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A quality water softener removes calcium, magnesium, and other minerals that cause hard water—which can damage appliances, dry out hair and skin, and leave buildup on the surfaces in your kitchen and bathroom—from your water supply. "The most important thing for finding the right product for your home is understanding the water in your home," says Tim Dunphy, water expert at Leaf Home Water Solutions. "That really comes from getting your water tested, so then you can get the right product recommended to solve your home’s unique water challenges.
If you've had your water tested for hard water, there are plenty of water softeners available on the market to purchase. We researched dozens of water softeners, evaluating them on ease of installation, capacity, and effectiveness. Our best overall pick, the GE GXSH40V Water Softener, has a high grain capacity, digital controller, and the ability to optimize its regeneration schedule during periods of peak water usage.
Here are the best water softeners for every type of household.
Best Overall: GE GXSH40V Water Softener
What do buyers say? 82% of 300+ Amazon reviewers rated this product 4 stars or above.
Smart features to optimize regeneration schedule
Relatively compact for its capacity
Adjustable water hardness controls
Useful digital indicators
Long regeneration cycle
"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 such as during your family's morning shower rush or at dinnertime. Regeneration takes about 2 hours and uses 37 gallons of water.
Its smart features aren't the only thing that makes this water softener our top pick. This model only takes about 30 minutes to an hour to install, which is much less time than other water softeners on the market. At 14.4 x 22.4 x 47.6 inches, it's likely small enough to fit in your laundry room or water closet.
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.
This water softener not only delivers on its promise to remove iron and grains from your water, but its smart technology almost anticipates your needs, which is why it's our top pick.
Price at time of publish: $749
Best Budget: Waterboss Model 900 36,400 Grain Water Softener
Quick and efficient regeneration cycle
High grain capacity makes it suitable for very hard water
Filters dirt, sediment, ferrous iron, for great tasting water
Difficult to install
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.
Price at time of publish: $560
Best System: GE GXMH31H 30,000 Grain Water Softener and Filter in One
Indicator screen tells you how many days until the unit needs a recharge
Sediment and chlorine filter
Long regeneration cycle
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 can be time-intensive, taking between 105 and 152 minutes, and also requiring 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.
Price at time of publish: $499
Best Portable: On The Go Portable Double Standard Water Softener
Compact design fits anywhere
Rope carrying handle
Low grain capacity requires frequent regeneration
The On The Go Portable Double Standard Water Softener is the best option for RVs, boats, buses, or any other situation where a water softener needs to be compact and movable.
The On The Go water softener has a 16,000 grain capacity, which is the lowest capacity of any of our recommendations, but it makes up for it with a straightforward regeneration cycle that takes less than 30 minutes and uses two boxes of table salt. Regeneration is made even easier thanks to the system's large, open mouth. Depending on how hard your water is, the On The Go has a high enough grain capacity to provide between 640 and 1,600 gallons of softened water in between regenerations.
True to its name, the On The Go has a number features that make it ideal for travelers and anyone likely to uninstall and reinstall the unit in multiple locations. In addition to its 22 by 9.5-inch design, it has a carry handle on top, plus a cap and plug to prevent leaking during travel. It also uses a standard hose connection and requires no tools to install.
With a flow rate of three gallons per minute, this water softener is more than capable of keeping up with an RV or marine shower. It also comes with hardness test strips, hose adapters, and a cradle base for stable installation.
On The Go also offers a smaller Portable Standard Water Softener, without about half the capacity, but we believe it's worth the upgrade for the extra capacity.
Price at time of publish: $275
Best for Well Water: Aquasure Harmony Water Softener with Fine Mesh Resin for Iron Removal
Iron filter ideal for well water
Fine mesh resin to capture wide range of minerals
Ability to handle very hard water
Useful digital controls
No way to quickly check salt levels
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.
Price at time of publish: $580
Best Salt-Based: Rheem RHS32 Preferred 32,000 Grain Water Softener
Large salt storage tank reservoir
Low salt monitor
Angled design and inner tank light for easy maintenance
Long, 2-hour regeneration cycle
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.
Price at time of publish: $419
Best Heavy Duty: Pelican Water 80,000 Grain Heavy Duty Water Softener
Processes 4,000 gallons of water before needing regeneration
Metered backwash controller
Only handles water hardness up to 75 grains per gallon
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.
Price at time of publish: $1,828
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.
"That calcium magnesium, when it's in your water, can create scale build-up, which you often see on your faucets and your shower heads," says Dunphy. "That scale build up will also be happening in your appliances, which cause major challenges for those appliances over time as it builds up." Hard water is also the cause of spotting on dishes and glasses because it leaves behind a powdery coating. "When you go to soft water what you’ll find is: cleaning is way easier, your laundry will be brighter, your appliances will run more effectively, and your skin won’t be as irritated because it won’t have that powder coating on it."
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.
"As long as the valve and regeneration cycles are properly set, the softener will kind of take care of itself because the brine wash will clean the resin continually when it needs to regenerate," says Dunphy. "Besides that really all that's needed is that salt is maintained within the system so it can work properly."
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. While the salt bridge can be broken up, we recommend calling a professional to ensure that it's properly removed. Some water maintenance companies will also provide annual checks of softener systems to ensure they're continuing to function properly. "We provide annual checkups on our water softeners where we will make sure everything is performing properly and check the seals and the spaces to make sure there’s no clogging and no wear," Dunphy adds. "You don’t want it to get to the point where there’s a leak or a seal fails."
How long do water softeners last?
The lifespan of a water softener is dependent on the longevity of the resin bed. "If a water softener is properly maintained, the resin should last 10 years," says Dunphy. "At that time the resin just becomes less efficient, so you just change the resin and you’re good to go. There might be some maintenance with the valves and such but properly maintained, it can last for as long as you maintain it." 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.
Is it safe to drink water from a water softener?
The short answer is 'Yes,' it is safe to drink water from a water softener for most people. Water softeners increase the level of sodium in your water, but not typically by an amount that will have an affect on your health. Still, several states and municipalities recommend that anyone with high blood pressure check with a doctor before installing a water softener. According to guidance released by the Minnesota Department of Health, people on a low-sodium diet should keep a separate, un-softened tap for cooking and drinking.
Is soft water damaging to copper pipes?
While it is sometimes held that the calcium carbonate scale that hard water deposits on the interior of pipes acts like a protective layer, there's no evidence for this claim. Water that has been completely demineralized and stripped of all total dissolved solids (known as TDS), can act as a corrosive, but that's not a water softener does, since it replaces calcium cations with sodium cations. Studies conducted by the Water Quality Association have concluded that water softeners do not contribute to the erosion of copper pipes.
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. Emma Phelps also contributed to this article by contacting Tim Dunphy, a water expert at Leaf Home Water Solutions. Dunphy provided insightful context for understanding how water softeners function as well as best practices for maintaining their systems.