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How to Choose The Right Water Softener

By: Craig Smith
Last Updated:
choosing-the-right-water-softener

Have you noticed that your shampoo doesn’t quite get that frothy lather that you need for a good hair day?

Do your sheets come out of the laundry still looking a bit dingy? Has your family suffered from skin irritation and itchiness?

Hard water can cause many problems for your health and your home.

If you’re experiencing hard water effects in your home, you’ve come to the right place!

There are many kinds of softeners at all different price ranges, but there may be just one that fits your purposes exactly.

Are you wondering how to choose a water softener that will provide pure, clear water to your home?

Read on for your step-by-step guide to identifying the hardness of your water and finding the right softener for any situation.

1. Find Your Water Hardness & Home Water Usage Data

The first step is to find out the level of hardness in your water.

Your utility company may be able to give you this number, but if not, there are test kits on the market that allow you to measure the hardness in your home water system.

Water hardness is usually measured in grains per gallon (GPG). This number refers to the amount of calcium and magnesium in your water supply, and this information is integral to choosing the right water softener.

Using a Test Kit

test-kit

If you can’t find the GPG measurement through your utility bill or company, purchase a hard water test kit. You’ll find effective home test kits at nearly any hardware or home supply store.

Most test kits involve dipping a test strip into a representative sample of your water supply. The test strip will be compared with a color chart that can give you a better read on the level of mineral content in your water.

If you want the most accurate test results, you should use a lab test kit, where you can submit your sample to a certified lab that can provide you with an analysis of the types and levels of minerals in your water.

Determine Your Household Water Usage

The size of the water softener you need also depends on the amount of water your household uses each day, so you’ll need to find this number as well. A single-person household uses far less water than a family of five. You may be able to find this number on your water bill. If not, a good rule of thumb is to multiply the number of people in your household by 75 gallons.

This calculation for a family of four would be 4 x 75 = 300 gallons of water daily.

Determine if There’s Anything Else in Your Water

A good water test kit will also analyze other minerals or contaminants that may be floating in your water supply.

If you suspect that your water is carrying lead, sulfur, or other particulates, use a higher-end water test to identify what else might be in your water.

Salt-based water softeners can help filter out other contaminants that could be causing you trouble or you may need to look into a filter and softener system.

Do You Have Municipal Water or a Well?

The final thing to consider in your home usage is the source of your water. Different water softeners will perform better on well water or municipal supply, so look for that specification as you’re shopping. This can help you narrow down the choices in a sometimes crowded field of options.

2. Determine What Size Water Softener is Best

Determine What Size Water Softener is Best

The process of sizing the right water softener involves clear steps, but you will need to do a little bit of math (don’t worry, it’s pretty easy!)

Once you have your GPG measurement, you’re ready to go through the following steps.

Calculate Grain Capacity Needed

This calculation is straightforward. Take the hardness level in GPGs and multiply by the number of gallons you use each day in your home. This will give you the average amount of hardness you need to remove from your water each day.

For example, your family of four uses 300 gallons of water on an average day. Your home test kit gave you a reading of 8 GPG. 300 gallons times 8 GPG gives you 2,400 grains that you need to soften out of your water daily.

Then you just need to determine how many days are in the regeneration cycle.

Factor in The Regeneration Cycle Time

Finally, tank-based water systems need time to regenerate soft water. This process involves rinsing the hardness-causing minerals that have coated the resin in your system.

In order to purchase the most efficient system, aim to have your system regenerate no more than every 3 days, with 7 days being the best number to shoot for to get the best energy efficiency.

Taking our four-person family example, you can calculate the most efficient system by multiplying the grains per day by 7 days to find the closest capacity measurement.

The calculation looks like this:
4 people @ 75 gallons per day each = 300 gallons per day
300 gallons per day * 8 GPG = 2400 gallons of soft water needed daily
2400 gallons * 7 days = 16,800 grains

You want to find a system that has the capacity to remove 17,000 grains over a week’s regeneration cycle.

Tank-based water softeners are usually identified by this grain capacity number. Most households of four people or less will need a grain capacity of 20,000 or less.

The more people or the more water you use, the higher this number will be.

3. Choosing The Right Type of Water Softener

best_water_softener

The first question you need to answer here is, do you need a softening system or a descaler?

Generally, a water descaler or conditioner is going to cost less than a softening system. If your water hardness level comes back relatively low (around 7 GPGs or less), try the descaler as a cost-effective solution.

If a descaler isn’t going to provide the volume or effectiveness you need, it’s time to look at the traditional salt-based and higher-capacity salt-free water softening systems instead.

Check out the extensive research we’ve done on a number of different water softening systems here.

The calculation you made in the step above will help you choose the right system.

Each softener has a regeneration cycle. Multiply the daily GPGs you need to remove from your water with the regeneration cycle of the softening system you’re considering to find the grain capacity you need for your home.

This will help you identify the most efficient system for your needs so you’re not spending more money on salt for your system than needed.

4. Evaluate Price and Certifications

Splashing water
Splashing water

The final considerations include which system fits your budget and whether third-party certifications are important for you personally. These decisions sometimes go hand-in-hand, as it does cost manufacturers money to attain those certifications, which will be passed on to you as the consumer.

While certifications can provide peace of mind, there are many effective softening systems that don’t have the budget to pay for the certification testing. Use our water softening system reviews to help identify a variety of excellent softening systems on the market today.

Reviewing The Different Types of Water Softeners

There are two main kinds of water softening or treatment systems to choose from. The first is a “salt-based” softener and the other is “salt-free.”

Take a look at the details of each below when deciding which model is best.

Traditional Salt-Based Tanks

Tank-based water softeners work through a process called “ion exchange,” which sounds pretty complicated. Without getting into all the science of subatomic particles, the ion exchange process breaks the bonds between your water and the hard minerals and exchanges them for another substance, usually sodium or potassium.

These two elements don’t cause the same issues that the minerals or metals do, so they are better for your water supply.

A tank-based water softener will bring the hardness of your water supply to zero.

The tank system holds a layer of resin that attracts the hardness-causing minerals as water passes through it. The minerals attach to the resin and eventually coat it, leading to the regeneration cycle. This cycle rinses the resin with a salt-based brine solution that carries the minerals down the drain and leaves the resin clean and ready to soften again.

Overall, traditional tank systems usually require more maintenance, add more sodium to your water, but have a bigger overall capacity.

Salt-Free Water Conditioners

The other main type of water softening system is called a descaler or water conditioner.

Instead of removing the hardness causing minerals like a traditional tank system a descaler changes the structure of the minerals in the water supply so that they don’t form scale.

A descaler usually costs less than a softening system but has a smaller capacity.

If your water has a moderate to low level of hardness then a water conditioner is a great option to consider.

Salt-Free vs Salt Based Water Softener Comparison

So you’re still not entirely sure which type of softener is best?

After you identify your water hardness and required capacity, consider the following features to help you narrow down which type of system you need.

FeaturesSalt-based softenersSalt-free softeners
Maintenance levelHigher - Salt-based softeners require extra solution to be added to the system for regenerationLower - Descalers can be added easily to the water supply and left to run without extra involvement
Wastewater ProductionYes - the brine solution rinses a tank full of water down the drain each regeneration cycleNo - Descalers treat water directly
Removes mineralsYesNo, changes structure
Energy usageHigher - While a water softener uses electricity, it may only cost about $10/year for energy. Low to none
Plumbing modification neededYes - tank installation is necessaryNo - Descaler works directly on your water supply
Keeps beneficial mineralsNo - Salt softeners remove most, if not all, mineral content from the waterYes - Descalers mitigate the effects of minerals, they do not remove them
Grain capacityHigher - Salt softeners will produce a higher amount of softened waterLower - Descalers are intended for less need
Increased sodium level in waterYesNo
Price$800-$2000$300-$1200
Annual maintenance cost$400-$500$0
DurabilityThis depends on the type of resin used in the tank, and varies from system to system. At least 8% crosslink is preferred, with 10% being ideal.This varies from system to system, and you should consult the warranty to make sure parts are covered.

Conclusion

We hope this step-by-step guide has helped you identify your hard water issue and shown you how to choose the right water softener for your home. Though many of us take our supply of clean water for granted, hard water can throw a wrench – literally – into our plumbing.

Don’t suffer the effects of hard water any longer! Take steps to solve your hard water problems and choose the best water softener for your home.

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AUTHOR
Craig Smith
Craig got his start in water working in the swimming pool and spa industry. Water treatment would grow into his main career but he ended up working in the pool industry for over 26 years where much of his time was spent balancing the water in customer's swimming pools and installing water filtration equipment. Craig offers an abundance of water treatment knowledge after helping homeowners get pure water for 26 years.

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