The Best Water Softeners of 2021

Keep your appliances functioning and your plumbing free of mineral build-up with a water softener.

By Timothy Dale | Updated Nov 25, 2021 10:52 AM

BobVila.com and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links.

Best Water Softener Systems

Photo: depositphotos.com

A water softener system has removes heavy minerals like calcium, iron, and magnesium from the water supply coming into your home, RV, or point-of-use sites, improving drinking water and reducing water hardness. If you have any common symptoms of hard water⁠—including a chalky film on dishes after washing, mineral deposits and scale buildup on water faucets and shower heads, and health effects like dry skin and hair after showering⁠—you may benefit from installing such a system at home.

The best water softeners work by either drawing heavy minerals out of the water using a process called ion exchange or by neutralizing these minerals so that they are unable to bind together and remain soluble in the water. The products below represent some of the best water softeners available in their respective categories.

  1. BEST OVERALL: Whirlpool WHES40E 40,000 Grain Water Softener
  2. BEST BUDGET: Waterboss 36,400-Grain Water Softener System
  3. UPGRADE PICK: DuraWater 64k-56sxt-10al 64,000 Grain Water Softener
  4. BEST SALT-BASED: Rheem Preferred 32,000 Grain Water Softener
  5. BEST PORTABLE: On The Go Portable 16,000 Grain RV Water Softener
  6. BEST HEAVY-DUTY: Pelican Water 80,000 Grain Heavy Duty Water Softener
  7. BEST FOR WELL WATER: Aquasure Harmony Series 48,000 Grains Water Softener
  8. BEST ALTERNATIVE: iSpring ED2000 Whole House Electronic Descaler
Best Water Softener Systems

Photo: homedepot.com

Types of Water Softeners

There are four main types of water softeners: salt-based, salt-free, dual-tank, and magnetic water softeners. One of the most popular and effective is a salt-based softener.

Salt-Based Water Softeners

Salt-based water softeners are the most commonly used systems. They come in a variety of sizes and are appropriate for just about every dwelling, from RVs to mansions. The cost of a good water softener generally falls between the affordable magnetic units and the pricier salt-free options.

A salt-based water softener typically works through an ion exchange system in which heavy minerals in your water, like calcium and magnesium, are drawn into a resin within the softener and then exchanged for sodium ions (salt). These softeners altogether remove the heavy minerals from the water to return your water to a healthy state of neutrality that won’t damage your appliances, faucets, or skin. While they do add salt to the water, it is such a small amount that it frequently goes unnoticed.

The downside to these softeners is that the positively charged sodium ions in the resin do run out, and the resin then needs to be recharged with water softener salt. For most homes, this will need to be done about once a week. These water softeners are also much larger than salt-free or magnetic softeners, making them not the best choice for smaller spaces.

Salt-Free Water Softeners

As indicated by their name, salt-free water softeners don’t use salt to remove heavy minerals from your water; in fact, they don’t remove the heavy deposits at all. Salt-free softeners have something called a template assisted crystallization (TAC) system using polymeric beads that hold microscopic nucleation sites.

When heavy minerals attach to the sites, they begin to form into crystals through a neutralization process. Once established, the crystals detach and do not bond to anything, preventing mineral buildup and scaling from hard water.

Salt-free water softeners tend to cost more initially but last for around 3 years without electricity or recharging required. These models are also smaller than salt-based systems, so they can be used for small- to large-size houses without issue. However, they may struggle with very high levels of hard water and households with higher than average water usage.

Dual-Tank Water Softeners

A dual-tank water softener is a salt-based softener with two resin tanks. This style is the best water softener for well water due to its impressive ability to filter heavy minerals. These tanks function in the same way as a single-tank salt-based softener, except that when one tank is in the regeneration cycle, the other tank is still providing softened water to the household.

Dual-tank softeners aren’t necessary for most homes, and due to their size, they can be challenging to install. They also carry a higher price tag than the other styles and do need to be recharged. However, a dual-tank water softener can handle more water per regeneration cycle and never run out of softened water.

Magnetic Water Softeners

Magnetic or electric water softeners are great for small spaces, as they sit on your water pipe and take up almost no space at all. You don’t need to cut into the water line to use them, but certain models do have to be wired into your home’s electrical system. However, once installed, you will have the best electronic water softener available without having to worry about accidentally pulling the plug.

These water softeners do not remove heavy minerals from the water. Instead, they work by using a magnetic field to strip negative or positive ions from heavy minerals to neutralize them. Once they are no longer positively or negatively charged, the minerals cannot bond to each other. Instead, they remain entirely soluble in the water.

If you are looking for an affordable solution to light or moderate hard water issues and don’t mind dealing with an electric system connection, then magnetic water softeners are the best option.

What to Consider When Choosing the Best Water Softener

Before choosing a house water softener, take a few minutes to educate yourself on the most important shopping considerations to keep in mind.

Capacity

Water hardness or softness is measured using grains per gallon (gpg), where one grain is equal to 0.002 ounces of calcium carbonate dissolved in 1 gallon of water.

  • 0–3 gpg is considered soft water.
  • 3.5–7 gpg is considered moderate and ideal.
  • >7.5 gpg is regarded as hard water, and you should treat it with a water softener.

A water softener’s capacity is the measurement of grains per week that the unit can handle before needing to be replenished.

Small water softeners come with weekly grain capacities of 16,000, 24,000, and 32,000. These are ideal for RVs, apartments, and small houses. Medium water softeners have grain capacities of 40,000, 48,000, and 64,000.

Use these models for medium to large households. For big families and large properties, a residential water softener with a grain capacity of 80,000 or 100,000 would be most appropriate.

Keep in mind that the harder your water is, the more grains the system will need to handle. A 40,000-grain system would operate very differently with 3 gpg water running through it than if it had 10 gpg water to manage.

Available Area

Salt-based, dual-tank, and even some salt-free water softeners can take up a lot of space. You will need to measure the area where the water softener will be installed and compare it to the manufacturer’s installation specifications if you are concerned about space. These are best for medium to large homes.

Most salt-free water softeners are smaller than the salt-based models. They are installed directly on the waterline and hang down only 1 or 2 feet, depending on the brand. This style is suitable for small, medium, or large homes. Similar in size to the salt-free softeners, portable salt-based water softeners are an alternative option for small homes or RVs that prefer a salt-based model to remove heavy metals entirely.

Magnetic water softeners take up the least amount of space, and you can install them without cutting into your plumbing. Typically, these smaller softeners can be mounted directly on the pipe and do not interfere with your floor space. These softeners are the best option to save space in smaller homes, RVs, or apartments.

Bypass Valve

A valve controls the flow of water through a pipe, closing, or opening when necessary. A bypass valve works in the same way as a regular valve, but its purpose, when used with a water softener, is to divert the flow of water away from the softener, giving you access to the hard water running into the home.

If you have just purchased a water softener, this feature may seem pointless. However, a bypass valve can save you time and money by preventing your water softener from using excess salt or energy to soften the water used for watering the lawn or washing the deck.

For those purposes, you can use the bypass valve to divert the flow of water around the softener and back into your pipes. Once completed, just close the bypass valve and restore the flow of water through your softener.

Regeneration Cycles

Salt-based water softeners must be regenerated or refreshed when their salt content runs out. This can be regulated using a metered system or with a timed system.

  • Metered water softeners work by counting the gallons of water that pass through the water softener and automatically regenerating when necessary. This system is great for vacation homes or cottages with long periods of disuse because the system will only regenerate when it has to.
  • Timed water softeners are set to automatically regenerate the salt within the softener at a designated time. These softeners allow for more control over the scheduled regeneration but will use more salt than necessary if the regeneration intervals are too short. This system could also result in hard water passing through the pipes if the regeneration intervals are too long.

Our Top Picks

The following water softener system reviews highlight some of the most reliable products in their respective categories.

Best Overall

BestWaterSoftenerWhirlpoolWHES40E40,000GrainWaterSoftener
Photo: amazon.com

Don’t continue to replace faucets, dishwashers, and other water-based fixtures or appliances due to the premature wear and tear caused by hard water. Install this single-tank salt-based water softener by Whirlpool and immediately improve the quality of the water by removing hard minerals from the water flowing into the home.

By treating the problem at the source, the rest of the plumbing isn’t exposed to the hard water. Keep in mind, however, that a small amount of salt is added to the water during the ion exchange process, and the salt levels must be regularly refilled. This water softener has a capacity of 40,000 grains, and it recharges automatically using a metered system.

Product Specs

  • Type: Salt-based water softener
  • Capacity: 40,000 grain
  • Dimensions: 19 inches by 18 inches by 47.9 inches

Pros

  • Metered system automatically regenerates salt only when necessary
  • Suitable for large households of up to six people
  • Built-in low salt indicator

Cons

  • Adds salt to the system and must be refilled regularly

Best Budget

BestWaterSoftenerWaterboss36,400-GrainWaterSoftenerSystem
Photo: homedepot.com

With the Waterboss water softener, users won’t have to worry about waiting over an hour for the system to regenerate because this water softener can regenerate in just 20 minutes, saving time and water. The affordable single-tank salt-based water softener has a capacity of 36,400 grains, and it’s a suitable option for households with three or four people.

This is one of the best water softener systems you can buy at an affordable price, making it an attractive solution for hard water problems in average-size homes. It comes with both a factory-installed bypass and a built-in safety shut-off system, making it easier to safely clean the water softener. Just keep in mind that the softener does add salt to the water and the salt does need to be refilled regularly.

Product Specs

  • Type: Salt-based water softener
  • Capacity: 36,400 grain
  • Dimensions: 18.75 inches by 14.75 inches by 30.75 inches

Pros

  • Built-in safety shut-off system
  • Factory-installed bypass
  • Rapid regeneration process reduces water consumption
  • Affordable price for households with three or four people

Cons

  • Salt must be refilled as necessary

Upgrade Pick

BestWaterSoftenerDuraWater
Photo: amazon.com

Despite the premium price of this 64,000-grain-capacity water softener, it is an excellent investment for a large household. The salt-based water softener removes magnesium, calcium, and even traces of iron to protect your pipes, clothing, and hair from hard water.

A digital LCD screen with touch pad controls the water softener, allowing you to customize the metered regeneration system to suit your weekly schedule. The display can also be used to view error codes for helpful troubleshooting. The unit weighs 140 pounds and includes a bypass valve and an installation tutorial for handy DIYers.

Product Specs

  • Type: Dual-tank salt-based water softener
  • Capacity: 64,000 grain
  • Dimensions: Softener tank: 12 by 12 by 52 inches; salt tank: 14 by 14 by 40 inches

Pros

  • Save water and salt with the metered regeneration system
  • Chlorine-resistant resin for better filtration
  • Digital control panel

Cons

  • Premium price for this top-quality product
  • Adds a small amount of salt to the system

Best Salt-Based

BestWaterSoftenerRheemPreferred32,000GrainWaterSoftener
Photo: amazon.com

Optimize salt consumption, water usage, and regeneration cycles with this single-tank Rheem water softener. The tank measures 22.5 inches by 17 inches by 46.5 inches. Its metered system only regenerates when necessary, instead of relying on a fixed schedule that may regenerate too frequently or too infrequently to adequately treat the water.

This salt-based water softener has a capacity of 32,000 grains, making it a good choice for small- to average-size households of about three or four people. As expected of a salt-based system, a small amount of salt is added to the water in exchange for the heavy minerals. This water softener includes a low-salt indicator light so users know when to refill the salt.

Product Specs

  • Type: Salt-based water softener
  • Capacity: 32,000 grain
  • Dimensions: 22.5 inches by 17 inches by 46.5 inches

Pros

  • Affordable option for homes of up to four people
  • Low-salt indicator light
  • Uses a metered regeneration system

Cons

  • Adds a small amount of salt to the system
  • Salt must be refilled as necessary

Best Portable

BestWaterSoftenerOnTheGoPortable16,000GrainRVWaterSoftener.jpg
Photo: amazon.com

Designed for portability, the On The Go Portable Water Softener is an excellent choice for an RV, a large boat, a small one- or two-person home, or an apartment. An included hose allows you to connect directly to an outdoor faucet or campground water supply for instant access to softened water for cleaning, drinking, and bathing.

Intended for portable functionality, the sand-based water softener can be recharged using simple table salt. This is great because the 16,000-grain capacity will require frequent recharging with regular use. However, with the reduced size, you also get a lower price, making this option easier on the wallet.

Product Specs

  • Type: Salt-based water softener
  • Capacity: 16,000 grain
  • Dimensions: 9.5-inch diameter by 22 inches tall

Pros

  • Regenerates easily with two boxes of table salt
  • Compact design is ideal for camping or travel
  • Connects directly to outdoor faucets and campground water supplies

Cons

  • Requires frequent recharging

Best Heavy-Duty

BestWaterSoftenerPelicanWater80,000GrainHeavyDutyWaterSoftener
Photo: homedepot.com

If the water flowing into the home is very hard, then this heavy-duty water softener by Pelican Water is a great choice due to the high capacity of 80,000 grains and the ability to remove up to 75 grains per gallon (gpg). Choose between three different regeneration cycles using the electronic control panel.

The first cycle is the instant metered system, which will trigger a regeneration cycle as soon as the target water volume is reached. The second cycle is the delayed metered system, which also triggers a regeneration cycle when the target water volume is reached, but it doesn’t run the cycle until a chosen time during the day. The third cycle is a timed system, allowing the user to set the regeneration time based on a specific number of days.

This impressive control is supported by an 8-hour backup battery to help preserve the settings in the case of a power outage. However, users should keep in mind that this is a dual-tank system that takes up a lot of floor space, and it has a long regeneration time of about 1 hour and 45 minutes.

Product Specs

  • Type: Dual-tank salt-based water softener
  • Capacity: 80,000 grain
  • Dimensions: Softener tank: 13.5 by 13.5 by 62 inches; salt tank: 18 by 18 by 54 inches

Pros

  • Impressively high grain capacity
  • Multiple regeneration modes for personalized control
  • Built-in 8-hour battery backup

Cons

  • Long regeneration time of 1 hour and 45 minutes
  • Only suited for households of up to four people

Best for Well Water

BestWaterSoftenerAquasureHarmonySeries48,000GrainsWaterSoftener
Photo: amazon.com

This Aquasure dual-tank water softener is known as one of the best options for treating hard water from a well system with the high-capacity 48,000-grain tank that’s suitable for homes with up to five people. The digital control panel allows users to see the time of day, current flow rate, and the volume of water or the number of days remaining until regeneration.

This water softener works to eliminate iron, magnesium, calcium, and scale in the water. It also has a metered regeneration system that helps to reduce overall salt and water consumption. Just keep in mind that dual-tank systems can take up a lot of floor space. Specifically, the softener tank measures 10 inches by 10 inches by 60 inches, while the salt tank or brine tank measures 15 inches by 15 inches by 36 inches.

Product Specs

  • Type: Dual-tank salt-based water softener
  • Capacity: 48,000 grain
  • Dimensions: Softener tank: 10 by 10 by 60 inches; salt tank: 15 by 15 by 36 inches

Pros

  • Metered regeneration system reduces overall consumption
  • Digital control panel for convenient optimization
  • Suited for households of up to five people
  • Eliminates scale, iron, magnesium, and calcium

Cons

  • Takes up a lot of floor space
  • Adds salt to the system

Best Alternative

BestWaterSofteneriSpringED2000WholeHouseElectronicDescaler
Photo: amazon.com

The iSpring ED2000 water descaler is an affordable solution for treating scale buildup in appliances, on faucets, and on shower heads. Like all magnetic water softeners, it does not remove the heavy minerals from the water, so clothing may still suffer from premature fading. However, whole house water softener reviews for this descaler indicate its effectiveness at treating mineral buildup.

Theis top whole-house water softener is easily installed on all types of pipe, including PEX and PVC, by wrapping the two antenna cables from the water softener around the water pipe and then plugging the unit into a power outlet. The neutralized water doesn’t just prevent scale buildup; it breaks down existing limescale to give your home a cleaner look and feel.

Product Specs

  • Type: Magnetic water softener
  • Capacity: Unlimited within 50 feet. After 50 feet, molecules may bind together.
  • Dimensions: 7 inches by 3.5 inches by 2 inches

Pros

  • Does not add salt to the system
  • Convenient compact size
  • Made for treating very hard water
  • Breaks down existing limescale in the pipes

Cons

  • Clothing can still be affected by heavy minerals
  • Not for larger homes due to the 50-foot range
  • Requires electricity to work

Our Verdict

Selected for its 40,000 grain capacity, automatic regeneration, and built-in salt indicator, we award the Whirlpool system as the top water softener for home use. This single-tank, salt-based water softener can immediately improve the quality of the water in large households of up to 6 people.

Alternatively, the Waterboss system can be used for smaller households and comes with a smaller price tag. This salt-based water softener has a 36,400 grain capacity, comes with a built-in shut-off system, and offers ample water-saving capabilities.

How We Chose the Best Water Softener Systems

Water softener systems are not widely known products like lawn mowers or cars, so it can be difficult for shoppers to judge the best systems. However, years of experience in the plumbing industry as well as extensive research into each product helped to put together this list of top-rated water softeners. Key considerations included the type of water softener, the capacity of the product, the suitability of the softener for various family sizes, and any outstanding features that made a water softener stand out from similar products.

Most water softener systems are salt-based systems, so there are a high number of salt-based options that were selected, including both single-tank and dual-tank products. Capacity and suitability were typically considered together because in most cases a large family will require a higher-capacity water softener. Also, metered systems from the top water softener brands were generally favored, simply because this design helps conserve water and only regenerate when necessary.

The Advantages of Owning a Water Softener

Purchasing a water softener is an excellent option for homes with light to heavy hard water, which can result in clogged pipes and leaky faucets and can degrade your water-based appliances. The heavy minerals in hard water also prevent moisture permeation in hair and skin, and can cause colors to fade in the washing machine and items to come out of the dishwasher looking chalky or spotted.

A water softener solves all of these issues by preventing heavy minerals from binding or flowing through the water. With softened water, the moisture and “life” returns to your skin and hair. It also prevents your clothes from wearing out prematurely and leaves dishes looking and feeling clean, which cuts down on your cleaning time. These hard water treatment systems can:

  • Save you money in the long term
  • Leave you with cleaner hair and softer skin
  • Brighten and soften clothes
  • Clean dishes better
  • Reduce time spent cleaning

FAQs 

If you are still unsure about purchasing a new water softener, consider these frequently asked questions and their answers.

Q: How do you clean a water softener?

To clean a water softener, begin by dumping all water and salt out of the tank and disposing of it. Then remove the brine grid from the base of the tank and set it aside. Next, use warm, soapy water and a long-handled brush to scrub the tank’s interior, and then rinse with plain water.

Once rinsed, use a mixture of ¼ cup household bleach and 2 to 3 gallons of water to fill the tank. This mixture should sit for at least 15 minutes to kill any microorganisms. Rinse the reservoir once more, then replace the brine grid, refill with water, and replenish it with salt. Keep your water softener maintained to improve the water quality in the home and prevent any drops in water pressure due to mineral buildup.

Q: Is it safe to drink water from a water softener?

It is safe to drink water from a water softener if the only contaminants are hardening minerals. The water softener will remove the hardening minerals or neutralize them so they cannot bind together. However, a water softener is not a water filter and will not remove any other harmful particles. As such, it should only be relied on to soften water, not purify it.

Q: Is soft water bad for copper pipes?

Soft water is water that is lacking in minerals. Due to this state, it will draw in minerals from unlined metal pipes, like copper, and over time it can cause pinhole leaks.

Softened water is produced when hard water runs through a softener. Softened water previously had an abundance of minerals and has been returned to a neutral state. It neither needs nor wants minerals. As such, it is entirely safe for your pipes.