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11 Best Water Softeners for Your Home

Water straight from the tap is a pretty amazing convenience that most of us take for granted. But over time, minerals and contaminants that naturally occur in the water supply can wreak havoc on your home’s water pipes.

Minerals in your tap water create scale, a substance that coats the inside of pipes and will eventually cause them to fail. You’ve undoubtedly seen hard water spots on your faucets and drain covers. That’s what scale does: it slowly builds over time until it ruins your plumbing (not to mention your appliances).

Water softeners are much different from water conditioners. Water softeners prevent scale from ever forming in the first place by completely removing minerals from the water supply. How does this magic happen, you ask? Through a chemical process that exchanges ions with the foreign particles flowing through your plumbing. Cool, right?

You don’t want to pitch out thousands of dollars to fix plumbing and appliances, do you? I didn’t think so. Take charge of your home’s health and install a water softener.

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How Do Water Softeners Work?

Have you ever before used a small, one-tap water filtration system like Pur or Brita? If so, you're familiar with the process already. A water softener doesn't employ physical media to filter out particulates, however.

Hard water is called that because it naturally contains minerals such as calcium and magnesium. Normal amounts of these minerals pose little to no danger to human consumption. However, if not effectively treated, all of those minerals will attach to plumbing.

The resulting material that attaches to the pipe walls is called scale. You've most likely seen it in the form of hard water stains on your faucets, drains, and especially inside your dishwasher.

Scale is very good at causing the premature demise of appliances like dishwashers and washing machines. Scale is especially good at ruining hot water heaters because the hotter the water, the worse scale can get.

In the case of tankless hot water heaters, the scale attaches directly to the heating element which may cause thousands of dollars in damage. Scale may lower your water pressure over time and do even worse in some cases.

If you've ever lived through a hot water heater fail, you'll understand why removing scale from your house systems is important. Water softeners are medium-sized appliances specifically designed to completely abolish the minerals coming in from your water source.

Water softeners use sodium to treat your water supply, typically in the form of large salt pellets. The salt is used to create a brine solution that rinses over a large number of plastic beads.

Each plastic bead is charged with a sodium ion through contact with the brine. Sodium ions are then exchanged with mineral ions as they flow through the system, removing the particulates from your water supply.

One potential challenge with this process is that, while your water will be free of mineral content, salt may be introduced into the water. The sodium content shouldn't be perceived in the taste or smell of the water, however it may be detected by some people with heightened sensitivities.

The water softener you choose most likely will need to be installed by a professional plumber. Now before you would-be handy people raise a fuss, understand that not only does the water softener need to be fit into your plumbing system, it also requires drainage.

Water softeners use a regeneration cycle to flush their systems periodically. The wastewater brine solution is flushed into city drain systems after use so will require a pro's touch to install.

Keep in mind that some communities don't allow water softeners because of the stress this process puts on municipal water treatment systems. Check with your local building and planning department just in case.

Is a Water Softener the Same as a Water Conditioner?

To reduce mineral deposits or eliminate them altogether, homeowners have two choices: water softeners and water conditioners. While they are similar, they actually work very differently.

Water softeners remove minerals and other materials by changing their chemistry by exchanging ions with particulates. This renders the minerals unable to attach to the inside of plumbing or appliance tubing.

You're most likely aware of the "slicker" feel of water in a location that uses a water softener. Soft water is quite good for not drying out skin and hair. It's also better to create more of a lather with soap and getting dishes and clothes cleaner.

Water softeners physically turn water from "hard" to "soft". This process is much different than how water conditioners work. Water conditioners do not take minerals out of the water. However, they do prevent scale from happening. 

Water conditioners feature cartridge filters with polymer beads with pits distributed over the surface. When minerals attempt to pass through the filter, they're caught in the pits.

Over time the minerals will fuse together into larger particles. Once that happens, they will be too large for the filter to contain them and will flow through the pipes.

Larger particulates don't attach to the insides of pipes like smaller ones do so this effectively reduces scale from your plumbing system to almost nothing. However, you'll still have contaminants in your H2O by using a water conditioner.

And since water conditioners use filtration media, you must replace the filter cartridges at least twice a year, if not more, depending on how much water your household typically consumes.

Water conditioners are easier to install than a water softener, don't use electricity, and don't require a drain for periodic system flushing. If you're not looking to take on a complicated plumbing job, a water conditioner might be your answer.

When Should I Use a Water Softener? 

Hard water contains dissolved minerals (and metals!) so if not treated, it will eventually create stains that are difficult to remove. You'll see them all throughout your bathroom and kitchen fixtures.

Vinegar and bleach both work wonders on stains like these however, you'll just have to clean them up again in the future without treating your water. Almost every home has some sort of hard water to deal with and using a water softener is important.

Soft water allows laundry detergent and soap to work more effectively. Chalky residue in your kitchen sink or washing machine is pretty gross. By using a water softener, this will become a thing of the past. Your clothes will last longer as well.

I wrote about hard water stains above. Does your showerhead or tub spigot have sport a scummy, beige, mold-like crust? Yeah, gotta love hard water. A water softener will stop that from happening after it's installed.

Heating hot water speeds up the scale process so the first appliance that may go south on you without a water softener is your water heater. Gas-fired models are less susceptible to this than electric ones.

But if you have a tankless water heater, you should immediately install a water softener in your home. Scale will form directly on the heating element as water flows by and could result in a very costly repair job or (gasp!) replacement.

Finally, soft water is much easier on your skin and hair. Minerals found in hard water can block your skin's pores and cause zits which, if you have teenagers, aren't awesome. If you live in a cold climate, this makes things even worse. While I can never get used to the feel of soft water, I definitely appreciate the difference it makes.

One last important thought: if your water comes from a well, water conditioners may not work for you because of the likelihood of minerals such as iron and manganese present. Iron is especially rough on filter media, rendering it useless to treat other minerals. Since water softeners work completely differently, they work great with well water.

See Also:

11 Best Water Conditioners

11 Best Water Descalers for Your Home

15 Best Gifts for Plumbers

11 Best Air Quality Monitors for Your Home