There are few pieces of household equipment which are as difficult to understand – or shop for – than water softeners. Once you’ve determined that you have “hard water,” you’re forced to confront a laundry list of confusing terms and concepts like ion exchange, salt-free, dual-tank, resin tanks, magnetic softeners, water descalers and reverse osmosis – when all you want to do is make your household water healthier, tastier and less likely to clog up your fixtures.
Not all of the terms we’ve listed actually refer to water softening, and not all are crucial to understanding and choosing the best water softener on the market. All you need is a cost-effective way to reduce the amount of problematic minerals in your water – and someone who can explain the process of selecting the right one. We can’t deliver a water softener to your home, but we can take care of the explanation part and suggest some of the equipment you should take a hard (no pun intended) look at.
We’ll start with the basic A-B-C’s of hard water and why water softeners can be so important in your home, and then move on to a “water softeners for dummies” look at the different types of units you can buy. With that background, we believe our water softener reviews will make sense and let you choose the right one for your needs.
T0p 10 Water Softeners Comparison Table
|3-6 people||48,000 grains||
|4-5 people||40,000 grains||
|Eddy Water Descaler|
|3-6 people||48,000 grains||
|APEC Water |
|10-12 people||100,000 grains||
|Nuvo H20 DPHB|
|2-4 people||50,000 grains||
|2 people||25,000 grains||
Explaining Water Softeners
What is “hard water,” and why should you care about it, anyway? We’ll deal with the second part of that question first.
Hard water is probably what comes out of your faucets, since U.S. officials say more than four-fifths of American homes have an issue with hard water. It’s the reason you may find white scaly deposits clogging your faucets, pipes, coffeemakers and water heaters, and why you may need more soap than you’d expect to wash your dishes or your hair. It may also be why your water tastes “bad” or why you may experience unexpected skin problems.
Now that you know why you should care, let’s examine the culprit. You are undoubtedly aware that your tap water isn’t 100% pure; it contains a number of chemicals and potential contaminants. It also contains a number of dissolved trace mineral elements like magnesium carbonate and calcium, which are naturally deposited into water from underground rocks. When the amount of these minerals in your water is too high, the water is said to be “hard.”
You can purchase test strips to determine the level of your water’s hardness, measured in “grains per gallon.” 3.7-7.0 GPG is considered moderately hard, while anything over 7.0 GPG is hard water. It’s easier just to tell by experience, though; if you need to use “too much” detergent or soap to clean dishes or shower, if your water bill is much higher than it should be, or if you’re seeing white scales building up on your faucets or soapy films sticking to your sinks and tub, you have hard water. (The soap problem is because minerals interact with soap to lessen its effectiveness, while the water usage issue is created by a buildup of scaly matter in your water heater and pipes. There’s also the possibility of skin rashes we mentioned earlier, because hard water can keep pore-clogging soap stuck to the skin.)
OK, so you have hard water. What next? A water softener will remove some of those minerals and replace them with non-problematic substitutes like salt, or interact with the minerals so they won’t be deposited in the form of film or scale. There are several different devices called water softeners, but as you’ll learn, many of them really aren’t water softeners at all.
Traditional Water Softeners
These appliances, also known as ion-exchange systems, are connected in your plumbing system, so they can replace calcium, magnesium and other hard minerals with salt. It’s not important to fully understand how that works, but there are several details which could affect your purchase decision.
You’re going to have to regularly add salt to this type of system; more efficient water softeners will use less salt, which means a dollar savings and less salt in your diet. (That’s obviously worth noting by people with high blood pressure, for example – although water softeners actually put sodium bicarbonate into the water, not sodium chloride.) These units will have to recharge periodically; old devices would require manual actions but most modern softeners do it by timers or by computerized “DIR controls,” which automatically sense when it’s necessary to recharge. The latter will save salt and water by not running until required. Recharging may make softened water temporarily unavailable, so there are some water softeners which have dual tanks which only recharge one at a time while the second tank’s water is available for use.
It’s important to note that some areas have banned the use of traditional ion-exchange water softeners, claiming sodium and chloride from the discharge or recycling of softened water can have a negative effect on the area’s overall water quality.
Salt-Free Water Softeners
Instead of using salt, these devices use potassium chloride in a process known as chelation. They’re not as effective as the traditional approach, but they’re a good option for those concerned about sodium intake or those who live in areas where ion-exchange systems are banned. The reason they’re not as effective is that the hard minerals aren’t replaced with potassium chloride; they’re simply bound to it, so they’re suspended in the water and won’t settle as scale or film. This process is known as descaling, and it’s why salt-free units aren’t literally water softeners, they’re better known as descalers. This doesn’t always solve problems in water heaters or some pipes, since the scale building can occur anywhere water simply sits.
Magnetic and Electronic Water Softeners
These also are descalers, and supposedly reverse the electromagnetic properties of the hard minerals in water so they will be repelled by pipes instead of settling on them. Scientific studies say these units don’t have any noticeable effect on hard water, but many who’ve tried them swear by them (as do their manufacturers, of course).
Once again, these systems are often called water softeners, but they really do something completely different. Reverse osmosis (RO) is a very effective filtering system which removes chemical contaminants and organisms which can cause diseases from water. As a byproduct, the process will remove much of the hard mineral content from the water, but not all of it; in fact, very heavy water (more than 10 GPG) can damage a reverse osmosis system. Most experts recommend only using RO if your water tastes, smells or looks funny, using it in conjunction with a softener if you have a hard water problem, and only using it on drinking water sources – unless you love very high water bills, because a lot of water is generally wasted in the RO process.
There are other specifics to be aware of when purchasing a water softener, with size the most important. The size of a water softener is determined by how many “grains of hardness” they’re able to remove before the system has to be recharged. Figuring out the size you need just takes using a test strip to determine how hard your water is, and then doing a little math. The average person uses 75 gallons of water per day. So multiply:
number of people in your house x 75 x GPG of your water
and you’ll come up with the numbers of GPG you need to remove each day, usually simply expressed as “grains.” It’s recommended that a system be recharged every week, so multiply your daily GPG requirement by seven and you’ll have the size of softener you need. Naturally, things are never easy, so some manufacturers won’t give you that spec, instead telling you how much water hardness or how many gallons per minute their system can handle. Also, this specification only applies to traditional systems, since the others don’t actually remove minerals from the water.
You should also look for easy-to-use controls, specific salt requirements, computerized recharging (if possible), frequency of filter changes required, and certification by the Water Quality Association (shown by the WQA Gold Seal) and/or the independent testing organization NSF International.
OK, enough information already. Let’s get to our reviews of the best water softeners to consider; we’ve included choices from all of the different types of devices available.
Top 10 Water Softener Reviews
1. Fleck 5600SXT 48,000 Grain Water Softener
This is a traditional ion-exchange water softener which is big enough to handle a large home with moderately-hard to hard water. The system is digitally-metered and regenerates automatically when needed, the most convenient version of an ion-exchange unit. You’ll go through about one bag of salt pellets per week, but the system will also work with potassium if you choose to go the no-salt route. The 5600SXT has most of the features of the biggest-name water softeners you see advertised regularly. But at its mid-range price, it’s a bargain which will last for the long term (with a ten-year warranty on the tank, a nice touch).
2. Aquios Full House Water Softener and Filter System
The Aquios is a salt-free chelation system which combines filtration and descaling, with the use of a food-grade polyphosphate called Siliphos rather than potassium. It basically does the same thing, though, preventing minerals from landing and accumulating on pipes and appliances and gradually reducing the buildup that’s already there. At the same time, the water passes through a carbon block filter to remove contaminants. It doesn’t require regeneration or other maintenance, although you do have to replace the filter after every 40,000 gallons of water that’s processed, which can get costly over and above the cost of the unit itself. It’s a nice choice, though, if you can’t or don’t want to use a traditional system.
3. Eddy Electronic Water Descaler
Here’s one of those “you love it or you don’t” electronic descaling systems, which uses an electromagnetic field to stop minerals from accumulating on your pipes and in your faucets and showerheads. It’s simple to install – you just wrap the wires around your main water pipe, attach them to the control box and plug the unit in. This descaler is on the low price range, much less than whole-home ion-exchange systems. And most who try it find it does reduce scaling. Just don’t expect it to be a miracle worker in a home with very hard water; you’ll need a traditional water softener for that.
4. 602abcWATER Fleck 5600SXT Metered On-Demand Water Softener
This is basically the same device as the Fleck we reviewed earlier. It has a 48,000 grain capacity, recharges automatically, and uses salt to perform the ion-exchange function. The bottom line is that it greatly reduces scaling throughout pipes and appliances for all levels of hardness.
5. APEC Premium 5-Stage Reverse Osmosis Filter System
This RO system is designed to fit underneath a kitchen sink, with a tank that’s just 11 x 11 x 15 inches and easy-connect, lead-free fittings and a chrome designer faucet, to filter your drinking or cooking water. (Of course, it can be used under bathroom sinks as well.) As we’ve discussed, this reverse osmosis isn’t a primary solution for water softening, but removal of most of the minerals in your drinking water is a by-product of its use. It’s well-built, made in the USA, and the company even has technicians answering its phones if you have a problem. For affordable price it commands, this is a very nice RO unit.
6. iSpring RCC7 Reverse Osmosis 5-Stage Water Filter
From its size (under sink), to its design (5 stages), to its manufacture (in the USA) to its designer faucet and easy-connect fittings, and even for its low-end price, the iSpring RCC7 reverse osmosis device is difficult to separate from the APEC unit we’ve just reviewed.
They’re both well-built, both excellent water filtration systems, and both priced extremely reasonably. We might choose the APEC because it has a longer filter life than the iSpring (6-12 months vs. 3-6 months), but then again the iSpring has a flood alarm not available on the APEC. Just toss a coin and you’ll be right.
7. Aquasana EQ-1000-EST-UV-AMZN UV Softener and Water Filter
A descaling system, the EQ-1000 from Aquasana uses NAC, which is a slightly different technique than the more common electromagnetic method. Rather than reversing the charges of the hard minerals in water, it gives them a physical matrix to attach to, supposedly removing their electrical charges completely and rendering them unable to attach to pipes. It also has a UV filtration system to remove contaminants and chlorine. The filtration is great while the descaling is a bit less effective, but there’s one big caution: the warranty on this system is voided if you don’t have a licensed plumber install it.
8. Nuvo H2O DPHB Home Salt Water Softener System
The name of this device has “salt” in it, but the unit doesn’t – we’re not quite sure why it’s named the way it is. In any event, this is a chelation system somewhat similar to the Aquasana EQ-1000, but it uses a citric acid cartridge (which it calls CitriCharge) to infuse water with a substance to which the minerals supposedly bond. NuvoH2O says the fact that it uses citric acid also decreases the naturally alkaline pH of water, so that it’s less likely to produce scaling. Does it work? It really depends on the quality of your water supply. If you want to try this water softener, its price is a little on the high-end range.
9. Aquasana EQ-SS20 SimplySoft Salt-Free Water Softener
Here’s yet another take on a chelation system; Aquasana uses slowly-dissolving polyphosphate beads to reverse the charge of minerals in the water, similar to the the Aquios unit we’ve reviewed earlier. Aquasana’s method is certified by NSF, and while it won’t approach the effectiveness of a salt-based device, it does a pretty good job at descaling for a low-end priced water softener. This is a small unit and can be used either on a local or whole-home basis. It does have a cartridge which has to replaced every six months, but that’s it as far as maintenance goes.
10. Aquasana AQ-4100 Deluxe Shower Water Filter System
And now for something completely different. This isn’t really a water softener, but it’s a solid combination showerhead/filtration system which makes water fresher and cleaner by removing chlorine and organic chemicals by means of copper, zinc and, believe it or not, coconut shell carbon filters which have to be replaced every 6-8 months. The showerhead itself has adjustable settings for different types of water flow, from spray to massage. It’s not the easiest showerhead to install, and it’s not the cheapest you’ve ever bought, but it may be one of the best.
The Next Step
Hopefully we’ve been able to demystify the often-confusing world of water softeners and have prepared you to go shopping for one. Once you’ve found out if your locality allows salt-based devices, your most important step will be to deciding whether you want to go the traditional ion-exchange route or if you want to give one of the no-salt alternatives a try.
Just remember what we’ve discussed; chelation isn’t going to be as effective as ion-exchange, and reverse osmosis is designed to filter water rather than remove the problematic minerals from hard water. Balancing your needs and your budget will allow you to choose the best unit for your home.
And one final tip: you may not be saving money in the long run by choosing to install a complicated ion-exchange device yourself, since even the best units won’t soften hard water unless they’re put in and set up properly. Those familiar with home plumbing tasks shouldn’t find the task too arduous, but if you have any doubt about your abilities around hacksaws and soldering torches, hiring a professional might be well worth the fee. Good luck and we hope after reading our water softener reviews you can now confidently go out and choose the best one for you.