Which Is the Best Water Softener for Your Home?
We have been reviewing water softeners since 2015. In that time, we have spent more than 80 hours researching online and consulting with professionals.
Based on our research, the US Water Aquatrol is the best softener for most homes. It is available in a variety of sizes and gives you a lot of control over regeneration schedules and water flow.
The US Water Aquatrol 56SE Metered Water Softener comes in four sizes, so you can soften the water in just one area, such as your kitchen, with a small unit or purchase the largest model and soften water throughout your home. You should also opt for a larger capacity softener if you have harder water in your area.
This softener’s digital controls let you set it to regenerate either on a specific day or after removed sediment reaches a certain level. You also use these controls to set the water flow, which is how fast water spills into the softener and is treated before being directed to the rest of your home. All the basic plumbing and electrical connections you need to install the water softener are included, so you shouldn’t have to purchase additional fixtures unless your home has a unique layout.
There is a lifetime warranty on the US Water Aquatrol 56SE’s tank and a five-year warranty on the rest of the unit, which is better than the industry-standard one- to three-year warranty. However, you cannot use US Water Aquatrol water softeners to remove iron or magnesium during the water softening process. Doing so voids all warranties and may break the unit.
The GE 30,000 Grain Water Softener is the cheapest model we evaluated. It uses salt and a resin bed to remove minerals from your home’s water supply, whether you use well water or city water.
It can remove up to 30,000 grains of hardness, including calcium and iron before it needs to regenerate. When you set the water flow, it also sets how often the softener automatically regenerates, though you can choose to manually start a regeneration cycle.
The salt reservoir holds 200 pounds of salt, so you don’t have to lift bags to refill this softener often. This also makes it more budget-friendly, since you don’t have to buy replacement salt each month. There is an alarm that lets you know when the salt level is low and the reservoir needs to be refilled.
The GE 30,000 Grain Water Softener comes with the fittings and valves needed for a basic installation, but you may have to purchase additional plumbing connectors, depending on your home. This water softener also comes with a standard one-year service warranty, a three-year warranty on the electrical components, and a 10-year warranty on the brine and resin tank.
Best Cycle Options
The Morton 45,000 Grain Capacity Water Softener uses salt to remove iron and filter out sediment to create very soft water. For every pound of salt, this softener removes over 5,000 grains of junk – since the brine reservoir holds 210 pounds of salt at a time, that’s over 1 million particles removed before the salt needs to be replaced. This also means you don’t have to worry about replacing the salt each month.
This single-tank system also uses resin to remove calcium and magnesium from your water, and it works well on both municipal and well water. Also, it is self-cleaning, so you don’t have to replace or clean the sediment filter.
Morton includes a one-year in-home service warranty and an additional three-year warranty on the electronic components. Its salt storage and resin tanks are guaranteed for 10 years.
We found that the majority of basic water softener systems cost between $400 and $430. These traditional units tend to use salt to soften water but you will need to check your tank and purchase additional salt periodically. Salt-based softeners also tend to pull more electricity, which can also cost you. However, since they remove scale deposits from your water, they will help protect your pipes and appliances from getting damaged, which could save you money in the long run.
There are more advanced systems that can cost from $800 to $2100 up front. More expensive salt-based units sometimes provide a digital interface so you can check up on your water system and make sure it's running smoothly. Some do not require salt and therefore don't need as much maintenance as salt-based systems. However, you will need to purchase replacement filters for these devices from time to time.
How Does a Water Softener Work?
Traditionally, water softeners have replaced the minerals in hard water with sodium using a process called ion exchange. There are two tanks inside this type of water softener. One holds little polystyrene beads, sometimes referred to as resin beads or zeolite, while the other holds salt and a liquid brine. Water flows through the resin tank, and the positively charged molecules in the water are drawn to the negatively charged resin beads. The minerals attach themselves to the beads and the water takes on sodium ions.
The result is water that contains salt rather than minerals. Water softened with salt does not leave scale deposits, so your pipes and appliances are better off. It has a kind of "slick" feeling, and soaps or detergents produce far more bubbles in this water than in hard water. People with dry skin generally like salt-softened water because the minerals that dry out their skin are not present. Water treated this way also does a good job cleaning clothes and other items.
High-quality water softeners that use salt include such models as the Kenmore 38300 24,000 Grain High-Efficiency Water Softener and the Krystal Pure KS15HE Water Softener.
There are some drawbacks to water softeners that use salt, however. The regeneration cycle uses up some electricity, you must have a drain for the wastewater, and you need to buy salt and replace it periodically. This softening process adds salt to the water, which could be troublesome if someone in your household needs to adhere to a low-sodium diet. Some individuals also find that water softened with sodium can be detrimental to the kinds of houseplants they grow. In addition, some people dislike the slippery feeling of water that has been softened this way.
With plenty of use, the resin beads in a salt-using water softener eventually become filled with minerals, and they need to be adjusted through a regeneration process. During this process, the household water temporarily stops running through the water softener. Many top-quality water softeners do this automatically at hours of low water use, typically during the night. When the regeneration process is underway, the fluids in the brine tank flow into the resin tank and sodium clings to the resin beads. This replaces the minerals, which flush out of the system through a drain.
Why Does a Water Softener Require Adding Salt to the water?
Not all water softeners require salt, but those that do use the salt as a softening agent. The salt itself doesn’t soften the water, but it draws the hard ions like iron, calcium and magnesium from your water as it passes through the salt.
If your water softener requires the use of salt, it should have a separate brine tank. You’ll need to fill the brine tank with enough salt that its level it at least three or four inches higher than the level of the water passing through it. This is will easy to see, so don’t worry about not being able to tell when you’ve filled it high enough.
Don’t use regular table salt in your water softener, however. This is because table salt is too fine and will dissolve quickly in the brine tank, which can decrease the effectiveness of the water softener or cause damage to the unit. Instead, look for salt designed specifically for your tank. This salt comes in the form of large pellets so it doesn’t dissolve quickly. Experts also suggest checking your salt level in the brine tank at least once a month to ensure it is at the proper levels.
Should I Use Salt or Potassium Chloride in My Water Softener?
In a traditional water softener, salt replaces unwanted minerals. However, if you are trying to reduce your sodium intake, it isn't a good idea to add salt to your water. Also, lots of municipalities have banned water softeners because the salt they use eventually ends up downstream and can be hard on freshwater rivers and streams. Communities in California, Michigan, Connecticut, New Jersey and Texas have banned salt water softeners.
Even if your city and state allow for salt using water softeners, you may want to find a more environmentally friendly option. Potassium chloride is one such alternative. You use it the same way you would salt in the same type of water softener. Potassium chloride pellets might be a little harder to find and a bit more expensive than salt, but they're better for the environment.
Still, potassium chloride isn't a solution for all environmental concerns related to water softeners. Potassium chloride is found in potash fertilizer, so it is presumed to be more environmentally friendly than salt, which is known to damage crops. But generally, water softener bans, when and where they are in place, apply whether you use salt or potassium chloride.
Other Types of Water Softeners
Some consumers favor water softeners that do not use salt. A salt-free water softener does not technically make hard water soft. Instead, it essentially neutralizes the minerals in the water so they do not cling to anything. This occurs when the household water runs through a catalytic media and the minerals change into a crystal that doesn’t stick to surfaces. As a result, you will not get the mineral buildup that comes with hard water.
Water softeners such as the Aquasana 1,000,000 Gallon Rhino and the Pelican Whole House Filter and Salt-Free Softener can do the job quite well without the salt-based process. Water like this does not have that slick feeling when you touch it. It also doesn't add sodium to your drinking water that could be problematic for anyone who needs to restrict sodium intake.
Many industry experts consider the salt-free water softeners to be less effective at such tasks as cleaning laundry, hair and skin. However, these kinds of water softeners need little maintenance, as you do not need to buy salt and remember to put it into your softener. You will need to change a filter from time to time, but otherwise, the salt-free water softeners are straightforward appliances that require little effort on your part.
Some water softeners are designed to handle extremely hard water such as the salt-using Whirlpool WHES44 44,000 Grain Capacity Water Softener and GE 30,400 Grain Water Softener.
In addition to these two types of water softeners, there are water softeners that remove iron from your well or community water. The Morton 45,000 Grain Capacity Water Softener not only functions as a top-quality, salt-using water softener for very hard water, but it also can handle water from either wells or municipal supplies. This is a welcome feature for people who have dealt with iron stains on their clothing, sinks, tubs or toilets, or with clogged pipes and off-tasting foods prepared with iron-filled water. You can also buy water softeners with special filters that rid your water of chlorine and other chemicals that affect aspects of water quality, including taste. For example, the WaterBoss 700 22,000 Grain Capacity Water Softener, which uses salt, can remove calcium, magnesium and clear-water iron.
You also can buy water softener brands that come in different sizes to accommodate the water flow and hardness capacity of your water supply, such as the salt-using US Water Aquatrol 56SE Metered Water Softener.
Contributing Reviewer: Noel Case