Comparing Types of Water Softeners for Hard Water

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If you notice scale buildup on your faucets, chalky residue on your dishes, or rough and dull clothing, you likely have hard water. A simple solution for hard water is installing a water softener. Not so simple is understanding the different types of water softeners and choosing the best one for water treatment in your home.

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In the market for a water softener and aren't sure where to start? Here's a handy guide to choosing the best one for your household.

Dealing With Hard Water

Water hardness happens when your home's water has a lot of calcium and magnesium in it. Hard water is safe to drink and use for cleaning, but it can cause scale buildup on appliances, faucets, sinks, and other surfaces that are difficult to clean, and it can shorten the life of some items. It can also build up in pipes and affect your water pressure, and you might notice a residue on your skin and hair.

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A water softener system either removes or alters the minerals that create hard water to eliminate or reduce the buildup of scale. Softened water also helps soaps and detergents work more efficiently and is less drying to skin and hair. Whether you're replacing an old water softener or installing one for the first time, learning the pros and cons of each helps you choose.

Ion Exchange Water Softener

Ion exchange water softeners are the most common type, and they work by exchanging the calcium and magnesium ions with sodium ions. Special water softener salt goes into the brine tank, and the sodium ions coat the resin beads in the system and swap places with the magnesium and calcium ions during the ion exchange process.

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This adds some sodium to your drinking water, with the amount varying based on how hard your water is, but it usually doesn't add a significant amount. However, if you're on a low-sodium diet due to health conditions, consult with your doctor to determine whether a water softener is safe for you. You can choose to only soften your hot water, which helps reduce hard water stains in your shower while keeping cold water hard to reduce your sodium consumption.

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Once the system treats a large amount of water, it goes through the regeneration process, where it gets backflushed with water from the brine tank. This removes the magnesium and calcium and replaces the sodium on the beads. You can adjust the controls on the water softener to control the regeneration process and salt dosage.

The perks of using an ion exchange water softener include:

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  • Effective process:​ Ion exchange is a very effective process for producing softened water and removing the hard water minerals completely. It's ideal if you have very hard water.
  • Cost effective:​ Compared to salt-free systems, the initial cost is lower, which can make them a cost-effective option. However, the replacement salt creates an ongoing expense.
  • Readily available:​ Since this is the traditional, common water softener option, it's readily available from many companies.

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While an ion exchange system can improve your water quality, it also has some drawbacks to consider. Some of the cons include:

  • Salt in the environment:​ The brine used to flush ion exchange systems goes into the wastewater system and can be a problem for some water treatment facilities. For this reason, ion exchange softeners are banned in some areas.
  • Replacement salt:​ As part of the maintenance, you need to buy and add more salt to the system regularly, which can be inconvenient.
  • Excess water usage:​ The flushing process creates as much as 25 gallons per day, which adds up to almost 10,000 gallons of water per year that goes down the drain, which makes conserving water difficult.

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Salt-Free Water Softener

A salt-free water softener works without salt and uses a different process for treating water. Instead of removing the mineral ions, it neutralizes the calcium and magnesium using template-assisted crystallization (TAC) technology. The water moves through the media, which uses polymer beads that have nucleation sites, or small craters, on them. The calcium and magnesium ions get stuck to these sites and build up until they form microcrystals, which break off and flow into the water.

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This process keeps the ions stable in their new structure so they can't create the buildup and scale that sticks to your pipes and plumbing fixtures. This type of system is a water conditioner rather than a true water softener since it doesn't remove the minerals. This is an option if you want to keep the minerals in the water, but it doesn't help with things like dry skin and hair or lack of soap suds since the minerals that cause these issues are still there.

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Some pros of salt-free water softeners include:

  • Size:​ A salt-free system is typically smaller than water softeners that use salt, which makes them a plus in smaller spaces.
  • No salt:​ You can skip hefting salt bags home since this system doesn't require any, and you're not putting salt into the environment. You also aren't adding sodium to your water.
  • No regeneration cycle:​ Salt-free water softeners also don't need the regeneration cycle, which can reduce excess water usage.
  • Low​ ​maintenance:​ No-salt systems need very little maintenance. The TAC media filter only needs to be replaced every three to five years or longer depending on how hard your water is.
  • Additional filtration:​ It's common for a salt-free unit to have an additional water filter that removes other impurities.
  • No electricity use:​ Typically, these systems don't require electricity, which makes them less expensive to operate.

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Consider the cons of these systems, which include:

  • Upfront cost:​ These water conditioners cost more initially than other types of water softeners. However, you can save money over time since you don't have to buy salt.
  • Doesn't actually soften water:​ While the unit treats the water by neutralizing the minerals, it doesn't actually remove them from the water. This means you technically still have hard water; it just doesn't form the scale in plumbing and appliances, like your dishwasher, as it normally would.
  • Not efficient for higher levels:​ Salt-free systems often aren't as effective if you have a high level of hard water. If your water measures 75 grains per gallon (gpg), a different system is likely a better option.

Reverse Osmosis Water Softener

While not strictly a water softener, reverse osmosis is an option for removing many types of contaminants from your water, including the calcium and magnesium that cause hard water. Reverse osmosis works by using water pressure to move your home's water through a semipermeable membrane from the concentrated side where it has more contaminants to the less concentrated side where there are fewer contaminants. The water remaining with the contaminants becomes wastewater to flush the contaminants out of the system. Some zero-waste systems use special pumps that circulate the water back into the system, but this can quickly wear down your filter components.

Reverse osmosis systems also have varying numbers of filters that can come before or after the membrane, with systems ranging from three to five filtration stages. The water first goes through a sediment filter to remove rust, dirt, and other larger particles. Next, it goes through a carbon filter to remove chlorine, volatile organic compounds, and contaminants that often make your water smell or taste bad. The water then goes through the semipermeable membrane, which removes total dissolved solids (which are microscopic) before going into the storage tank. The storage tank allows the system to store the filtered water since the reverse osmosis process is slow, so you don't have to wait for filtered water every time you use your faucet.

The benefits of a reverse osmosis system include:

  • Contaminant removal:​ This type of system removes a wide range of impurities, including bacteria, lead, and nitrates, which can make your drinking water safer.
  • No salt:​ This system also eliminates salt, which means you don't get unwanted sodium in your drinking water.
  • Improved taste and smell:​ By removing virtually everything from the water, a reverse osmosis system often eliminates funky odors and tastes in your water supply.

There are some drawbacks to reverse osmosis, including:

  • Overall cost:​ A reverse osmosis system is very expensive to install.
  • Filter replacement costs:​ While you don't have to buy salt constantly, you do have to replace the filters occasionally, which creates an ongoing expense. Filters need to be changed every six to 12 months, and the membrane needs to be replaced every two to three years.
  • Increased water usage:​ For every gallon of treated water the system produces, it uses roughly 4 gallons, which significantly increases your water consumption.
  • Slow filtration:​ Reverse osmosis is a relatively slow process, so it can take a while to refill the holding tank if you use all of the filtered water.

Magnetic Water Softener

Magnetic water softeners offer another method of handling soft water by changing the crystal structure of the magnesium and calcium ions with a strong magnetic field. They claim to change the structure so that the calcium and magnesium ions can't form scale. The magnets go on the water pipe to create the field. This type is not considered a true water softener but rather a descaler since it doesn't remove the ions, and its effectiveness is questionable.

Benefits of magnetic water softeners include:

  • Affordable:​ Magnetic water softeners are usually the cheapest option.
  • No salt:​ Like other water softener alternatives, this style doesn't use salt.
  • Compact:​ This system typically places magnets on either side of the incoming water pipe, creating a magnetic field through which the water passes. The design makes it very small and easy to fit in any home.

Some drawbacks of magnetic water softeners include:

  • Lack of scientific backing:​ There's not a lot of scientific evidence for how effective this type of system is.
  • Not as effective for very hard water:​ This type doesn't remove the magnesium or calcium from the water and might not be efficient at reducing hardness at all. If your home has very hard water, choosing a different type is likely better.

Showerhead Water Softener

While many types of water softeners treat the whole house before the water runs to faucets and appliances, you can also get a water softener that attaches to your showerhead. This type is much easier to install since a shower head water softener screws into place after you remove the showerhead you currently have. It uses cartridge filters to remove the minerals.

Benefits of using a showerhead softener include:

  • Affordable:​ The low cost makes this an easy upgrade for anyone.
  • Easy installation:​ You don't need to hire a contractor to install this type of water softener since it screws in place easily.

Some drawbacks of showerhead water softeners include:

  • Limited treatment:​ Since it only treats the water that runs to the shower, this option is very limited. It's best if you're only concerned about improving your hair and skin.
  • Frequent filter replacement:​ You usually need to replace the filter every two months or so, which can add to the expense.

Renting/Leasing vs. Buying

Another decision is whether you should rent or buy your water softener. You can rent most types of water softener and filtration systems, including ion exchange, salt-free, and reverse osmosis systems. If you're considering renting, ask if you'll get a new or used unit and how old the unit is to ensure you don't get an outdated system. Each option offers benefits, but the final decision often depends on your finances and living situation.

Reasons to choose renting include:

  • Covered maintenance:​ Your rental contract usually includes maintenance and repairs, so you don't have to worry about things like fixing a damaged component.
  • Easier payments:​ If you don't have a large sum to buy an expensive water softener and don't want to finance it, renting is a more affordable way to get started with softened water.
  • Less commitment:​ Renting allows you to change your mind and works well if you rent your home since you're not stuck with the unit forever. If you're planning to move soon, buying a unit can be costly since you won't use it for long.

Reasons to buy your system include:

  • More selection:​ You generally have limited rental options, but buying gives you access to all types of systems. This lets you choose from the best water softeners available.
  • Lower total cost:​ Buying typically works out to be cheaper in the long term than renting. The monthly rental fees add up quickly if you keep the system for a long time, and you might end up paying more than the cost of owning a system.
  • Increased home value:​ Buying a unit that stays with the home can increase your home's value.

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