Do you have hard water? If so, a water softener may be a good investment for your home.
In this article, we review all seven types of water softeners so you can make an informed decision about which one is best for your family. We explain how each softener works and compare their relative benefits and limitations.
Not all water softeners are created equal. The most common water softener, the ion exchange system, works very well for the average home, is relatively inexpensive, and simple to operate. Salt-free water softeners are popular among individuals who wish to reduce their sodium intake, and, even if you don’t, we’ll tell you why one is worth considering for your house.
Continue reading to learn about the different types of water softeners and find the perfect one for your home.
What Is Water Hardness
Water hardness is a measure of the amount of dissolved minerals in water. Hardness refers specifically to calcium and magnesium.
Hard water is not necessarily bad for your health, but it can be a nuisance. Hard water can cause soap to form scale on fixtures and leave spots on dishes and glasses. It can also make it difficult to get a good lather when bathing or washing your hands.
Many people find that their skin is dry and irritated after bathing in hard water. Hard water can also make your dull and brittle
The scale that forms can shorten the lifespan of appliances that use water, such as dishwashers and washing machines.
Water softeners are a necessary addition to any home that has hard water. Not only do they make your water softer and less likely to leave spots on dishes and surfaces, but they also help extend the life of your appliances by protecting them from the damage hard water can cause.
But with so many different types of water softeners on the market, which one is right for you?
1 – Ion exchange water softener (salt-based)
Conventional water softeners use ion exchange resin to soften water. These systems are also called salt-based water softeners because they use salt to regenerate the resin.
This type of water softener works very well and is the most popular type of softener on the market. It is relatively inexpensive to purchase and operate, and it requires little maintenance.
How ion exchange works
Ion exchange water softeners work by exchanging the calcium and magnesium ions in hard water for sodium ions. This is done through an ion exchange resin, which is a type of synthetic sand. The resin is saturated with sodium ions, and as the hard water passes through it, the calcium and magnesium ions are exchanged for sodium.
Depending on the flow rate through the softener and the amount of hardness in your water, the ion exchange resin will eventually become saturated. This means that it has no remaining capacity to soften your water. When this point is reached, the unit regenerates the media by flushing it with a concentrated brine solution.
The sodium ions in the brine displace the calcium and magnesium ions, which are then flushed down the drain. The resin is now ready to soften water again.
Regeneration takes place at night, when water usage is typically lower. This process takes anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours.
During regeneration, you will not have softened water available. However, most units are designed so that they can still provide some softened water during this time.
Pros and cons of ion exchange water softeners
Ion exchange systems provide several benefits, including:
- They remove all of the hardness from your water
- They require little maintenance
- They last 20 years if properly maintained
- They are moderate in cost
On the downside, ion exchange softeners:
- Require salt which must be added every 3 to 5 weeks
- Add a small amount of sodium to your water
2 – Salt-free water softener
Salt-free water softeners use a different kind of process than traditional ones. In fact, they are water conditioners and are not true water softeners.
These devices don’t remove the heavy minerals from the water. Instead, they convert the calcium and magnesium to ultra-small solids that can’t form scale or leave behind deposits.
How sat-free water softeners work
Salt-free water softeners work by using a process called Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC). This process involves the use of polymeric beads that have microscopic nucleation sites.
These beads attract the calcium and magnesium ions in hard water, and as they come into contact with the beads, they form small crystals. These crystals are too small to cause any damage to your appliances or leave behind deposits on surfaces.
Pros and cons of salt-free water softeners
Salt-free water softeners come with a number of benefits, including:
- They don’t require salt, so there’s no added sodium to your water
- They are essentially maintenance free – the filter media is replaced annually
- They also remove other impurities from your water
Salt-free water softeners have the following disadvantages:
- They are very expensive
- They do not remove hardness from your water
3 – Dual tank water softener
Dual-tank water softeners are a great choice for those with well water or those with especially hard water. These systems are a conventional salt-based water softener with two resin tanks.
What is a dual tank water softener?
Dual-tank water softeners operate on the same principle as a single-tank system, but they have the advantage of always having softened water available. They have two ion exchange tanks whereas a conventional system only has one. They also have a brine tank to regenerate the spent media.
Dual tank systems work by having two resin tanks that are connected in parallel. This means that while one tank is regenerating, the other is still able to provide softened water to your home.
Pros and cons
The advantages of a dual-tank system are:
- You can use the water during a regeneration cycle without having hard water enter your plumbing system
- They have more capacity to treat your water
- They are a good choice for those with well water or especially hard water
The disadvantage of dual-tank systems is:
- They are more expensive than conventional systems
- They take up more space
Fleck 9100 SXT Metered Dual Tank Softener
This 48,000-grain capacity water softener from Fleck has two resin tanks to maintain continuous treatment, even during regeneration. Digital controls make it easy to program and operate.
4 – Showerhead water softener
Showerhead water softeners use ion exchange resin to treat water hardness. They are installed inline with your shower head and remove hardness minerals from the water before it enters your shower.
They are relatively easy to install and only treat the water in your shower. You simply unscrew your existing showerhead and connect the new one. These filters use cartridges to soften your water. Some showerheads feature vitamin filters to enhance your water with these supplements for your skin and hair.
How does a showerhead water softener work?
Showerhead water softeners work by passing the water through an ion exchange resin that removes the hardness minerals. The water then flows out of the unit and into your shower head.
These softeners use the same resin that is used in a salt-based water softener. They do not have a regeneration system, so when the resin is spent, you replace it with a fresh cartridge.
Pros and cons
Showerhead water softeners have the following advantages:
- They are very easy to install – you simply unscrew your existing shower head and connect the new one
- They only treat the water in your shower, so they use less salt than whole-house systems
- They can enhance your water with vitamins for your skin and hair
The disadvantages of showerhead water softeners are:
- They do not soften all the water in your home
- They require replacement cartridges on a regular basis
- They can be more expensive than other types of softeners on a per-gallon basis.
5 – Magnetic water softener
Magnetic water softeners are one of the newest filter options on the market. They advertise themselves as an alternative to traditional salt-based systems because they don’t remove hard minerals like magnesium and calcium.
They work by neutralizing any negatively the hardness minerals in your water rather then removing them. They are installed on your incoming water line and do not require any salt or replacement cartridges.
How do magnetic water softeners work?
Magnetic water softeners use a magnetic field to reduce the hardness of your water. Some brands use permanent magnets to generate the magnetic field while others use electromagnets.
The water softeners work by using a magnetic field to strip negative or positive ions from heavy minerals. Once they’re no longer positively charged, the minerals cannot bond together and remain entirely soluble in your drinking water.
Pros and cons
The pros of magnetic water softeners are:
- They don’t require any salt or replacement cartridges
- They are easy to install – you simply attach them onto your incoming water line
- They are relatively inexpensive
Cons of magnetic water softeners are:
- They don’t remove the hardness minerals, they only neutralize them
- The effectiveness is limited to the pipes close to the unit. If you have a large house, it may not protect all of your pipes.
- Some units require electricity
iSpring ED2000 Whole House Water Descaler
This magnetic water softener is suitable for very hard water areas (10-19 grains per gallon). It clamps on your pipes and requires no maintenance. Can treat your entire house.
6 – Reverse osmosis filter
Most people don’t think of reverse osmosis filters as water softeners. However, they remove all of the hardness minerals (calcium and magnesium) from water very well. They are also one of the most popular ways to filter residential drinking water.
They are very effective at removing impurities, including hardness minerals.
How does RO work
Reverse osmosis filters work by forcing water through a very fine filter membrane. The filter removes impurities and hardness minerals while allowing purified water to pass through. The water is then stored in a holding tank until you need it or dispensed through a special faucet.
Pros and cons of using RO to soften your water
Reverse osmosis filters have the following advantages:
- They remove all hardness minerals
- They remove a lot of other contaminants that might also be present in your water
- They are available in a wide range of configurations and can treat all of your water or just the water you drink
Cons of RO filters are:
- They are expensive to install
- The water they produce often has a lower quality taste than other filters
- They require periodic filter changes and maintenance
- They waste water – some RO filters waste 3 gallons of water for every gallon used for drinking
7 – Portable water softener
Portable water softeners are the perfect solution for traveling with an RV. These devices require no electricity and can go weeks without needing regeneration, making them especially convenient when you’re on-the move.
To regenerate your portable unit all that you need is some table salt – it’s very easy to do. A typical system can be regenerated in about five minutes.
How do portable water softeners work
Portable water softeners work in the same way as traditional salt-based systems. They remove hardness minerals (calcium and magnesium) from your water by passing it through a special resin bed. The softener then replaces the hard minerals with sodium, which is why you need to add table salt to the tank.
Pros and cons
Portable water softeners have the following advantages:
- They are easy to use – you simply add salt when regeneration is required
- They don’t require any electricity
- They are very compact and can be stored easily
Cons of portable water softeners are:
- The capacity is limited – most portable units can only treat a few gallons of water at a time
- They use salt
On The Go Spotless Portable Mixed Bed Deionizer
This filter produces about 280 gallons of water each day at a hardness level of 200 ppm. It weighs 18 pounds and has a carrying handle to make it easier to move around.
Water Softener Features
Now that you know the different types of water softeners, it’s time to look at some of the features that you should consider when choosing a unit. There are a wide range of options that make each water softener unique, so make sure you ask the right questions before purchasing one.
If you opt for a salt-based water softener, a demand-initiated control system is a great option. This type of system only regenerates the resin bed when it’s necessary, which saves you both salt and water. They have a flow meter that initiates the regeneration process after the unit has treated the maximum volume its capacity can handle.
Grain size capacity
Water softeners are sized based on their grain size capacity. This is the number of grains of hardness that the softener can remove before it needs to be regenerated. A higher grain size capacity means that you won’t have to regenerate your system as often, so it’s a feature worth considering if you use a lot of water or if you have high hardness.
When selecting a water softener, make certain it can deliver water at a high enough flow rate to meet your needs. You don’t want to experience low flow or reduced pressure if more than one device is using water at once. This is especially problematic if two people are showering at the same time.
Do I need a water softener?
This is a difficult question to answer because it depends on your individual needs and preferences. If you have hard water, a water softener can make your life much easier by preventing scale buildup and keeping your plumbing and appliances running smoothly. However, if you’re happy with your hard water, then you don’t need to install a water softener.
How often do I need to regenerate my water softener?
The frequency of regeneration depends on how much water your use and the hardness of your water. Salt-based systems typically need to be regenerated every two weeks, but larger systems can go as much as six weeks between regenerations.
What are the disadvantages of an ion exchange water softener?
The main disadvantage of a water softener is that it uses salt, which can be bad for the environment. Additionally, if you have high hardness in your water, you may need to add salt more frequently, which can be costly.
So, what type of water softener is right for you? We’ve reviewed all seven types and their pros and cons, so you can make an informed decision.
If you have a large family or if you live in a hard water area, then a salt-based ion exchange system may be the best option for you. However, if you want to avoid using salt or don’t have the space for a bulky system, then a salt-free softener could be a good choice.
And finally, no matter which type of water softener you choose, it’s important that it has certain features like simple controls and adequate treatment capacity. Hopefully this article has helped narrow down your choices and given you some ideas for what to look for when shopping for a water softener.