We have been reviewing water softeners since 2015 and have spent more than 80 hours doing online research and consulting with professionals. We found some of the best water softeners on the market to include in our comparison. There are several factors to consider when choosing a home water softener system. Among other things, you need to think about how much water your household uses overall so that you get a softener with a high enough flow rate. You'll also want to figure out how much softening power you need, and it's helpful to decide first how much maintenance you're willing to undertake.

Best Overall

Best Overall: US Water

The US Water Aquatrol comes in two sizes, so you will more than likely be able to find the right size for your house. You can use the control panel to set the time of day you want the regeneration to begin and set the water’s hardness level. You can also program it to immediately regenerate. You can also turn off the system using a built-in bypass valve. This water softener has a nice flow rate of 20 gallons per minute, which means it will quickly produce conditioned water and you’ll notice a difference very soon. 

Best Value

Best Value: GE

The GE 30,400 Grain is a water softener that will get rid of tough-to-remove hard water deposits. Within in a short time of filling the resin tank with salt you will feel a difference in your water. It won’t leave a film on your skin or on your dishes or clothes. Each regeneration cycle removes 4,800 grains of water hardness, which results in noticeably softer water that will clean dishes better. You’ll see less scale build-up on your water heater, and you could also see energy savings.

Best Cycle Options

Best Cycle Options: Morton

The Morton 45,000 Grain Capacity Water Softener, like the majority of the units in our reviews, is a salt-based water softener that requires you to add salt to the resin tank from time to time. This unit holds a lot of salt, up to 210 pounds, so the salt supply doesn’t have to be replenished very much, and it effectively removes very stubborn hard water deposits. You’ll notice a big difference in the quality of your water with this softener.

Pricing

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.

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