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Your water hardness, or the amount of dissolved calcium and magnesium in your water, is dependent on where you live. An easy way to tell if your water is hard or soft is to wash your hands. If you feel a film of soap residue despite rinsing, you most likely have hard water.
Hard water impacts more than just the pipes and fixtures in your home. Excess amounts of the minerals in your water lead to limescale buildup on appliances and dishes. Thankfully, there are water softeners that remove heavy minerals and prevent them from the water flowing into your home. When it comes to finding the right one for your home, usability is a priority. That's why AFWFilters Fleck Water Softener System was selected as our best overall pick—it has a digital display that's easy to use and understand.
"The purpose of a water softener is to filter out the materials that make water hard. This means water softeners take out chlorine, heavy metals, mercury, and lead. Over time, these materials can damage your internal plumbing and external plumbing fixtures," says Nelson Salas, owner of Amigo Rooter and Plumbing and master plumber in Phoenix, Arizona. "When you see your shower head coated in white calcified material, that is an example of the damages of hard water. A water softener will prevent this buildup in your pipes, that if left alone, would crack your pipes and cause leaks. A water softener also helps your dishes stay cleaner when you run them through the dishwasher. The water softener prevents your dishes from getting white smudges on your glass left from hard water deposits."
"I recommend that everyone get a water softener, but I would recommend it even more if you live in an area with a reputation for having hard tap water,” says Salas.
To help you with your shopping decision, we’ve picked some of the best water softeners available for your needs.
Best Overall: AFWFilters Fleck 5600SXT Water Softener Whole House System
What We Love: Programmable flow meter, user-friendly digital interface, maintenance-free
What We Don't Love: Requires plumbing skills for install
The Fleck 5600SXT is perfect for small to medium-sized households of up to six people. This whole house system is an industry favorite that, with basic maintenance, can last for two decades. It's an easy-to-use, highly efficient water softener with a user-friendly digital display that is featured on many other popular water softener systems. Once installed, feed in the estimated water hardness and the date, and the water softener's control valve takes care of the rest.
"I recommend the Fleck 5600SXT because it is a low maintenance and long-lasting water softener that is high quality. Using the Fleck 56000SXT is easy — simply add salt every three weeks,” says Salas.
This water softener system is designed with 48,000 grain or 1.5 cubic feet of resin and the regeneration rate adjusts according to the usage of water in the house. The included brine tank can hold up to 250 pounds of salt so it only needs refills every couple of months. The system also has a built-in 48-hour backup system should your power go out. Installation is a straightforward process if you have basic plumbing skills, but the system does come with instruction videos to help you through the process.
Type: Salt-based | Grain Capacity: 48,000 | Regeneration Cycle: About 2 hours using 50 gallons of water
Best Budget: Aquasana Salt-Free Water Conditioner for Tankless Water Heaters
What We Love: Low maintenance, no salt needed, does not require electricity
What We Don't Love: 2-year filter lifespan
The Aquasana water conditioner protects and extends the life of your tankless water heater, appliances, and plumbing without the use of salt. The system uses its proprietary SCM technology to naturally inhibit scale buildup by transforming dissolved hard minerals into inactive microscopic crystal particles, which pass harmlessly through your water and down your drain.
The system does not use salt or require electricity to operate. It’s a simple system that attaches to your water lines and softens the water before making it to your faucet. The filters last about two years and replacements are available for an additional cost. It’s a low-maintenance device that only needs checking if you are near the end of the filter life.
Type: Salt-free | Flow Rate: 7 GPM
Best Electronic: iSpring ED2000 Whole House Electronic Descaler-Grain Water Softener
What We Love: Maintenance-free, energy-efficient, easy to install
What We Don't Love: Does not filter out minerals
The iSpring ED2000 descaler softens water without the use of salt or chemicals. It’s a computerized system where two thin coils of wire wrap around a home’s incoming water pipe to produce electromagnetic waves that keep hard minerals suspended in water. The system is technically a descaler and not a softener and does not remove hard minerals from the water. However, it prevents calcium and magnesium minerals from creating build-ups and scale deposits in your pipes.
Descalers are perfect for those on a budget, with limited space, or on a salt-restricted diet. The iSpring ED2000 is affordable and requires no plumbing skills for installation. It’s maintenance-free and will reduce white stains on fixtures and make showerheads less prone to clogging and allowing unimpeded water flow to appliances.
Type: Electromagnetic conditioners | Maximum Hardness Removal: 20 GPG
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Best for Well Water: AFWFilters Iron Pro 2 Water Softener Whole House System
What We Love: Programmable flow meter, user-friendly digital interface, maintenance-free
What We Don't Love: Large, expensive, hard to install
Most well-water is naturally hard and tends to have higher concentrations of iron and other minerals, plus sediment, which requires a special filter to be drinkable and prevent buildup in your water lines. It takes a heavy-duty water softener such as the Fleck Iron Pro 2 to filter and soften well water.
This softener comes with a user-friendly Fleck 5600SXT digital meter with the additional ability to remove iron from the water. It features a 64,000-grain special fine mesh resin that resists the damaging effects of both chlorine and iron and removes sediment like dirt and rust. The Fleck Iron Pro 2 is a pricey but solid performer that will transform the hardest water into clean, drinking water.
Type: Salt-based | Grain Capacity: 64,000 | Maximum Hardness Removal: 75 GPG | Regeneration Cycle: About 2 hours using 50 gallons of water
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Best Salt-Free: Pelican Water Whole House NaturSoft Water Softener Alternative System
What We Love: No salty taste, no electricity needed, maintenance-free
What We Don't Love: Expensive
For homeowners that dislike the salty taste from salt-based water softeners or don't want to use a salt-based system since they're on a sodium-restricted diet, Pelican’s NaturSoft Water Softener Alternative System is a good option. The system uses a 5-micron sediment filter to remove larger, unpleasant minerals while letting smaller beneficial ones through. It’s the only water softener alternative certified 99.9 percent effective.
The system requires no electricity to operate. The Pelican consists of a two-part filter: a sediment filter and a main, whole house filter, housed in sturdy plastic and stainless steel casing. The sediment filter should be replaced every 6 to 9 months, depending on the amount of sediment present in the water supply. It’s pricey, but it’s a reliable and effective softener that will remove most of the unwanted substances from water without chemicals.
Type: Salt-free | Flow Rate: 15 GPM | Maximum Hardness Removal: 75 GPG
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Best for Large Families: Abundant Flow Water 48K 9100sxt Water Softener System
What We Love: High levels of purification, low maintenance, user-friendly digital interface
What We Don't Love: Expensive
Large families use more water, of course. A water softener system designed for high water volumes will effectively soften hard water without sacrificing efficiency. The Abundant Flow features two 48,000-grain tanks and alternates between the two, allowing one tank to work while the other tank regenerates. The system creates a steady flow of water without interruption and prolongs the life of the system.
The Abundant Flow features Fleck’s 9100SXT Digital Control Head. This display makes it easy to adjust and monitor the system for high efficiency and consistent water treatment. The tank is an investment but processes extremely mineral-dense water and can handle high iron levels. It’s also a salt-based system with an accompanying brine tank that holds up to 300 pounds of salt.
Type: Salt-based | Grain Capacity: (2) 48,000 tanks
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Best Pellets: Morton Clean and Protect Plus Rust Defense Water Softener Pellets
What We Love: Prevents rust, scale, and mineral buildup, no harmful fillers, naturally harvested
What We Don't Love: Can be expensive, depending on usage
Salt pellets and crystals enhance the function of a water softener and have to be added to the system regularly. Crystals are recommended for households with lower than average water consumption or those who use a two-part water softening system. Pellets, on the other hand, are the better option for moderate to high volume water users and an all-in-one tank system.
Morton’s water softener pellets do not contain harmful chemicals or fillers that can damage your water softening system. The pellets contain only 100 percent sodium chloride. They are formulated to help prevent buildup in pipes and appliances and remove excess iron, giving you better-tasting water and reducing rust stains.
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A user-friendly digital interface, programmable regeneration cycles, and powerful enough to handle a four-person household make the AFWFilters Fleck 5600SXT Water Softener Whole House System (view at Amazon) our top pick. For those who want to go electronic and salt-free, the iSpring ED2000 Whole House Electronic Descaler-Grain Water Softener (view at Amazon) should fit your needs.
What to Look for When Buying a Water Softener
According to Brian Campbell, water expert and owner of Water Filter Guru, there are three main types of water softeners: Salt-based Ion exchange water softeners, salt-free water conditioners, and electromagnetic descalers.
"Traditional ion exchange water softeners completely eliminate hard water causing minerals (calcium & magnesium) from your water by replacing them with sodium ions," says Campbell. "Salt-free water conditioners alter the chemical structure of the minerals, rendering them unable to stick to each other or surfaces to form limescale. Electronic or magnetic descalers do not remove or alter the composition of the minerals, but rather pass them through an electromagnetic wave that alters the way they behave, preventing them from sticking to surfaces and forming scale."
Salt-based water softeners may be the most effective but you’ll have to add salt every few weeks. Salt-free options have the advantage of being more low-maintenance and they don’t add a salty taste to your water.
The grain capacity of a water softener refers to the hardness of minerals in the water. You should base the grain capacity of your water softener on the number of people living in your household and the water hardness. Generally, a grain capacity of 48,000 is more than enough for small families or households with softer water. Depending on your household, you may need a water softener with a grain capacity of up to 110,000.
Water softener regeneration refers to the process of flushing out minerals from hard water and continuing to soften new water. At the least, your water softener should regenerate every two to three days. Some may regenerate more frequently, such as daily or multiple times per day. The length of the regeneration process varies per water softener but usually takes around two hours. During this time, it’s not recommended to use water as it will be hard water.
How big of a water softener do you need?
To determine the right size water softener for your household, you’ll need to do a little math. Multiply the number of people in your household by the amount of gallons of water they use each day. If you’re unsure, 75 gallons is a safe approximation. Multiple that number by the grains of hardness in your water. This will give you the grain capacity that you need to look for in a water softener. If you’re unsure of the grains of hardness in your home’s water, there are tests you can use to get this information.
Do you need to clean a water softener system?
Cleaning instructions may vary per water softener system. Refer to the system’s manual for accurate cleaning instructions. Generally, there will be a buildup that you may need to clean about once per month when you refill the tank.
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Debbie Wolfe is a freelance writer and an online shopping pro who spends hours researching and comparing household goods, so you don’t have to. She’s the proud owner of countless household appliances and can help you pick the right one no matter what your needs.
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Yarows SA, Fusilier WE, Weder AB. Sodium concentration of water from softeners. Arch Intern Med. 1997;157(2):218-222.