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Many households have a hard water supply, but a water softener can take care of this common household problem. Hard water, which is high in dissolved minerals like calcium and magnesium, causes scale inside your pipes to build up, and can damage the heating elements of appliances like dishwashers and washing machines. Not only does this shorten your appliances' life spans; it also cuts down your energy bill savings and detergent lifespan (even possibly as much as 50 percent). Using a water softener can help you avoid these problems.
Water softeners use ion exchange technology for chemical or ion removal to reduce the amount of hardness in the water. Basically, a salt brine solution is run through a resin base, which exchanges calcium and magnesium ions with soluble sodium ions. They do not remove bacteria or viruses, and are not the same thing as water filters. There are also salt-free options, although the science behind them is not as clear.
Here, the best water softeners to choose from.
Best Overall: GE GXSH40V Water Softener
Type: Salt-based | Grain Capacity: 40,200 | Maximum Hardness Removal: 126 GPG | Regeneration Cycle: About 2 hours using 37 gallons of water | Ideal Household Size: 4 people
"Smart" and "efficient" are two ways to describe the functionality of this popular whole house water softener. The GE GXSH40V has a 40,200-grain capacity—sufficient for typical 4-person households. It features GE’s SmartSoft technology, which allows the system to detect water usage patterns and optimize regeneration schedules so that softened water is available during peak periods of usage. Regeneration takes about 2 hours and uses 37 gallons of water.
One of the most unique features of the GE GXSH40V is its blending valve, which allows you to adjust the hardness of your water to match your needs. Using the digital controller, you can adjust water hardness levels, conserving salt usage, or increasing water softness to suit your preference. The controller will also provide you with a ‘Days to Empty’ indicator, giving you an at-a-glance indicator of when it’s time to add more to the 230-pound capacity salt bin.
Best Budget: Waterboss Model 900 36,400 Grain Water Softener
Type: Salt-based | Grain Capacity: 36,400 | Maximum Hardness Removal: 90 GPG | Regeneration Cycle: 24 minutes using 17.2 gallons of water | Ideal Household Size: 3-4 people
While water softener systems can frequently creep past $500 or $1,000 depending on filtration abilities and features, the Waterboss 900 is an economical choice. This budget water softener system is compact and cost-effective yet still equipped to handle the water needs of an average 3-4 person household.
This water softener has a 36,400-grain capacity and filters water with a hardness up to 90 GPG. Impressively, the regeneration cycle takes just 24 minutes and uses only 17.2 gallons of water. A user-friendly digital controller controls the softener’s settings and regeneration. As with many other water softeners, this compact unit includes a bypass valve to preserve media life.
Best System: GE GXMH31H 31,100 Grain Water Softener and Filter in One
Type: Salt-based | Grain Capacity: 31,100 | Maximum Hardness Removal: 120 GPG | Regeneration Cycle: 105 minutes using 54.7 gallons of water | Ideal Household Size: Not listed
When paired with water filtration components, a water softener system can reduce the mineral content of your water while also improving the smell and taste of your drinking water. The GE GXMH31H Water Softener and Filter in One accomplishes both purposes with one compact set-up.
This water softener system is capable of reducing hard water up to 120 grains per gallon and can filter 31,100 grains before regeneration. Regeneration is fairly speedy, at just 105 minutes, but it does use a hefty amount of water (54.7 gallons) when compared to similar softeners.
In addition to softening water to your preferred hardness using a custom blending valve, the GE Water Softener and Filter in One reduces chlorine taste and odor in your water.
Best for Well Water: Aquasure Harmony Water Softener with Fine Mesh Resin for Iron Removal
Type: Salt-based | Grain Capacity: 48,000 | Maximum Hardness Removal: 110 GPG | Regeneration Cycle: 98 minutes using 40 gallons of water | Ideal Household Size: Up to 5 people
A water softener for well water is typically equipped with an iron filter. This additional filter helps to address the specific needs of homes supplied by well water and reduces the presence of iron and rust stains on sinks, tubs, and toilets.
Aquasure’s Harmony series is outfitted with fine mesh resin that captures minerals like calcium, magnesium, and iron. It has the ability to filter water with a hardness up to 110 GPG. Choose between water softeners with the capacity to filter 32,000, 48,000, or 64,000 GPG before regeneration is needed. The regeneration cycle uses 40 gallons of water and lasts 98 minutes. Regardless of the size tank you choose, the Aquasure has a digital control console that monitors water consumption and regulates the frequency of regeneration.
Best Salt-Based: Rheem RHS32 Preferred 32,000 Grain Water Softener
Type: Salt-based | Grain Capacity: 32,000 | Maximum Hardness Removal: 105 GPG | Regeneration Cycle: 2 hours using 24 gallons of water | Ideal Household Size: Up to 4 people
Salt-based water softeners are a familiar sight in homes supplied by hard water. A popular and affordable salt-based softener for average-sized households is the Rheem Preferred 32,000 Grain Water Softener.
This model from Rheem uses a treated resin bed to capture calcium and magnesium particles from hard water. After processing 32,000 grains, the system will regenerate—which takes 2 hours and uses 24 gallons of water. The salt storage tank holds 175 pounds and needs periodic refilling, but the system has a low salt monitor that will provide a visual alert when the salt supply is running low. Rheem also equipped this model with technology to detect water usage patterns and optimize regeneration cycles to conserve salt, water, and energy.
Best Electric: ScaleBlaster SB-75 Electronic Water Conditioner
Type: Electromagnetic conditioners | Grain Capacity: N/A | Maximum Hardness Removal: Hard water levels up to 19 grains (325 ppm) | Regeneration Cycle: N/A | Ideal Household Size: For homes up to 4,000 square feet
The ScaleBlaster SB-75 is compact—measuring just 4.75 x 7.5 inches. Installation is simple in comparison with larger conventional salt-based water softeners; it requires a coil to be wrapped around the incoming main water line and plugs into a nearby electrical outlet. Some electric water softeners are only compatible with specific types of water pipes, but the SB-75 can be used with copper, PVC, CPVC, and PEX pipes.
Keep in mind that the ScaleBlaster SB-75 is limited in treating water with a hardness up to 19 GPG. It works by sending out an electrical current that alters calcium molecules, preventing them from adhering to pipes and fixtures. This type of water softening process is relatively new, and its efficacy is still being determined.
Best Heavy Duty: Pelican Water 80,000 Grain Heavy Duty Water Softener
Type: Salt-based | Grain Capacity: 80,000 | Maximum Hardness Removal: 75 GPG | Regeneration Cycle: 105 minutes using 100 gallons of water | Ideal Household Size: 3-4 people
Households that have very hard water may benefit from a heavy-duty water softener, which has a higher maximum grain capacity than typical water softeners. This heavy-duty water softener from Pelican Water is rated to capture 80,000 grains and process 4,000 gallons of water before regeneration is necessary.
Maximum hardness removal is 75 grains per gallon, which is not as high as some other water softeners but is much higher than average water hardness levels in most areas. Regeneration cycles take 105 minutes and use 100 gallons of water, but the system includes a controller for a metered backwash function to reduce the use of unnecessary water.
The GE GXSH40V Water Softener (view at AJ Madison) is our top pick as a water softener for average-size households. It filters 40,200 grains before launching triggering a 2-hour regeneration cycle that uses just 37 gallons of water. If you're on a budget, check out the Waterboss 36,400 Grain Water Softener (view at Home Depot), which can accommodate up to 4-person households.
What to Look for in a Water Softener
There are three types of water softeners: salt-based softeners, salt-free water conditioners, and electromagnetic conditioners.
Salt-based softeners are the most popular systems for residential use. However, they do require ongoing attention and maintenance. Homeowners will need to purchase a supply of sodium chloride or potassium chloride regularly and keep the salt holding tank full for regeneration. Resin media generally has about a 10-year lifespan, but it depends on water quality and usage.
Salt-free and electromagnetic water conditioners don’t remove calcium and magnesium particles from the water. Instead, these systems neutralize the particles to eliminate their ability to stick to plumbing fixtures and appliances. The benefit of conditioned water is that it prevents scale build-up without the need to regularly buy salt and add it to the system.
Water softener capacity is usually indicated in how many particles the system can filter before needing a regeneration cycle. Capacity generally ranges from about 28,000 grains for small water softeners to 80,000 grains for heavy-duty softener systems. An average-sized water softener for three to four-person households is usually in the range of 32,000 to 40,000 grains.
A bypass valve enables you to divert water from the softener system, which can be useful in a number of situations. When turned on, the valve will direct the flow from your water pipe past the softener system—enabling you to work on the softener without shutting off water to the whole house. A bypass valve is also sometimes useful when using a volume of water where water hardness is not an issue. For example, if you’re doing yardwork it might make sense to divert water from the softener. Doing so saves the resin media from filtering water unnecessarily and shortening the time until the system’s next regeneration cycle.
How do water softeners work?
Water softeners work by using coated resin beads (which have a negative ion charge) to attract and capture particles responsible for water hardness—specifically calcium and magnesium (which have a positive charge). These particles bind to the resin while the treated water flows through the resin bed and through your home’s plumbing system.
How do you clean a water softener?
To maintain peak performance, water softeners require regular regeneration. Essentially, this is the process that "cleans" the resin bed. Over time, the resin bed becomes coated with grains of calcium and magnesium and will be unable to bind more particles. The system will typically monitor how much water has been processed and regenerate as needed.
Regeneration involves a brine rinse and backwash. An attached salt tank supplies the sodium necessary for the brine bath that washes the resin bed. The ions in the sodium of the brine will bind the calcium and magnesium particles and carry them away with a single or double backwash.
If your system is failing to perform and you notice hard water flowing from your pipes, you will want to check and see if a salt bridge has formed. This is essentially a layer of crusted salt that prevents the salt from reaching the brine tank and removing hard minerals from the water. Turn off your water supply or engage the bypass valve to divert water from your softener system. Break up the solidified salt using a broom handle or other tool, scoop out the salt that is now floating in the tank, and then vacuum the water in the tank using a wet vac.
How long do water softeners last?
The lifespan of a water softener is dependent on the longevity of the resin bed. In a conventional salt-based water softener, the resin bed usually lasts for 10 to 20 years. How long your water softener lasts will largely depend on water hardness and usage. Very hard water and frequent regeneration may shorten the lifespan of the treated resin inside your water softener.
Why Trust The Spruce?
This article was researched and written by Erica Puisis, a professional writer that specializes in large and small appliances for the home. She has written more than 200 articles for The Spruce, including articles on water testing kits, water heaters, and filtration systems.