Pros and Cons of Water Softeners

Something we can all agree on is that water softeners are incredibly useful inventions. But not everything about water softening systems is wonderful.

Before you buy a water softener for your home, give yourself the opportunity to be enticed by a water softener’s benefits, and discouraged by its setbacks.

In this water softener pros and cons guide, we’ll be sharing all the positive and negative aspects of owning a water softener. Despite the cons, we still think softener systems are well worth the investment.

Let’s jump straight into the water softener benefits and setbacks.

πŸ‘ Water Softener Pros

Provide Soft Water

The most obvious benefit of water softener systems is that they soften the water that flows through your entire plumbing system.

Hard water stains appliances, slows water flow, and makes laundry and general cleaning tasks more difficult.

Soft water eliminates these problems. Your washing machines and dishwashers will use less water, your heater will work more efficiently, your shower screens will be streak-free, and you won’t be hit with endless appliance repair bills.

How is Hard Water Measured
Water hardness scale

Minimal Maintenance 

Water softening systems are pretty self-sufficient, and can keep themselves running without your help.

Your biggest task will be to add salt to the brine tank. This isn’t challenging – if you’ve ever poured cereal, you can pour salt.

Aside from that, a water softener system will carry out automated tasks, including regeneration, to ensure the resin bed contains enough sodium to provide softened water.

There are no filters to change in a water softener. The resin in the mineral tank lasts for 8-10 years – hardly a demanding or regular maintenance task.

Remove Low Levels of Iron

The main purpose of a water softener is to produce soft water by removing calcium and magnesium. But it doesn’t end there.

Some softening systems can also remove low levels of iron from water. If your water is orange-tinted and you have reddish-brown stains in your sinks and toilets, you’re most likely dealing with an iron issue.

Well water is particularly susceptible to ferrous iron. Water softeners can remove up to 5 PPM of iron (some can remove even more than that) as well as providing softened water, giving you two benefits in one.

Extend the Lifespan of Appliances

Soft water is ideal for water-using appliances because it doesn’t produce scale.

Scale buildup slows water flow and clogs the parts and fittings inside appliances. Over time, this decreases the efficiency of appliances until they meet an early death.

You won’t have this issue with soft water. Your appliances will live full lives – perhaps even exceeding the manufacturer’s anticipated lifespan, which is usually based on hard water usage.

If you want to get more value for money from your dishwashers, washing machines, hot water heaters, and coffee pots, invest in a softened water system.

Prevent Plumbing Damage

Over time, calcium and magnesium damage your pipes, plumbing, fixtures, and water heater. Scale deposits from unsoftened water build up on surfaces, preventing water from flowing quickly through your home.

Eventually, you’ll need to replace your plumbing altogether.

After using a water softening system, your water will be free from calcium or magnesium ions, preventing mineral deposits altogether. This means your plumbing won’t be affected in the slightest, and you should get plenty of decades’ use out of your water pipes before you need to think about replacing them.

showerhead with limescale buildup
Limescale buildup

Improve Skin and Hair Health

Poor skin and hair health are, in part, linked to hard water.

Calcium and magnesium prevent you from washing your skin and hair properly with soap. These minerals, causing hardness in your water supply, also form soap scum – a film or scum that coats your skin or hair after washing.

Soft water, on the other hand, has a smooth, silky texture, and slides right off your face and hair rather than lingering around. You’re less likely to experience issues with dry hair and skin if you soften your water with an ion exchange system.

Cheap to Run

After you’ve invested in a water softening unit, the biggest spend is out of the way.

The average annual cost of running an ion exchange system is less than $100. Salt is cheap and lasts a long time. Bulk-buy salt in large batches for the biggest savings.

There are no other elements to pay for in a softening system apart from the resin beads, which only need replacing every 8-10 years or so.

Electricity and water costs are minimal.

Most Effective Softening Method

There are several other water treatment systems that treat hard water, but none so effective as salt-based softening systems.

Because softener systems physically remove magnesium and calcium carbonate, they eliminate the cause of hard water. This is much more effective than using a water filter like reverse osmosis, which may not remove all hard water minerals, or water conditioners that alter the structure of hardness minerals.

If you’re looking for a surefire way to eliminate the issues caused by magnesium and calcium ions in your water, water softener units are the answer.

πŸ‘Ž Water Softener Cons

Require Salt Top-Ups

A traditional ion exchange water softening system can’t work without salt.

Let’s quickly run over the ion exchange softening process.

Water flows through a resin tank containing sodium-saturated resin beads.

The negatively charged resin bed attracts the positive magnesium and calcium charges, causing these minerals to stick to the resin.

In turn, the same number of sodium (or salt) ions are released into the water, physically removing water hardness.

Salt is needed 24/7 inside a water softener.

When the softener regenerates, salt is drawn from the brine tank and carried by water into the resin tank to replenish the resin beads.

You’ll need to keep the brine tank topped up with at least 1/3 salt. Failing to do so will cause the softener to stop working.

brine tank of a water softener topped up with salt

Salt isn’t particularly expensive – high-quality salt costs about $3-$6 per bag – but it’s still an extra cost to consider. You’ll need to remember to top up the salt every four weeks or so, so water softeners aren’t a no-maintenance solution.

Not Ideal for Low Sodium Diets

You might be following a low-sodium diet, whether due to a health condition or simply to avoid the dangers of overconsuming salt. In this case, you’re unlikely to want to add any amount of salt to your water – no matter how small.

Keep in mind that sodium isn’t all bad – it’s needed to send nerve impulses and control the body’s fluid balance. Eliminating all sodium from your diet is dangerous. But if you need to monitor your sodium intake carefully, a salt-based water softener system isn’t ideal.

You can use potassium chloride pellets in a water softener as a sodium chloride alternative. Potassium is more expensive, though, and it isn’t as efficient as salt. This means it’ll cause your water softener to regenerate more frequently than usual.

Expensive Upfront Cost

One of the biggest cons of water softeners is their upfront cost.

If you want to reap the benefits of an efficient water softener, you’ll need to spend a lot of money. There’s no getting around it.

The most expensive systems trade calcium and magnesium for sodium ions in the ion exchange process.

The average water softener cost is $1,000-$1,500. Spend any less than $800 and you run the risk of investing in a system that simply won’t do the job it’s supposed to.

Luckily, some water softeners can last up to 30 years with proper care, so you’re at least paying for something that’s designed to last a long time.

Challenging to Install

A traditional water softening system needs to be installed at your home’s point of entry, providing soft water to your entire plumbing system.

A whole home water softener installation involves cutting into your waterline and plumbing in the brine and mineral tank.

If you’re a DIY expert, installing a water softener shouldn’t be too much of a challenge.

installing a water softener

If you don’t know the right end of a spanner, on the other hand, you’ll have a hard time installing a water softening system.

You may even end up paying a plumber to install your water softener, adding another $200 or so onto your final bill.

Remove Essential Minerals

The ion exchange process is by far the most effective way to soften hard water. But this can be a disadvantage.

During ion exchange, the positive calcium and magnesium charges are attracted to the negatively-charged resin beads in the mineral water tank. These minerals, which are responsible for hard water, are removed.

The problem here is that such minerals are good for our health. Removing calcium and magnesium reduces water’s mineral content balance.

If you eat a healthy, balanced diet, you should still meet your dietary mineral requirements from your food sources. If your diet is restricted, you may require dietary supplements.

Plus, some people prefer the mineral taste of hard water versus the sodium taste of soft drinking water. It’s a case of personal preference.

Only Tackle Water Hardness

Water softening systems can only remove calcium and magnesium hardness minerals from water, replacing them with sodium ions.

If you need to remove other minerals and contaminants from your drinking water, like heavy metals, chemicals, and bacteria, you’ll need a dedicated water filter, such as a reverse osmosis system.

Water softener units are purely designed to make hard water soft, so you may need additional filters to remove problem contaminants in your water supply.

πŸ’‘ Water Softener Alternatives

If you want to avoid the setbacks of owning a traditional water softener, consider water conditioners.

Water Conditioners

Water conditioners are the most popular water softener alternatives.

These systems don’t actually soften water. Instead, they crystallize calcium and magnesium minerals, preventing them from sticking to surfaces and forming scale.

The benefit of water conditioners is that they retain healthy minerals in tap water, while still addressing hard water problems. They also require no salt to operate, so they’re perfect for people on low-sodium diets.

The biggest setback of water conditioners is that they’re not as effective as water softeners, so you may still experience minor scale issues after installing a conditioner.

springwell futuresoft water conditioner
Salt-free Conditioner

Descalers

Electronic descalers are another water softener alternative.

These devices are installed on the outside of your waterline and treat water as it flows through your pipes. Electronic descalers send out electromagnetic impulses, which change the structure of calcium and magnesium minerals, preventing scale formation.

electronic water descaler as alternative to water softener
Electronic Descaler

The biggest advantage of electronic descalers is their price. They cost around $300, making them around 1/4 the price of a traditional water softener. They’re also easy to install and require no maintenance.

You might be wondering why electronic descalers haven’t taken off big time if they’re so affordable. The main reason is evidence – or, more accurately, a lack of it. While salt-based water softening is a tried-and-tested method, there’s a lot we don’t know about the effectiveness of the electronic descaling process.

πŸ€”Are Water Softeners Worth It?

So, you know the good stuff and the not-so-good stuff about water softeners.

Yes, it would be great if water softener systems provided only benefits to your home. But the reality is, all water treatment systems – including water softeners – have their setbacks. And really, the setbacks of a water softener are minimal when you compare them to the perks of softening your water at home.

In short, yes: water softeners are worth it.

The money you spend on a water softener is minor in comparison to the money you’d spend replacing broken appliances, buying cleaning products for bathroom scale, and using excess water to wash your laundry and dishes – all very real and unavoidable effects of hard water.

If this article has given you the drive to buy a water softener, not so fast! Not all water softeners are created equal.

If you want to cherry-pick the best of a good bunch, check out our best water softeners guide. We’ve spent hours researching and testing these products in our own homes, so we know for certain that they’re superior to anything else you can buy right now.