How to Select a Home Water Softener - Buying Tips

Why should you consider installing a water softener in a water heating system? Use this article to find out how to buy a water softener, about available types, sizing tips, and popular models. Get info about hard water, problems you can expect, benefits, advantages, and disadvantages.

Water softener

One of the main issues with water heating and water heaters is the sediment or lime-scale build-up inside the heater's tank, heat exchangers, tubes, and other components. The reason for this problem is hard water.

Using water softeners in heating systems is one of the easiest and probably the most economical ways to protect a water heater from sediment and lime-scale build-up.

Benefits of using soft water. Why should I buy a water softener?

Here are several reasons why to invest in a water softener with the benefits of using soft water:

  • Lower energy bills
  • Improved water heater efficiency
  • Faster and easier cleaning
  • Using less detergent and soap, which also dissolve faster
  • No stains on kitchen and bathroom elements
  • Fewer spotting on glasses, dishes, and utensils
  • Nice looking clothes with no marks
  • Longer life of all appliances that use water
  • It prevents clogging pipes and various appliance elements
  • Healthier skin

What is a water softener?

A water softener is a system that makes water soft by removing minerals that causes it. The system operates as a filtration system that filters out hard water minerals leaving water soft.

In ion-exchange water softeners, minerals are trapped inside the tank with resin beads.

Over time, a water softener resin bed becomes saturated and completely covered with minerals, making the system less effective. To bring the system back to speed, it starts the cleaning process using the saltwater solution or brine from another tank. This is known as regeneration or recharge when the system is flushing out minerals, which resin bead bed caught from the hard water.

The regeneration cycle usually repeats every week, but it depends on usage.

What are the main components of a water softener?

  • Mineral tank. This is a tank with a bed of resin beads and where the hard water is softened.
  • Brine tank. The brine tank that is filled with salt mixture uses its content to flush through the resin in the mineral tank. The process which is known as regeneration restores the softener's efficiency.
  • Control valve. The control valve controls the amount of water passing through the mineral tank and into your house.

What is hard water? Water hardness map links

According to Wikipedia.org, “Hard water is water that has high mineral content”. Water is considered hard if it contains dissolved hardness minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, above 1 GPG (grains per gallon). It is usually found in water wells.

Use this US map to see is your home in the area with hard water.

Use this Canada map to see is your home in the area with hard water.

Is it safe to drink and use hard water?

Due to the presence of minerals such as iron or manganese, hard water could taste and smell odd, and according to World Health Organization (WHO), it does not have an adverse health effect, so it is no a health hazard.

Keep in mind that water, even softened, still contains all the minerals that we need.

To understand better is it safe to drink and about the health effects, check out this article (opens in PDF) from the WHO.

Note: A regular maintenance of both heater and a water softener is recommended, including frequent draining and flushing.

Is hard water a problem for health and home appliances?

For the regular use of domestic water at homes, such as washing or bathing, it is good to know that hard water is not as efficient as soft water. It can also make it harder for soap and detergent to dissolve in water and make your skin and hair dry.

Also, when used in home water heating systems and other household devices, the problem can be even more significant.

Minerals found in hard water could form scale and lime deposits, clog or cover the elements, affect its regular operation, reduce the flow, performance, and efficiency until sooner or later, they break down. Such heaters could quickly fail even after only a few years of working. If the failed component cannot be cleaned or replaced, especially the storage tank, the heater has to be replaced.

The most affected areas are the passageways in tankless heat exchangers, the bottom of the metal tank in tank-type heaters, and heating elements in electric units. Efficiency reduction can reach a high 30%. This can cause higher energy bills or, even worse, replacement of the unit.

This problem becomes more aggravated with the higher water temperature, so keeping a thermostat at the recommended level (around 120 F) is highly advisable.

According to some studies, the lifespan of home appliances can be reduced up to 50% due to hard water. At the same time, soft water could have a positive impact on the lifespan of water heaters.

Some experts recommend, if your water after testing shows 3 GPG or more, it should be softened.

Types of water softeners

Top sellers

Generally, there are two main types of water softeners for home use:

  • Salt-based softeners
  • Salt-free softeners

Salt-based water softeners

The most popular water softener type is the salt-based or ion exchanger type. This is one of the most popular types, and it is the most economical. It comes with two tanks, one filled with special resin beads (man-made plastic beads) and one with brine or saltwater. There are three types of salt that are often used, including rock, solar (from seawater), and evaporated salt.

As the hard water is passing through/around the beads, the "ion exchange" between hard water (ion minerals) and beads (sodium ions) happens, resulting in soft but salty water.

What makes salt-based water softeners great is that they can completely remove water minerals and can last very long.

Customers do not like that this type could make the water salty, and it does not remove chemicals and bacteria. It also requires you to maintain it weekly and buy bags of salt continuously.

Salt-free water softeners

Salt-free water softeners use filters – so chemicals and salt are not required. This type is also known as a descaler as it does not reduce the content of minerals but prevents them from being deposited as a scale. It is recommended for those users who want to avoid salty taste in water and are concerned about salt intake. Salt-free water softeners are not recommended for very hard water.

What is good about the salt-free type is that it does not require weekly upkeep and continuous purchase of salt. They cost less to run and can feature filtration as well.

Salt-free systems cost more than the other type.

Other types

Magnetic type is also a descaler. It works by changing the properties of water minerals using the magnetic field. They do not remove hard minerals but prevent them from sticking together and creating the build-up that leads to hard water. Magnetic type softeners are affordable and easy to install right on the pipe.

Reverse osmosis softeners use a semi-permeable membrane to remove up to 98% of impurities. It uses a proven method to clean and purify water.

Reverse osmosis softeners are expensive but are capable of delivering healthy water.

Water softener advantages and benefits

It is essential to understand what are the advantages and benefits of water softeners. These include:

  • Improved water quality
  • Reduced skin reaction
  • Cleaner and smoother water
  • Healthier and comfortable showers
  • Dishwashers and washing machines will operate and last longer
  • Cheaper and shorter maintenance

If your tap water or municipality water is not hard and is within the range from 7- to 12- grains hardness, there is no point in buying the unit to soften the water, as it would be too expensive to purchase and use it while the damages made by untreated water will be insignificant.

Disadvantages of using the water softeners

The main disadvantage when using the water softener is that water when running through it results in very soft water that is corrosive when compared to hard water. It affects some elements in the water heaters, such as the anode rod.

The anode rod protects the metal tank from the aggressive water action while it depletes itself during this process, and if working in the soft water environment, soft water will speed up its depletion and shorten its life.

Since water softeners exchange sodium for minerals, salty water could run through the plumbing. It would be good to invest in a reverse-osmosis filter to remove the salt from the water and remove the chlorine.

Since water and salt are used for softener regeneration, dissolved ions usually end up in surrounding rivers and lakes, even in the drinking water supply, affecting our water quality.

How to buy a water softener – Selecting tips

When buying a water softener, there are several options and different sizes; also, new models are always better than the used ones but are more expensive. There are also units with demand regulating and non-demand regulating valves. Non-demand water softeners are controlled by timers and are less efficient than demand models, which are cheaper.

Water softeners with the demand regulating valves are more efficient because they use more sophisticated features such as the control valves with flow meters or sensing probes and resistance sensors, making them more complicated and expensive.

Another great tip is to buy a water softener that will use less water and salt for a cleaner environment, less water waste, and cost-effective use.

Keep in mind that damage to the water heater and resulting from mineral deposits are not covered under warranty.

Brands

  • Fleck
  • Aquasana
  • AFWFilters
  • iSpring
  • SpringWell

Sizing tips

When it comes to choosing the right size of water softeners… it depends on your home size, but buy one that can provide at least several days of supply and easily handle your household's demands. The size is not always the primary factor, while the unit's ability to make water soft is.

You need two things to find the right size of a water softener and what is your daily hardness removal requirements:

The average daily use. To calculate your household daily water use, see what the water consumption of one person in your home is and multiply by the number of people. You can also use your water usage bill to find out about your daily water consumption.

Water hardness. Find out what is the average grains per gallon of hardness in your tap water. You can use water hardness maps available online.

Now, multiply the average use for the whole household and hardness, and you will get how much grains of hardness needs to be removed daily.

Example: If a family of four uses 240 gallons of water (60 per person, per day) and the hardness is 20 grains per gallon, you will need a water softener that can remove 4800 (240*20) grains of hardness per day. If you want to use a water softener for 7 days before regeneration, you will need a unit to remove 33,600 grains of hardness. Pick a unit with a 40,000-grain capacity.

As mentioned before, a recommendation is to buy a water softener that could remove hardness from water for several days before it has to regenerate.

Buying a dual-tank system for reliable water supply

Water softeners have to recharge from time to time, and because they disconnect from a water heating system, they become inactive. Water is not available during the regeneration cycle.

That is why it is recommended to buy a dual-tank system so when one tank is regenerating; the other is in use, ensuring a continuous supply of softened water.

Things to consider

  • Calculate the right size
  • Features that control regeneration cycles
  • Time for regeneration
  • Amount of water and salt needed for recharging
  • Time controls
  • Softener DIR controls that senses when the resin needs recharging
  • Get a model that is energy efficient and use the most efficient setting while operating
  • Price
  • Warranty
  • Certifications

Summary

Installing a water softener in your home is a great way to reduce the amount of minerals in hard water and prevent lime and mineral deposits that can cause problems.

A water softener with the proven technology is what most customers prefer. While there are several types to choose from, the ion exchanger type is the most popular. One of the popular brands that are worth considering is Fleck. However, if you do not like that salty taste of water, and if you are cautious about the salt intake, you can go with the salt-free type such as Aquasana.

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