How to Soften Hard Water (Advice From a Water Treatment Expert)

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Hard water causes a myriad of problems in the home, from plumbing damage to decreased appliance efficiency.

If you want to soften hard water, this article will cover the easiest ways to do so.

🤔 Why Soften Hard Water?

You probably already know that hard water is damaging to your home. But do you know just how costly hard water can be?

Fun fact: nearly 85% of homes in the US have hard water. You’ll want to soften your water if:

  • Your showerhead and faucets routinely become clogged with limescale
  • You struggle to clean mineral deposits from your shower screens and bathroom appliances
  • Your glassware and dishes have water spots on their surface
  • Your appliances break or lose efficiency before the expected end of their lifespans
  • Your water bills have slowly been increasing as limescale builds up in your plumbing
  • Your skin and hair feel dry and damaged
  • You use large amounts of soap to wash your dishes and clothes because soap lathers poorly with your water

In short, if you want to get rid of the side effects of hard water in your home, the only solution is to soften it.

hard water clogging showerheads with limescale and leaving water spots on glassware

📌8 Methods of Water Softening

Let’s look at some of the best ways you can soften your water at home.

Method 1: Add Sodium Bicarbonate to your Washing Machine

Method Rating: 5/10

Here’s a solution that works well for hard water issues in your washing machine.

Hardness minerals leave your clothes looking dull and feeling scratchy. Sodium bicarbonate, otherwise called washing soda or baking soda, reacts with hardness minerals and softens water.

When you add baking soda to your washing machine, you’ll be able to produce less detergent to produce the same lather, so your washing machine doesn’t have to work as hard to keep your clothes clean.

How effective is this method? We’d give it a 5 out of 10. It does the job, but it won’t completely eliminate hard water, and it’s only useful in your washing machine.

Method 2: Clean With Vinegar

Method Rating: 5/10

This method won’t prevent hard water scale from forming, but it’s a good, natural way to get rid of it.

Distilled white vinegar – the clear vinegar that doesn’t have such a harsh smell – is highly acidic. The vinegar’s acidic content helps to neutralize calcium, the alkaline mineral that’s largely responsible for scale.

Dip a sponge in a mixture of one part vinegar and one part water, and scrub your limescale stained surfaces until the scale lifts. For bad staining around your faucets, wrap a vinegar-soaked cloth around each faucet and hold it in place with elastic bands. Remove the cloths after 1 hour and scrub the faucets with a sponge to remove the staining.

How would we rate the effectiveness of this method? We’d give it a 5 out of 10. It’s ideal for getting rid of hard water stains, but it’s by no means a softening method.

Method 3: Boil Hard Water

Method Rating: 6/10

Boiling hard water removes many of the hardness minerals that cause scale. That’s why you might notice that the inside of your stovetop kettle or coffeepot has floating chunks of limescale.

This method is simple enough: just boil the water you want to soften before using.

boiling to make hard water soft

Obviously, boiling your water won’t remove hardness minerals before water enters your home. This means you can only really benefit from soft water in point of use applications, like for washing your dishes, hand-washing clothes, brushing your teeth, and watering your plants.

We’d rate the boiling water method 6 out of 10. It’s good for softening small volumes of drinking water, but it doesn’t solve hardness issues entirely.

Method 4: Install an Ion Exchange Water Filter

Method Rating: 3/10

Certain water filters, especially shower filters, can soften hard water.

Point of use filters soften water at a particular location, like your shower or your kitchen faucet. Most filters can’t be used as water softeners, though, so read the product description carefully if you’re looking for a filter for this purpose.

How effective is this method? We’d rate it 3 out of 10. It’s rare to find a filter that can effectively tackle hard water. Even ion exchange water filters are typically ineffective at softening water. But if you do find an ion exchange filter that tackles magnesium and calcium ions, it should be good enough to soften moderately hard water.

Method 5: Use Water Softening Additive Products in your Dishwasher and Washing Machine

Method Rating: 6/10

There are plenty of commercial products available today that can be used to produce soft water in your washing machine or dishwasher. In most cases, you just need to add a measured amount of the product to your appliance, then add your soap as usual.

Water softening products are useful in certain appliances, but again, they can’t be used to eliminate hardness minerals before water enters your home. Plus, these products are generally quite expensive, and they’re not really effective. We’d give this method a 6 out of 10.

Method 6: Invest in a Water Softener

Method Rating: 10/10

So far, we’ve only covered water softening treatments that tackle water hardness in certain locations. While these treatments are good for softening small volumes of hard water, they’re nowhere near as effective as a water softener.

Water softeners, otherwise known as ion exchange water softeners or salt-based water softeners, are installed at your home’s point of entry, just before your water heater. This means that your water is softened before it can enter your plumbing, so your entire water system – including all your pipes and appliances – is protected.

ion exchange water softener in basement
Ion Exchange System

A water softener used a process called ion exchange to physically remove calcium and magnesium ions from water, replacing them with sodium ions. During this process, hard water flows through resin beads, and water hardness minerals are attracted to, and stick to, the beads. Equal parts sodium chloride is released from the resin beads, and soft water flows out of the system.

Because these dissolved minerals are completely removed by an ion exchange water softener, there’s no way for them to leave mineral deposits on your surfaces.

Ion exchange water softening is, hands-down, the most effective way to produce softened water.

If you have moderate, hard, or very hard water, a water softener is the solution you need. We rate this softening method 10 out of 10.

👉 See our reviews of the best whole house water softener systems in 2023

Method 7: Use a Water Conditioner

Method Rating: 9/10

Water conditioners produce a similar softening outcome as water softener systems, with one key difference.

Unlike ion exchange systems, water conditioners (also called salt-free systems) crystallize water hardness minerals with a process such as template-assisted crystallization (TAC). What does this mean? Calcium and magnesium aren’t physically removed from water. They remain in the water, but they’re no longer able to form scale.

A water conditioner protects your plumbing system and water-using appliances from hard water minerals without actually softening water. Because a conditioner isn’t an ion exchange system, no salt or potassium chloride is required for the process.

springwell futuresoft water conditioner
TAC Water Conditioner

Although a water conditioner isn’t quite as effective at eliminating scale as a water softener, it offers virtually the same performance. Water conditioners are installed at your point of entry, conditioning water hardness ions before they can enter your home. Your water will still look, feel, and taste like hard water, but the calcium and magnesium will no longer be able to cause mineral buildup.

Water conditioners are the second-best solution for hard water when very hard water is not present, and we’d rate them 9 out of 10.

👉 Check out the best salt-free conditioners of 2023 right here.

Method 8: Use an Electronic Water Descaler

Method Rating: 7/10

Electronic water descalers, or electromagnetic descalers, are another salt-free softening method.

We don’t know as much about the effectiveness of electronic descaling, but thousands of people across the world swear by this method of “softening” water.

Electronic descalers are fitted around the main water pipe leading into your home. Descalers send electromagnetic pulses into water as it flows through your water pipe. These impulses are said to be capable of altering the formation of hardness ions in the same way that water conditioners can.

Using electronic water descaler to soften water

Electronic descalers don’t waste water and don’t need salt, but they do need constant access to a power supply.

Because this method of descaling is yet to be properly proven, we rate it third-best, giving it a 7 out of 10.

👉 Read reviews of the best electronic descalers money can buy.

🥇Our Soft Water Solution Rankings, from Best to Worst

Everything from baking soda to boiling tap water to ion exchange water softener systems can soften hard water – but which methods are worth your money?

Here’s the list of options mentioned above, ranked from best to worst:

MethodRankingEffectiveness Rating
Water softener systems1st10/10
Water conditioners2nd9/10
Electronic/ Magenetic Descalers3rd7/10
Using softening additive products4th6/10
Boiling hard water5th6/10
Using baking soda or washing soda6th5/10
Cleaning with white distilled vinegar7th4/10
Using water filters, like an ion exchange filter8th3/10

Most of the soft water methods mentioned here are simply not long-term solutions, and require a whole lot of effort. If you’re serious about resolving your hard water issues, the best thing to do is buy a water softening system. Ion exchange softener systems are the only solution for physically removing calcium and magnesium ions from your water, eliminating mineral deposits around your home.

We have a full guide to softening water with ion exchange if you’re keen to learn more about water softeners.

💬How to Soften Water FAQs

How do I know if I have hard water?

You might have noticed the signs of hard water without realizing that hard water is what you’re dealing with. Look out for white, crusty stains around your kitchen faucet, water spotting on your shower screen and glassware, and a poor lather with your laundry detergent and soap.

A quick way to test for hard water is to do the water hardness test. Add a few drops of liquid soap to a water bottle, then fill it with water from your faucet. Close the lid and shake the bottle. Hard water will look milky, with very few bubbles, while soft water will be clear, with a thick layer of bubbles on the surface.

Is it safe to drink hard water?

For the most part, yes. Hard water rarely contains enough calcium carbonate and magnesium to affect your health. Most people want to get rid of hard water because of its effects in the home, not because of its health effects.

Does reverse osmosis get rid of hard water?

Yes, but it’s not recommended that you use a reverse osmosis system to treat hard water. Excess minerals can damage the reverse osmosis membrane, affecting water flow and reducing the filter’s effectiveness in removing other minerals and impurities, like chlorine and heavy metals.

How do I get rid of hard water and iron?

Hard water and iron are very common, especially in well water supplies. One of the most effective methods of tackling iron-laced hard water is to use a well water softener. Look for softeners that can remove between 5 and 10 PPM of iron (this is as good as it gets for a soft water system). If you have more than 10 PPM of iron, you’ll need to install a whole house filter for iron removal specifically.

What’s the quickest way to turn hard water soft?

For small batches of hard water, boiling your water is probably quickest, since that only takes a few minutes. For big batches, the only solution is to install a water softener. While the installation process is time-consuming, once your water softener is installed, it’ll continue to provide instant access to soft water for as long as you need it.

How do you soften water cheaply?

If you can’t justify the price of a water softener or conditioner, but you still want a long-term water softening solution, consider electronic water descalers. These systems cost less than $300 and prevent hard water scale without physically removing hardness minerals from your water supply.

How do I soften water without a water softener?

You only have a few choices: soften batches of your water by boiling or using water softening products, or simply find effective ways to remove existing scale. There are no long-term water softening solutions aside from water softener systems.

Related: How to Soften Pool Water

Is it better to use a salt-based softener or a salt-free conditioner?

Salt-based softeners are more effective at eliminating scale in your pipes, appliances, and on other surfaces across your whole household. But if you don’t want to drink water with even a low sodium content, conditioners are the next best alternative. Conditioners don’t affect your hardness level, and they don’t produce soft water, but they prevent excess minerals (mostly calcium and magnesium) from forming scale. This means you can still enjoy the mineral taste of hard water, and your water won’t contain sodium or potassium ions.

  • Jennifer Byrd
    Water Treatment Specialist

    Jennifer is a seasoned water treatment expert with over 18 years of experience in the industry, dedicated to improving water quality for clients across the USA and around the world. Her passion for helping others and extensive networking skills have led her to hold leadership positions in organizations like the North Port Area Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Home Builders Association. Jennifer is currently a managing partner at Redbird Water of West Texas, where she specializes in providing water filtration and solutions for residential, commercial, and industrial clients.

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