The Different Types of Water Softeners: Pros & Cons & How They Work

by Jay | Last Updated:  Last updated on October 22nd, 2022,

The regular water supply we receive in our homes and use daily is mostly hard water. This means hard mineral deposits in the water still flow through your plumbing. Soft water has many advantages compared to hard water, which is why water softeners are used.


However, many kinds of water softeners are available in the market, and they all operate differently. Therefore, there is always something that fits your needs. In the following text, we will narrow down these kinds of water softeners and briefly explain their advantages and disadvantages to help you make a decision. 

What is a water softener?

Before we get into more details, let us first clarify what a water softener is for. These are products that convert hard water to soft water. Hard water is filled with mineral deposits like calcium deposits, magnesium carbonate, and manganese. Several indicators tell you you are using hard water.

If your soaps and shampoos do not lather much, your dishes and utensils have dark spots, dark rings on the bathtub, slight stains on your laundry, scale deposits in your kettles – these are just some clear signs that you have hard water circulating in your pipes. You may want to start thinking about getting a water softener. 

These mineral deposits in hard water are not necessarily harmful to the health, but there can be long-term damages to your plumbing and appliances that will cause you hassle in the future. Based on the US Geological Survey, around 85% of American households experience problems related to hard water.

Problems posed by Hard Water

As we said before, hard water is not a public health threat, but it could become a problem in the future. Your plumbing system and the appliances that use water are the ones most at risk. And you will only experience these problems in the future after too much exposure to hard water. This is because mineral deposits in hard water tend to crystallize and form in the presence of heat.

As the residue builds up, it could cause clogging in your pipings, and the internal circuitry of your appliances like the dishwasher, washing machine, coffee machine, and water heating systems will malfunction.

In addition, the efficiency of water heaters decreases by 22 to 30 percent if there is hard water residue, based on a study by the Water Quality Research Council at New Mexico State University. 

These hassles, if left unresolved, will disrupt your daily tasks like cooking, bathing, cleaning, and doing laundry. In addition, soaps, shampoos, and other cleaning agents lose some of their lathering factors when reacting with calcium and magnesium deposits. As a result, you will be forced to apply more of the product, which is a wasteful practice.

As these deposits accumulate on surfaces, they also leave a stain that commonly appears on bathtubs and tiles, dark spots on plates, and residue on other kitchenware. Other minerals like iron and manganese can also affect appearance, odor, and taste. 

As for the health aspect, although it is not very common, hard water can cause rashes and other problems, especially for people with overly sensitive skin. This is because the foreign substances in hard water alter the normal pH of the skin and can block the pores. 

Benefits of having soft water

There are a lot of advantages to using soft water, not just for your health but for the overall household expenses as well. To produce soft water, you will need a water softener. So here are several reasons why it would be a good investment:

  • Everything that soft water touches, it softens. That goes for the skin and hair when you take a bath and your clothes when you do your laundry. Regular use of soft water will improve the condition of the fabric of your clothes.
  • Extend the life of your appliances. If they are kept in good condition, they will most likely function longer. 
  • In addition to the longer lifespan, appliances tend to consume less energy when functioning well. It’s not exactly a benefit that is immediately noticeable, but in the long run, you will realize it’s worth it. 
  • Lesser consumption of soaps and detergents. Hard water renders these products less efficient by decreasing the lather factor. Meanwhile, soft water does the opposite, so the benefit there is that it would take a long time before you run out of these products. Therefore, you do not need to purchase them frequently. 
  • Keeps surfaces clean and residue-free. Soft water does not create stains on plain surfaces and does not leave scale residues on kitchenware. 

Want to know the difference between hard water and soft water?

The different types of water softeners

1. Salt-based (Ion Exchange) Water Softeners

This is the conventional type of water softener commonly used in many households. Salt-based softeners can circulate soft water throughout the house with high flow rates. It works by entrapping the calcium and magnesium ions in a resin and releasing sodium ions.

Hence the term ‘ion-exchange.’ The resin can be refueled with salt to provide more sodium ions when the supply is running low. This usually needs to be done once every week.

The sole function of this method is to get rid of the hard water deposits but not a complete filtration that includes chemicals and bacteria. The ion resin typically lasts for a couple of years, and replacement does not cost much, making this system one of the most budget-friendly. 

Pros:

  • Complete removal of hard water mineral deposits
  • Long-lasting

Cons:

  • It needs to be maintained weekly
  • It consumes a lot of salt

2. Salt-free Water Softeners

This system takes the weekly refill task off your shoulders since it does not use salt to operate. The minerals do not get removed from the water, but they are chemically altered, so they do not solidify and can no longer stick to surfaces where the water flows. 

Salt-free systems initially cost more, but you do not need to worry about any more future purchases since they do not use salt nor need regular refills. They are also more compact and do not have other special equipment for draining. It also has a filtration feature consisting of multiple stages that can remove other foreign substances and bacteria in the water. 

Pros:

  • It does not require maintenance
  • It does not need sodium salts
  • It can also get rid of other water content

Cons:

  • Costly at first
  • Mineral deposits are not 100% removed

3. Portable water softeners

Soft water on the go. That is the ultimate feature of this system. This works great for people on the go, such as those who live in travel trailers or mobile homes. It does not run on electricity, and there is quite a long interval between salt refills. It also does not cost much to regenerate because regular table salt will suffice, and no other special tools are needed.

The water flow may not be as abundant as that of a regular-sized system. Still, it is enough to supply a single bathroom and provide clean drinking water for a group of people, making it slightly cheaper than the water softeners used for an actual household. 

Pros:

  • Portable and compact
  • Perfect for travel and mobile living

Cons:

  • Water flow is limited
  • Salt-based

4. Showerhead Water Softeners

Some people cannot afford to invest in regular household softeners. Also, they may not have that much of a need for it. Showerhead softeners are cheaper if you only want a soft water supply in your bathroom for bathing and to avoid the hard water stains on your bathtub and tiles.

Soft water for showering or bathing has a good effect on your hair and skin by making them softer and smoother. In addition, you won’t consume a lot of soap because soft water does not affect the lather. 

Installation is pretty easy. You just have to replace the old showerhead and attach the softener. It works by filtering out the mineral deposits. The cartridge filter has to be replaced every two months. There are also showerhead softeners with vitamin filters that provide vitamins to your water. However, they might come with other additives like scents that may not work well for you. 

Pros:

  • Affordable
  • Easy to install

Cons:

  • Soft water supply is limited only to the shower
  • It may contain other undesirable additives 

5. Reverse Osmosis Water Softeners

This kind of system is not mainly for water softening, but the way it operates removes foreign matter and other chemicals in the water. Reverse osmosis subjects water to a complex filtration process through an osmotic membrane and can also incorporate other healthy minerals, so it is still safe for drinking.

They are usually installed under sinks and have their faucet so you can have soft water directly from the tap. There are more filters through which the water also goes that guarantees maximum removal of impurities. 

Pros:

  • Readily available drinking water if added with minerals
  • Unlimited soft water directly from the tap

Cons:

  • Limited only to one faucet
  • Quite costly

6. Magnetic Water Softeners

This type of water softener operates differently compared to traditional systems. It works similarly to salt-free softeners by preventing them from solidifying. However, it is not widely used since it is still new on the market.

Magnetic softeners are also more affordable and easier to install than regular ones but still offer the same benefits. Installation is hassle-free. You only need to attach the magnets around the existing pipes. The magnetic field will modify the water that flows through the pipes. However, you will need to plug this system into an outlet for it to function.

Pros:

  • Affordable
  • Hassle-free installation
  • Pipe cutting is not needed

Cons:

  • Neutralization only of hard water deposits, not removal
  • Requires electrical power

7. Template-assisted Crystallization

Now we are on to one of the controversial water softening systems available today. Template-assisted crystallization is the method that works best with FilterSmart systems. According to a third-party research study, it operates like electromagnetic systems but also shows promise in reducing scale residue buildup. 

More detailedly, crystallization occurs in a molecular sense in which the calcium and magnesium elements react with catalytic beads and are chemically altered.

Hence, they lose their tendency to precipitate and react to soaps. What happens is that instead of on the surfaces, the residue sticks to the resin. So the resulting water flow is free from the larger particles that form limescale residue. 

Click here to find out more about our available TAC water softening systems. 

8. Dual-tank Softeners

This kind of system works either via ion exchange or the TAC method. It operates 24/7 and is designed to supply big households, industrial facilities, or large establishments that need a consistent flow of soft water.

Single-tank softeners are rendered unusable during regeneration. In this system, another available tank is ready for use whenever one undergoes regeneration. That way, the supply is never cut off. 

For TAC, there may be more demand in flow and more foreign matter to be removed from your water. You can also opt to filter the chlorine and put in additives to make the water taste better. Dual tanks are also referred to as “combination” or twin tank systems, and they are in demand on the market. Have a look at our dual tank softeners available. 

What to consider in dual tank softeners 

Space is the number one factor you must keep in mind when on the market for a dual tank. It must be near the main inbound water pipeline to supply the whole house or building. In addition, there must be a drain for backwashing, and if the unit needs an electric source, there should be an outlet near it. Learn more about the proper placement of water softeners here.

You should also note a certification issued by the NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) and a warranty on crucial parts like the mineral tank for 10 years and the control valve, which is 3 years. Water softeners generally last an average of 20 years. 

Regenerating Water Softeners in 3 Different Ways

You can regenerate water softeners using a meter, a timer, or manual means. 

1. Meter Regeneration

This is the most common and widely used kind of regeneration method. It works by regulating the amount of water consumption. When the meter is set, it will then estimate how much water is consumed and the hardness of the water supply. 

2. Timer Regeneration

It has a specific time interval in between regeneration processes. You schedule the frequency of regeneration. This kind is more affordable than meter systems but tends to consume more salts.

3. Manual Regeneration

You call the shots here. You choose when you want to regenerate your water softener, which means you also have to be the one to monitor. This method is the cheapest and most efficient and is advisable for small-scale water softening systems. 

A Guide to Picking your Water Softener

This part will give you some surefire tips and advice from experts before you make that purchase. We will also compare the types of softeners that have already been listed. So if you want to know what you need to consider before buying, you’re in the right place. 

Here are some ideas to help you narrow your choices and select the best water softener that fits your needs. The following is your research guide slash criteria for your next water softener shopping trip. 

  1. First, you must decide if you want a single or dual softener. If you ask us, we recommend getting a dual tank since it’s cheaper and the parts are safely separated. The electronic parts are at a safe distance from the tank that holds the salt solution. A 2-piece softener is a better choice if you have suitable space.  
  2. For a small household or building, a single unit can be enough. Do not just think about the space it will take up but consider the workload it can carry out. Single units consume less salt but also supply less water. It might be enough for those living alone or with a partner or small family. 
  3. Brandless parts are the way to go. Do not be deceived by fancy brands. Though they hold a reputation for outstanding quality, their parts are made uniquely so that consumers would still go to them for repairs and replacements. In addition, it would be best if the unit you buy is made of parts that can be bought in local hardware stores so that you won’t have to rely entirely on the brand to provide maintenance and repair services after a long time. 
  4. Trust the legends. Pick brands that have already been in the business for a long time. Chances are,  they have already resolved most of the consumer problems encountered. Go for manufacturers with good reviews and positive feedback from customers.
  5. Get it from a good source, preferably locally. Local suppliers have an idea of the type of water in your community and could give you an idea of what works well for your home. In addition, they can better explain the technicalities of having a water softener, and you can voice your concerns and ask questions before finally making the purchase. 
  6. Find a smaller version of an industrial water softener. This kind of system is built for heavy-duty workloads, which means they are sturdy, long-lasting, and usually have high capacity.
  7. Low maintenance remains a wise choice to this day. You want to ensure that your softener, as much as possible, does not require any special tools to be maintained or to have one component repaired. 

What features to look for

The following guide will tell you the most important features of water softeners that you have to bear in mind to make an informed decision about what unit suits your needs. 

Capacity

If you are aiming to buy a salt-based water softener, then the first thing you should consider is the resin capacity. Next, you need to estimate the amount of water you consume daily, depending on the number of people in your household.

A bigger resin capacity also means you do not need to regenerate frequently. The lowest capacity starts at 16000 to 96000, usually for dual tanks. Some softeners do well with iron-rich water from deep wells. Look at the resin content in the brine tank because that also determines the amount of salt it will consume. 

Available Area

Check the space around your main inbound water line. You cannot go for an extensive water softening system in a small area. However, middle-of-the-pack softeners usually work fine for many households, so dual tanks consisting of an iron tank and brine tank might suffice. Ensure that you are informed of the essential details, such as the dimensions and measurements of the unit. You can look up this information online.

Bypass Valve

Under circumstances where you do not need a supply of soft water. The bypass valve somehow passes the water through the system without passing the softener itself. Therefore, the valve must be easy to locate and operate.

Look up the brand Fleck – they are a brand that specializes in manufacturing components for water softeners. For example, bypass valves typically have two red arrows, and they need to be pulled together to redirect the water and not make it go through the softener. 

Regeneration Setting

We have tackled this before about the mode of regeneration for water softeners. You can have a metered or timed regeneration. For the former, it will monitor the amount of water consumed and then regenerate when it reaches a specific level you set.

On the other hand, the latter has a predefined schedule for when it will regenerate, depending on your estimated usage on a timely basis. However, you need an accurate estimation for these regenerations with a preset. Otherwise, you will have a shortage if the supply runs out of schedule or if there is still a lot left because not much was consumed. 

Best water softener brands

The following are some comments and reviews on some widely used water softener brands. 

SpringWell Futuresoft Salt-free Water Softener

This brand is undoubtedly one of the most renowned in the water softening industry. SpringWell Futuresoft makes salt-based and salt-free systems that are proven more efficient and well-functioning than other brands because they have their exclusive media that’s unlike any other.

FutureSoft uses a template-assisted crystallization process for water softening. This method works well for the hair, skin, clothes, and appliances that use water. In terms of maintenance, you only have to change the filter once a year!

The unit already comes packaged with all essential parts, including a bypass valve and a lifetime warranty. In addition, we strongly recommend availing of their Whole House Water Filtration System, so you have the entire SpringWell care.

Filtersmart Whole House Water Filter & Salt-free Softener

Filtersmart Whole House Water Filter System & Salt Free Water Softener Combo, Filters Chlorine &...
  • GET THE HEALTHIER OPTION: Enjoy softer skin and hair. We use all natural coconut shell carbon for fresh,...
  • BETTER THAN BOTTLED: Get clean, delicious water at every tap without the waste created by plastic bottles. Our...
  • ECO-FRIENDLY: No more single-use plastic bottles. Get the smarter, more environmentally-friendly option that wastes...

If you are looking for great value for your money, then you will love the 2-in-1 combo by Filtersmart. This system is a filtration system for the entire house, along with a water softener. It operates via a unique carbon media consisting of coconut shells. This Jacobi-activated carbon lasts for several years and can filter as much as 1 million gallons of water.

The water softener is also of very high quality. It has the power to modify water molecules down to the microscopic level. While it may not remove the calcium and magnesium deposits that compose the hard water, it prevents them from forming the scale residue that often causes buildup. It does not convert hard water to soft water but changes the chemical characteristic that is the root cause of many hard water problems.

The system is designed for an entire household, so you can ensure that every part of your home is supplied with purified and filtered water. The only flaw is that there may still be other foreign matter in the water. Nonetheless, the lifetime warranty and the overall quality of the product make every penny worth it. 

SoftPro Elite High-efficiency Water Softener

SoftPro Elite Plus High Efficiency 64,000 Grain water softener and filter whole house system using...
  • ★ SALT AND WASTE WATER SAVINGS - High Efficiency Water Softener System Saves Up To 75% On Salt And 64% On Waste...
  • ★ CHLORINE REMOVAL FILTER - Mediaguard KDF 55 Whole House Filtration Built In To System
  • ★ NEWLY UPGRADED Water Softener Media- 10% Cross-linked Resin for longer life. 10% Crosslink resin is more...

This is the modern system for the whole house with added technological features fitting for the new age. SoftPro Elite is a heavy-duty unit equipped with an easy-to-use LCD control screen that is simple to operate along with a broad range of grain capacities.

You can set modes according to your preference, which is also a low-maintenance unit. The system and the valves both have separate warranties. You can choose to soften, purify, and also make your water alkaline depending on the kind of filter you pick. In addition, it can eliminate other foreign matter such as chlorine, heavy metal deposits, herbicides, and other additives.

Installation is not a hassle, and the unit already has a pre-installed resin. You can rely on this product to last for several years with minimal maintenance. It works for households with large consumption but less spare time. 

Pelican Advantage Series Salt Water Softener

Pentair Pelican NS6-P Water Softener Alternative with Natursoft Salt-Free Technology, Softens Water...
  • Prevents hard water scale in plumbing and appliances while keeping beneficial minerals
  • Simple installation; system comes ready to install inside or outside (in non-freezing climates)
  • Premium Stainless Steel Exterior ensures long life, durability and unsurpassed quality

This is your typical water softener that uses a resin tank. The electronic head, which is also quite simple to operate, has a lifetime warranty, while the rest of the system only has a 7-year warranty. In addition, the electronic head has three different modes that you can choose from. 

The product also has a double backwash feature that allows you to conduct optimal regeneration cycles up to 36. In the case of a power outage, the backup battery can power the system for up to eight hours. There is a bypass valve that comes with the unit. 

Pros: 

  • Easy installation and maintenance
  • Strong water pressure
  • Regular regeneration
  • Customizable modes

Cons:

  • Might not be able to handle overly hard water

iSpring ED2000 Whole House Electronic Descaler

Sale
iSpring ED2000 Whole House Water Descaler, Alternative Electronic Salt-Free Hard Water Conditioner,...
1,590 Reviews
iSpring ED2000 Whole House Water Descaler, Alternative Electronic Salt-Free Hard Water Conditioner,...
  • [Improve Water Quality] Solves hard water problems without the need for chemicals, salt, or maintenance, while...
  • [Reliable Descaler] Descales your entire water system and prevents scale buildup in pipes. Reduces energy...
  • [Environmental Friendly] Designed for very hard water areas (10-19 grains per gallon). Saves energy and extends the...

At a reasonable price, the iSpring ED2000 already offers a lot of value. However, its unique mode of operation makes it stand out from other regular systems. It is run by a computer chip that transmits electromagnetic waves and stops the solidification that leads to build-up. 

It does not make the water soft, per se. It only lessens the risk of residue accumulation. This is because mineral deposits like calcium and magnesium are still present. 

It is simple to install in the main inbound pipeline and is compatible with various pipe materials like PEX, copper, and CPVC in any position.

Pros:

  • Lifetime service warranty, especially for the computer technology
  • Retains the good minerals
  • Does not mix sodium in your water
  • ISO 9000 Quality Standard Certification

Cons:

  • It may not be as efficient if the water has high iron content. Therefore, a filter specific for iron removal may be necessary.
  • It needs an electrical supply and therefore cannot be placed just anywhere

A DIY Water Softener Installation Guide

Almost all house filtration systems are installed the same way. However, installing water softeners specifically can require some extra help. If you are not adept or technically knowledgeable about it, it is best to seek the assistance of an expert. Regardless, here are some basic instructions to help you out. 

  • Turn off the main water supply and find the inbound pipe. This is usually found in the garage or basement.
  • Cut the pipes that run between the water meter and before it goes into the house. 
  • Place your pipe connection along with the 3 valves – two valves prevent water from coming in and out of the softener itself, and the third valve is the bypass valve. 
  • Ensure proper placement and attachments. For example, you might need a soldering iron.
  • Use a ⅜ plastic tubing to connect the media tank to the brine tank.
  • Use a hose clamp to connect the drain line to the drain elbow. 
  • Finally, attach the discharge pipe to the wastewater drain.

Conclusion

All in all, there are six kinds of water softeners that we included in this post. You can choose from the variety of ways they operate and whether they can accommodate the entire house or only one showerhead or faucet. To recap:

  • Ion-exchange softeners replace calcium and magnesium with sodium ions.
  • Salt-free systems chemically alter the minerals’ tendency to precipitate and form scale residue. 
  • Portable softeners can be carried anywhere and attached to many water sources without a power source.
  • Showerhead softeners provide soft water only for a single showerhead, giving you soft water for use during baths, and there is less formation of stains on tile surfaces.
  • Reverse osmosis subjects the water through an osmotic membrane that supplies it with other minerals to make it drinkable and, simultaneously, removes hard water mineral deposits.
  • Lastly, magnetic water softeners can be attached to the pipe and will electromagnetically modify the flowing water, changing the chemical composition of the ions present.

Water softeners can fulfill your need for soft water, soft skin, and hair, or not worry about stains on your tile surfaces. It can be a good investment for your household and benefit your lifestyle.

If you click on the Amazon link or Add to Cart and make a purchase, we earn a commission at no additional cost to you. Last Update: 2022-12-05

Jay

Self assessed Germaphobe, specializing in everything water, water filters, health and nutrition. Diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, I've acquired immense amount of knowledge when it comes to natural, biology, and everything about human anatomy.