So, you’re sick of stained dishes and laundry, limescale build-up that damages your appliances and pipes, and water that’s odd-tasting and contributes to health risks?
The good news is that you’re not stuck with your hard water – the whole house water softening systems we have reviewed below can solve these hard water problems.
By finding the best water softener system for your home, you will extend the lifespan of your appliances and pipes, get rid of staining, save money, and improve your water’s taste and quality.
We spent countless hours researching, talking with manufacturers & customers, and scouring the internet to find the water softening systems that are truly the best.
We’ve also sorted through the different styles of water softeners including salt-based, salt free softeners, and combination filter and softener systems to help you determine which style is the best water softener for your home’s needs.
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Best Whole House Water Softening Systems Compared
#1 SpringWell FutureSoft
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#2 Quality Water SoftPro Elite for Well Water
#3 Fleck 5600 SXT
#4 Aquasana EQ-1000
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#5 Pelican Nature Soft
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What You Should Look for in a Water Softener
When searching for what makes the best residential water softeners on the market, our research brought us to the qualities below.
These are the criteria you should be familiar with when making a selection, and they’re also what we evaluated each of the best water softeners on.
Salt or Salt-Free
The first thing to consider when selecting your water softener is whether it’s a salt-based version with a tank, or a salt free water softener (also called a water descaler or conditioner).
The main difference between salt based softeners and salt-free versions is that salt versions use ion exchange to remove hardness-causing minerals, while salt free water softeners change the structure of the minerals so that they cause less scale.
Usually, if you have very hard water (over 7 GPG) it will be best to choose a salt-based unit with a tank because they directly remove hardness-causing minerals and will give you better results.
On the other hand, if your water is only somewhat or moderately hard – or if the salt free system is rated for high GPG – salt free water softeners are a great choice. Salt free systems require less maintenance, are more environmentally friendly, and do a good job of preventing scale.
If you’re purchasing a salt-based softener then it’s important to choose the right-sized grain capacity for your salt tank. The higher the grain capacity, the more soft water it can produce.
This is calculated based on the amount of water used each day in your house, your water hardness, any iron present, and how long the system goes between regeneration cycles.
You simply take the total GPG (grains per gallon) hardness of your water, add 5 GPG for each ppm of iron, multiply it by the amount of water used per day (each person uses about 80 gallons per day) and finally multiply that by the number of days between regeneration cycles.
Here’s the formula for water that has 8 GPG of hardness, 1 ppm of iron, and 3 people in the house with a 7 day regeneration cycle:
13 GPG (8+5) x 240 (80 gallons per day per person x people) x 7 (regeneration cycle)
The minimum grain capacity for the salt tank in this situation should be 21,840 grains in order to meet the needs of the household.
Crosslink % & Durability
In the salt based softeners ion exchange process, the resin is the ion-exchange media used to soften the water. This resin usually consists of cross-linked styrene and divinylbenzene (DVB) molecules.
With a higher percentage of crosslinking, the media gets stronger and more durable to where it’s able to withstand oxidation and physical damage for a longer period of time.
Most softeners contain 8% crosslinks – which is pretty durable – but some even contain 10% crosslinks, which can help improve lifespan. Simply put, while 10% is ideal, look for at least 8%. The other thing to consider with durability is the kind of warranty the manufacturer offers on their system.
If the water softening system you are purchasing contains independent certification, that’s another plus. It’s not totally necessary because some of the smaller companies with good products simply don’t have the money to invest in third-party testing, but if a unit has been certified by NSF then it gives it an added level of credibility.
In water softening units, you are looking for the ANSI/NSF 44 certification standard which is specifically for cation-exchange water softeners or water softener systems that conduct the ion exchange process.
You can see our guide here for more information on certification criteria.
Lastly, considering the price of your water softener is always a deciding factor. Keep in mind that more expensive units may last longer and be less costly over the lifetime of the system, so make sure to factor in the lifetime cost and quality of the product.
Our top picks and most of the best water softeners usually range between $800-$2000 where the units closer to the $2000 range have more features and higher capacity. This is for both salt free water conditioners and salt tank versions.
Top Rated Water Softeners Reviewed
All of our top-rated water softening systems have received the highest ratings from consumers and industry experts, but there are still some significant differences between models.
Some models use salt, and others are salt free softeners. Some have pre-filters and other added benefits, while others are budget whole house water softening systems.
Some units in this review are better for well water usage, and others are better for a municipal household water supply.
The following water softener reviews below go into more detail.
1. SpringWell FutureSoft- (Top Choice & Best Salt Free Water Softener)
We spent time conducting extensive research for this review and talking with customers of the Springwell Futuresoft salt-free water softening system.
We determined that most customers noticed reduced hardness in their water and were able to dramatically extend the lifespan of their home appliances and pipes without using salt.
This water softener is priced well for its benefits, and the company and customer service are top-notch compared to other companies.
The salt-free system works really well at conditioning water with up to 81 GPG hardness and preventing 99.6% of scale formation with a lifelong warranty.
Main Features & Benefits:
- Effective Scale Removal: Uses template-assisted crystallization and proprietary media to convert hardness-causing minerals in your water into calcite crystals that won’t build up as scale in your appliances, pipes, and heater.
- Waste Free: This water softener doesn’t waste any water or discharge any salt brine into the environment. You still get the healthy mineralization in your water, but the ions are changed so that you receive 99.6% scale prevention without using chemicals or salt – and all with zero drops in water pressure.
- Maintains Great Flow Rate: This unit maintains a flow rate of at least 12 gallons per minute
- NSF Certified: All components of this system are NSF certified and meet high standards of performance, reliability, and durability.
- Lifetime Warranty: This water conditioner is backed by a lifetime warranty so there is no need to worry about it not lasting
- No Maintenance: Futuresoft is virtually maintenance-free so it’s a great choice for someone looking for a low hassle solution
Who It’s Best For:
If you’re looking for the best salt free water softener, then SpringWell FutureSoft is the ultimate product for the price.
Springwell also has one of the top-rated salt-based water softening systems if you’re looking for a highly recommended salt system. You can check out their whole house salt system here.
For more information on Springwell, see our in-depth Springwell water review here.
- 99.6% scale prevention
- Extends the lifespan of your appliances
- No water wasted (efficient water consumption)
- No electricity needed
- Works with city & well water
- Easy installation
- Low maintenance
- 6-month money-back guarantee
- Life warranty on the parts and tanks
- Not cheap
- Tank is heavy
2. Quality Water Treatment SoftPro Elite – (Good for Well Water)
The SoftPro Elite Water softener is Quality Water Treatment’s best-selling water softener.
In more than one review, you can see customers attesting that it works exceptionally well if you have a private well with a hard water problem.
It also comes at a very reasonable price of around $1,000 and offers numerous different grain capacities and packages to customize to your home.
Quality Water Treatment offers a size for each home with options from 24,000 to 80,000 grains, this softener is NSF certified, and it uses 50% less salt than competing products.
Main Features & Benefits:
- Efficient Upflow Regeneration: It drives the hardness minerals up through the already depleted resin and out to drain saving both salt and unused resin using only a few bags of salt each year
- Short Regeneration Cycles: The unit comes with quality sensors, which allow it to trigger a short demand initiated regeneration cycle outside of the normal schedule time if it’s needed.
- High Tech LCD Screen: The system allows you to program vacation mode, auto-refresh, variable backwashing, and auto reserve
- Affordable: This is one of the best water softeners for the money at a price point of around $1000
- Lab Tested: The softener has been through laboratory testing, receiving excellent recognition from IAPMO research and testing center
Who The SoftPro Elite Is Best For:
If you’re someone with a private well and have a hard water issue, then this model is a great option to consider.
Our other top picks in this review are more suited for a city water supply, but this model will do an adequate job if you deal with well water.
You can also see our best water softeners for well water roundup if you have a private well and are looking for more choices.
- Top softening and Iron Filtration technology
- User-friendly LCD
- IAMPO Certified
- Customizable package combos
- Lifetime warranty
- Excellent customer service and reviews
- May need installation help (basic plumbing skills needed)
- Package systems are not cheap
3. Fleck 5600sxt- (Best Water Softener for The Money)
The Fleck 5600sxt is a top budget salt-based softener because it has been around for a long time with many positive customer reviews and it is very efficient in removing hard minerals from water.
The price point is one of the most affordable on the market, and the Fleck 5600 SXT has optimal water softening capabilities with little hassle.
It also comes with a stellar 10-year warranty on the tank and 5 years on the valve.
You can choose from models ranging from 26,000 to 70,000 grains per gallon to fit any size home.
Main Features & Benefits:
- Very Affordable: With a price point below or around $1000 for a high-quality salt-based water softening system this is a great bang for the buck
- Easy Installation: This system comes partially assembled, loaded with resin in the mineral tank, it’s made for an easy DIY install
- Highly Efficient: The Fleck 5600 SXT brine tank only regenerates when needed saving money on wastewater making this model very efficient
- Programmable Control Valve: Fleck’s advanced water flow rate meter comes with a fully programmable control valve and a digital LED display shows you the water flow rate and hardness levels making it easy to monitor
- Light & Energy Efficient: The SXT is light, doesn’t use a lot of energy, and won’t take up too much space in your home at 54 inches in height
Who It’s Best For:
If you’re someone looking for a budget-friendly whole house water softening system, the Fleck 5600sxt model is simply one of the best salt water softeners you can buy in this price range.
The Fleck 5600sxt also has a 10-year warranty, and the product has a reputation for providing dependable and quality softening over the long run.
For more detailed information, you can see our complete fleck 5600sxt review.
- Durable 48 000 grain water softener capacity
- Uses a digital control valve
- Automatic regeneration
- Has a large tank, holding up to 250 pounds of salt
- Low maintenance
- Easy installation
- Resin is the standard 8 percent crosslink
- It lacks drainage tubing
4. Aquasana EQ-1000 Whole House Softener & Filter (Best Combo System)
The Aquasana EQ-1000 is one of the highest-quality salt-free softener and filtration combination systems on the market.
The main reason it appears here is that it offers an all-in-one, whole-home water solution that provides both softening and filtration.
Aquasana is also on the cutting edge of innovation in the water industry. Their parts, technology, and customer service is top of the line.
Main Features & Benefits:
- Quality Water Filtration & Softening: This unit contains a whole house filter that is tested to remove 97% of chlorine for 1,000,000 gallons and has a salt free softener that reduces scale buildup without harsh mineralization or chemicals
- Maintains Water Flow: The unit’s flow rate is 7 gallons per minute keeping your home’s water flow at a normal rate
- Tested & Certified: Unlike a lot of other water softening systems this unit has been NSF/ANSI certified for standard 42
- Good Warranty: Aquasana offers a 10-year warranty on the system
- Reasonable Price Point: At around $2000 this system comes at a decent price for the dual filtration and softening that it provides in one unit
Who The EQ-1000 Rhino is Best For:
If you’re someone who needs an excellent water treatment system that will take care of all of your home water softening system and filtration needs in one device, this is for you.
With this system, you will eliminate hard water mineralization, remove contaminants, and produce the purest water available for your family’s needs.
See our complete Aquasana review for more information.
- Water softener & filtration system in one unit
- SCM mineral-free technology to naturally reduce scale buildup in the home’s pipes
- Option to add UV filtration which eliminates bacteria and viruses
- Easy to install with kit
- Does not require backflushing or drainage line
- Aquasana has top-notch customer service
- 10-year warranty
- Not for people who don’t need both filtering and softening
5. Pelican Water NatureSoft- (Salt Free Water Softener)
A good option if you’re looking for one of the best non-salt water softeners is the Pelican NS3.
This softener is one of our recommended models because of its advanced technology and rigorous testing, including NSF/ASNI certifications.
It’s not cheap, but it has some of the highest capabilities of any softener on our list.
Main Features & Benefits:
- Excellent Scale Reduction: This water softening system uses template-assisted crystallization to change the form of minerals so that they don’t form scale and it’s certified for 99.6% scale prevention removing hardness up to 75 GPG. It also leaves beneficial minerals in your water.
- Very Efficient: This softener works without the need for electricity or water waste offering zero water waste compared to traditional softeners that create wastewater
- Tested & Certified: This unit has been NSF/ANSI certified for standards 61 and 42
- Maintains Flow Rate: Flow rate will be maintained at 10 GPM with this softener offering quality water flow in your home
- Great Warranty: Pelican offers a lifetime warranty on this unit
Who NatureSoft is Best For:
This softener is best for homeowners looking for an excellent softener with DVGW certification that also meets NSF/ASNI requirements for materials.
Next to Springwell’s water softener, we would recommend this product as the 2nd best salt-free version.
You can see our complete Pelican review for more information on the product and company.
- 99.6% scale reduction
- Certified by DVGW and WQA and meets NSF/ANSI standards
- Removes sediment from water with a 5-micron pre-filter
- Easy installation
- Lifetime warranty as well as a 90-day money-back guarantee
- Low maintenance
- Does little to avoid mineral stains
- Not cheap
Use Exclusive Code: WATERTECH at checkout for 10% off Pelican Products!
6. AFW Iron Pro 2- (Salt-Based Softener & Iron Filter Combo)
The AFW Iron Pro 2 Combination water softener offers a salt water softener and iron filter in one unit.
This system is an alternate version of the Fleck water softener (5600sxt) with added iron filtration. The complete system includes the tank, control valve, fine mesh resin, and brine tank.
It’s effective if you have both a high iron ppm and a water hardness issue.
Put simply, it’s a good water softener for iron removal.
Main Features & Benefits:
- Good Performance Against Iron & Hardness: Removes hardness up to 70 GPG and iron up to 4-7 ppm, manganese up to 6 ppm, sediment, sand, and rust
- On-Demand Regeneration: The Iron Pro 2 has the same high-quality digital control head that the 5600sxt whole house system has, which offers easy, on-demand regeneration cycling, LCD, and touchpad controls
- Easy Installation: Comes with everything needed in the box for installation, including the brine tank, bypass valve, and simple DIY instructions
- Good Warranty & Price: Comes with a 10-year warranty on the tank and 5 years on the head as well as a price that’s below $1000
Who It’s Best For:
The Iron Pro 2 water softener is best for someone looking for a whole house water softener system that also filters out iron at an affordable price.
It’s also ideal for smaller households as the grain capacity is smaller than the average water softener.
- Both water softener and iron filter (iron up to 8ppm)
- Contains a digital head to monitor your softening cycles
- Clean black appearance
- Good bang for the buck
- Not easy to install
- Good amount of maintenance required
7. iSpring ED2000 Whole House Electronic Water Descaler- (Alternative Option)
If you want the best electronic water descaler conditioner with no mineral tank or chemicals, a budget solution is the iSpring ED2000 whole-house electronic water softener.
This is a whole-house electronic descaler rather than a conventional water softener. That means it transmits electromagnetic waves through your plumbing, which prevents mineral buildup and limescale from accumulating.
This whole house electronic descaler does not soften your water or eliminate natural minerals but instead works on the plumbing to help prevent scale. The iSpring ED2000 whole house electronic water softener features DIY water pipes installation on different pipe materials such as PEX and copper.
Main Features & Benefits:
- Quality Water Conditioning: Designed to treat lower levels of hard water ranging between 10 and 19 GPG
- Quality Warranty: One-year money-back guarantee & lifetime technical support
- Environmentally Friendly: This system is maintenance-free, doesn’t require modification to pipes or plumbing, and descales water without changing water chemistry
- No Significant Change in Flow Rate: Most customers say that their flow rate doesn’t change at all or much with this unit because it doesn’t alter the water supply
- Good Budget Price Option: At $150, you won’t find a more affordable solution for your hard water
Who It’s Best For:
Although we would recommend SpringWell’s FutureSoft or Fleck 5600sxt before this electronic water softener, if you’re someone looking for a cheaper alternative, this is a whole-house system to consider trying.
You can see our eddy electronic water descaler review here, which is the same type of product.
- Easy to install
- Runs silently
- Long lifespan
- ISO 9000 Quality Standard certification
- No scientific evidence to back up its claims
- Not suitable for very hard water or a large family
- The softener needs to have a power source
- If you have a high quantity of iron, the system may be less effective
8. Filtersmart FS500 Salt Free Water Softener
Filtersmart is an up and coming brand in the water filtration business, and this water softening system is one of their best products.
It uses template-assisted crystallization to transform hard water minerals into microscopic crystals which keeps ions suspended in the water so that they won’t stick to the surface causing scale.
This water conditioner safely reduces scale buildup without any salt and is available in 12 GPM (1-3 bathrooms) and 15 GPM (4-6 bathrooms) sizes.
Main Features & Benefits:
- Effective Salt-Free Conditioning: Uses TAC (template-assisted crystallization) to prevent 99% of scale formation
- No wastewater: It doesn’t require regeneration which saves water, salt, and money and produces scale-free water without salt, producing no water waste
- Lifetime Warranty: A lifetime warranty covers the system’s tanks and valves and Filtersmart offers a 100% money-back guarantee
- Affordable: At around $1000 this water conditioner is very affordable compared to other options on the market
Who It’s Best For:
This water softener from Filtersmart is best for people looking for an efficient, affordable, high-quality salt-free system.
It’s best for people looking for efficiency and fast performance without the hassle of wastewater or having to refill salt.
For more in-depth information, see our Filtersmart review.
- Easy DIY install
- Offers water flow of 12 to 15 GPM depending on home size
- This unit has many positive customer reviews
- Uses a lot of electricity
- Filtersmart doesn’t have as much industry experience
9. Nuvo H20- (Salt-Less System)
The Nuvo H20 DPHB is a genuine salt-free softening system. This product uses a proprietary technology that keeps minerals soluble and unable to cause hard water problems.
The system works to lower the pH level of water based on chelation. This means that the mineral ions causing hard water (calcium and magnesium) are bound to Nuvo’s formula chelating agent.
The Nuvo H20 DPHB system is eco-friendly and doesn’t use minerals, wastewater, or electricity. It’s also compact, and both FDA and NSF approved.
Main Features & Benefits:
- Lifetime warranty
- Uses the chelation process to lower the water’s pH level
- Removes existing limescale in pipes while simultaneously preventing build-up
- The unit is ideal for homes with between one and two residents
- Compact design can fit almost anywhere
- The water flow rate is 15 gallons per minute (GPM) for this water softener
- Both the FDA and NSF have certified this system
- A more affordable solution for your hard water at $649
Who It’s Best For:
This water softener is best for people with small households that don’t have super hard water and are willing to test out new features that have shown some decent results to reduce scaling.
Overall, this system’s design is for households of only one to two people with normal hard water. It’s not ideal for a large family or homes with very hard water.
You can see our complete Nuvo H20 review here.
- Prevents scale build-up and removes existing hard water scale
- Eco friendly
- No minerals or electricity required
- Doesn’t produce wastewater
- FDA & NSF approved
- Only for small houses with 1-2 people
- Not ideal for very hard water or larger homes
10. Dura Water 64k- (Salt Based Water Softener)
This system from Dura Water is a great salt-based water softener system for a large family with very hard water issues. This system removes magnesium, calcium, and traces of iron, helping to protect your plumbing, clothing, hair, and health from hard water.
It also includes a control head with a digital LCD screen with a touchpad that controls the water softener and allows you to customize the metered regeneration system to suit your home. This water softener does weigh 140 pounds, so it’s heavy!
Main Features & Benefits:
- It features a 64,000 grain water capacity
- There’s a five-year manufacturer warranty for the valves
- There’s a 10-year manufacturer warranty for the resin and brine tank
- Digital 5600SXT metered control head eliminates scale, soap scum, and water spots
- One-inch bypass valve connection
- The brine tank contains a safety float
- The price is also middle-of-the-road and affordable at $677
Who It’s Best For:
If you’re someone looking for an effective, heavy-duty water softener, this system from DuraWater is a good option besides our top picks.
- 64 000 grain water capacity
- Digital control head with LCD touchpad
- Highly customizable
- Removes magnesium, calcium, and some iron
- Produces waste
- Somewhat expensive for the quality
Our Best Water Softeners Comparison Chart
|Product||Type||Grain Capacity||Flow Rate||Warranty||Relative Price|
|Springwell Futuresoft||Salt-Free||NA||11-20 GPM||Lifetime||$$$|
|Springwell SS1||Salt-Based||32k-80k||11-20 GPM||Lifetime||$$$|
|Quality Water SoftPro Elite||Salt-Based||24k-80k||10-30 GPM||Lifetime||$$$|
|Fleck 5600 SXT||Salt-Based||24k-80k||7-15 GPM||5-10 Year||$$|
|Aquasana EQ-1000||Salt-Free Combo||NA||7 GPM||10 Year||$$$$|
|Pelican Nature Soft||Salt-Free||NA||10 GPM||Lifetime||$$$$|
Other Whole House Water Softener Brands We Reviewed
When narrowing down our top 10 picks, we considered all of the water softening system brands on the market. Here are just a few of the other brands we considered before narrowing it down.
Clack is a company that has been operating in the water business since 1946. Their background is in resin molding and control bypass valve production. This means that their water softening systems have reasonable water control. The main issue with Clack’s products is that they only have a few options, and they are hard to purchase online.
Clack mainly sells control bypass valves, accessories, tanks, water filters, and a few complete salt water softeners. You can see our comprehensive Clack review here.
Overall, Clack is a good brand, but they didn’t quite stack up to our picks above regarding technological features, price, and customer service.
Kinetico has been in the water business since 1970. They focus on just a traditional salt-based water softening system with a brine tank. They have five different series of softeners.
The main benefit of Kinetico’s systems is that the majority run without electricity. Getting a Kinetico softener involves finding a local distributor, so they can be more of a hassle to purchase and install.
You can see our complete Kinetico review here.
Overall, Kinetico is a sufficient water softening brand. Still, they didn’t quite make our top 10 list due to the difficulty in purchasing and installation, lack of salt-free options, and overall customer service and brand reputation.
Culligan is another big name brand that provides much more than just softeners since they have been in the water business since 1936. Unfortunately, since they are such a big brand now, their customer service is not very good.
There are many mediocre and negative reviews on Amazon and other distributors for Culligan’s softening systems. They also aren’t very DIY friendly, and they require a Culligan technician most of the time to help set up and fix the products.
You can see our complete Culligan review here.
Overall, due to the poor customer service and reliance on Culligan technicians, they did not make our top 10 list.
GE is another mammoth home appliance brand that also makes a water softener. All of their softening systems are salt-based and require refilling the tank every month or so.
The products are decent and priced affordably, but their inexperience in the water market and lack of specialized customer service was a big deal-breaker. One of the other top brands recommended above would be a much better pick due to the specialization in water technology and innovation in the industry.
GE simply hasn’t focused on making superior water softening products since they have so many other appliances on the market.
You can see our complete GE review here.
Morton has been in the salt business for a long time. They have sold salt to many different industries, and you probably recognize their name due to their regular table salt.
It makes sense that they would also produce a few water softeners which use their salt. Morton has many salt-based softeners that are decent – but nothing special. The primary issue with Morton softening appliances is their customer service and innovation.
When you purchase a Morton product, you will have to deal with a “factory trained rep,” which can be frustrating when installing or troubleshooting your device. Also, Morton’s softeners are pretty middle-of-the-line with no outstanding capabilities. That is why they didn’t measure up for us.
You can see our complete Morton review here.
Waterboss are whole house softening units made in the USA.
They are very basic ion exchange units that are inexpensive. The 900 model is a decent model but it’s not going to be one of the top products on the market.
You can see our complete Waterboss 900 review here.
A Buyer’s Guide to Water Softeners and Water Conditioners
Choosing your optimal home water softener requires understanding what a water softener is and how it works.
It is also essential to know the results you can expect when installing a water softener system.
What Is a Water Softener?
A softener system turns the water entering your home “soft” by exchanging the minerals that cause hard water (calcium and magnesium) for sodium ions (salt-based system), or by changing their structure to make them unable to stick to pipe and appliance surfaces (salt-free system).
Both methods prevent limescale buildup in the home’s pipes and other issues that come from having hard water.
A typical salt-based water softening system contains two tanks (also known as dual tank water softeners).
These tanks include a tall resin tank where the ion exchange occurs, and an attached brine tank that works to flush the resin tank and add salt to the system.
Most systems also include an LCD screen and automatic monitoring to notify you of how much salt is left.
Water softeners are usually installed in the garage or cabinet close to your home’s incoming water supply so that the water can run through it.
Simply put, your incoming water flow goes through your water softener tank, where there are resin beads that attract calcium and magnesium ions and exchange them for sodium ions – which effectively removes the water’s hardness.
The softened water without these ions continues through your home’s water flow giving you clean, soft water.
You can see our detailed guide on how water softeners work here.
The only maintenance you will have to do with a water softener is refilling it with salt or potassium chloride pellets (if you’re using a salt system) when it runs out.
It’s also necessary to check the tank, making sure it’s regenerating the resin beads properly. After a while it may make sense to replace the water softener resin but owners usually only have to add salt to their system about once a month.
What Does a Quality Water Softener Remove?
A salt-based water softener removes calcium and magnesium, whereas salt-less softeners don’t remove anything. Instead, they change the minerals’ forms to reduce scale buildup.
Also important to note, a water softener does not remove sediment and other contaminants from your water unless it comes with an additional sediment or carbon water filter.
A softener combo system containing a water filter can remove both hardness-causing minerals and other harmful contaminants like bacteria, heavy metals, herbicides, pesticides, and more.
Classification of Hard Water vs Soft Water
Water with at least 60 milligrams of hardness, causing minerals in every liter, is defined as moderately hard water. In some areas, these minerals’ levels are far higher than the minimum. For example, they could be as much as 180 milligrams per liter.
Another way to define hard water is by the number of grains per gallon (GPG) of calcium carbonate in the water. Water with more than 7 grains per gallon (GPG) is hard water, whereas between 3.5 and 7 GPG is moderately hard water.
On the other hand, soft water has only low levels of minerals — between 0 and 3.5 GPG. This level of hardness is far more desirable for multiple reasons. It can be healthier, it feels more pleasant on the skin, and it keeps your appliances and pipes protected from limescale buildup.
|Grains/Gallon||mG/L or PPM||Hardness Classification|
|Less than 1||Less than 17.1||Soft|
|Over 10||Over 180||Very Hard|
|1 GPG = 17.1 mg/L = 17.1 ppm|
You can learn more about hard water vs. soft water here.
Signs You Have Hard Water
To determine whether you need a water softener, review the potential signs that your home receives hard water. These include:
- If the water produces residue on dishes, faucets, bathroom fixtures, and any surface that the water touches, including on the bottom of your kettle and coffee maker
- A blocked shower head
- Dry skin or even residue on your skin after showering
- Leaking or damaged water pipes, plumbing system, and appliances
- Stiff, discolored laundry, maybe with white spots
- A drop in water pressure
- A lack of lather from soap and shampoo
You can also get your water tested to find out precisely what is in your water. Purchasing a water test kit or stopping by your local hardware store is a good option. That will help you determine if just a softener is best or if a combination softener and whole house water filter product would be ideal.
See our guide on water softeners vs. water filters for more information.
The Problems With Hard Water
We discussed some of the main signs of hard water but let’s go into detail about why they can become problematic.
1. Pipes and Appliances Can Accumulate Scale and Lose Efficiency
If hard water causes limescale buildup on your pipes or appliances (like a water heater or shower faucet) this can cause leaking, lowered effectiveness, and a rotten appearance.
If these appliances aren’t working optimally you will be wasting energy, money, and time over the long run as well as run the risk of having to replace them sooner.
2. Can Cause Staining & Less Effective Cleaning Capability
Hard water can cause white spots on your dishes, staining in your toilets, and lower the cleaning capability of your washing machine.
3. Can Cause Skin Irritation
Hard water can contribute to dry skin, itching, acne, as well as causing dry scalp and other problems with your skin.
4. Water Taste and Clarity Can Become Murky
Although it has been shown that hard water doesn’t cause health problems in the body (the minerals can actually be beneficial for you) it can make your water taste metallic and cause a cloudy appearance.
Benefits of Soft Water
If you have hard water, a water softener will provide you soft water with a large number of benefits.
1. Prevent Limescale Damage
Damage from the residue of hard water can be as severe as internal damage to your plumbing system, which can cause pipes to become clogged or start leaking. With a whole-house water softener, you’ll prevent the scale and white limestone leading to this damage.
2. Improve Appliance Efficiency
It requires more energy to heat hard water than softened water. Also, appliances and pipes become less efficient over time as scale accumulates.
Tank water heaters are at exceptionally high risk, as they hold water for hours on end. Having said that, even a tankless water heater will have a shorter lifespan when they deal with hard water – and they require cleaning twice as often.
3. Avoid Stains
Hard water stains everything it contacts. You may notice discoloration on places like faucets, sinks, toilet bowls, your bathtub, and showerheads.
Spots may also appear on items you wash, including dishes, glassware, clothing, and even your car. If there is a large amount of iron in your water, the stains may be yellow, orange, pink, or red. When you have a water softener, these stains disappear instantly.
4. Use Less Soap
It’s often possible to remove stains left by hard water – it just requires a good deal of scrubbing and a large amount of soap. Softened water allows you to avoid this task altogether.
You’ll also need less soap in general – for everything from laundry to dishes. That is because soap doesn’t lather appropriately with hard water. When you have softer water, you’ll find that you’re able to clean much more efficiently.
5. Improve Your Skin and Hair
A healthy balance of minerals in your water can be optimal for your skin and hair, but an abundance of hardness-causing minerals can lead to damage. The minerals strip your body of its natural oils, leaving your skin and hair too clean and, as a result, dry.
Your hair may also be greasy, heavy, and lack natural buoyancy, and your scalp may be dry and flaky. If you dye or highlight your hair, the color will fade sooner. If your hard water also contains a high chlorine level, the water may even change your hair color, tinting it green or orange.
Having water without hard minerals is essential for people who suffer from skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis. Once you have a water softener, you’ll notice less irritation, and you’ll be less likely to suffer from razor burns.
6. Soften Your Laundry
Hard water minerals cause clothes and towels to come out of the washing machine stiff and scratchy. As soon as you have a water softener, the texture of your laundry will improve.
7. Enhance the Flavor of Your Cooking
It’s not just drinking water with a better taste – softer water impacts the flavors of anything you cook with water. You’ll also have better-tasting hot beverages like coffee and tea.
The Different Types of Water Softeners
As you will have noticed from the list above, there are many types of water softeners. There are the traditional salt-based systems and newer water softener alternatives.
Salt-Based Water Softeners
Conventional water softening systems use salt. Sometimes, they are called ion exchange softeners after the water softening process.
The minerals that cause hard water exchange for sodium ions from the resin bed. The system traps the hard minerals in the resin and then flushes them out during its regeneration process (the cleaning part of the process).
Salt softeners are highly effective, but owners have to add new salt every month, and the type of water they produce contains added sodium and generates more wastewater.
If you purchase a salt softener for your home and you need to purchase water softener salt. We put together a guide on the best water softener salts here.
Dual Tank Water Softeners
Some salt-based types of water softeners have a pair of tanks. These are considered dual-tank softeners and are suitable for commercial settings and homes requiring a large amount of water.
With single-tank softener systems, there are times when you’ll be unable to receive soft water because the resin in the tank is regenerating. Usually, this occurs during the night, although it may occur after the system has processed many gallons of water.
With a dual tank water softener, you’ll never run out of soft water. During the regeneration cycle of one tank, the other tank can operate. This feature comes with a higher upfront cost, but you may decide it is worthwhile for homes with high water treatment needs.
Salt-Free Water Softeners
Salt-less softeners are a more modern alternative. Instead of using salt, they use a template assisted crystallization (TAC) process to reshape hard minerals.
The process turns minerals that are causing hard water into crystals that cannot adhere to surfaces. They work to prevent scale buildup instead of specifically removing the hard minerals.
Magnetic Water Descalers
One type of salt-free softener is the magnetic water descaler. Instead of using the TAC process, electromagnetism keeps water free from scale.
Although there are fewer magnetic water softeners on the market than other water softeners, they are gaining popularity for their simple water softener installation.
Instead of connecting the system to your water source, you coil wires around the water intake plumbing and then plugs into the system.
Like with the TAC process, the water descaler’s magnetic field turns minerals into larger crystals to prevent limescale accumulation.
See our water descaler vs softener comparison here for more information.
Salt-Based vs Salt-Free Softening Systems
Technically, only a salt-based system is a water softener in the most real sense.
Those that use a process other than salt are considered water conditioners. Either option has its share of advantages and disadvantages.
Water softeners are more popular, which means you have a large amount of choice regarding products. However, softeners require more maintenance than salt-less conditioners, which are virtually maintenance free. Salt based softeners also need to be connected to an electrical outlet, and they do waste water during the regeneration cycle.
Water conditioners or salt-less systems allow you to gain the benefits of soft water without adding any sodium to your water. They also cost less to maintain and usually require no electricity. These characteristics have helped them gain market share, and they are now available from many top manufacturers of water softeners.
However, as calcium and magnesium will still be present in your water with a water conditioner, it is not genuinely soft. If you were to run a test on the water, it would still come back as hard. So although water conditioners are often called softeners, they do not genuinely create soften water.
If you want to minimize the amount of sodium in your diet, be more environmentally friendly, and conduct less water softener maintenance on your system then a salt-free version is a good option to consider as long as you don’t have super hard water.
On the other hand, if you have very hard water and want the most effective softening system that has been proven through time, consider a traditional salt softening system.
Does Reverse Osmosis Remove Hard Water?
Yes, reverse osmosis filtration will remove minerals from your water including calcium and magnesium preventing scale build up like water softeners do.
Most minerals in water are physically larger than water molecules and so they are trapped by the semi-permeable membrane and removed from drinking water when filtered through RO.
The main reason reverse osmosis is not usually used in place of a water softener for the whole house is because of the efficiency and price of the machine compared to a water softener.
For example, a whole house reverse osmosis machine usually runs in the $4,000 to $10,000 range while a water softener is around $1,000.
Also, a standard RO unit is usually used just for kitchen drinking water and not for the whole house, while a water softener is usually used as a whole house machine.
This is because reverse osmosis takes much longer to filter water and is more wasteful compared to a water softener.
If you have hard water we recommend installing a water softener for your whole house at the point of entry. Then if you want to add additional drinking water filtration combine that with an under sink reverse osmosis unit or a combo filter and softener unit for the most comprehensive solution.
Are Water Softeners Easy to Install?
Provided you have some DIY knowledge; you’ll find that most water softener machines are simple enough to install on your own. However, if you’re unsure when reading the manual, it’s better to call a professional.
All systems are easy to maintain without assistance. At the very most, they require refilling with salt every few weeks or months and changing pre-water filters periodically (between six months and six years, depending on the model).
How to Choose a Water Softener for Your Home
Let’s walk through the basic steps in choosing the correct water softener for your home.
Besides these steps, one other thing to consider is if there are any water softener bans or regulations in your area.
1. Hardness of Your Water
You’ve already figured out that your water is hard – but you need to know how hard exactly so you can choose the correct grain capacity.
A professional test will tell you the exact grains per gallon of scale causing minerals and what contaminants the water contains. That is also useful for knowing if you also require a water filter for your drinking water and need a combo system.
Another option is to ask your city for a report (this is not possible if your water comes from a well), check the documents from your home inspection (if you purchased your property recently), or look at a water hardness map for your area.
Below is a general water hardness map of the US to determine what level of hardness your water may be classified under:
2. Determine What Type of System
If you find that you have extremely hard water, you should only consider salt-based systems.
However, if you have moderately hardened water, a system that does not use salt may be just as effective. In this case, what you choose will come down to personal preference. For example, if you enjoy soft water’s slippery feel, you may want a salt-based system. If a more significant priority is keeping sodium out of your water, a salt-free system is better.
3. Determine the Correct Size of the Water Softener
If you opt for a salt-based water softener, you’ll need to pick the right size. As mentioned above, to calculate the precise capacity, you’ll first need to know the hardness of your water. Note: if there is iron in your water, add five GPG for every part per million for a better picture of hardness.
Also, you’ll need to have an idea of your daily consumption of water. You can find this on your municipal water bill – or you can assume that each person in your household uses around 80 gallons a day. Once you know these numbers, multiply grains per gallon by the number of gallons you use per day. That tells you how many grains per day your system needs to remove.
Finally, you need to consider the regeneration cycle.
Ideally, your water softener will regenerate once a week. Therefore, you need to multiply the above number by seven. That tells you the minimum grain capacity of your water softener.
For instance, let’s say your water has 8 grains per gallon plus one part per million of iron, and you use 240 gallons of water a day (typical for a family of three).
Here’s the sample calculation:
Water with 13 GPG (8+5) x 240 (80 x 3) x 7 = 21,840
You’ll need a water softener with a capacity of at least 21,840 grains.
What Determines The Price of a Water Softener?
Water softener costs range from as low as $500 to as high as $2,500. Salt-based systems cost a further $5 to $10 for salt – and are even more expensive if you use potassium instead of sodium. They also waste around three gallons of water a minute in regeneration.
Other factors that influence price are additional features of the system. Some water softeners have just the necessary features you need to soften water and nothing else. Others have extras that could be worth the higher cost.
- Brand – When you buy a softener from a well-known brand, you can be sure that you’re receiving a reliable system. Top brands include SpringWell, Fleck, Quality Water, Aquasana, Pelican, and iSpring.
- Ease of maintenance and installation – Decide whether you are willing to put in the time to maintain a salt-based system. Think about your DIY skills. For example, do you care more about an easy water softener installation, or would you instead hire a plumber for the job?
- Pre-filter – These water filters will remove some contaminants from your water, but you’ll need to pay regularly for replacement water filters.
- Bypass valve – Only some softener systems come with a bypass valve. That allows you to bypass the softener when you don’t need soft water. It’s useful for tasks that don’t require soft water, like filling a swimming pool.
- Regeneration setting – Regeneration can be preset or on-demand. Softeners with preset regeneration rely on an accurate estimation of water usage. For example, if you underestimate, the system will be inefficient. However, if you overestimate, you’ll sometimes receive hard water minerals. Demand-initiated regeneration, in contrast, suffers from neither of these problems. The system monitors when the resin is full of minerals and regenerates automatically.
- One-piece or two-piece – If you have extensive water needs, consider a dual-tank system. However, if you have a small household, you’ll prevent wasted salt by choosing a single-tank softener.
Around 85 percent of households in the U.S. receive water that contains high levels of calcium carbonate, magnesium, and iron. However, only roughly a third are currently using a water softener. If your water is even moderately hard, you’ll benefit from a water softener. If it is very hard (10.5 GPG or higher), you should consider a water softener a necessity.
If the price is a significant issue for you, you can always consider a water softener rental, although we recommend purchasing if you will be in your house for a while to save money in the long run.
So, Which Water Softener Do We Recommend?
After reviewing all of the best water softeners on the market, there are few choices we recommend.
If you are looking for our top recommendation and want a whole-house, saltless softener, then Springwell’s FutureSoft is your best water softener system choice.
Lastly, if you want the best combination salt-free softener and filtration system, Aquasana’s EQ-1000 Rhino is the best choice.
Keep in mind that a quality whole house water softener is a solid investment in your home, the home’s pipes, your health, and your home’s appliances – so don’t cut corners on quality.