The purpose of a water softener is to remove heavy minerals, like calcium, iron, and magnesium, from the water supply as it enters the home. There are also showerhead and faucet-mounted softeners that only soften the water at a single source. But regardless of whether you are looking to improve the water quality (and water taste and smell) for the whole home or you just want to enjoy a shower without experiencing dry skin, dry hair, and filmy residue leftover from the soap and shampoo, a water softener is a great addition to any home.
However, before deciding to install a water softener in your home, it's important to understand the various types of water softeners, as well as the key differences between them, and when one type may be more appropriate than another. Take a look at this breakdown of six types of water softeners to get a better idea of the system you need for your home.
Salt-Based Water Softeners
A salt-based water softener can also be referred to as an ion exchange water softener, because it works by drawing heavy minerals, like calcium and magnesium, into a resin within the softener, then releasing sodium ions to complete the ion exchange process. While this method does add minimal amounts of salt to the water, this addition is relatively unnoticeable and the water content takes on a healthy state of neutrality that won't damage appliances, water fixtures, your skin, or your hair.
These systems are the most commonly used type of water softener and they come in a variety of sizes for a range of different homes, including small, portable salt-based softeners that are ideal for camping and RV road trips. However, it should be noted that there is a drawback to these systems beyond the addition of salt to the water. The resin needs to be regularly recharged, because the softener runs out of positively charged sodium ions to exchange for heavy minerals.
Choose either a metered system that automatically regenerates the water softener after a specific volume of water has passed through, or opt for a timed system that regenerates the sodium ions according to a set schedule instead of a metered volume of water.
Salt-Free Water Softeners
If you don't like the idea of adding salt to your drinking water or you are looking for a system that is relatively maintenance-free, then a salt-free water softener is a good option. These systems don't use an ion exchange process to remove heavy metals from the water. Instead, they utilize a template-assisted crystallization (TAC) system to neutralize the minerals. As water flows through the water softener, the heavy minerals attach to polymeric beads at microscopic nucleation sites.
The minerals stick to the sites and begin to form into crystals during a neutralization process that prevents the minerals from binding to anything as they pass through the water. When the minerals are neutralized, they detach from the sites and travel harmlessly through the water without causing mineral buildup or scaling. However, it should be noted that these systems may not be as effective when dealing with very high levels of hard water or households with a higher than average water usage. They also have a higher initial cost than salt-based water softeners.
Dual-Tank Water Softeners
The only real difference between a dual-tank water softener and a standard salt-based water softener is that there are two tanks, which makes it easier for the softener to manage a larger amount of heavy minerals, as well as a higher volume of water. These systems are designed with two resin tanks, allowing one tank to always remain functional, even while the other tank is going through a salt regeneration cycle. However, a dual-tank water softener takes up a lot of space and comes with a hefty price tag, so they are really only necessary for large homes with high water consumption.
Magnetic Water Softeners
A full-size water softener doesn't always fit into a smaller home, because salt-based and salt-free systems can take up a lot of space. A magnetic water softener helps to avoid this problem with a very compact size that simply straps onto the water pipe. You don't even need to cut into the water line to install these devices, though they do require a source of electricity. Most products can just be plugged into an available power outlet, but some magnetic water softeners or descalers need to be hardwired into the home's electrical system.
Instead of removing heavy minerals from the water, magnetic water softeners neutralize the heavy minerals by stripping the negative or positive ions with a magnetic field. Since the minerals are no longer negatively or positively charged, they do not bind to each other, allowing the minerals to remain entirely soluble in the water.
Reverse Osmosis Water Softeners
Reverse osmosis refers to the process of using high pressure to force water through a semipermeable membrane in order to filter minerals, metals, and nitrates from the water. These units are not typically made for whole-home water treatment, but they are popular systems for under-sink installation, giving you access to softened water at a single point. This type of water softener also works to filter out contaminants from the water, instead of just treating the heavy minerals. However, reverse osmosis systems come at a high price and are relatively limited in their use due to the point-of-use design.
Showerhead Water Softeners
Another point-of-use water softener type is the showerhead water softener, which is built right into the showerhead in order to ensure that the water you are bathing in doesn't contain heavy minerals that can dry out your hair and skin while making it difficult to rinse away soap and shampoo. This is an affordable option to enjoy the benefits of softened water in the shower without needing to install a whole-home water softening system. These softeners are easy to install, though they do have a cartridge filter that will need to be replaced about once every two months. Some products even come with extra features like vitamin fortifying filters and scented filters, though these additions aren't appealing to everyone.