Whether you’re trying to fend off limescale, save money on heating, or just have a nicer shower in the morning, you need a home water softener system. But what is the best water softener? The answer depends on your needs.
There are many different types of soft water systems, but the main dividing line is between salt based and salt free water softeners. Salt based systems are more common and employ an ion exchange system to trade hard water ions (calcium, magnesium) with soft water ions (typically sodium). Salt free systems are harder to define because they use different technologies, including electronic pulses and magnetic fields.
Salt free softeners are growing in popularity primarily because people don’t want to deal with the large bags of water softener salt required to keep traditional systems running. Also, in some cities, salt based softeners have been banned due to the waste water they produce, leaving saltless softeners as the only option for people with hard water.
If getting a water softener is more a matter of need than want – in other words, if you have a serious hard water problem – then you should go with the proven technology of a traditional salt-using system (if it’s legal in your area, that is). Otherwise, you have the option to try the newer saltless technology and avoid the hassle of water softener salt.
If you decide on a conventional softener, one other choice you’ll have to make is whether to get a whole house system, or a water softener for your shower. A shower head water softener is cheaper and uses less salt – so if you just want soft water for your shower, it’s something to consider. On the other hand, if you have limescale in your shower, you likely also have it in your water heater. Therefore, in most cases, a whole house system is recommended.
Once you settle on the best water softener technology for you, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of the particular features you need. Most of this applies to conventional ion exchange softeners. With saltless softeners, there’s much less standardization and the features available are likely to be particular to the brand.
Size/Capacity. Salt based water softeners filter your water through resin beads laced with the sodium (or sometimes potassium) required for the ion exchange process. The harder your water is, and the more of it you use, the more resin beads you need to keep your home’s water supply soft. More softening requires a larger tank.
Regeneration Mode. When the resin beads in a conventional softener are spent, they need to be regenerated (that’s where the salt comes in). You can get a softener that regenerates based on a timer, or one that auto-detects when it needs to regenerate. The later is better, as it saves on salt.
Additional Features. There are a variety of other features available – a second tank, digital displays, eco-friendly options, etc. It’s up to you to decide whether you need any or all of these.
Cost. Obviously, cost looms large in any purchasing decision, but especially when you’re talking about hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Water softener prices vary greatly, but the main factors are the capacity and brand name. You’ll pay more for a larger softener from a respected manufacturer.
The last time Consumer Reports looked at conventional, salt based water softeners, they found no significant difference in softening ability between different brands. So when you’re trying to decide on the best water softener, the actual effectiveness of different brands in softening water probably isn’t a decisive factor – at least when it comes to traditional systems.
For salt free water softeners, the effectiveness of the system is a real issue. They use a lot of different technologies, and there are real differences between them. If you want to find out what works and what doesn’t, researching the specific brands is imperative.
Regardless of whether you’re getting a conventional or saltless water softener, there are additional factors beyond softening effectiveness to consider – specifically, durability. How long your softener lasts – and how many common water softener problems it presents over its lifespan – is a key factor. For conventional systems, this is the main basis for brand reputation. When you pay for a highly respected brand, you’re paying for the assurance that it will run smoothly for years.
What is the Best Water Softener? It’s Your Call
Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to the question of which water softener system is best. A lot of people are tempted to look solely at the brand, but there’s so much more to it than that. If you don’t need the fanciest system with the most features, then paying for one makes little sense. Ultimately, the best water softener is the one that meets your needs and fits your budget. And there’s only one expert in that area – you.