How to Choose a Water Softener: The Definitive 2021 Guide

how to choose a water softener

There are hundreds of water softeners on today’s market, and trying to narrow your options down to a single choice can be difficult.

It’s a manufacturer’s job to make you feel like you need their product, even if it’s not necessarily the right choice for you.

In this water softener buying guide, I’ll help you determine what you should look for in a water softener, and how to find a softening solution that best suits your requirements. By the end, you’ll be able to confidently choose a water softener based on the factors that are most important to you.

✔️ Determine If You Need a Water Softener

Before you learn how to choose a water softener, you need to find out whether a water softener is the right water treatment option for you.

To do this, you can conduct a water test to determine your water’s grains of hardness per gallon (called grains per gallon, GPG for short). Your grains per gallon is an indication of the concentration of calcium and magnesium minerals in your water.

A more basic hardness test, before measuring your grains per gallon of hardness with a test kit, is to check for limescale stains on your dishes, laundry, and coffee pot.

👉 My comprehensive guide on testing water hardness covers everything you need to know on the subject.

You should also check that you’re definitely dealing with a hard water problem, and not another contamination issue with your water.

There are hundreds of possible trace contaminants in drinking water, from chlorine and lead to bacteria and iron.

Water softeners are only designed to tackle hard water, so if you’re dealing with another specific contamination problem, you’ll need a system that’s intended to remove this contaminant.

hard water vs soft water comparison chart

🔠 Consider Different Types of Water Softeners

If you’ve done some research into water softeners already, you’ll know that there’s more than one type of softener available today.

The different types of water softeners are:

  • Salt-based ion exchange softeners
  • Salt-free water conditioners
  • Dual tank water softeners
  • Electronic or magnetic descalers
 Water SoftenerWater ConditionerElectronic/ Magnetic Descaler
TechnologyIon ExchangeTemplate Assisted Crystalization (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

Salt-Based Ion Exchange Water Softener

Salt-based water softeners are the most traditional softening systems on this list. These units require water softener salt to perform ion exchange, a process in which calcium and magnesium hardness ions are exchanged with sodium ions, effectively removing water hardness.

Salt-based water softeners must perform a regeneration cycle periodically – typically twice a week – to flush out the hardness minerals and wash them down a drain. During the regeneration cycle, the unit will also replenish the resin bed with sodium in a process known as reverse ion exchange.

Ion exchange water softener systems usually cost between $800 and $2,000, depending on the brand and the quality of the build.

👉 See my recommendations for the best ion exchange systems in 2021 here.

springwell salt-based water softener system

Salt-Free Water Conditioner

Salt-free water conditioners don’t technically “soften” your water – but they still effectively tackle the biggest hard water issue: limescale.

A salt-free conditioner will typically use a crystallization method, such as template-assisted crystallization (TAC), to crystallize hard water minerals and prevent them from being able to stick to surfaces.

Though the hardness minerals remain in your water, they’ll lose their ability to form scale. That means you can still enjoy the taste and health benefits of magnesium and calcium, without having to deal with the problems associated with limescale.

Water conditioners are usually priced around $700 to $1,500.

👉 See my top picks for the best salt-free conditioner systems in 2021 here.

springwell futuresoft salt free water softener

Dual Tank Water Softener

Dual-tank water softeners use two resin tanks instead of one. The benefit of using a dual-tank unit is that there’s never a gap in soft water production.

While single-tank softeners have a period of downtime when performing a regeneration cycle, twin-tank softeners simply switch from one tank to the other. This allows for a constant soft water supply, because while one resin tank is regenerating, the other one is ready for use.

These units are good choices for commercial use by small businesses like coffee shops and restaurants, but they can also be used in family homes.

Dual-tank water softener systems are typically more expensive than single-tank units. Depending on the size and capacity of the unit, you can expect to pay between $1,500 and $3,000.

Fleck 9100SXT Review

Electronic/Magnetic Descaler

Electronic descalers are the final water conditioning option to consider. Again, these units don’t technically “soften” your water, and they don’t use salt, resin, or even a tank.

An electronic or magnetic descaler is designed to attach directly onto your main water line. Once the unit is set up, it will send out an electromagnetic wave that alters the composition of hard water minerals and prevents them from forming scale.

Magnetic or electronic descalers use either magnets or a coil of wire to condition water. They don’t need salt and water to operate, and because of this, they don’t need to regenerate.

Descalers are the lowest-maintenance units, but at the moment, there’s little science-backed evidence to suggest they actually work.

You can buy a descaler for as little as $250, and $500 is the average price. This makes descalers the cheapest scale treatment option on this list.

👉 See my recommended electronic & magnetic descalers in 2021 here.

Eddy Water Descaler Electronic Water Softener Review

🤏 Understand Water Softener Size & Capacity Needed

How to choose a water softener that’s the right size for your water usage?

Water softeners are sized in grains per gallon (GPG). The smallest systems usually start at 24,000 GPG, and the biggest capacity for whole-home use is generally 64,000.

It’s important to size your water softener properly. A water softener that’s too big may not regenerate frequently enough, which could lead to a buildup of bacteria in your resin tank. A water softener that’s too small, on the other hand, will have to work too hard, and may run out of salt before its scheduled regeneration cycle.

To calculate your required grain capacity of a water softener, first gather two figures: your water hardness, and your daily water consumption.

You should then multiply your water hardness by your average daily water consumption to get your daily water softening requirement. Multiply this by 7 to get your weekly water softening requirement, then find a water softener that’s capable of handling the grains per gallon you require.

Want to learn more about how to choose the right water softener grain capacity for your home? I’ve written a helpful guide on the subject, which you can find here 👈

Even simpler, you can use my 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.

💭 Additional Considerations

Now you know how to choose a water softener based on grain capacity and softening technology – but what else should you consider?

Your Budget

Your budget may affect the choices you have when buying a water softener. The smaller your budget, the more refined your search will be – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I would suggest outlining a budget before you start looking for a water softener. Your budget should cover three things:

  1. The initial purchase spend
  2. The price of professional installation (optional)
  3. The long-term maintenance investment to run the unit

The most affordable water softeners are those that don’t require salt. Descalers and conditioners don’t use any salt and water for regeneration, as they don’t need to regenerate at all. Their upfront price is also cheaper – you can get a good unit for less than $1,000.

Ion exchange water softeners are a little more expensive in the long run, as you’ll need to pay for salt to top up your brine tank on a monthly basis. These softeners waste gallons of water during regeneration, too, which will show up on your water bill. They tend be a little more expensive to purchase – typically around $1,300.

Professional installation is an investment you will need to consider if you’re not up to installing your water softener yourself. All units apart from electronic descalers require plumbing into your water line, and if you aren’t very handy, you may need an expert to do the job for you.

Plumbers typically charge around $200 to fit a water softener, although price varies depending on local competition.

Space Available For Installation

Not all water softeners take up the same amount of space in your home.

The smallest and most compact units are magnetic descalers. These units don’t have a resin tank or a brine tank, and they usually just need to be attached to the outside of your water pipe.

Because electronic descalers require no maintenance, you won’t need to create extra space for easy access to the tank, either.

Water conditioners are slightly bulkier than electronic descalers. They usually consist of a single tank that holds the TAC media, and this is where the conditioning process takes place.

You will need enough room lengthways to comfortably store this tank. You should also factor in enough space to replace the media, though this isn’t a regular job, as most TAC media lasts up to 8 years.

Ion exchange water softeners are the largest, consisting of two tanks: a resin tank and a brine tank. In this case, you will need plenty of room for topping up the brine tank with salt, as this is a job you’ll find yourself doing regularly. You will also need access to the resin beads, which should be replaced every 10 years.

If you buy a twin-tank ion exchange water softener, you’ll need enough room to accommodate three tanks: two tanks containing resin beads and one containing softening salt.

Finally, there are smaller, portable water softeners designed for use in RVs. If you’re looking for a water softener for an RV or small vacation home, these units use much smaller tanks and are easier to install in small spaces.

I would recommend choosing a location to fit your water softener in advance, then carefully measuring the available space and comparing this to a water softener’s measurements before you make a purchase.

ion exchange water softener in basement

Buying vs Renting a System

In some instances, it may make more sense for you to rent a water softener. For instance, if you know you’re moving out of the house within the next year or two, the monthly cost of renting a water softener will likely work out cheaper than the overall price of purchasing a system.

It’s important to note, however, that while renting can seem like the more affordable option at the time, it can quickly become more expensive. If you don’t have any relocation plans on the horizon, buying a water softener will be much cheaper over an extended period of time than renting.

Need more information on the price of water softener rental? I’ve written a guide all about renting a water softener – you can find it here.

Maintenance Required

I’ve already discussed the price of maintenance above, but let’s look in more detail at the ongoing maintenance of owning the different types of water softener.

A traditional ion-exchange softener requires the most maintenance. The brine tank requires monthly salt top-ups, and this is essential maintenance – without salt, the ion exchange process couldn’t happen.

However, with ion exchange being the most effective (and scientifically proven) softening process, many people are happy to spend a little extra time topping up their water softening salt.

The only other maintenance required for a salt-using water softener is replacing the resin beads. However, most resin lasts for at least 10 years, so this isn’t a regular task by any means.

Water conditioners are virtually maintenance-free, as they don’t need salt top-ups. You will need to replace the TAC media every 6-8 years, making conditioners a much lower-hassle choice for anyone who doesn’t want the commitment of a traditional water softener.

Both water softeners and water conditioners will start to show signs of wear and tear over the years. The more moving parts a softener has, the more components you will likely need to replace, especially as the unit comes to the end of its lifespan.

Water softener parts can cost as little as $1 and as much as $500. Price is dependent on the size and importance of the part that needs replacing.

Finally, electronic descalers usually require no maintenance whatsoever. They have no moving parts and don’t come into direct contact with water, so they should technically last forever.

Bypass Valve

Installing a bypass valve for a water softener is something that most people don’t think about – until it’s too late.

Bypass valves allow water to bypass the softening unit during maintenance or while it’s regenerating. Having a separate route for your water to take means that you’ll never be without drinking water, even if your softener has broken down.

Most traditional water softeners come with a bypass valve included in their installation kit. For some products, you may be required to pay extra for a bypass valve.

It’s worth noting that if you do need to use the bypass valve, if your water softener was regenerating, for example, you’d have access to your usual water supply. This means you’d be sending hard water around your home.

However, hard water is better than no water, and it’s important to be prepared for the fact that your water softener might be out of use on many occasions throughout its lifespan.

The only units that don’t require bypass valves are descalers. If a descaler did experience a fault (which is highly unlikely), it’s quick and easy to remove the system from your water line. Because you don’t cut into your plumbing to install a descaler, when you remove it, you’ll still have your normal plumbing in tact.

Regeneration Initiation

If you buy a water softener that needs to regenerate, take a look at the system’s regeneration initiation.

Single-tank water softeners will either use demand-initiated regeneration (otherwise known as metered regeneration) or time-based regeneration.

Metered regeneration is triggered by water usage, making it the more efficient of the two. When setting up the softener, you’ll input your water hardness and the number of people in your home. The system will then calculate how much water it will use before running out of salt and requiring regeneration.

Time-based regeneration allows you, the user, to program a specific time for system regeneration. For instance, you may program the system to regenerate twice a week at 2 am.

The advantage of time-based regeneration is that you can program the system to regenerate when you know you won’t need to access your water. However, this programming is also more wasteful, as the water softener will regenerate before it needs to. This means you’ll waste more salt than you would with metered regeneration.

If you want to get the most out of your salt and water usage, consider a twin-tank water softener. With its two resin tanks, a twin tank softener will get through every last ion of sodium in each resin tank before regeneration. This means you’ll never waste any salt.

Of course, you could also opt for a system that requires no regeneration whatsoever, like conditioners and descalers.

Bluetooth Connectivity & Control

Many modern water softeners now have Bluetooth connection, and this is a really handy feature to look for.

A Bluetooth control head connects to a mobile device, such as your phone. This allows you to access information about your water softener, including the cycle your softener is currently in, a regeneration timer, your water usage, and more.

The advantage of Bluetooth control is that you can use your phone to set regeneration schedules, alter the system’s cycle, and diagnose errors – and you don’t have to be at home, standing next to the softener, to do so.

Bluetooth control is typically only available on water softeners that use salt, as these units require closer monitoring than descalers or conditioners.

springwell water softener bluetooth controlled head

Certifications

If you want to be sure that a water softener lives up to the manufacturer’s claims, look for a third-party certification. There are independent certification companies, like the NSF, that rigorously test water treatment systems to ensure two quality and safety.

Residential softening systems that use salt can apply for an NSF/ANSI Standard 44 certification. If you notice that a water softener is NSF 44 certified, it means that testing has proved it effective at removing hardness below 1 grain per gallon. You can also be assured that the system meets requirements for material safety and structural integrity.

Technology Type

I’ve mentioned a lot about the types of water softening technology already, but to briefly recap:

  • Ion exchange softeners use salt to soften hard water and require regeneration. These need regular salt top-ups to operate.
  • Water conditioners use scale-forming technology like template-assisted crystallization. They don’t actually remove magnesium and calcium from hard water, but they stop them from forming scale.
  • Electronic descalers attach to the outside of a whole-house waterline and use electromagnetic waves to prevent scale formation. Again, these don’t remove hard water minerals, but they should eliminate scale.

Warranty

Warranty is one of the most important things I’ve covered in this water softener buying guide. If a system has a warranty, it’s a positive sign that the manufacturer believes in the product they’re selling.

No warranty, or even a very short warranty, should be a red flag to you. Ask yourself why a manufacturer wouldn’t cover you if your water softening system became faulty or damaged through no action of your own.

Most water softeners have different warranties for different components. It’s common for softeners to have 10-year warranties on the tanks, and around 3-5 year warranties on the other parts.

The best warranties available today are limited lifetime warranties. “Limited lifetime” means that the manufacturer is obliged to replace any parts in your system that break during its lifespan – as long as these parts weren’t broken by you.

Local Regulations

Before you purchase a water softener, it’s important to check your state’s regulations and plumbing codes. Check that the regeneration drain water meets these regulations’ requirements, and make sure that installation and maintenance is in line with the requirements, too.

My tip here is to reach out to a local plumber if you’re confused about your area’s regulations. A plumber can offer advice, or install your water softener for you, guaranteeing that you’ll be compliment with your plumbing codes.