Ultimate Guide to Water Softeners: Everything You Need to Know

Ultimate Guide to Water Softeners: Everything You Need to Know

Unsure if you need a water softener?

This Ultimate Guide to Water Softeners can help you make the best decision for your home and family. We cover everything from how water softeners work to sizing a water softener, so you can be confident in your purchase. You’ll find information on all the different features available, costs of operation, and how often they need maintenance.

With so many options on the market today, choosing the right one can be difficult if you don’t know what questions to ask. We give you all the information you need to make an informed decision about whether a water softener is right for you.

Read our guide to find out if a water softener is the right choice for you.

How Water Softeners Work

Hard water can be challenging to deal with. It causes scaling in your pipes, appliances, and water heater. It can also leave a film on your skin and hair, making them feel dry and brittle.

A water softener removes the hardness from your water – the calcium and magnesium ions, turning it into soft water. This is done by passing the hard water through a bed of resin beads. The calcium and magnesium ions in your water attach themselves to the resin. In the process, they are exchanged for sodium or potassium ions. The soft water is then passed out of the softener and into your home’s plumbing system.

What is hard water

Scale buildup in pipe fittings
Hard water causes the buildup of scale inside your plumbing.

Hard water contains high levels of calcium and magnesium. These ions can cause problems with your plumbing, appliances, and skin.

Signs of hard water include:

  • Scale buildup on plumbing fixtures and hard surfaces
  • Lack of suds when you shower or wash your hands
  • Water spots on your glasses and dishes
  • Steady loss of water pressure in your home

The problem with hard water

Hard water can cause a lot of problems in your house. The most common issue is scale buildup in your pipes. Over time, this can lead to a significant loss of water pressure and greatly reduced water flow.

Other problems caused by hard water include:

  • dingy laundry
  • lime deposits on your plumbing fixtures
  • water spots on dishes
  • poor soap lather
  • dry skin
  • brittle hair
  • slow flushing toilets
  • low water flow
  • low water pressure in shower

Hard water will damage your water-using appliances, greatly reducing their life. The table below lists the reduction in service life of the major appliances in your home due to hard water.

Effects of Hard Water on Appliance Life
Appliance Normal Life Life with Hard Water
Washing Machine 11 years 7.7 years
Dishwasher 10 years 7 years
Toilet 6.5 years 2 years
Faucet 9 years 5.4 years
Electric Water Heater 13 years 6.5 years
Gas Water Heater 11 years 5.5 years
Reference: 2009 Water Quality Research Foundation

The ion exchange process

In the ion exchange process, the calcium and magnesium ions from your water (the hardness) are replaced with sodium (or potassium) ions. This is all done by the resin beads in the softener.

The resin has a charge that attracts the ions in your water. This charge holds the calcium and magnesium on the surface of the resin beads. Eventually, the resin becomes saturated with the hardness ions and can’t remove any more from the water.

When the resin is saturated, it must be regenerated to remove the calcium and magnesium. This regeneration process is done by flushing the spent resin with brine. The sodium ions in the salty water displace the hardness ions from the resin. This solution now contains all of the hardness from your water and is dumped down the drain.

This process is repeated over and over again. The ion exchange resin removes the hardness ions from the water until it is saturated. At this point, the resin is backwashed with brine to remove the unwater ions by substituting them with sodium ions.

Minerals removed by water softeners

Water softeners primarily remove calcium and magnesium from your water. These two ions are what is known as hardness.

A typical ion exchange water softener can remove the following minerals from your water:

  • Calcium (virtually 100%)
  • Magnesium (virtually 100%)
  • Iron (removes up to 5 parts per million)
  • Manganese (removes trace amounts)

Water softeners do not remove other impurities. The following contaminants are not removed by water softeners:

Regeneration process

Water softener salt pellets
Salt pellets used to regenerate spent resin in water softeners.

When the resin bed is saturated with calcium and magnesium ions, regeneration or cleaning must occur. In this process, sodium ions are used to displace the hardness ions from the resin. Salt is used to provide the sodium ions (potassium also works) needed for regeneration.

The most common salt used is sodium chloride. Chemically, this is the same as table salt. However, the salt used to regenerate your water softener is not the same. It is larger in size and comprised of pellets. These pellets perform better than table salt.

Another common salt used in water softeners is potassium chloride. This material is more expensive than sodium chloride, but it works just as well. The benefit of potassium salt is that it avoids adding any sodium to your drinking water.

Read my article Water Softener Salt: Everything You Need to Know to learn more.

Pros and Cons of Using a Water Softener

Many homes rely on water softeners to make their lives easier. By removing the hardness from your water, a water softener eliminates the scaling and film build-up caused by hard water. It also makes your hair and skin feel softer and smoother.

Read my article Discover the Pros and Cons of Water Softeners: A Comprehensive Guide.

Benefits of softening your water

Water softeners provide many benefits to homeowners. Some of these benefits are:

  1. Eliminates scaling and film build-up caused by hard water
  2. Makes hair and skin feel softer and smoother
  3. Can extend the life of your appliances by preventing scale build-up
  4. May reduce soap usage by up to 50%
  5. Less staining and spotting on dishes
  6. More efficient use of laundry detergent
  7. Reduces energy necessary to produce hot water
  8. Increased home value

Water softeners can also improve the taste of your water in certain situations.

Read my comprehensive discussion of the harmful effects of hard water on your skin.

Drawbacks of having a water softener

While water softeners provide many benefits, they also have a few drawbacks. These are:

  1. Requires ongoing maintenance, including regular salt additions
  2. Wastes water during the regeneration process
  3. May not remove all of the hardness from your water, depending on how hard your water is
  4. Softened water contains trace amounts of salt
  5. Some people notice a different taste
  6. Softened water feels slippery to some people

Features to Look for in a Water Softener

Installing a water softener
Typical water softener configuration.

Water softeners come in all shapes and sizes. Not all water softeners are created equal. There are some features that you should look for when purchasing a water softener:

  1. Capacity – The size of the water softener will depend on how much water your home uses. You want to make sure that the unit is large enough to handle the demand of your household.
  2. Brine storage capacity – Depending on how much water you use, your softener may use as much as 80 pounds of salt per week. To avoid having to dump heavy bags of salt multiple times a month, look for a large brine tank.
  3. Dual tanks – If you have very hard water, you may want a dual tank system. This configuration allows one resin bed to be in service while the other is being regenerated or on standby.
  4. Bypass valve – A bypass valve allows you to divert hard water to your system. This might be beneficial if you want to water your lawn or fill a swimming pool.
  5. Digital timer – Most water softeners use a timer to initiate the regeneration cycle. This timer should be adjustable to meet your specific needs.
  6. Flow meter – High-end water softeners use a flow meter to determine when regeneration is necessary. This is a better way to control your treatment compared to a simple timer.

Cost of Water Softener

Water softeners vary in price, depending on their capacity and the features that you select. The overall cost of a water softener includes the purchase price of the unit, installation, and the cost of salt.

Read my article on how much it costs to install a water softener.

Equipment costs

You can expect to pay anywhere from $500 to $2,000 for a quality water softener. The wide range of prices is due to factors like treatment capacity. Larger systems have more resin and require larger vessels. They also have larger salt tanks.

Other variables that affect the cost are things like digital controllers versus mechanical timers. Dual tank systems cost more because they have twice as much resin and two vessels as opposed to one.

Installation costs

Installation will also cost extra. If you are not comfortable installing the unit yourself, be prepared to pay a professional installer around $200-1,500. Large systems will be more costly to install because of the larger pipe sizes and need for additional help. Other factors include ease of access to the spot your softener will be installed, availability of power for the controller, and the need for special piping to accommodate your home’s plumbing configuration.

Costs also vary depending on where you live.

If you are a DIY person, check out my sizing guide for water softeners.

Costs for salt

Salt and potassium pellets are a consumable item that have to be added to your system. They can be purchased at a home improvement store or online. The price for salt varies depending on the size of the bag and the supplier. You can expect to pay around $10 to $20 per month on average. Larger systems and higher water usage requires more salt which increases your costs.

Is It Safe to Drink Water from a Water Softener

Many people have concerns about the safety of softened water. Softening systems use a process called ion exchange to remove hardness from your water. During this process, the resin bed removes calcium and magnesium ions from the water and replaces them with sodium or potassium ions.

Some people worry that this adds sodium to their water. If you are on a restricted sodium diet, this can be concerning.

The amount of salt added to your softened water is very small and does not pose a health risk when consumed. If you have very hard water, the softener will add 20 to 30 milligrams (mg) of sodium per 8-ounce glass of water.

The recommended daily allowance for sodium consumption is 2,400 mg. If you drink 8 glasses of water each day, you will get an additional 160 to 240 mg of sodium. This is well below the recommended amount.

Most salt comes from the foods we eat – especially processed foods.

In general, drinking softened water is considered healthy and not a concern. You should consult your physician to determine if this additional amount of sodium is a problem or not.

Water Softener Maintenance Requirements

Water softeners do not require a lot of maintenance to keep them operating properly. The main requirement is to add salt to the tank on a regular basis.

Read my article 10 Tips for Maintaining Your Water Softener to learn more.

How often to add salt

The amount of salt you need to add will vary, depending on your water usage and the hardness of your water. You can expect to add salt every month or two, depending on these factors.

A family of 4 will use as much as 80 pounds of salt each month.

Disinfecting your water softener

Once a year, you should disinfect your water softener. This is a process that kills any bacteria or algae that may have grown in the tank.

To disinfect, first turn off the water supply to the softener. Then add one cup of bleach to the salt tank and resin vessel. Let it sit for an hour and then flush with clean water until all of the bleach is gone.

Testing Your Water Softener’s Performance

You may be wondering if your water softener is working properly. There are a few things you can do to test its performance.

Visual test of your water softener

The simplest way to evaluate how well your water softener is working is to look around your house.

Inspect your dishes. Water spots on glasses or stains on dishes is another sign that the water is not completely softened.

Check your plumbing fixtures. Hard water will leave a build-up of minerals on fixtures over time. This can be a sign that the softener is not working properly or that it is not removing enough hardness from the water.

Look for dry skin and hair. Hard water causes a film on the skin that can lead to dryness and flakiness. It also makes hair less shiny and more difficult to manage.

If you are seeing any of these signs, your water softener may not be working properly. You should contact a professional to have it inspected and serviced.

Soap test

A really easy way to see how hard your water is the soap test. Fill a clear jar halfway with water and mark the level. Add a few drops of liquid soap the jar.

Shake the solution for about 30 seconds. Soft water will produce a thick head of suds that fills the jar. Hard water will appear cloudy and not have any suds.

Hardness test strips

There are testing kits available that will help you determine the hardness of your water. These strips are dipped into a sample of the water and then read to give you a numerical value for the hardness.

Digital TDS meter

You can buy an inexpensive meter that will measure the total dissolved solids (TDS) in your water. TDS is not the same as hardness, but it is a good measure of all of the solids that are dissolved in it. If you know what the TDS value is when your softener is working properly, you can use this measurement to know if it isn’t removing all of the calcium and magnesium from your water.

Sizing a Water Softener for Your Home

The capacity of a water softener is given by the grains of hardness that it can remove. This value is determined by the size of the tank and the type of resin used.

You need to know the following information to size a water softener for your home:

  1. average daily water usage (gallons)
  2. water hardness (grains per gallon)

With this information, you can determine the size of water softener that you need.

Determining your water usage

You can estimate the amount of water you use each day based on the number of people living there. On average, each person uses 75 gallons per day. Multiple the number of people in your house by 75 to estimate your usage.

A more accurate method is to refer to your water bill. The water usage is listed on the bill in gallons used over a certain period of time.

Measuring your water’s hardness

When measuring water’s hardness, the grains per gallon (gpg) is often used as a standard. However, municipalities often use parts-per million (ppm) instead.

To convert: 1 gpg = 17.1 ppm

One grain of hardness in each gallon is the same as 1/7000th of a pound of rock.

Home testing is an easy and affordable way to measure your water’s hardness. You can also have a professional sample your water.

Calculate grains of hardness to remove each day

The final step in sizing your water softener is calculating the grains of hardness that you need to remove each day.

This is given by:

System Capacity = [average water usage] x [water hardness]

Most professionals recommend buying a water softener that can provide treatment for 7 days before regeneration is required.

Salt-Free Water Softeners

Conventional water softeners use ion exchange to remove hardness from the water by exchanging calcium and magnesium ions for sodium ions. This process requires a salt brine solution that is circulated through the tank to cleanse it of the hard scale build-up.

Salt-free water softeners work differently. They use a catalytic process to precipitate the minerals into very small particles. They are typically too small to see and simply pass through your pipes along with the water.

NSF Certification for Water Softeners

The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) is a third-party certification agency that verifies the claims made by equipment manufacturers. NSF certification is an easy and very reliable way to be sure the water softener you buy meets strict public health standards.

NSF conducts extensive tests on the equipment to verify it meets the claims made by the manufacturer. They test each device to industry and government standards so you can be certain it will provide clean, safe drinking water for you and your family.

The applicable standard for water softeners is known as NSF/ANSI 44: Cation Exchange Water Softeners.

This certification sets the minimum standards for a residential water softener. It identifies the reduction in hardness that the softener must meet. They also evaluate the structural integrity of the components and verify that the materials of construction are safe (such as not having lead in them).

If your water softener has NSF/ANSI 44 certification, it will reduce your water’s hardness to provide you with soft water and protect your plumbing fixtures and water appliances.


How do I know if I have hard water?

  • Scale on showers and sinks
  • Buildup of scale on diffusers and shower head
  • Dry skin and brittle hair
  • Water spots on dishes
  • Poor lather with soap
  • Off taste in water

What is soft water?

Soft water is water that has been treated to remove the minerals that make it hard. This leaves behind a softer, more manageable water with less soap scum and build-up.

Is hard water bad for me?

Hard water is safe to drink. It can harm your appliances, however, and can make it difficult to get a good lather with soap.

What is the difference between salt-based and salt-free water softeners?

Salt-based water softeners use a resin bed that is saturated with sodium ions. As hard water passes through the softener, the calcium and magnesium minerals attach themselves to the sodium ions and are flushed away. Salt-free softeners use a different technology that exchanges the hardness minerals for potassium or sodium ions. These systems do not require a salt feed, but they also do not remove all of the hardness from the water.

Can I install a water softener myself?

Most water softeners come pre-assembled and are easy to install. However, installation requires cutting existing water lines and connecting the softener. It is best to consult a professional.

Final Take on Water Softeners

You should now have a good understanding of how water softeners work and the benefits they can provide. What are the costs involved? Is it safe to drink the water treated by your softener?

With this information, you can weigh the pros and cons, and make an informed decision about whether or not a water softener is right for your home.

Thanks for reading!

The Filter Guy

Scott Birch is a water filtration installer and designer. He has worked in the industry for many years and is very familiar with and knowledgeable about residential water treatment equipment. Scott enjoys helping people get the most out of their water filtration systems and ensuring that their homes are getting the best possible quality of water.

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