Water softeners use a process known as ion exchange to produce soft water, or water that is free of hardness-causing minerals.
If you have a hard water supply, you’ll benefit from buying a water softener and installing it at your home’s water point of entry.
The majority of well water and city water supplies in the US contain hardness-causing minerals. While hard water isn’t bad for our health, water with high levels of hardness can have some unpleasant side effects around your home.
This guide will provide you with all the information you need to decide whether you need a water softener for your family.
Table of Contents
🤔 What is Hard Water?
Hard water is water that has a high mineral content, specifically magnesium and calcium. Drinking water with a lot of minerals won’t make you sick – in fact, magnesium and calcium ions are good for you. However, hard water can pose several issues in your home, including mineral buildup and leaving deposits in your sink and bathtub, affecting the efficiency of hot water heaters, and restricting tap water flow through your home. Even moderately hard water can cause a sticky soap film and spots on your dishes.
Soft water, on the other hand, is water that has been softened – or had its inorganic minerals removed or altered in a way that prevents them from forming scale.
You can find out how hard or soft your water is, and whether you’d benefit from softening water with a treatment system, by using DIY testing kits, widely available online and costing less than $10.
|Grains per Gallon (GPG)
|Parts per Million (PPM) & mg/L
|0 – 17
|1.5 – 5
|17 – 60
|3.5 – 7
|60 – 120
|7 – 10
|120 – 180
📝 How to Know if You Need a Water Softener
1. Residue on Clean Dishes
If you’ve just washed your dishes or taken them out of the dishwasher, take a look at them now.
Hard water stains look white and hazy, and are most easily noticeable on glassware. These stains are caused by a build-up of minerals, including calcium and magnesium.
If you have a glass coffee pot, you may notice the same hard water deposits on the inside of the surface. It’s very difficult to remove these hard water stains from your kitchenware, especially if you only ever wash them in hard water.
Soft water, on the other hand, won’t leave staining at all.
2. Itchy and Irritated Skin
Hard water contains minerals that leave behind a soapy residue. When you wash in hard water, the soapy residue that’s left behind clogs pores, which your body uses to secrete oils.
One of the most common skin conditions caused by blocked pores is acne, which causes irritation, usually on the face, shoulders, chest and back. Eczema, a condition that causes dry, irritated skin, can also be exacerbated by blocked pores.
Water hardness also strips away your skin’s natural moisture, which can leave it feeling dry and flaky. A long-term effect of these mineral deposits is premature aging, caused by the formation of free radicals, which calcium, magnesium and iron in particular have been linked to.
3. Dry and Flaky Hair
Speaking of dry and flaky, it’s not only your skin that’s affected by water hardness. There are various signs that indicate hard water may also be taking its toll on your hair.
These include a dry or itchy scalp, with dandruff or dead skin; split ends; hair thinning; stunted hair growth or even hair loss; and dull or frizzy hair.
A hard water mineral build-up can coat the hair strands, making them heavier and giving them a dull frizzy appearance. It strips hair of its natural oils, which can trick hair into thinking it needs to be washed more frequently – and the more frequently you expose your hair to these hard-causing minerals, the drier it will become.
These minerals may also make the scalp itchy, which could lead to an increase in dry, flaky skin and irritated scalp conditions. Using a shower head filter may help to reduce these common hair and scalp conditions.
4. Water Stains in Sinks & Tubs
You may notice hard water stains on your bathroom fixtures, including your sinks and your tubs.
The easiest places to spot hard water stains are on your faucet opening and the base of the fixture where it meets the sink or countertop and on your glass shower doors.
These stubborn stains have a gritty sort of feel – unless your hard water also contains iron, which may result in slimy reddish-brown deposits on surfaces.
Soft water, on the other hand, doesn’t leave noticeable residue, as it doesn’t contain magnesium or calcium. If you hate having to spend hours cleaning hard water stains in your bathroom, you’ll benefit from a water softener for your home.
5. Faded or Dull Colored Clothes
Water hardness doesn’t just affect your bathroom – it can also have an impact on the quality of your laundry. Hard water will interact with your detergent and prevent it from working as effectively, which is why you’ll need to use more detergent for the same effect if you live in an area with a particularly high water hardness.
The leftover mineral deposits may result in your laundry taking on a greyish-yellow hue, and your fabrics may feel stiff and sandpaper-like.
Hard water can even weaken the fibers of your laundry and make it more susceptible to ripping. While some detergents can now fight against hard water minerals, the best solution will always be water softeners.
6. Scale Buildup on Faucets & Appliances
Any appliance in your home that’s connected to your plumbing will be affected by hard water scale build-up, and this includes your plumbing itself.
If you’re now thinking, how do I check scale in my plumbing? you obviously can’t do this easily unless you happen to be having plumbing work and can look inside a cut pipe.
But looking at your toilet tank and bowl, which is very closely linked up to your plumbing, should give you an idea of what you’re dealing with.
Your faucets, too, are only inches away from your water lines. If you’re constantly having to scrub away a white, hazy residue, you may need a water softener for your home.
7. More Expensive Utility Bills
A build-up of mineral deposits in your home’s fixtures can decrease energy efficiency. Your home will require more energy to run your appliances, and you’ll most likely need to spend more money on maintenance in the long run.
Your water heater will struggle to function as efficiently, and will have to work harder per gallon of water, leading to higher utility bills.
Inefficient water heaters, being in constant use, can be one of the biggest causes of expensive energy bills. With a water softener, on the other hand, you can improve the efficiency of your appliances and help them to maintain peak performance.
8. Consistently Needing to Call the Plumber
On the same subject, an inefficient plumbing appliance will typically see more issues when it comes to maintenance and repairs, and again, hard water is to blame.
Because your water heaters, dishwashers and washing machines are in constant contact with hard water, they’re going to experience more frequent issues in the long run.
These issues are mainly caused by a limescale build-up on the inside of your appliances.
In a water heater, this will prevent the heating element from working as efficiently – which will mean it has to work twice as hard, and as a result, is more susceptible to breakdowns.
A water softener system can remove the minerals that cause limescale from water, preventing appliances from being affected.
✔️ The Benefits of Using a Water Softener
A water softener can eliminate all the water quality issues you may be currently experiencing at home. With a water softener, you’ll benefit from soft water around your home. Some of the benefits of softened water are:
- Softened water doesn’t cause scale buildup on your pipes, surfaces and appliances
- With soft water, you can save money on your heating bill and spend less on soap and laundry detergents for washing clothes and kitchenware
- Your appliances, including your water heater and dishwasher, will work more efficiently with soft water
- You won’t have to deal with soap scum or a sticky mineral residue from dissolved minerals in your water
- Soft water won’t negatively impact your skin or hair health
📌 Choosing a Water Softener For your Water Supply
There are hundreds of water softeners available today, and not all offer the same quality of performance. It’s important to do your research and shortlist your choice to the most capable systems within your budget.
You can choose between three common water softeners on the market:
Ion Exchange Water Softeners
Ion exchange water softeners physically remove dissolved minerals like calcium and magnesium, replacing them with water softener salts, or sodium ions. Potassium ions can also be used in water softeners, although they’re less common.
Ion exchange water softeners have a brine tank and need to be topped up with salt periodically. They’re the most effective water softener systems with a softening process that has been proven to work, but they’re not ideal for people on a low sodium diet.
Want to learn more? Check out our best ion exchange water softener reviews
Water conditioners aren’t technically water softeners. Although these systems reduce or eliminate scale buildup, they can’t produce “soft” water because they don’t actually remove calcium and magnesium hardness minerals or alter your water quality.
Instead, water conditioner systems crystallize dissolved calcium carbonate and magnesium, preventing them from sticking to surfaces as scale deposits.
Electronic descalers are different from traditional water softening systems, too – they use electromagnetic energy to alter the composition of calcium and magnesium, preventing them from causing scale.
Electronic descalers are the most affordable systems to buy and install at your plumbing system, but there’s little evidence to prove that these water softener alternatives work.
Bonus: Reverse Osmosis Systems
If you’re purely looking to soften your water, a reverse osmosis system probably won’t do the job. However, if your drinking water is mildly to moderately hard and you also have issues with contaminants like chemicals and heavy metals in your water, you can consider reverse osmosis.
Reverse osmosis is one of the only filtration types to tackle water hardness. However, high hardness can damage the membrane, so it isn’t recommended in all situations.
Check Out Our Reviews:
- See our top picks for the best salt-based water softener here.
- Our favorite salt free conditioners currently on the market
- Top rated electronic water softener reviews
Do I need a water softener if I use municipal water?
Yes. Whether you get your water from a well or from a public water treatment plant, it won’t make a difference – your water hardness level will still be dictated by environmental factors in your area. Water treatment plants don’t remove hard minerals when they’re treating water.
Should I use a water softener if my water has a high iron content?
Yes – but you should look at water softeners that are designed specifically for iron removal, such as water softeners for well water. Iron can damage some water softeners, especially if your water has a particularly high iron content.
Will a water softener remove contaminants from my water?
No. Water softeners are only designed to tackle scale and soap scum caused by naturally dissolved calcium and magnesium ions. If you have a problem with contaminants, you need to look at water filter systems.
How can I find a reliable water softener?
Look for water softeners offered by reliable brands that have been industry favorites for at least a decade. That way, you know the quality is there. You can also search for products that have been certified by the WQA, or the Water Quality Association, which gives extra reassurance that the products offer a superior performance. You can also consider renting a water softener instead of buying your own, although it is normally more cost effective to purchase in the long run.