one of those things you don’t really think about… until you suddenly find yourself without one. When it breaks, your skin gets dried out, your laundry comes out stiff and dingy, and your faucets start to clog and get stained. You need a water softener system, and you need it fast.
If this is your first time buying one, things can be even more confusing. Every manufacturer will tell you they have the best whole-house water softener. But who’s right? What makes a water softener the best?
Whether you’re looking to replace your broken water softener, or if you’re a first-time buyer, you’ll definitely want to check out our water softener system reviews. We’ve put together a list of ten machines that come in at the top of our water softener ratings. If you’re looking for the best-rated water softener, look no further. Our water softener systems reviews will help get you on the right path.
Best Water Softener Reviews
- ABCwaters 48k-56sxt-10SS
- Grain Capacity: 48,000
- Dimension: 10 x 10 x 54 inches
- Item Weight: 125 pounds
- GPM: 12 GPM
- Warranty: Manufacturers
- Fleck WS-96k-91SXT 9100SXT
- Grain Capacity: 192,000
- Dimension: 14 x 14 x 65 in
- Item Weight: 53 pounds
- GPM: 20 GPM
- Warranty: Manufacturers
- Fleck 5600SXT
- Grain Capacity: 64,000
- Dimension: 48 x 12 x 12 in
- Item Weight: 200 pounds
- GPM: 16 GPM
- Warranty: Manufacturers
- Grain Capacity: 48,000
- Dimension: 10 x 10 x 62 inches
- Item Weight: 135.6 pounds
- GPM: N/A
- Warranty: Manufacturers
- Whirlpool WHES30
- Grain Capacity: 30,000
- Dimension: 19 x 18 x 43.5 in
- Item Weight: 102 pounds
- GPM: N/A
- Warranty: Full 1-year parts and labor warranty
- Grain Capacity: N/A
- Dimension: 6.7 x 1.6 x 3.5 inches
- Item Weight: 1.45 pounds
- GPM: N/A
- Warranty: Manufacturers
ABCWaters 48k-56SST Water Softener
● 48,000 grain capacity
● Compact design
● Installation kit included
● Pre-calibrated, metered 5600SXT valve manufactured by Fleck
The ABCWaters 48k-56SST is a traditional, salt-based, ion exchange water softener. It removes up to 48,000 grains of minerals between recharges, and has a very small footprint: the brine tank is only 11 inches in diameter, and the mineral tank is even smaller at 11 inches. This makes it ideal for households with several people but not a lot of basement space. Both tanks come with a 10-year manufacturer’s warranty.
The 48k-56SST achieves this by using an unusually large amount of resin for the size of the tank. It occupies 10% of the mineral tank by volume, which allows this water softener to handle more water than other softeners with a similar footprint. There’s a drawback to this technique, though; because the resin is denser to begin with, it’s not as good at removing heavier metals like iron. If your water has a high iron content, you may get better results with a larger water softener, or a similarly sized unit with a lower capacity.
The valve on this tank is metered, which means it’s set to recharge the tank only when needed, not on a timer. This makes the 48k-56SST more energy efficient than timer-based models. It comes pre-set from the factory, but you can adjust it later if you’d like your water to be harder or softer than the pre-set. The valve is manufactured by Fleck—one of the best home water softener manufacturers in the business—and it has a 5-year warranty.
The price is reasonable—comparable to some larger water softeners—and the water softener comes with an installation kit. This is really nice, since it’s easy to forget to buy things like supply lines and silicon lube, both of which are included in this purchase. The kit also contains a water test strip for calibration, a sanitizing solution for prepping the tank, and a bag of small parts and fittings. This tank delivers water at a rate of up to 12 gallons per minute, making it heavy duty enough for households of up to 5 people.
- Read the Full Review: ABCWaters Resin Water Softener Review
Fleck WS-96k-91SXT Water Softener
● 192,000 grain capacity
● Dual-tank design for continuous flow
● Metered valve for increased efficiency
● Comes with bypass valve
The Fleck WS-96k-90SXT is the heaviest duty of any water softener systems review we’ve done. This is a traditional, ion exchange water softener that uses salt, but it has two separate mineral tanks that alternate to provide you with an endless flow of water. Each tank can remove 96,000 grains of minerals between recharges, so this machine can remove a whopping 192,000 total mineral grains between recharges. It has a fairly large footprint, with both tanks having a 14-inch diameter, and a brine tank that’s a whopping 18 inches in diameter. The tanks each have a 10-year manufacturer’s warranty.
Not only does this unit soften water like a boss, it also handles heavier particulates. For example, it can handle iron in well water at concentrations up to 4 parts per million, which is pretty high. For water with even higher iron content, Fleck recommends installing an in-line iron filter before your water softener to maximize efficiency.
The tanks have metered Fleck valves that have with a 5-year manufacturer’s warranty and come pre-set to handle water at about 7 grains per gallon of hardness. If your water is harder or softer than this to begin with, you’ll want to adjust your settings accordingly to get maximum performance and make sure you’re softening all of your water. The controls also have an LCD display that’s easy to read if you’re working in a poorly-lit basement.
The Fleck WS-96k-91SXT is the most powerful water softener we reviewed, and the price reflects that. This water softener certainly isn’t for everyone, but it has the capacity to supply small businesses and apartment buildings with up to 10 residents. It also ships with a supply line. You’ll need plenty of room for salt with this unit, too. It requires 40 to 45 pounds of salt per recharge, and the brine tank is rated to hold 350 pounds at a time. Ordering salt pellets by the pallet may not be out of the question if you’re using this unit. That said, its truly amazing capacity makes it the best water softener for apartments or small businesses.
Fleck 64k Water Softener
● 64,000 grain capacity
● Provides 14–16 GPM depending on water pressure
● Great price for the size
● Small, 10-inch mineral tank and 15-inch brine tank
● Ships as a complete system with bypass valve included
The Fleck 64k Water Softener is the highest capacity unit in Fleck’s 5600SXT series of water softeners, all of which utilize the Fleck 5600SXT digital metered control valve. This version filters 64,000 mineral grains per recharge, but you can also get the same machine in 48,000, 40,000, 32,000, 24,000 and 16,000-grain models. Considering its capacity, this machine doesn’t take up much space. The mineral tank is 10 inches in diameter, and the brine tank is 15 inches across. The tanks on this unit have a 10-year manufacturer’s warranty.
This unit will do an admirable job of removing most mineral ions like calcium and magnesium carbonate. On the other hand, it’s not quite heavy-duty enough to handle water with more than .5 parts per million of iron. That said, Fleck does sell a fine mesh replacement resin you can use in this unit to treat water with iron concentrations of up to 5 ppm. For even higher iron concentrations—which would be unusual in most circumstances—you’ll need a heavier duty water softener.
Like the Fleck WS-96k-91XT, the Fleck 64k Water Softener has a digital control valve with an LCD display. The 5600SXT digital metered control valve is one of Fleck’s most prestigious products, and comes with a 5-year manufacturer’s warranty. The valve comes pre-programmed for 7 gpgwater, but can easily be adjusted according to the instructions in the user manual. Another nice thing about the 5600SXT is that it’s on a large variety of other water softeners. This means that if you’re having water softener problems, it’s easier to find help because the valve is so common.
The Fleck 64k Water Softener’s price is in the middle of the road for water softeners with this capacity. It comes with the bypass valve with a 1-inch yoke, a brine tank safety float, resin, and a durable paddlewheel-style meter. If you’re looking for a high-capacity residential water softener that supplies 14–16 gallons of water per minute, this is the best water softener for you.
- Read the Full Review: Fleck 64K Water Softener
Tier-1 Series 165 Water Softener
● 48,000 grain capacity
● Fleck 5600SXT control valve
● Small, 10-inch mineral tank and 14-inch brine tank
● Includes bypass valve
The Tier-1 Series 165 Water Softener offers a 48,000-grain capacity at the same price as many name brand 30,000-grain units. The tank comes with a 10-year manufacturer’s warranty, and has a small, 10-inch footprint. The brine tank is 14×14 inches, so the whole machine has a nice small footprint.
Among less pricey units, this was the best water softener for removing iron. Out of the box, it can handle water with iron concentrations of up to 3 parts per million. For water with higher concentrations, Tier-1 recommends installing an in-line iron filter before the water softener. Tier-1 also has a 24-hour phone support team, which can be helpful if you run into any unexpected problems during installation. One issue with this unit is that your water pressure can drop to almost zero while it’s recharging. It’s normal to get very low pressure while a water softener is recharging, but the levels we’re talking about here are low enough to cause error codes on ice makers and other appliances that use water, even in small amounts. If you have a lot of automated appliances, you may want to try a different unit, like the Fleck 64k water softener. If you don’t, the lower water pressure at 2 AM once a week won’t even be noticeable.
The Tier-1 Series 165 Water Softener has something in common with several other water softeners we’ve reviewed; it uses the Fleck 5600SXT digital metered control valve. This valve has the same benefits here that it has on other machines, including being highly customizable and having a bright LCD display. It comes with a 5-year manufacturer’s warranty from Fleck.
The Series 165 has earned its spot as one of the best water softeners by virtue of its price; it’s inexpensive, and it has enough capacity for a large family or low-occupancy duplex. You won’t find another reliable, high-capacity water softener at this price. It also provides about 14 gallons per minute of water, which is not too shabby.
Whirlpool WHES30 Water Softener
● 30,000-grain capacity
● Comes from a long-standing brand
● Removes up to 8 ppm of iron
● Metered control valve
● Low salt warning light on tank
The Whirlpool WHES30 Water Softener is a 30,000-grain water softener from one of the most established brands in home appliances. Both the mineral tank and the brine tank fit inside a single, 19×18-inch shell that’s only 43.5 inches high. This unit comes with a 1-year warranty on parts and labor, a 3-year warranty on electronics, and a 10-year tank warranty. The tank warranty is similar to other brands, but the electronics warranty doesn’t measure up to some other digital control valve warranties.
This unit really shines when it comes to removing iron. Out of the box, it can handle concentrations of up to 9 parts per million. That’s better than anything short of a commercial unit can handle without a filter. This unit is also relatively attractive compared to other water softeners. If your water softener needs to go somewhere other than a basement (for example, in a broom closet in a house with no basement) this can be a huge plus, since it looks and feels more like a normal appliance than a box with a giant SCUBA tank attached.
The control panel on the WHES30 is gorgeous. It may not have the same warranty as a Fleck valve, but it’s far more intuitive. The display is very easy to read, and has simple controls that just make sense. This is probably due to Whirlpool’s long history of making appliances. Simply put, they know how to make the best water softener system for a homeowner who doesn’t have a degree in chemistry, and isn’t about to go get one just so they can run their water softener.
The price for this unit is middle of the road for a 30,000-grain capacity water softener. It supplies up to 12 gallons of water per minute, which is sufficient for a family of 4. It also comes with a full gallon of extra resin for the mineral tank, in case you accidentally spill some during installation.
Eddy Electronic Water Descaler
● Very easy to install
● No floor footprint
● It’s a descaler, not a water softener
● Reduces sediment cheaper than any other option
The Eddy Electronic Water Descaler isn’t, strictly speaking, a water softener. It’s a descaler, which means it prevents minerals from collecting and forming scales on pipe walls and in faucets and shower nozzles. In this sense, it will perform the most important functions of a water softener system in terms of saving your plumbing appliances from expensive repair. On the other hand, since it doesn’t actually remove anything from the water, it won’t prevent dry skin after showering, staining in sinks and tubs, or dingy laundry.
The Eddy Electronic Water Descaler is a small, wall-mounted unit that’s slightly larger than a power strip. It has two wires running out of it, both of which get coiled around your main water supply line. These coiled wires create opposing magnetic fields that reverse the electrical charge of minerals like calcium and magnesium chloride. This prevents minerals from sticking to pipe walls or to each-other, so they’ll flush harmlessly down your drain instead of building up on your pipe walls. It comes with a lifetime repair or replacement warranty.
One major benefit of the Eddy Electronic Water Descaler is the ease of installation. Unlike other whole-house water softeners, this unit doesn’t need to be in direct contact with your water, meaning you won’t have to cut any pipes or do any soldering. It’s also a great option for people in very small houses, or who have vacation homes where they’re less concerned about doing laundry than they are about avoiding long-term damage to appliances and plumbing. Because it doesn’t actually remove anything, just prevents minerals from scaling, this machine doesn’t remove iron, heavy metals or sediments from your water.
The Eddy Electronic Water Descaler is, by far, the most affordable system on our list. It won’t give your showers a luxury hotel feeling. It won’t stop your laundry from discoloring, either. What it will do is protect your plumbing and appliances from costly and inconvenient repairs. For someone who wants a bare-bones solution to hard water, this is the best water softener out there.
Nuvo H2O Dphb-a Home Water Softener System
● Salt-free design for better health
● No footprint: it hangs off your supply line
● Easy to change cartridges
● Prevents scaling and appliance damage
The Nuvo H20 Dphb-a Home Water Softener System is another system that isn’t, strictly speaking, a water softener. It’s a water conditioner, which means it reverses the charge of minerals and prevents them from building up, but doesn’t actually remove them from your water. Since it consists of a small filter and a citrus oil cartridge, it doesn’t take up any floor space. The 5-inch diameter, 24-inch long cylinder connects to your main water supply line at one end, and hangs down, meaning you can install this unit even in a broom closet.
This unit works by a chemical process called chelation. By adding small amounts of acidic citrus oil to your water, the Nuvo H20 causes minerals in the water to bind to the citric acid instead of the walls of the pipe, preventing the buildup of scales in your pipes and appliances. It can save you thousands of dollars in home repairs, but it doesn’t physically remove minerals from your water. Not only does this mean that your shower and laundry will continue to suffer the effects of hard water, it also means that you’ll still be dealing with heavy metals like iron and magnesium.
The Nuvo H20 Dphb-a Home Water Softener System allows a flow rate of 15 gallons per minute, enough for a family of 5 to all take showers at the same time while the dishwasher is running. It’s also relatively easy to install. While it does require you to cut your main water supply line, it only requires one cut, and connects seamlessly into the line without the need for other considerations like a bypass valve or a drainage line.
Pricing on this unit is different than an ion exchange filter. Instead of replacing salt, you’ll be replacing citrus oil cartridges. Nuvo suggests replacing the cartridge every six months, but this time can vary wildly depending on how hard your water is and how much water you use in your house.
Iron Pro 2 Combination Water Softener
● 64,000-grain capacity
● Removes iron up to 8 ppm
● High quality 5600SXT digital control valve
● Removes sand and sediment up to 8 ppm
The Iron Pro 2 is a combination package that includes a traditional ion exchange water softener and a heavy-duty iron and sediment filter. This beast will handle up to 64,000 grains of regular minerals, like calcium and magnesium bicarbonate. That, along with the fine mesh resin and the 10-year tank warranty, would be enough to make the Iron Pro 2 one of the best whole house water softener systems out there.
That said, the iron and particle filter is what really sets this unit apart. It can soften water with iron concentrations up to 8 parts per million, and will also remove magnesium at up to 8 parts per million. If that’s not enough, the particle filter removes rust, iron particles, and even sand from your water before it even gets to your water softener. You’ll have to change the filter every six months, but you’ll never need to pay for expensive sediment cleaning of the mineral tank.
The 5600SXT is manufactured by Fleck, one of the premiere names in the water softening industry. It comes pre-programmed for water that has 7 grains per gallon of minerals, but we’re guessing you’ll need to crank it up a notch if your water is hard enough to need a system like the Iron Pro 2. Thankfully, the instruction manual includes instructions for adjusting your water softener hardness settings up and down, and the LED screen is easy to read in the dark. It comes with a 5-year manufacturer’s warranty.
The Iron Pro 2 is reasonably priced for a 64,000-grain water softener, even for one without an iron filter. Like we said, we’d recommend this water softener even without the filter, and here’s another reason why:it comes with a bypass valve, but you’ll need to purchase any other installation supplies separately. If you need help with installation, there’s a phone number in the user manual for a 24-hour support line. With all of that being said, this is clearly the best water softener for any area with seriously high iron levels.
Aquios FS-220 Salt Free Water Softener and Filtration System
● No salt required
● Combines chelation technology with a 5-micron filter
● Also removes chlorine
● Very reasonable price
The Aquios FS-220 Salt Free Water Softener and Filtration system combines a salt-free water softener with a 5-micron filter to filter and condition your water. Like other chelation-based systems, this isn’t a true water softener, but rather a descaler, filter and conditioner. It will prevent damage to plumbing and appliances from scaling and particulates, but you’ll still have minerals in your water that can cause skin dryness after showers or laundry discoloration.
While this unit won’t remove fully-dissolved iron from your water, it will filter out iron particles as small as 5 microns, as well as other particulates like sand and sediment. Unfortunately, there’s no light or other alert on this system to tell you when to change the filter. You’ll need to keep track of how much water you’re using, instead. Aquios recommends changing the filter every 40,000 gallons, which would be about every 17 weeks for the average family of 4.
The dimensions on the Aquios FS-220 Salt Free Water Softener and Filtration System are small compared to ion exchange water softeners, but a bit bigger than other chelation-style systems. The elliptical cylinder measures 8×10 inches, and is just over 27 inches long. It mounts on your main water supply line, so it won’t take up any floor space.
The housing and valve have a 20-year manufacturer’s warranty, which is the longest we’ve seen on any water softener system. There’s no warranty on the filter cartridges themselves, but why would there be? The filters are cheap consumables, and I do mean cheap. You’ll spend less on this system than you’ll spend on comparable water softeners, and far less than you will replacing salt in an ion exchange water softener.
Pelican Salt-Free Water Softener & Conditioner
● Filter-based system uses zero salt
● Also removes heavy metals and particulates
● Uses no electricity
● Higher upfront price gets you long-term savings
● Lifetime warranty
This is a newer machine that made a lot of people’s best water softener 2018 lists. We decided to add it to this year’s water softener review, and we were definitely impressed. To begin with, this water softener isn’t for everybody. For one thing, it costs a lot of money up front—about three times as much as similar units that handle 14 gallons of water per minute. If you’re willing to pay the upfront price, you’ll experience long-term savings. The filter never needs to be changed, you don’t need to add any salt, it doesn’t need to purge water for a recharge cycle, and the unit itself doesn’t even require power. This means that once you’ve bought it, the Pelican Salt-Free Water Softener & Conditioner costs you nothing.
Because it uses a filtration process instead of a chemical process, this water softener doesn’t discriminate between lightweight minerals like calcium and magnesium chloride and heavier metals like iron and magnesium. It filters out anything 5 microns or larger, which means your water gets cleaned of all metals, not just some of them.
That said, the Pelican Salt-Free Water Softener & Conditioner struggles to remove fully dissolved metals and minerals. For example, it easily removes rust particles, even tiny ones, but hardly makes a dent in the kind of fully dissolved iron you’ll find in wells and deep aquifers. Of course, it also comes with a lifetime warranty, which means that even if your outcomes are disappointing, you can get your money back. No harm, no foul, which is what we expect from a brand like Pelican.
This unit is a bit larger than some other units, with a 19×21-inch footprint and almost 5 feet of height. It’s self-contained, though, so there’s only one unit instead of multiple tanks. One thing this water softener didn’t have was an installation kit. For installation, make sure you have compression fittings and a bypass valve, as well as all other supplies that are mentioned in the user’s manual.
Best Water Softener Buying Guide
Do I Need a Water Softener?
The short answer is that it depends on your water. You can’t see the difference between hard and soft water, so you’ll want to be on the lookout for certain symptoms that your water is hard enough to require a home water softener system.
Look for Buildup of Scales
The first thing to look out for is a buildup of scales on pots, kettles and other cooking appliances that hold water. Hard water has large amounts of calcium and magnesium bicarbonate, which can collect on metal surfaces and leave pale, crumbly scales on the surface. When this is happening in a tea kettle, you can bet it’s also happening in your pipes and hot water heater.
Look Out for Dry Skin
Another common sign of hard water is if your skin is dry or ashy after a shower. The reason for this is that soap doesn’t dissolve well in hard water, and doesn’t do a good job of washing away calcium or magnesium bicarbonate. These minerals can collect on the surface of your skin, resisting soap and leaving you pale and dried out after a shower. A shower head filter can help out with this problem.
The same thing that happens to your skin can also happen to your clothes. Minerals can build up in the fibers, making them feel scratchy and look dingy. Liquid detergent, front-loading washers and even a little vinegar can all reduce mineral buildup in your clothes, but the best long-term solution is to get a house water softener.
Look Out for Mineral Buildup
Another common place for mineral buildup is around the drains on sinks and bathtubs. These surfaces are smooth, and typically see a lot of activity, so the buildup won’t take the form of scales. Instead, you’ll see yellow or brown discoloration. This can be cleaned easily with vinegar, but will continue to come back without installing a water softener.
If you’re constantly having to repair your plumbing, there’s a good chance you have hard water. Mineral buildup collects on the inside of pipes, slowly narrowing the flow of water. This can get particularly bad in appliance valves or other restricted areas. When these valves clog, you can end up with costly appliance repairs.
Look Out for Plumbing Bills Going Up
A related symptom of hard water is if your plumbing bill keeps going up even though you’re not using any more water than you used to. When your pipes get narrow, the water has to work harder to get through, which can cause your bills to go up.
Of course, there’s always the option of just asking. You can call your water company to find out how hard your water is. You can also buy an inexpensive home water softener test kit from your local home improvement store and test the water yourself.
Benefits of a Water Softener
Water softeners are designed to remove certain minerals like calcium and magnesium bicarbonate from your water. This can save you trouble in a variety of areas throughout your house, from expensive maintenance and repairs to your energy bill to everyday quality of life.
Water Softeners Save Money
First and foremost, water softeners can save you a fortune in appliance replacements. Since mineral buildup can form scales that block the flow of water, appliance valves can get clogged, causing machine failure and costly repairs.
A water softener can easily double the life of your dishwasher, washing machine, faucets, showers, and especially your hot water heater. If you have a hot tub or jacuzzi, don’t even think of using it without a water softener, unless you already have extremely soft water.
Along the same lines, a water softener can save you money on plumbing repairs as well. The same minerals that build up in appliance valves can also collect in your pipes, causing them to get narrower over time. Since pipes are wider than valves and nozzles, this problem takes longer to appear in your general plumbing than it does in your appliances.
That said, replacing your house’s plumbing can be expensive and messy, far exceeding the water softener cost.
Water Softener Means Better Showers
Soft water also means better showers. If you have hard water, you’re probably tired of dealing with dry, itchy skin. Soft water won’t dry out your skin, and also bonds better with the ions in your soap, so you’ll get cleaner, your skin will be moister, and you won’t need to spend as long in the shower.
Your clothes will also come out cleaner. Without a bunch of mineral sediment collecting in the fabric, your laundry detergent will not be able to fully penetrate. You’ll be surprised how much brighter your whites are, and how much more vivid your colors come out, even with the same old detergent.
Your dishes and glassware will also benefit. Calcium and magnesium bicarbonate can collect on your dishes and glassware, leaving little grey blotches and specks. If you’ve been using Jet Dry or other rinse agents, you won’t have to anymore. All those chemicals do is remove the same minerals a water softener will already have removed.
Water Softeners Save Energy
Finally, one of the biggest water softener benefits is energy savings. In particular, you’ll save 22-29% on your hot water heater alone. This is because mineral buildup on heating elements reduces heat transfer. Only 1/16 inch of mineral scaling reduces efficiency by 12%, so it’s easy to understand how quickly this problem can start to affect your bank account. The cost of water softener operation doesn’t even come close to this kind of loss.
How Does a Water Softener System Work?
A water softener system works through a process called ion exchange, which replaces calcium and magnesium chloride with salt. There are also chemical and mechanical processes like a water softener filter, but these are more expensive and only commonly used for commercial water softener systems.
Ion-exchange systems are the basic, salt-based water softener systems you’re probably familiar with. These tanks work by replacing calcium and magnesium chloride with salt. Because of this, some people feel that soft water has a salty taste. Many people even install a separate drinking water line that bypasses the water softener.
What does a water softener do? First, your water gets pumped into a main tank, which is called the mineral tank. The mineral tank is full of polystyrene beads, which have a negative electrical charge. These beads are covered in sodium, which has a weak positive charge. On the other hand, the magnesium and calcium chloride in your water have a strong positive charge. When your hard water enters the mineral tank, the calcium and magnesium chloride ions cling to the polystyrene beads, replacing some of the weaker sodium ions.
Once this is complete, you have soft water, which supplies your appliances, showers and faucets. Unfortunately, once you’ve done this a couple of times, you end up with a lot of magnesium and calcium chloride in your mineral tank, and no more sodium to soften your water. At this point, a water softener cycles through a cleaning phase. First, the mineral tank flushes out any excess water to remove any dirt or contaminants. Next, it fills up with water from a second tank, called the brine tank. The brine tank is the part of the machine you’re probably most familiar with. It’s the part of the machine you fill up with salt.
You’ve probably asked yourself what water softener salt is for. All water softener salt types are used to make brine, which means the water in that tank is so saturated with salt that it can’t hold any more. When this brine gets pumped into the mineral tank, the sheer volume of salt crowds out the calcium and magnesium chloride ions, driving them off the polystyrene beads and covering the beads with sodium ions.
Now the water in the mineral tank is saturated with calcium and magnesium chloride instead of sodium. This extremely hard water gets flushed, and you’re left with an empty tank full of polystyrene beads that are coated with sodium ions. At this point, you’re right back where you started, ready to clean up more hard water.
Does a Water Softener Remove Iron?
Iron is a strange beast. It’s a necessary nutrient, but like calcium and magnesium chloride it can cause mineral buildup and discoloration around fixtures. Unlike calcium and magnesium chloride, it also comes in a couple of different types. Confused? Let’s try and clear things up.
One type of iron in water is soluble iron. This is exactly what it sounds like: iron that’s dissolved in your water. If you get your water from a reservoir or a lake, there probably isn’t much soluble iron in your water. On the other hand, if your water comes from an aquifer or a well, it will have a high concentration. This is because iron is more common the deeper in the ground you go, so it’s found in much higher concentrations in groundwater than it is in surface water.
The other type of iron is particulate iron. This is iron that isn’t dissolved in the water, but exists in the form of small particles instead. Generally, particulate iron is in the form of iron oxide, or rust. As iron pipes rust on the inside, small flakes can break off and end up in your water. For this reason, particulate iron is most common in municipal systems that use iron pipes, although it can also come from your own home’s pipes.
Soluble iron is an ion with a positive charge, so ion exchange whole-house water softener systems will remove it from your water easily. Note that it’s not as positively charged as calcium or magnesium chloride ions. If your water is particularly high in these minerals, your water softener may not do as good of a job at removing iron due to the sheer concentration of stronger ions.
Particulate iron, on the other hand, is another story. Because it’s not truly dissolved, it’s not a single atom with a charge, so the ion exchange system won’t do you any good. These particles can be removed by any water filtration system, though, so you may want to look into one if you’re dealing with particulate iron.
That said, particulate iron is just like any other sediment. It will tend to settle inside a tank. This means that very high levels of particulate iron can collect in the bottom of your mineral tank, causing it to foul and requiring a thorough cleaning. If you live somewhere where the water is so rusty that it has a red tint, you can save money and maintenance by installing a whole-house water filtration system before your water softener, to remove these particulates before they have the chance to cause any mischief.
How to Choose a Water Softener
When choosing a whole-home water softener, the first thing you’ll need to consider is how much water you need to soften, and how hard that water is to begin with. Basically, you’ll need to know how much work you need your water softener to do.
To start with, you’ll need to know the hardness of your water. Hardness is measured in grains per gallon (gpg) in the US, which is about 1/7,000th of a pound of minerals in a gallon of water. You can find out how hard your water is by contacting your municipal water supplier, or you can buy water softener test kits from a home improvement store.
Note that your municipal water supplier may provide measurements in milligrams per liter (mg/L) or parts per million (ppm). These measurements work out to be the same. One gpg of hardness is equivalent to 17.1 mg/L or 17.1 ppm. Any water that’s harder than 7 gpg is considered hard by the Water Quality Association.
Next, you’ll need to know how much water you use. The average American uses 40–80 gallons of water per day in the home. If you have a 4-person household, budgeting 320 gallons per day is a pretty good bet. Now that you have this number, you’ll want to multiply it by the hardness of your water.
For example, if you have 4 people using 80 gallons of water a day with a hardness of 10 gpg,that would be 4x80x10, or 3,200 water softener grains per day. Since water softeners are rated by weekly capacity, you would multiply 3,200×7 which is 22,400 grains. In this case, you would want at least a 22,400-grain water softener. These days, many people use a 32,000-grain water softener, which is powerful enough to supply 4 people even with the hardest imaginable water supply.
Beyond that, you may be looking for more convenient features. Almost all water softeners allow you to set a timer to remind you to refill the salt, but these can be easy to miss if you have an irregular schedule, and may not reflect how fast you’re actually using the salt. More modern water softeners have systems to monitor the salt level, and only to beep when they actually need salt. A few newer models even have phone alerts, so you can get a text when the machine needs new salt.
Finally, you don’t have to decide between a water softener versus water filter, or a water conditioner versus water softener. Many higher end machines will soften, filter and condition your water, and will remove chlorine and other contaminants in addition to minerals. If you are looking to remove contaminants from water you will need to look into a water filter such as a high quality reverse osmosis system. Take a look at our water softener reviews to learn about more things you should look for.
Different Types of Water Softeners
When we asked how does a water softener work, we talked a lot about ion exchange water softeners, and briefly mentioned that there are other types. To recap, how water softener works with ion exchange technology is by replacing the minerals in your water with salt. However, ion-exchange systems are not the only answer.
When making a water softener comparison, the most common alternative to ion exchange technology is a salt-free water softener. These systems use a similar system, but take potassium chloride pellets instead of sodium chloride. Because of this, they’re a good option for people with health issues that require them to maintain a low sodium intake.
Salt-free softeners are mandatory in some municipalities with high groundwater salinity, since they won’t put more salt into the local environment. Unfortunately, they don’t actually soften the water. Rather, they prevent the minerals from scaling on pipes and appliances. This can save you bundles of money and is better than not having a water softener, but it won’t fix dry skin after showers or fully clean your clothes.
If you don’t want to learn how to use a water softener and mess around with salt, you can always try an electronic descaler. These aren’t technically water softeners at all, and don’t have any tanks. An electronic descaler is a small, wall-mounted box with two magnetic coils that are attached to the box by wires. The coils wrap around your house’s main water supply line, and create a magnetic field that changes the electric charge of mineral ions from positive to negative.
Instead of clinging to pipe walls and forming scales, these particles will be repelled from the walls and from each-other. Like a salt-free water softener, an electric descaler won’t fix your shower or laundry issues, but can save you thousands of dollars in appliances and plumbing, and you can install one without knowing how to install a water softener.
The last common residential water softener option is designed for people who have high water demands, extra hard water, or need guaranteed access to water at all times without having to wait for a recharge cycle. If you like your ion exchange water softener, how it works may be less important than how much it can handle.
If you need more capacity and zero down time, you might want to consider a dual-tank water softener. As the name implies, they have two mineral tanks, or three tanks in total if you include the brine tank. This means that while one tank is recharging, the other can continue to supply soft water. Of course, these types of machines take up more space than other types of softeners, but this design will always keep your water softener full of water.
Water Softener Brands
There are many water softener companies to choose from. Since millions of homes in the US alone require a water softener, it’s not surprising that all the major appliance manufacturers are involved in selling water softeners.
GE, Whirlpool and Kenmore all have established water softener lines. Whirlpool and Kenmore in particular make solid, consumer-oriented machines that are easy to control and reasonably priced. You’re probably pretty familiar with these manufacturers, so we won’t go into them too much except to say that they’re widely available and have good warranties.
Morton actually manufactures surprisingly good water softeners as well. Yes, Morton, the salt company, also has a water softener brand to use their salt pellets in. We didn’t review them here since we don’t really consider them top-tier like the 10 units we reviewed, but they’re still solid machines from a long-standing brand.
If you’re looking for a heavier-duty unit, you may want to go with a brand like Fleck. Fleck manufactures commercial water softeners, and even has a ginormous 3-tank model available for the most demanding jobs around. Considering its background in commercial equipment, Fleck has more than enough experience to build a top-notch home water softener.
Pelican is another popular brand. It manufactures a wide variety of home water systems, including under-sink water filters, well-water filters, whole-house water filters and yes, some of the best water softener systems on the market. Because of Pelican’s experience with filtration systems, it’s a great choice for anyone who’s looking to have their water softened and filtered throughout the whole house.
Nuvo is a newer water softener brand, with a focus on improving its customers’ overall health. It makes 3 different versions: the studio, the home, and the manor, from smallest to largest. We reviewed the home version up above. These water softeners use citrus instead of salt, which causes the calcium and magnesium to bond to the citric acid and not scale up your pipes. Since there’s no salt involved in this system, you won’t be adding sodium to your diet.
Waterboss is another long-standing manufacturer of home water treatment systems. It manufactures filters as well as whole-house water softeners, so it’s a good choice for people who want more than just a water softener. Waterboss’shome water softeners are all backed by a 10-year warranty.
A Guide to Water Softener Sizes
Let’s talk about how to size a water softener. What size you need depends on whether you mean how many grains or how big.
To answer the first question, it depends on a few factors. First, it depends on how hard your local water is. You can find this out from your municipal water supplier, or buy a home water test kit at any hardware store. Your results will be in grains per gallon, or gpg for short.
Water under 3.5 gpg is considered soft and doesn’t need to be treated. If this is you, congratulations! You don’t need to install water softener plumbing. From 3.5 to 7 gpg is considered normal. Most people won’t need a water softener, but a small one can be a good idea if you have a jacuzzi, hot tub, or other tub with jets. Anything over 7 gpg is hard and needs to be treated.
Once you know how hard your water is, take the number of people in your house and multiply it by 80 gallons. Why 80? Because that’s how much water the average American uses in a day. For example, let’s calculate what size water softener for family of 4, with 7 gpg water: 4 people times 80 gallons is 320 gallons; 320 gallons times 7 gpg is 2,240 grains;so you’ll need a water softener that handles at least 2,240 grains per day, or 15,680 grains per week.
In terms of physical size, that depends on your specific needs as well. Most houses have room for a regular, ion exchange water softener, but other people may have unusual requirements. For example, if you’re a landlord supplying a subdivided apartment house, you may have tenants with irregular schedules who get frustrated if they can’t shower in the middle of the night because the water softener is recycling. In this case, a dual-tank unit, while larger, may be the best water softener system for you.
If you’re short on space, or don’t want to deal with the headache of learning how to install a water softener in a pre-plumbed house, you may be better with an electric descaler. These mount on your wall instead of taking up floor space, and installation is a breeze.
A Guide to Water Softener Settings
How to set water softener hardness level will depend on your manufacturer, so check your user manual before adjusting any of your water softener settings. As a matter of fact, you’ll want to have your manual handy anyways, because you’ll need to learn some specific things about your water softener. Specifically, you’ll need to know how many grains your water softener is rated for, and you’ll need to know how many cubic feet of polystyrene resin are in your tank. Now get ready, because we’re going to do some math.
To start with, let’s assume you sized your water softener correctly and it’s got enough capacity for your home. The first thing you’ll want to do is forget about all that. Why? Because your mineral tank won’t actually remove as many water softener grains as it says it will. The rating is based on a theoretical maximum, not real-world inefficiencies.
To figure out your water softener’s real capacity, you’ll need to know how many cubic feet of polystyrene resin is in your mineral tank. A standard, 32,000-grain water softener has 1 cubic foot of resin. If you have 6 lbs of salt per cubic foot in the brine tank when you treat the tank (in this case, 6 lbs because the tank has exactly 1 cubic foot of polystyrene), it will only actually recharge to a capacity of 20,000 grains. If you add 10 lbs, you’ll get 25,000 grains. If you add 15 lbs, you’ll get about 30,000 grains of actual capacity. More salt means you have to recharge less, but you’re also being less efficient. These ratios are true regardless of your tank size. So, a 2 cubic-foot tank with 20 lbs of salt will treat 50,000 grains, but will treat 40,000 grains if treated with 6 lbs of salt.
Instead of blindly setting your water softener hardness setting to recharge once a week, you’ll want to know how much water you’re using, and how hard it is. Let’s say your water is very hard, 10 gpg, and your family of 3 uses 240 gallons a day. This works out at 2,400 grains per day. Now let’s say you have a 24,000-grain water softener with .75 of a cubic foot of polystyrene. If you put 4.5lbs of salt in the brine tank (6 lbs per cubic foot multiplied by .75 of a cubic foot), you’ll be able to treat 15,000 grains. At 2,400 grains per day, your tank will need to recharge every 6.25 days. Since that’s not very practical, you might set it to recharge every 6 days.
If you have a metered water softener, you can be even more efficient and set it to recharge automatically after a certain number of gallons. In this case, some of the best water softener models will allow you to set a “reserve” amount, and to recharge in the middle of the night if there’s not enough capacity left to meet the reserve. This is an excellent feature, since it can save you from having your water run out in the middle of the day.
How Much Does a Water Softener Cost?
How much does a water softener cost? It depends what you buy. If you’re looking for a cheap water softener, there are plenty of them out there. In our water softener reviews, we’ve tried to review only the best water softener systems. That said, there is still plenty of variety in price.
When making a water softener cost comparison, the most important factor may not be the water softener prices you pay up front. Water softener installation cost, salt, maintenance and, of course, water use all factor into water softener costs. For example, as we talked about above, using more or less salt at once can drastically change your efficiency, making a huge difference in costs.
Water softener system costs also goes up as the units age. Newer machines will be more efficient, and require less time between recharges, so it may be smarter to buy a water heater now than to wait another year.
So, how much is a water softener? It depends.
How to Install and Replace a Water Softener
Water softener installation can be very easy or somewhat challenging depending on the type of system you’re installing, where the pipes are located, and whether there’s any existing plumbing.
1. Copper Pipes
To begin with, most standard ion exchange water softeners will need to be connected with copper pipes, which means you’ll need to do some soldering. Not a bunch of it, but if you’ve never done any DIY plumbing projects before, you may not want to start with this one since it involves working with your house’s main supply line. If you’ve worked with copper pipe before, it’s really not too bad because you tend to be working in an open space in the basement instead of inside a wall or under a sink.
2. Salt Free Design
How to install a water softener with a salt free design will depend on the exact design. Most will require soldering, but some operate at low enough pressures to allow you to use compression fittings. If you’re not sure, check with the manufacturer before you buy. Electric descalers are even easier to install, since you don’t have to cut the pipe. Pretty much anyone can install this type of water softener.
3. Pre-Plumbed House
Finally, how to replace a water softener, or how to install a water softener in a pre-plumbed house, will be different from installing a water softener in a brand new house. In these cases, you’ll be limited to a specific location for installing your water softener, rather than being able to put it wherever you like.
4. Ion Exchange or Salt Free Water Softeners
Next, if you have an ion exchange or salt-free water softener, you’ll need to locate it somewhere where it not only has access to the house’s main supply line, but also where it can be conveniently drained to the outside or into a sump pump.
Before you start, make sure you have a torch, solder, flux, 2 union fittings, 2 compression fittings, gate valves and several feet of pipe. This is just a general guide, so make sure to check the manual to see any other supplies that may be needed for your model. Once you have all your supplies, make sure you shut off the main water supply line to the house so you don’t flood anything. You’ll also want to shut off the valve to your hot water heater and power it down.
If you have an old unit, cut the pipes and remove it, and you should be able to plumb your new unit into the existing plumbing without too much trouble. If not, you’ll want to cut the main line, and attach an elbow there. Next, you’ll want to attach the bypass valve and the filter, and cut and attach piping to the bypass valve to bypass the filter.
5. Follow the Instructions
Follow your manufacturer’s instructions from there, but make sure to flush water through the bypass valve before letting any water into your unit. This will flush out any debris that got into the pipes during installation.
Finally, the cost for how much to install water softener plumbing can be much less than the cost of doing it yourself and making a mistake. For a professional plumber who already knows how to hook up a water softener, it’s a few hours’ labor and not much money for supplies.
Water Softener Maintenance
Like with any appliance, water softener problems can crop up from time to time. Your water softener air gap may get damaged and need replacement. Let’s look at a few common problems and how to fix them.
If your water softener salt tank has brown water, you may be experiencing a buildup of debris in your venturi valve, which is the little valve on the connection between your mineral tank and your brine tank. Cleaning a water softener valves is simple; most valve covers will unscrew easily with no special tools. Remove the cover and the internal parts, and give them all a good cleaning in warm, soapy water. You should be doing this every 6 months as maintenance.
If this is happening frequently, you may need to clean your mineral tank. Over time, iron and other sediments can collect in the mineral tank, keeping the water from circulating around the polystyrene beads, which will reduce your efficiency and keep your water softener from removing all the minerals from the water. No worries. You won’t have to open the mineral tank. Plumbers have been around for awhile, and they’ve figured out how to clean a water softener mineral tank. You can buy a water softener cleaner from any plumbing supply store and pour some into your brine tank to treat the mineral tank next time the machine recharges.
If you have a problem with your water softener not working, or it’s only putting out hard water, take a look in the salt tank. If water softener runs out of salt, there’s no salt to flush out the mineral tank, so your water isn’t actually getting treated. Even if there’s salt in there, poke around with a wooden spoon or hard object to see if any salt bridges have formed. Salt bridges block the salt from getting down into the water and can develop if you overfill your brine tank or if it’s particularly humid.
If you notice your water softener leaking, check to see if the water is coming from one of the compression fittings or from the drainage supply line. These parts are relatively cheap and easy to replace. If there’s a crack in one of the tanks, however, you’ll need to buy a new water softener.
Water Softener Comparison Chart
|ABCwaters 48k-56sxt-10SS||48,000||125 pounds||9||N/A|
|AFWFilters WS-96k-91SXT||96,000||53 pounds||9||$$$$$|
|64k Fleck 5600SXT||64,000||200 pounds||8||$$$$|
|Tier1 Everyday Series||48,000||10.4 ounces||9||$$$$|
|Whirlpool WHES30||30,000||102 pounds||9||$$$$|
|Eddy Electronic Water Descaler||N/A||7.8 ounces||8||$$|
|Nuvo H2O Dphb-a||N/A||8 pounds||8||$$$$|
|Iron Pro 2||64,000||119.5 pounds||9||$$$$|
|Aquios AQFS220||N/A||7.5 pounds||6||N/A|
|Pelican Water Systems||N/A||N/A||5||N/A|
Your water softener may be the least appreciated appliance, but it keeps all your plumbing running smoothly. Hard water makes your clothes look dingy and stains your sinks and tubs. It dries out your skin and causes your pipes to get clogged and appliances to fail. By softening your water, the little salt-eating beast in your basement saves you thousands of dollars and makes you and your house cleaner and brighter. Keeping it clean and doing regular maintenance can go a long way towards making sure you don’t need to replace it any time soon.
If you don’t have a water softener, consider getting your water tested. If you don’t have one, and you know you should, what are you waiting for? Even if your water softener still works but is just old, a replacement can pay for itself in a few years of reduced utility costs.
Whether you’re looking for something tough and powerful like the Fleck WS-96k, an easier install option like the Eddy Electronic Water Descaler, a health-conscious choice like the Pelican Salt-Free Water Softener, or even if we just gave you some good ideas, we like to think there was a water softener system review for everybody.
Whether you came here for the water softener reviews or the water softener buying guide, we hope this page helped you to find the best water softener for you.