We all know using hard water is not ideal. According to the US Geological Survey, more than 85% of US households have access to hard water. No small amount of US households employ high-grade water softeners in order to soften the water prior to using it.
“Hardness is a property of water that is not a health concern, but it can be a nuisance.” (Water Science School, USGS)
Everybody knows how to soften hard water. The best water softeners significantly reduce water hardness; they are also referred to as ‘water conditioners’. With these, every household can get rid of hard water-related nuisances that include:
- Stained dishes and glasses (white water stains).
- Limescale build-up in washing machines, dishwashers, and other $500+ appliances. It’s like high cholesterol choking off your veins.
- Cation-induced skin irritation.
- Low-foamy soaps and shampoos.
- Hard-to-the-touch clothes.
Not only will your house and your place look cleaner. Your home appliances – on average worth more than $5,000 – will be protected.
We would encourage you to use this guide as a roadmap to buying the best water softener for your home. Especially first-time water softener buyers should educate themselves on the benefits of using soft water and the inner workings of the water conditioner.
- First, we’ll look at what hard water actually is and, based on that, if you indeed need a water softener.
- Second, we’ll break down water softeners to see how they work and get down to the factors – sets of specifications – to base our evaluation of the best water softeners.
- Third, we will summarize and compare the best water softeners currently on the market, and review each of them.
- In the end, you will find valuable resources on costs, installation, maintenance of water softener systems. We’ll also quickly go over types of water conditioners, the best brands, and where you can buy softeners in popular retail stores.
Table of Contents
Hard Water: Do You Even Need A Water Softener System?
Chances are that in that lucky group of 10% of US households that gets water from soft water well. In that case, you certainly wouldn’t need a water softener. There are little advantages to further descaling soft water.
Most of us, however, do have hard water in all our faucets, showers, internal house piping, and house appliances piping.
Let’s first clear away what exactly is hard water. According to Wikipedia, “the total water hardness is the sum of the molar concentrations of Ca2+ and Mg2+, in mol/L or mmol/L units.” In the US, we use unit ‘parts per million’ or ‘ppm’.
Here a specter of water hardness. Notice that the tap water contains 160-400 ppm and is considered hard or very hard.
The whole point of using a water softener is to soften the hard water. That means that we, using water softener, bring the concentration of Calcium and Magnesium ions (Ca2+, Mg2+) from 160-400 ppm to below 60 ppm. Water containing less than 60 ppm is considered soft water.
How Does A Water Softener Work To Reduce Water Hardness?
In the most basic sense, water softeners extract calcium and magnesium ions from water using a process called ion exchange. Essentially, the softener system is exchanging hard Ca2+and Mg2+ with harmless sodium ions (Na+).
A water softener is installed at water’s point-of-entry into the house (usually the basement). The softener system consists of 3 parts:
- Mineral tank (where all the ion exchange happens).
- Valve (control unit).
- Brine tank (where the salt – sodium, specifically – is stored).
The mineral tank is the heart of a water softener. As you can see from the sketch below, here is the step-by-step process of how does a water softener work:
- Untreated water (the hard water you’re currently using) enters the mineral tank. This water is filled with calcium and magnesium ions which make the water hard.
- Untreated water flows over resin beads suspended inside the mineral tank. These capture calcium and magnesium cations by swapping them (ions are exchanging, hence ion exchange) with sodium cations. The water is effectively softened.
- Soft treated water exits the mineral tank and is ready for use; with all the advantages that come with soft water.
As you can see, the resin beads capture the calcium and magnesium ions. After a time (and water volume through the mineral tank), these beads become saturated with these heavier ions.
This is where regeneration and the brine tank with salt come in. To wash the Ca2+ and Mg2+ saturated resin beads, we flush them with the sodium (salt). Sodium exchanges the heavier Ca2+ and Mg2+ ions, and are again capable to soften water. In fact, this regeneration process makes the water softener work for 20+ years with little maintenance.
Here’s the quick summary:
- Hard untreated water enters the water softener.
- Soft treated water exits the water softener.
Now, everybody has at least a sense of why water softening is a good idea. To crystallize the full advantages of installing a water softener system, let’s look at how hard water is damaging and how soft water is beneficial to your household.
Before Installing A Water Softener: Troubles Caused By Hard Water
You already know that hard water can cause all kinds of problems. In order to better understand why water softeners are indeed of great benefit to a hard-water household, let’s crystalize problems caused by hard water. These include:
- Water stains on dishes and external piping. Hard water ions create that white unwanted film over dishes, glasses, and all kinds of faucets. With hard water, the dishes are not truly cleaned because you can still see stains. On the other hand, you have to wipe down all faucets because you know the white water spots will appear if you don’t.
- Hard water and bathroom, kitchen appliances don’t mix well. The residual limescale that is formed as a consequence of using hard water will decrease the lifespan of a dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, and all other kinds of internal piping. We’re talking about plumbing buildup that’s impossible to get rid of.
- Irritated and somewhat dry skin. Hard ions found in the water of increasing hardness can cause negative effects on the skin. After the water is evaporated from our skin, the concentrated Ca2+ and Mg2+ ions are left on the skin (similar to white stains on dishes). A study published in the Journal Of Investigative Dermatology has gone so far as to state that “Installation of a water softener in early life may be able to prevent atopic dermatitis development.”
- Hard and fading laundry. Hard water with 2+ charged cations can form stronger bonds with chemicals in the laundry detergent. When it comes to laundry, these stronger molecules can have a negative impact on our clothes. This can lead to wearing out the colors in richly colored fabrics. On top of that, the hard water can negate the effect of the detergent via those strong bond creation. The effect is stiff-to-the-touch or hard laundry that is not friendly to the skin.
After Installing A Water Softener: Benefits Of Soft Water
The benefits of water softeners are directly connected with all the problems hard water causes. If you can turn hard water into soft water – which is what water softeners are designed to do – you can get completely rid of the disadvantages brought on by the use of hard water in your household.
Here are the positive effects of using soft water (basically, the water softeners advantages):
- No more white stains on dishes, glasses, and external piping. Remember the days when you had to wipe everything clean or else the white stains would form? By removing the hard water calcium and magnesium ions that form the white water stains, you effectively deal with those stains for good.
- Internal piping and household appliances are protected. Soft water doesn’t form limescale. In fact, the existing limescale problems you may have are not only halted; in some cases using soft water can partially remove the limescale buildup in internal piping and washing machines.
- No more hard water skin irritation. There are stories of people completely recovering from some skin conditions when they switched to a water softener and started using soft water.
- Normal laundry. The detergents will work as they should – without being depleted or restrained by hard water ions. Your clothes won’t fade as quickly and will be softer to the touch.
In short, it’s important that water softener advantages outpace the cost and hassle of installing a water softener. In more than 85% of US households, that is certainly true. Now, let’s have a look at some specifications regarding the water softener systems.
Factors To Consider When Buying Water Softener System
Buying a water system that softens hard water – water softener – shouldn’t be taken lightly. Currently, there are more than a thousand water softeners on the market. To decide which one is the best for your particular household needs, we will go through the 4 main factors you have to think about before buying a water softener.
What Size Water Softener Do I Need?
These water conditioning systems come in various sizes. The size of a water softener is determined by its flow rate (measured in Gallon-Per-Minute or GPM) and capacity (grain).
The majority of softeners have a flow rate from 5 GPM to 15 GPM; the biggest ones can even reach 30 GPM. Most households will need at most the 7 GPM water softener.
Capacity, on the other hand, can be expressed in terms of grains (grain capacity) or gallons. Checking the list of the best water softeners, you will see something like ‘64,000-grain capacity’ or ‘80,000-gallon capacity’. All these numbers – the grain sizes, efficacy, and regeneration rates – can be confusing.
That’s why most producers provide you with a simple formula to choose the appropriate size of a water softener. You will find water softeners sized in this way:
- Water softeners for 1-3 bathrooms.
- Water softener for 4-5 bathrooms.
- Water softener for 6+ bathrooms.
The number of bathrooms is the simplest indication of how big a water softener should be. For most households, 1-3 bathroom water softeners are more than enough.
Type (From Salt-Free To Magnetic)
There are several types of water softeners. The first division is between ones that use salt for regeneration and the salt-free water softeners. Some of the more exotic types are magnetic and dual-tank water softeners (which are less appropriate for residential use).
Salt-based water softeners are the classic ones. You have a salt tank that regenerates the resins when they are saturated with calcium and magnesium ions. Essentially, the salt (sodium or potassium) serves as a cleaning medium that regenerates the water softener.
Depending on where the salt enters the main mineral tank, we have downflow and upflow salt-based softeners. In downflow type, the salt enters from the top and dissipates in a downward manner. In the upflow softener, the salt is pushed up against gravity.
Between the downflow and upflow salt-based water softener, the upflow is better. It is more expensive but it uses more than 60% less water to ‘clean’ the mineral tank and does a more complete flush. Upflow type is also referred to as a high-efficiency water softener due to superior efficiency compared to downflow softeners.
Here’s the deal:
The best type of water softener is a salt-free water softener. These are also called saltless water softeners or no-salt softeners. As the name suggests, they don’t use salt. That means you don’t have to replenish the salt in the brine tank.
Saltless water conditioners work by flowing through tanks filled with tiny polymer beads that create template-assisted crystal (TAC) out of magnesium and calcium ions. In doing this, the ions are not removed from the water; rather, they are rendered inactive. That means that water does contain inactivated ions which is essentially the same effect as having soft water.
In many ways, salt-free water conditioners are the best type of water softeners. They are low maintenance, last longer, and there are no issues with the salt use. They only have one drawback; they are more expensive than the classic salt-based water softeners.
Whole house water softeners – the most popular ones – cost from $600 to $3,000. Given the price, we might think it’s a luxury buy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Buying and installing a water softener is a long term investment. It both cuts costs due to fewer appliance breakdowns and prolonging their lifespan.
A home with an installed water softener increases the home value considerably. The future owner knows that the internal water piping is in better shape because it was clogged with hard water.
Every water softener is an integral investment in your home. These devices last for 20 years and more.
On the low price point ($500 to $1000), you’ll find classic salt-based water softeners. For the initial investment, a low price might appear better, but in long term, it’s actually not. If you know that a 40 lbs bag of salt these cheaper softeners use costs about $20, you can calculate how much just the salt will cost if you run it for 20 years.
That’s why most modern homes opt for initially more expensive ($1,000 to $2,000) salt-less water conditioners. You don’t have to replenish the salt, they require minimal maintenance, have very low operational costs, and are very reliable. Most of the new models use TAC technology to render the Ca2+ and Mg2+ ions inactive. With no salt being used, they are also very environmentally-friendly.
Which Is The Best Water Softener? (Comparison)
When you’re in the market for a water softener, you’ll obviously want to buy the best one. Based on the consideration and specification we went through, here is the comparison of the best water softeners currently on the market:
|Water Softener||1. SpringWell FutureSoft®||2. Aquasana Rhino Whole House||3. Fleck 5600SXT Softener||4. Filtersmart Whole House Combo||5. SoftPro Elite High-Efficiency||6. Pelican NS3 NaturSoft®||7. Nuvo H2O Dphb-a Home|
|Type:||Salt-Free||Filter + Salt-Free Combo||Downflow Salt-Based||Filter + Salt-Free Combo||Upflow Salt-Based||Salt-Free||Salt-Free|
|Flow Rate:||12 GPM||7 GPM||Up to 15 GPM||12 GPM||Up to 32 GPM||10 GPM||Up to 15 GPM|
|Capacity:||Lifetime||1,000,000 gallons||Up to 64,000-grain cap.||1,000,000 gallons||Up to 110,000-grain cap.||Up to 22,000-grain cap.||20,000 gallons per cartridge|
Water Softener Reviews
Not two water softener systems are the same. That’s why it helps to look at reviews of the best water softeners to see how they differ, what makes them the best and what are some drawbacks of specific system.
In the following section, you can read reviews of the water softeners systems that we compared in the table above:
#1 SpringWell FutureSoft® (Best Overall Water Softener)
|Flow Rate:||12 GPM|
SpringWell is a well-known water softener brand. Their best model – the SpringWell FutureSoft – pretty much predicts the soft water future, and it’s amazing. The FutureSoft is the pinnacle of salt-free water conditioner technology. Being both salt-free, having a lifetime capacity, and the superb reviews make the FutureSoft the best water softener on the market.
We have already covered the clear advantages of salt-free conditioners. SpringWell FutureSoft doesn’t use salt-based ion-exchange in order to soften the water. Rather, it uses an advanced process of magnesium and calcium crystallization called TAC (Template-Assisted Crystallization). Here the hard water ion form crystals with the help of 10% resin (tiny polymers in the big tank). Industry-standard is 8% resin.
Using this process, the SpringWell FutureSoft can effectively decrease the water hardness. In fact, 99.6% of scale prevention comes with:
- No salt (no brine discharge into your piping).
- No loss in water pressure.
- No detriment to the environment (very eco-friendly).
SpringWell has managed to create such a simple and robust water conditioner system thanks to their 20 years of experience. They offer 3 models of the FutureSoft system for different sized homes, namely:
- FS1 model with 12 GPM for 1-3 bathroom households.
- FS4 model with 15 GFM for 4-6 bathroom house.
- The big FS+ model with 15+ GFM for 7+ bathroom mansions.
With every SpringWell water softener, you’ll get everything you need to install it (you can even DIY it). This includes the pre-filter housing, sediment filter, mounting bracket, bypass valve, spanner wrench, MNPT fittings, and so on.
All in all, SpringWell is the new modern salt-free water conditioner that will likely dominate the water softener market for years to come.
#2 Aquasana Rhino (Best Softener And Filter Combo)
|Type:||Filter + Salt-Free Combo|
|Flow Rate:||7 GPM|
Of all the water system presented, the Aquasana Rhino is the most well-rounded water purification system for the whole house. Most of the people who are buying a water softener are looking to get rid of the hard water.
Aquasana Rhino does that very well with the salt-free water condition. On top of that, however, the Rhino model incorporates a thorough water filtration system, comprised of:
- Prefilter that captures rust and sediment.
- (Already mentioned) Salt-free water conditioner.
- Copper-Zinc and mineral tank. Works as a filter, targeting especially chloride in the water as well as heavy water-soluble metals, and, furthermore, inhibits bacteria and algae growth.
- Activated carbon filter. Filters out larger chemical compounds such as pesticides and herbicides.
- (Optional) Post filter. Removes all parts that may remain after the filtration and water softening process.
- (Optional) UV filter. Targets bacteria and viruses, but does set you back $600 (this is a premium add-on).
Now: If the only problem you have with your water is water hardness, you don’t need the Aquasana Rhino.
However, if you’re looking to thoroughly purify your water, you know you’ll need water filtration in addition to the water softener (to reduce chlorides, organic molecules, sediments, and so on). In such a case – and people often look for an all-in-one solution – the Aquasana Rhino is the perfect water filtration system that implements the salt-free water softener as well.
The 7 GPM flow rate – on the low end – should not discourage you. For an all-in-one water filtration system, that’s a great flow rate that will take care of a larger household as well.
The key point is that Rhino offers you completely clean water. It doesn’t only turn hard water into soft water without the use of chemicals; it serves as a complete point-of-entry whole house water filtration system. It does come with one of the best water softeners attached.
#3 Fleck 5600SXT (Popular And Best Cheap Water Softener)
|Flow Rate:||Up to 15 GPM|
|Capacity:||Up to 64,000-grain cap.|
Fleck 5600SXT is the classic downflow salt-based water softener. When buying a water softener, you really want a salt-free one, and if it’s a salt-based version, it should be upflow. It seems like Fleck 5600SXT doesn’t check any of these boxes, and it actually doesn’t. So why is the Fleck 5600SXT one of the most popular water softeners out there?
The reason is simple: it’s durable, has excellent specifications, and it’s on budget. Being on the market for 10+ years, homeowners have grown accustomed to how easy the Fleck 5600SXT is to install and operate.
Yes, it does use sodium or potassium-based salt for ion exchange, and for the regeneration process. But it’s kind of an easy solution for your hard water problem. With so many people having it installed, it has gained quite a reputation for durability and reliability. You will likely have little to no problems running it.
The specs are amazing for a salt-based water softener. You have 5 models of Fleck 5600SXT, with varying size, namely:
- 24,000-grain capacity.
- 32,000-grain capacity.
- 40,000-grain capacity.
- 48,000-grain capacity.
- 64,000-grain capacity.
For a home of 4, for example, a 32,000-grain or 40,000-grain capacity will be best (depending on water hardness and the well, of course).
The main advantage here is that you have some variety when choosing the best water softener for your home. You don’t want to buy one that too big or too small, and the calculator on the QWT site helps you nail down grain capacity quite easily.
The best thing is the price. Fleck 5600SXT price ranges from $650 to $900, depending on the grain capacity. In short, this is one of the very few water softeners under $1,000 that’s both reliable and can provide you with up to 15 GPM water flow. These specs alone are superb.
#4 Filtersmart Whole House Filter + Softener Combo (FS1500 Model)
|Type:||Filter + Salt-Free Combo|
|Flow Rate:||12 GPM|
Filtersmart specializes in producing whole house filters. With their FS1500 model, they went a step forward and added a water softener to their remarkable filtration systems. Essentially, they have created an all-in-one device for complete household water needs.
The Filtersmart FS1500 model is kind of a Swiss knife of whole home water purification systems. Be supplementing water softener with a series of water filters, they can provide every home with one device that will create a bottled water quality water at every tap.
They even use the premium Jacobi coconut shell activated carbon filter. In concert with other filters, Filtersmart FS1500 can deal not only with hard water calcium and magnesium ions, but with chlorine, pesticides, herbicides, industrial solvents, and VOCs in the water a well. Again, it is a complete water filtration and softener system.
These complete purification with high capacity and flow water makes it an ideal water softener for well water.
Let’s look at the specs of the 2 models Filtersmart offers:
- The standard model is appropriate for 1-3 bathroom houses. It can produce 12 GPM of water flow; quite an exceptional number for a combo system.
- The big model is appropriate for 4-6 bathroom houses. It can produce 15 GPM of water flow; having 15 GPM bottled water quality flow is a fantastic engineering feat.
What is more, both models have 1,000,000 gallon capacity. That’s exactly what you want to hear when buying a water softener and filtration system. What you don’t want to hear is the price: the only drawback of Filtersmart FS1500 is the almost $4,000 price.
Given that you get both the filtration system as well as a salt-free water softener, however, that might be a high-end price but in the long run, it’s quite a smart investment. You don’t have to buy and install a separate filtration system and you don’t have to deal with salt.
All in all, the Filtersmart has created one of the best water softener and filtration system combo which is well worth the investment.
#5 SoftPro Elite (High-Efficiency Upflow Water Softener)
|Flow Rate:||Up to 32 GPM|
|Capacity:||Up to 110,000-grain cap.|
SoftPro Elite is the best the salt-based ion exchange technology has to offer. This is a high-efficiency water softener; that means it has an upflow regen cycle. This reduces the water waste and the salt needed in order to soften incoming water.
The best thing about SoftPro Elite (besides being the best salt-based system) is the large range of grain-capacity offered.
The smallest SoftPro Elite model has only a 24,000-grain capacity. The biggest, however, has a 110,000-grain capacity. That makes it the biggest salt-based water softener on the market. On top of that, the total water flow rate can reach 32 GPM.
SoftPro Elite is thus appropriate for small homes, big homes and everything in between. You can pick the grain-capacity fairly precisely and for a reasonable price. For example, even the biggest 110,000-grain capacity 32 GPM model costs just a bit over $2,000. The smallest high-efficiency water softener costs below $1,000.
#6 Pelican NS3 NaturSoft® (Most Environmentally Friendly Water Softener)
|Type:||Filter + Salt-Free Combo|
|Flow Rate:||10 GPM|
|Capacity:||Up to 22,000-grain cap.|
Pelican has long been one of the best companies making water filtration systems and water softeners. Their Pelican Advantage Series softeners are well-known but they are salt-based. In recent years, Pelican went a step further and created a salt-free water softener dubbed the Pelican NaturSoft. They have presented two models – standard NS3 and bigger NS6 model.
NaturSoft was, as it is quite evident from the name, created with two goals in mind:
- Create a salt-free water softener capable of providing soft water to the whole house.
- Make it as environmentally friendly as possible.
Salt-free water conditioners are eco-friendly just because they don’t use salt. They are also people-friendly because no salt means almost no maintenance.
On top of that, here are some new features that make the Pelican NaturSoft the most environmentally friendly water conditioner:
- It uses no electricity to operate.
- Creates zero water waste.
- Beneficial calcium and magnesium ions remain in the water (they are inactivated with TAC technology).
- High 99.6% effectiveness.
The standard NS3 model gas a water flow of 10 GPM which is enough for a 1-3 bathroom home. You will be able to shower, using house appliances, and drink softened water with no concern about running out. The 22,000-grain capacity is designed to preserve the environment even further.
In short, you, your family, and even your dog will benefit from the Pelican NaturSoft. Not only that, you will be taking care of the environment, leaving no dent in it, and create zero water waste.
#7 Nuvo H2O Dphb-a (Best Small Water Softener For 1-2 People)
|Flow Rate:||15 GPM|
|Capacity:||20,000 gallons per cartridge|
Nuvo H2O Dphb-a is quite a revolutionary system. The main point is that it’s the smallest water softeners appropriate for flats, or even small houses. People living in flats have a really hard time finding an appropriate softener; the Nuvo H2O Dphb-a is a great option for them.
We have salt-based and salt-free water softeners and we know how they work. Nuvo H2O Dphb-a is special; it doesn’t use salt but it also doesn’t use the standard crystallization process salt-free softeners use. Instead, the technology Nuvo H2O Dphb-a employs lowers the pH of hard water to start the chelation process and thereby removes the interaction between calcium, magnesium ions, and our home appliances, skin, and so on.
The whole process can be achieved with the use of Nuvo H2O cartridges that are both a pro and a con of this small water softener. Cartridges inactivate the calcium and magnesium ions, effectively turning hard water into soft water. However, they have to be replaced every 6 months or so, and a single one can cost about $80.
The initial price of Nuvo H2O is quite low. Somebody living in a flat with hard water can get it for about $700. What you really need to keep in mind is that cartridges will need to be replaced. Nonetheless, if you really need a smaller water softener, the Nuvo H2O Dphb-a is a great choice. It’s small, convenient, and very easy to install (you can DIY it).
Other Water Softener Companies And Where To Buy The Systems
We have just gone through the best water softeners made by companies like SpringWell, Aquasana, Fleck, Filtersmart, Pelican, and Nuvo. These companies are specialized in water filtration systems and, by extension, water softeners.
There are other companies that make water softeners. These include:
- AO Smith.
Do keep in mind that these companies are, in most cases, not specialized in water softener systems. GE, for example, is a company that produces water softeners but that’s not their main business.
In most cases, water softener companies like SpringWell and Aquasana will have better insight and customer support than the bigger corporations (such as GE). Dealing with them is easier and you might even get some factory-direct prices available.
If you do decide to go with a big corporation, you will find them in big retails like:
- Home Depot.
Just keep in mind that you can’t really get factory-direct prices in Home Depot or Lowes, for example.
We’re Open For Questions Regarding Water Softener Systems
If we haven’t covered a part about water softeners that you would be interested in, please do let us know in the comments below. We can answer you and include your question in this and our water softener related articles on Waternity Lab. Thank you.