6 Types of Water Softeners and How to Choose One

Setting Water Filter/Softener Control Timer
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Water softeners remove heavy minerals like calcium, iron, and magnesium from the water supply as it enters the home. Installing a water softener can make a great addition to any home by filtering hard water, and there are several different options with unique purposes. Some water softeners mount to the faucet, while others are hidden under the sink or even attached to your shower head. This handy product can improve your whole home's water quality (along with its taste and smell) or help you enjoy a shower without experiencing dry skin, dry hair, and filmy residue leftover from soap and shampoo.

However, before installing a water softener in your home, it's important to understand how water softeners work and the various types available. We'll break down the key differences between each softener to help you decide which type is appropriate for your needs.

Below, learn about six different types of water softeners and how to choose the right system for your home.

  • 01 of 06

    Salt-Based Water Softeners

    • Best for: Different home sizes and portable options

    A salt-based water softener can also be referred to as an ion exchange water softener, as it draws heavy minerals (like calcium and magnesium) into a resin within the softener, then releases sodium ions to complete the ion exchange process. Water passes through this filtration system into a separate tank once softened. While this method does add minimal amounts of salt to the water, the addition is relatively unnoticeable and the water content takes on a healthy state of neutrality that won't damage appliances, water fixtures, or your skin and hair.

    These systems are the most commonly used type of water softeners, and they come in a variety of sizes for a range of different homes. This includes small, portable salt-based softeners that are ideal for camping and RV 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. There are plenty of budget options, while high-end water softeners also exist in salt-based models. Typical prices range between $400 to $1,000, plus any optional installation costs. This type of softener should last between 10 and 15 years depending on maintenance by the owner and how often it's used.

    Pros
    • Whole-home system

    • Budget and high-end options for various home sizes

    • Last up to 15 years with proper maintenance

    Cons
    • Adds salt to the water

    • Resin needs to be changed regularly

    • Product life goes down with heavy use

  • 02 of 06

    Salt-Free Water Softeners

    • Best for: Softening water without added salt

    Salt-free water softeners utilize a template-assisted crystallization (TAC) system to neutralize the minerals in water, rather than the ion exchange process of salt-based softeners. If you don't like the idea of adding salt to your drinking water or you're looking for a system that is relatively maintenance-free, then a salt-free water softener is a good option to improve water quality. These softeners look similar to salt-based options, but 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 at about $500 to $3,000 and are expected to last about 10 years.

    Pros
    • No added salt in water

    • Significantly less maintenance than salt-based softeners

    • No mineral buildup

    Cons
    • Not as effective for households with high water use

    • Higher initial cost than salt-based softeners

    • Not recommended for very hard water

  • 03 of 06

    Dual-Tank Water Softeners

    • Best for: Homes with high water usage

    The main 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, dual-tank water softeners take up a lot of space and come with a hefty price tag (up to $6,000 or more), so they are really only necessary for large homes with high water consumption. Like standard salt-based water softeners, options with dual tanks should last between 10 and 15 years.

    Pros
    • Second tank offers higher volumes of softened water

    • Can accommodate households with high water consumption

    • Able to filter very hard water

    Cons
    • More expensive than standard salt-based softeners

    • Resin needs to be changed regularly

    • Require a lot of space

  • 04 of 06

    Magnetic Water Softeners

    • Best for: Smaller size and easy installation

    Magnetic water softeners work as water descalers, which reduce the scale deposits (mineral buildup) that water passes through in your home's plumbing system. These softeners neutralize 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.

    Tip

    Magnetic water softeners only temporarily change the chemical composition of the water rather than removing the minerals, so the water is only "softened" for a few days at a time.

    A full-size water softener doesn't always fit into a smaller home, as salt-based and salt-free systems can take up a lot of space. A magnetic water softener helps 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 are very affordable and can be plugged into an available power outlet. Some magnetic water softeners or descalers need to be hardwired into the home's electrical system. However, they do make a good budget option at $200 to $400 on average.

    Because of their simple installation process, plug-in magnetic softeners are a great option for renters that don't require permanent changes to the home (and can be brought to another home easily if you move in the future).

    Pros
    • More affordable than salt-based and TAC systems

    • Renter-friendly with easy installation

    • Small size doesn't require much space in the home

    Cons
    • Not actually proven to soften water

    • Doesn't remove minerals from water

    • Some options must be hardwired

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Reverse Osmosis Water Softeners

    • Best for: Under-sink water softening treatments

    Reverse osmosis water softeners use high pressure that forces water through a semipermeable membrane 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. Under-sink units usually consist of one to three cartriges that connect to your sink's water pipes inside the lower cabinet.

    This type of water softener also works to filter out contaminants from the water, instead of just treating the heavy minerals. Reverse osmosis systems can come at a high price of about $1,800, but some budget options are also available for around $100. These water softeners are relatively limited due to the point-of-use design. Like salt-based and TAC systems, reverse osmosis options should last between 10 and 15 years when maintained properly.

    Pros
    • Filters contaminants and minerals at the same time

    • Easy installation for under-sink units

    • Long product life with regular service

    Cons
    • Point-of-use; does not treat whole-home water system

    • Can be expensive

    • Uses more water than it produces

  • 06 of 06

    Shower Head Water Softeners

    • Best for: Shower water softening treatments

    Shower head water softeners are designed to remove minerals from shower heads by filtering the water as it passes through, typically in a salt-based design. This helps ensure the water you bathe 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, typically costing between $20 and $100 (though more luxury options are available). These softeners are easy to install and should last for several years, though they do have a cartridge filter that will need to be replaced about once every three months. Some products even come with extra features like vitamin fortifying filters and scented filters, though these additions aren't appealing to everyone.

    Pros
    • Removes minerals that dry out hair and skin during showers

    • Affordable

    • Long product life with regular service

    Cons
    • Point-of-use; does not treat whole-home water system

    • Filters must be replaced

    • Salt-based units add sodium to water; not ideal for all users

Choosing a Water Softener

Choosing the right water softener for your home can be a lengthy process, as it's important to weigh the different options and their purposes. Homes that use large amounts of water can benefit from salt-based systems with dual tanks, while average water use can make a single-tank system or TAC system more suitable.

If you don't need to treat your home's entire water system, consider adding water softeners to your shower heads and under your sinks. In many cases, this is the best solution for budget-friendly softened water (though the filters need to be changed at regular intervals). However, these options do not remove minerals before the water passes through your plumbing system, so older houses can benefit from whole-home systems that help prevent corrosion in pipes. If you're still unsure which type of water softener is best for your needs, it's helpful to consult a plumber for advice and recommendations based on your specific home.

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  1. How Much Does a Water Softener System Cost? HomeAdvisor.