Water Softeners Buying Guide

This expert, unbiased water softeners report will help you choose the right size water softener, understand salt-free and dual-tank softeners,and more.

Hard water is simply water that is rich in minerals such as calcium, magnesium carbonate, and manganese. If you find that soap and shampoo don’t lather well, dishes are spotted, the bathtub has a ring, laundry is dingy, and the coffee maker has scale deposits, your home probably has a hard water problem.

Though these minerals are natural and not typically hazardous to health, they can create deposits in your plumbing, water heater, and other water-using appliances, and make washing dishes, clothing, skin, and hair more challenging.

Hard water is a familiar reality for millions of Americans. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 85 percent of American homes have problems with hard water.

Solving Hard Water Problems

Hard water comes from aquifers and other underground sources that collect dissolved minerals from rock—particularly calcium, magnesium carbonate, and manganese. These minerals give water undesirable characteristics that collectively are dubbed “hardness.” The severity of hardness is measured by grains (of mineral) per gallon (GPG) or, in some cases, by parts per million of mineral (PPM). One GPG equals 17.1 PPM.

Technically, any water that contains more than 1 GPG of dissolved hardness minerals is considered hard, but, realistically, water with up to 3.5 GPG is relatively soft. Water with more than 10.5 GPG is very hard. Between these extremes is typical, moderately hard water.

Hard water is less an issue of health than of potential expense. Many of the problems created by hard water are hidden until some type of malfunction occurs in your home’s plumbing system or in a water-using appliance. When heated, dissolved hard-water minerals recrystallize and form scale that eventually clogs plumbing, reducing water flow. Scale and lime deposits also take their toll on water-heating appliances such as dishwashers and coffee makers, increasing the need for repairs.

Worse yet, scale cakes onto interior surfaces of water heaters, making them more likely to fail. According to a study commissioned by the Water Quality Research Council at New Mexico State University, water heaters operate 22 percent to 30 percent less efficiently when plagued with hard-water scale.

Hard-water problems are more obvious as a nuisance when you bathe and cook, do laundry and clean house. Calcium and magnesium react with many soaps, shampoos, cleansers, and detergents, diminishing their lathering and cleaning capability so you have to use more and rinse longer. They also form a scum on tile and what appears as bathtub ring that is difficult to rinse away. In the kitchen, this “soap curd” translates into spotted dishes and scale on cookware. Additionally, certain hard-water minerals, such as iron and manganese, can give water an undesirable appearance, odor, or taste.

Hard water does enter the health arena in one area: People who have hard water are more prone to rashes and skin problems because it changes the skin’s pH so that soap remains on the skin, clogging pores.

Types of Water Softeners

By far the most popular and commonly used type of whole-house water softener is an ion-exchange or “cation exchange” unit, but a couple of other technologies are also available. It’s important to understand the differences.

Salt-Based Ion Exchange Softener

This type of water softener cycles household water through two tanks: one with special resin beads and the other filled with brine. It works on the principle of ion exchange, softening hard water by substituting sodium (salt) for hard minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and iron. For a complete explanation of how a conventional water softener works。

Salt-Free Water Softener

A salt-free water softener regenerates with a potassium-chloride salt substitute rather than sodium. This type of unit may be a better option for people who are concerned about salt intake. This type of water softener is actually a descaler—it doesn’t reduce the hard water minerals but rather prevents minerals from being deposited as scale to the surfaces of water-using appliances and pipes.

The general consensus is that this type of water treatment is better than no water softener at all, but not as effective as conventional water softening.