Over 85% of the United States has hard water issues, so it’s not a surprise if you’re battling hard water in your home. We all know the signs, water spots, limes scale, dry skin, and costly repairs to appliances. But what are the different types of water softeners? And which one should you choose to fix your water hardness problems?
This guide will go through the kinds of water softeners, how they work, and key consideration factors to help you find the best solution.
Types Of Water Softeners
Although hard water poses no health risks, the mineral composition of scale buildup can lower water pressure by obstructing water pipes, fixtures, and damaging appliances. By installing a water softener or water conditioner, you can remove or neutralize hard water minerals such as calcium, magnesium, or iron. Here are the main types of water softener systems:
Salt-Based Ion Exchange Systems
To soften water, traditional salt-based softeners rely on a process called ion exchange, which involves the replacement of hardness minerals like calcium and magnesium ions with sodium (Na+). Nowadays, this is the most popular way to soften water for use in homes.
Water that needs to be softened is pumped into a softening tank where resin media facilitates the ion exchange. This system’s bed comprises small beads that have been charged with Na+.
When water comes into touch with the resin, the Na+ ions are replaced by calcium and magnesium ions, and the water is softened and ready for use. After a period of time, all sodium will be depleted, and the resin beads will be coated with hardness minerals. In this situation, the softener needs to undergo a regeneration cycle.
That’s why there’s a need to put a highly concentrated brine solution through the resin tank’s circulation system. The ions from hard water dissolve back into the water, recharging the resin beads. The last step is to flush the calcium and magnesium-filled brine down the drain.
Salt-based water softeners are the most popular softening option. Because they have been around for a long time, many models are available and they are very versatile. Ion exchange can work with both well water and city water. The salt-based ion exchange system is the best option for homes that have very hard water or for well water sources that have heavy sediment or iron levels.
Pros Of Ion Exchange Softeners
- Completely removes hard water minerals from water supply
- Works on both city and well water sources
- Have many options for small and large homes, and even portable softeners
- Can last up to 15 years with proper care
- Prevents scaling and prolongs the longevity of the plumbing system and appliances
- Generally have a lower upfront cost than salt-free water softeners
Cons Of Ion Exchange Softeners
- Concerns about the environmental impact of wastewater discharge
- Additional maintenance costs for extra salt, water, and electricity
- Ion exchange increases sodium levels in drinking water
- Need to refill brine tank with salt every few weeks
Salt-Free Water Softeners
Salt-free softeners work with Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC) and use microscopic ceramic beads to crystallize hardness ions. These media beads serve as templates for microscopic crystals that isolate hardness minerals by converting their ionic structure to crystalline form.
It’s important to note that salt-free water softeners won’t remove the minerals that cause hard water, which is why they are oftener referred to as salt-free conditioners. Instead, they chemically alter magnesium and calcium to prevent them from sticking to surfaces and precipitating into scale. Hence, calcium and magnesium will still be present in the water, but limescale will be eliminated.
The regeneration cycle used by conventional water softeners is unnecessary for salt-free water softener systems because the hard water minerals are not actually absorbed by these devices. And because they don’t need a brine tank, salt-free conditioners take up considerably less space. You can even get cartridge-based salt-free water softeners that take no floor space.
A salt-free water softener is a wonderful alternative for those who don’t want to add salt to their drinking water or are searching for a low-maintenance system that is friendly on the environment.
It’s essential to keep in mind, though, that these systems may be less efficient when overpowered by very high levels of hard water or with well water sources with high levels of iron.
Salt-free water softeners are best suited for homes on municipal and city water. They can, however, work with well water that does not have high iron levels. If you have well water with high iron or sediment levels, it may prematurely foul the media. In that case, you will need to pre-treat the water to remove those contaminants.
Pros Of Salt Free Water Softeners
- Eliminates up to 99.6% of scale buildup without salt, chemicals, or waste water
- Requires less maintenance than salt-based softeners
- Targets not only future scale, but also removes existing scale
- A whole house solution for homes of all sizes
Cons Of Salt Free Water Softeners
- Households with high water consumption tend to have less success with this method.
- The initial cost is higher than for salt-based softeners.
- Not advised homes with very hard water
- May need additional pre-treatment for well water with heavy iron levels
Magnetic water conditioners function as water descalers. They work to reduce the amount of scale deposits in your plumbing system. Using a magnetic field, these conditioners neutralize the negative or positive ions from heavy minerals. When minerals lose their charge, they stop attracting one other and remain entirely soluble in water.
Because salt-based and salt-free water softening systems require quite a bit of floor space, it may not be possible to install one in tight spaces. A magnetic water descaler solves this issue with its small size and easy installation.
These gadgets only need to be plugged into an electrical outlet, and you don’t have to modify the water line. Simply mount it near your water supply line and wrap the electric wires around the pipes. The entire setup process takes no more than 15 minutes.
Most electronic water descalers are fairly inexpensive, take up no space, and can be used with any standard wall outlet.
Electronic water descalers are best for people with light scale issues or that are renting.
Pros Of Electronic Descalers
- Comparatively less expensive than salt-based and TAC systems.
- Renter-friendly and simple to set up in under 15 minutes
- The compact size means less room is needed
- No salt, chemicals, or water waste
- Low maintenance
Cons Of Electronic Descalers
- Does not remove hard water minerals
- Not a proven process to be effective
- Difficult to tell if it’s working since it doesn’t remove hard water minerals
Dual Tank Water Softeners
Dual-tank ion exchange water softeners have two resin tanks, so even if one is regenerating, the other may still supply soft water if necessary. A dual-tank water softener can be a more costly option, but it provides additional capacity over traditional tank-based systems. These systems utilize ion exchange to replace calcium ions for sodium ions in two separate tanks – one for softening and one for regeneration – to create soft water. The upside to this design is the ability for continuous soft water without interruption.
Dual tank water softeners are best for homes with high water usage or scenarios where you need continuous soft water on demand.
Pros Of Dual Tank Softeners
- More softened water is available through the second media tank
- Uninterrupted soft water, even during regeneration
- Suitable for homes with high water demands
- High-capacity ion exchange for extremely hard water
Cons Of Dual Tank Softeners
- Higher operating cost requirements for salt, water, and electricity
- Uses more floor space than other softener options
- More costly than the common salt-based softeners
Point Of Entry Vs Portable Softeners
For the most part, water softeners are installed at the main water line to soften every drop of water that enters the home. These systems are referred to as point-of-entry (POE) or whole-house installations.
A point-of-entry (POE) softener requires all water to be processed through its tank before being sent to other faucets. Since it will be used in a commercial setting, the capacity and flow rate requirements are larger than those of a portable point-of-use (POU) unit for use in RVs or outdoor applications like car washes.
Portable water softeners are compact and comprise a single tank. Considering their small size, they have a limited water capacity. Beyond that, manual regeneration generally is required for POU units. These types of systems are best for RVs or apartments where installations are prohibited.
Key Considerations When Choosing Type Of Water Softener
It’s essential to take your time when shopping for a water softener for your home, as there are a number of features to consider to choose the best fit.
Capacity And Flow Rate
A water softener’s size or capacity determines how many grains of hardness it can remove before regenerating. Choosing the correct size water softener will ensure you are adequately treating your water without paying for excess capacity you don’t need. Each softener model will have different max flow rates (GPM) so it’s important to get a softener that will not cause a drop in water pressure. Generally, for a house with 1-3 bathrooms, a flow rate of at least 8 GPM will be required.
Your Water Hardness
The overall water hardness and if your water also has things like iron, magnesium, or sulfur can help you determine the type of water softener you need. For example, a salt-free water softener is not recommended if your water has high levels of iron as it could foul the media.
In a metered regeneration, your water usage is monitored by either an electronic sensor or a mechanical water meter. This means that the softener will only initiate a regeneration cycle when necessary, such as when the resin is nearly exhausted or after a certain amount of water has been utilized.
Softeners controlled by a timer begin regeneration at a predetermined time each day, regardless of how much water has been used previously. That means the amount of salt and water used by a system will remain constant.
Certifications (NSF Certifications)
Regardless of the type of water treatment system you purchase, you should look for NSF/ANSI certifications that support a manufacturer’s claims. NSF-certified systems or components ensure the system is built to the highest standards. An NSF certification means the softener is rigorously tested for safety and performance so it will do what the manufacturer says it will do.
Amount Of Space
Dual tanks and salt-based systems take up more space because they use more media tanks and a brine tank. Whereas a salt-free softener is one tank and requires no brine tank. A water descaler takes practically no space. If you have an RV or apartment, you can consider a portable water softener.
Manufacturers may offer certain warranties on individual parts of a system. Most top brands will have a lifetime warranty on tanks and valves. They should also have a multi-month money-back guarantee. So, check the manufacturer’s details to ensure that the components are covered, especially the electronics.
There are a lot of softener options on the market these days. They come at different price points depending on the type, the features, and the quality. It is important to know the cost of your water softener so it stays within your budget. Generally, you can find less expensive salt-based softener options because there is such a wide variety available. A salt-free softener will be comparable to its salt-based peers. The least expensive option is an electronic descaler.