The Best Water Softeners for Hard Water
Keep your appliances functioning and your plumbing free of mineral build-up with a water softener.
BobVila.com and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links.
- BEST OVERALLAFW Filters Iron Pro 2 Combination Water SoftenerCheck Latest Price
- RUNNER UPFleck 5600SXT 64,000 Grain Water SoftenerCheck Latest Price
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCKiSpring ED2000 Whole House Electronic DescalerCheck Latest Price
The need for a water softener can be recognized by a few common symptoms, including a chalky film on dishes after washing, mineral deposits and scale build-up on water faucets and shower heads, and health effects like dry skin and hair after showering. Water softeners have many benefits and remove heavy minerals like calcium, iron, and magnesium from the water flowing into your home, RV, or point-of-use sites.
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.
- BEST OVERALL: AFW Filters Iron Pro 2 Combination Water Softener
- RUNNER UP: Fleck 5600SXT 64,000 Grain Water Softener
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: iSpring ED2000 Whole House Electronic Descaler
- UPGRADE PICK: DuraWater 64k-56sxt-10al 64,000 Grain Water Softener
- SALT-BASED PICK: Fleck 5600SXT 48,000 Grain Water Softener
- SALT-FREE PICK: Watts Premier OneFlow + Salt-Free Filtration System
- MAGNETIC PICK: YARNA Capacitive Electronic Water Descaler System
- PORTABLE PICK: On The Go OTG4-DBLSOFT 16,000 Grain RV Water Softener
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 these water softeners generally falls between the affordable magnetic softeners and the more expensive salt-free softeners.
Salt-based water softeners work 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 are 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 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 a wrong choice if you don’t have much space.
Salt-Free Water Softeners
As indicated by their name, salt-free water softeners don’t use salt to remove heavy minerals from your water. They don’t remove the heavy deposits at all. Salt-free softeners have something called a Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC) system using polymer 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 build-up and scaling from hard water.
Salt-free water softeners tend to cost more initially but last for around three years without electricity or recharging required. These models are also smaller than salt-based systems, so they can be used for small- to large-sized 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. 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.
These water softeners do not remove the 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 Buying a Water Softener
Before choosing a water softener for your home, take a few minutes to educate yourself on the most important shopping considerations to keep in mind.
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, large residential properties, and some commercial or industrial use, water softeners with grain capacities of 80,000 and 100,000 are 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, then if it had 10 gpg water to manage.
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 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.
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.
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 your pipes if the regeneration intervals are too long.
Our Top Picks
We’ve selected the following based on high customer approval, overall efficacy, availability, and popularity, making them the best water softeners in their respective categories.
1. BEST OVERALL: AFW Filters Iron Pro 2 Water Softener
The AFW Filters Iron Pro 2 Water Softener uses an iron filter and water softener combination system to remove iron, sulfur, manganese, sediment, sand, calcium, and magnesium. The metal is filtered using a unique mesh resin filter and includes a device to test for iron content in your water supply.
The water softener has a 64,000-grain capacity, making it ideal for large households and high levels of hard water. The included bypass valve effectively isolates the water softener while gardening while the metered regeneration system makes it simple to maintain softened water production. However, keep in mind that it is a salt-based water softener, and at 120 pounds, it isn’t small.
2. RUNNER UP: Fleck 5600SXT 64,000 Grain Water Softener
This hefty salt-based water softener weighs 180 pounds, but is worth the space needed to filter up to 64,000 gpg from your water in a week. The Fleck 64K Grain Water Softener comes with access to the Pentair Scan and Service App, which gives you detailed configuration information, technical documentation, information on spare parts, and a full troubleshooting manual.
The metered regeneration system can be programmed using the digital control head to suit your daily or weekly needs, without worrying about adding too much or too little salt to the system. While this softener is not made to remove iron from your water, it is ideal for large homes and effectively softens water by removing calcium and magnesium.
3. BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: iSpring ED2000 Whole House Electronic Descaler
The iSpring ED2000 Magnetic Water Softener is an affordable solution for treating scale build-up in appliances, on faucets, and showerheads. However, like all magnetic water softeners, it does not remove the heavy minerals from the water, so clothing may still suffer from premature fading.
The 2-pound 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 build-up; it breaks down existing limescale to give your home a cleaner look and feel.
4. UPGRADE PICK: DuraWater 64k-56sxt-10al 64,000 Grain Water Softener
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 touchpad 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.
5. SALT-BASED PICK: Fleck 5600SXT 48,000 Grain Water Softener
Like all salt-based water softeners, the Fleck 5600SCT Salt-Based Water Softener uses ion exchange to remove calcium and magnesium from your water supply with impressive effect. It has a 48,000-grain capacity for treating medium to large households and weighs about 80 pounds when full, so it may require some floorplanning before installation.
The water softener comes with a bypass valve so you don’t waste salt on your lawn care needs. The metered regeneration system is programmable using the LCD screen so the system only regenerates the resin on your schedule.
6. SALT-FREE PICK: Watts Premier OneFlow + Salt-Free Filtration System
The Watts Premier OneFlow + Salt-Free Water Softener neutralizes hard water using a TAC system to attract heavy minerals. It then neutralizes by turning into harmless, inactive crystal particles within the water, reducing limescale on fixtures. Additionally, it reduces future scale build-up by preventing the minerals from binding to anything else.
This 15-pound water softener doesn’t use electricity or salt but will need a cartridge replacement once every three years to keep working effectively. While it comes with a higher price than comparable salt-based options, it is virtually maintenance-free after installation, so you don’t have to worry about monitoring salt levels.
7. MAGNETIC PICK: YARNA Capacitive Electronic Water Descaler System
The water softener uses magnetic pulses to neutralize heavy minerals as they pass through the water pipe. In doing so, the minerals turn into crystals and do not bond with anything, preventing and reducing limescale build-up in your water system.
Typically, magnetic water softeners are only suitable for small to average households, Still, the Yarna Capacitive Magnetic Water Softener boasts that it is capable of treating hard water in any size household and small apartment buildings with up to 20 units. The simple installation only requires you to wrap the impulse bands around any type of water pipe and plug the unit into the nearest power outlet. While it does have a higher price than most magnetic water softeners, it is still more affordable than the average salt-based or salt-free softener, making it ideal for any hard water issue.
8. PORTABLE PICK: On The Go OTG4-DBLSOFT 16,000 Grain RV Water Softener
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.
The Advantages of Owning a Water Softener
Purchasing a water softener is an excellent option for homes with light to heavy hard water build-up because it will save you money in the long term. Hard water can cause pipes to clog, faucets to leak, and will shorten the life of your water-based appliances.
The heavy minerals in hard water are harsh on your dishes, clothing, skin, and hair. They prevent moisture permeation in hair and skin, while also fading vibrant colors from clothing during a wash cycle. Dishes come out of the dishwasher looking chalky or spotted and often need to be rewashed again by hand.
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 return to your skin and hair. It also prevents your clothes from wearing out and leaves dishes looking and feeling clean, which cuts down on your cleaning time. For homes with hard water issues, a softener can:
- Save you money over time
- Leave you with cleaner hair and softer skin
- Brighten and soften clothes
- Clean dishes better
- Reduce time spent cleaning
FAQs About Your New Water Softener
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 them. 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 1/4-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.
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.