How to Choose a Water Softener

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There are dozens of water softeners to choose from today, and finding the right system for you might feel overwhelming.

We’ve been testing and reviewing water softeners for over a decade, and in this guide, we’ve broken down the 7 steps you should take to choose the best water softener for your needs.

What makes this guide unique from others? We’ve gone beyond generic information – we’re offering our advice based on what has personally worked for us. We have our own hands-on experience in selecting and shortlisting the best water softeners for Water Filter Guru’s guides, which has influenced the guidance we’ve offered below.

🔎 Step 1: Determine Whether You Need a Water Softener

Your first step is to determine whether or not you need a water softener.

Water softeners exchange calcium and magnesium hardness minerals with sodium, preventing the effects of hard water, including scale buildup, reduced appliance efficiency, dry skin, and mineral spotting on dishware and laundry.

They’re a step up from water conditioners, which retain hardness minerals in water but reduce scale formation.

Water softeners don’t filter contaminants out of water – their primary role is to turn hard water into soft water.

So, a water softener is a great investment if you have hard water.

We recommend testing your water with a hardness test kit if you haven’t already. These cost less than $10 and are widely available in hardware stores and online.

To test our own water, we used a Tap Score lab test by SimpleLab. Lab testing isn’t necessary for water hardness, but it’s more comprehensive than a DIY test.

Your water hardness level is a measure of the concentration of calcium and magnesium ions in your water, which determines the severity of the hard water effects you’re likely to experience.

If your water hardness exceeds 5 GPG or 100 PPM or more, you’ll benefit from installing a water softener.

Our own test results showed that our water had 220 PPM of total hardness (around 13 GPG), putting it in the “hard” category on the water hardness scale. That meant we were definitely in need of a water softener.

Water hardness scale

📈 Step 2: Estimate How Much Water Your Family Uses

Next, calculate an estimate of how much water your family uses.

Most water softeners are available in a few different sizes/flow rates, with different water softening capabilities, measured in weekly grain capacity (grains per gallon or GPG).

Common grain capacities for water softeners are:

  • 16,000 grains
  • 24,000, grains
  • 32,000 grains
  • 40,000 grains
  • 48,000 grains
  • 64,000 grains

It’s extremely important to buy the right-sized system that has a high enough softening capacity for your entire home, based on your water hardness and water usage.

The higher your water hardness, the more people in your home, and the more water you use, the higher the weekly water-softening capacity you’ll need.

We’re a family of two with one bathroom. To determine the right-sized water softener for us, we assumed that we use an average of 70 gallons of water per person per day. With there only being two of us in a smaller property, our water usage is lower than average, so we know we’re usually fine to go for the smallest grain capacity model.

You can use our water softener size calculator to size your water softener in less than 20 seconds. All you need to do is answer a few easy questions.

See our water softener size recommendations based on household size/water usage below.

Household Size0 - 10 GPG11 - 20 GPG21 - 30 GPG31 - 40 GPG41 - 50 GPG51 - 75 GPG76 - 100 GPG
1 - 2 people16000240003200040000640006400080000
3 - 4 people24000320004000048000800008000096000
5 - 6 people3200040000480006400096000110000110000
7+ people40000480006400080000110000110000110000

Most manufacturers tell you how many bathrooms each water softener model is suitable for – generally, the smallest model is suitable for homes with 1-3 bathrooms.

🚰 Step 3: Consider Efficiency & Regeneration Style

A water softener’s efficiency and regeneration style determines how efficiently it uses salt and water in its operations.

You want to go for the most efficient water softener that wastes minimal salt and only uses water when necessary.

There are two water softener regeneration styles to be aware of:

  • Timer-based regenerating softeners – With these water softeners, you schedule the regeneration cycle using a timer, meaning that the system regenerates automatically regardless of how much water you’ve used.
  • Demand-initiated regenerating softeners – These systems regenerate based on how much water has been softened, so they don’t have a set scheduled regeneration process.

In terms of efficiency, demand-initiated water softeners are a much better choice. With these softeners, you program the system with your water hardness level, and it’ll calculate how often it needs to regenerate based on how much salt is being used to soften the water.

Demand-initiated softeners only regenerate when they need to – i.e. when the salt ions in the resin bed have depleted. That means they don’t waste water by regenerating more often than necessary, and they don’t waste salt by backwashing the resin too early, when it still contains a lot of sodium.

We personally only test and review demand-initiated regenerating water softeners. Most modern water softener systems use this type of regeneration style, but some lower-cost water softeners are timer-based.

demand initiated water softener regeneration setup

📥 Step 4: Choose the Right Flow Rate

Flow rate is typically tied to grain capacity: the higher the water softener’s grain capacity, the higher the flow rate.

A water softener’s flow rate can range from 6 GPM up to 20 GPM+, depending on its size and intended application.

Flow rate is one of our key considerations when selecting and shortlisting water softener systems for our buyers’ guides. We award systems a score based on their flow rate, and we prioritize systems with a flow rate of at least 7-8 GPM – the minimum for preventing an interruption in water pressure in the average household size.

Most of the best water softeners we’ve reviewed have a minimum flow rate of 9-11 GPM for the smallest model.

It’s essential to get the right water softener flow rate for your household needs.

You can usually check the product details to determine which flow rate is right for you. Many manufacturers advise on the number of bathrooms that their different water softener models, with different flow rates, are suitable for. For example:

  • 11 GPM softener (1-3 bathrooms)
  • 13 GPM softener (4-6 bathrooms)

… and so on.

Our advice is to avoid water softeners with a flow rate of less than 6 GPM unless you have a very small home or an RV. It’s essential that you can send enough water around your home, even during times of peak usage, without affecting your water pressure. Especially if you enjoy a power shower!

🔧 Step 5: Learn About the Required & Installation & Maintenance Processes

We also score the water softeners we review based on their ease of installation/maintenance.

All water softener systems need to be installed at the point of entry (POE) of the main water line into your home.

Check the user manual for your preferred water softener to see exactly what the installation process entails. You can decide before buying the system whether you feel comfortable installing it, and if not, whether you can budget for hiring a plumber (costs around $200 depending on the nature of the job).

Typically, we’ve found that water softener systems have a fairly complex install because they require a lot of separate connections (including a drain line install). We always hire a plumber to install any water softener we’re testing for the peace of mind this brings.

A few factors affect the ease of installation, including whether or not all parts are included, and the quality of the included components.

As for maintenance, an ion exchange water softener system uses salt, so you’ll need to be willing to top up the brine tank. The frequency of salt top-ups depends on your softener’s salt usage and frequency of regeneration, but you’ll usually need to add more salt at least once a month.

Some softeners also come with a sediment pre-filter (to protect the resin beads from sediment damage) that will need to be replaced every 6-12 months.

In our own process of selecting a water softener, we favor systems that require minimal salt top-ups due to efficient performance, helping us save money and time in the long run. We also consider features like easy-access brine tanks and salt top-up reminders to make maintenance simpler.

springwell salt-based water softener system

📖 Step 6: Read Up on the Manufacturer

Looking beyond the features of the water softening system, it’s important to choose a product sold by a reliable, reputable manufacturer.

We evaluate and compare product warranties, shipping policies, and returns guarantees when reviewing water softener units for our listicles.

Make sure to read the terms for warranties/returns policies carefully. Something that sounds great on the surface might be dampened by hidden clauses and stipulations. For instance, a manufacturer might promise a “money-back guarantee”, but only for unopened products, and customers may have to pay for the returns shipping and lose some of their refund on a restocking fee.

We’re much more likely to select a water softener if the manufacturer offers a warranty of at least 1 year, as well as a returns guarantee of at least 30 days of some form and free shipping.

Also read customer reviews on sites like Trustpilot to learn about the manufacturer’s quality of customer service. You never know when you might need customer support, whether you need to ask a question about the installation process or you discover that one of the unit’s components is faulty or broken. Avoid companies with a poor reputation – there are plenty of popular alternatives to choose from.

⚗️ Step 7: Consider Addressing Other Water Quality Issues

Water softeners primarily address the effects of water hardness, including mineral buildup, skin and hair issues, and laundry effects.

Ion exchange softeners also reduce low levels of ferrous iron (dissolved iron), and other cations like barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, mercury, lead, and nickel, may also be reduced in the process. However, if your water contains any of these impurities, using a water softener alone is unlikely to remove them entirely because it predominantly focuses on calcium and magnesium reduction.

Our unfiltered water test data shows that our water contains contaminants like uranium, lithium, copper, nickel, iron, strontium, nitrate, and chlorine.

The most efficient way for us to address these impurities and hardness minerals is with a system that combines catalytic carbon filtration (which reduces many of these contaminants) with a conventional water softener system, like the SpingWell Water Filter and Salt Based Water Softener System.

If you want to remove other contaminants from your water, like chlorine, consider buying a combination water softening and filtration system. Some manufacturers sell water softeners alongside tank-based POE water filters, allowing you to address multiple water quality issues at once.

But if your budget is smaller or your priority is soft water, you may prefer to buy a water softener on its own.

Water SoftenerWater ConditionerElectronic/ Magnetic Descaler
TechnologyIon ExchangeTemplate Assisted Crystallization (TAC)Electromagnetic Waves
Completely Removes Minerals✔️
Produces Wastewater✔️
Requires Electricity✔️✔️
Average Price$800 - $1,500$1,200 - $2,500$250 - 500
Maintenance RequirementEvery 6 - 8 weeksEvery 6 - 12 yearsNone

📑 Final Word

We wrote this guide because we wanted to share the decisions we personally make when choosing the best water softener for our needs.

We’ve provided the key info you should consider when selecting a water softener, but it’s worth also considering your water supply (city water vs well water), your budget, any local regulations, the type of water softener (salt-based vs salt-free water softeners), and whether or not the softener comes with smart features like a digital control head, app connection, and leak detection.

If you have any other questions about how to choose a water softener, please share them in the comments below. We’ll respond as soon as we can!

  • Brian Campbell
    President & CEO, CWS, CWR

    Brian Campbell, a WQA Certified Water Specialist (CWS) and Certified Water Treatment Representative (CWR) with 5+ years of experience, helps homeowners navigate the world of water treatment. After honing his skills at Hach Company, he founded his business to empower homeowners with the knowledge and tools to achieve safe, healthy water. Brian's tested countless devices, from simple pitchers to complex systems, helping his readers find the perfect fit for their unique needs.

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