It is safe to say a water softener’s purpose is to soften water, but it is not always clear what that means and why that might be beneficial to one’s health.
The fact is that there is both soft water and hard water, and soft water is more preferable due to its moderate calcium and magnesium levels (2). If water is considered hard, that means there is a heavy build-up of both calcium and magnesium, which can counteract the effects of soaps and detergents.
Sometimes hard water can become soft if boiled, but it depends on the level of hardness in the water (20). A better option to soften water is a water softener, or an ion exchange unit.
This device reduces the calcium and magnesium levels by filtering the water through resin or zeolite, a bead-like substance covered with positively charged sodium ions. When water passes through this substance, the resin exchanges its sodium ions with the calcium and magnesium ions. The water then becomes soft.
In truth, water softeners do not significantly improve health, but they do make some difference. People use water softeners out of preference rather than any other purpose (2). However, their advantages, health and otherwise, are numerous.
1. Water Softeners Reduce Damage Done to Kitchen Utensils
Kitchen utensils are the most susceptible to hard water as they are usually in most contact with the water (8). Hard water can cause items such as cooking pots, pans, kettles, and tea pots to develop etching, soap film, and dullness.
Aside from the damage that hard water can do when you clean kitchen utensils, you can also irritate the interior of kettles and pots when you boil hard water as well (3). With a build-up of scaly white spots, these kitchen utensils will look dirty and have an odd taste. This will most likely be the calcium and magnesium left behind from the hard water.
If you choose an anti-scale water softener, the device will turn calcium ions into calcium crystals, which will not produce scales on any object or surface (4).
Bottom Line: Hard water can cause kitchen utensils to develop etching and soap film, which can leave the utensils looking dirty. This can happen when you wash them or boil hard water in them. Using an anti-scale water softener will eliminate these effects.
2. Water Softeners Keep the Skin Smooth and Well-Nourished
When bathing with soft water, hard water in combination with soap and shampoo can develop soap scum on the body or cause your skin to become sticky (8). The reason this occurs is due to calcium and magnesium in hard water mixing with anions which are found in soaps.
Even rinsing will not dissolve this mixture. Instead, the film will remain and clog your pores, causing bacteria to grow which leads to rash development, skin irritation, and dry and itchy skin.
Use of hard water on the skin can even cause acne (13). In fact, if you have acne troubles, it is recommended that you wash your face with bottled, distilled, or soft water instead.
Rinsing with hard water can also lead to developments of eczema. In one study, it was determined that those who used hard water on their skin were 50% more likely to develop eczema than those who used soft water.
In another eczema study, which involved children participants, it was found that 91% of children who received a water softener in their home noticed that they were less itchy (17). 83% of the parents reported that the severity of their rashes or eczema decreased and 67% of the group were using less medications for the eczema.
Bottom Line: Bathing in soft water is better for your skin than hard water. With hard water, calcium and magnesium can mix poorly with soap to cause buildup which clogs pores and leaves a film on the skin. Washing your skin with soft water will clear up acne and prevent rashes and eczema.
3. Water Softeners Prevent Soap Film and Detergent Curd Build-up in Cleaning Devices
If you inadvertently use hard water to wash your laundry, your washing machines could develop soap film which will prevent your clothes from becoming completely clean. In some cases, white laundry can even become gray if the water is not softened (3).
When using hard water in laundry facilities, your clothes can also wear out quicker and may not wash well because hard water needs more soap to create suds and spread through your load (8). Soft water, by comparison, cleans your clothes more effectively.
Some cleaning appliances are so badly damaged from the abundance of soap film and detergent curd build-up that they need to be replaced. However, replacing these appliances may prove particularly challenging due to the lime build-up on the internal faucet mechanisms. Water softeners will be able to prevent devices from failing due to severe mineral buildup.
Bottom Line: Hard water can decrease the efficiency of cleaning devices such as washing machines and dishwashers. Soap film will form along the inside of washing machines, which will cause the clothes to turn gray as the water will not be able to mix well with the soap. Then the clogging of the devices can worsen to the point where they have to be replaced. With a water softener, cleaning devices will be able to sanitize products more effectively and the devices will be unharmed.
4. Water Softeners Help Maintain Hot Water Heaters
When hard water passes through electric water heaters, the minerals in the water builds up in an accelerated rate (3). Should this happen too often, the water heater can break due to the mineral deposits preventing the water from reaching the heating element within the water heater (8).
This can affect gas water heaters in the same manner, but mineral deposits can be somewhat eliminated in gas water heaters if you drain and flush them on a regular basis. Electric water heaters would have to be replaced.
Therefore, it is very important to have a water softener for the electric water heaters specifically because replacing an electric water heater can be expensive and tedious work.
In addition to being good for kitchen utensils and surfaces, using a water softener with an anti-scale system will prevent lime deposits from developing in your hot water heater (4).
Bottom Line: Water heaters can get damaged when hard water passes through it. With the mineral buildup the hard water leaves behind, it prevents the heat from reaching it, but using a water softener with an anti-scale system will lessen the deposits and help better the performance of the water heater.
5. Water Softeners Reduce Pipe and Faucet Damage
Pipes and faucets can be clogged when hard water flows through them too often (3). In certain scenarios, pipes and faucets can be clogged up so bad, some minor repairs need to be done to them at the very least. This can include simply changing the mentioned material. Other options are cleaning the area of buildup or bringing in professional help.
You will be able to tell if your pipes or faucet are clogged or damaged if your water pressure has lowered (8). Shower heads and valves can also be affected by hard water, even if it appears that the pipes do not have scales or mineral buildup. Both shower heads and valves can become clogged and can drip hard water onto sinks and bathtubs, damaging these surfaces.
Water softeners can eliminate mineral buildup in pipes and faucets, reducing scales on sinks and bathtubs, so you do not have to clean up so often and your pipes will not be damaged.
Bottom Line: When hard water flows through pipes and faucets, minerals can buildup within them which can lower the water pressure and damage shower heads, valves, sinks, and bathtubs. With a water softener in the home, mineral buildup will be reduced and pipes will remain unharmed by hard water.
6. Water Softeners Decrease the Need for More Soap and Shampoo in the Shower
Hard water can cause hair to become dull and flat, leaving you to use more shampoo to give it more volume (8). Likewise, since hard water can form a film across your skin when it is in contact with soap, you will feel like you need to use more soap to get rid of the film, which will prove to be ineffective.
Many studies have been performed on the effects both hard water and soft water have on soap, and soft water has been much more productive in emphasizing the usefulness of soap (9). One such project placed hard water and soap in one bottle and soft water and soap in another. The one with hard water procured scum while the one with soft water produced bubbles and was cleaner.
In another study, it was found that when using soft water to bathe, you use 75% less soap (18).
Therefore, it was reasoned that soft water not only produced cleaner results to skin and hair, it also helped decrease the amount of substances, such as soap, in both areas, which prevents the buildup of oil, dirt, and breakouts (16). This allows for your soap and shampoo to be helpful at the first use rather than repetitive uses in the fruitless attempt to rid of the soap scum.
Even pets can be affected by the use of soft water in their baths (19). Their soaps and shampoos become more effectively as their coats are sleeker and shinier. However, it is recommended not to allow your pets to drink an abundance of soft water or have them consume it so quickly. This could lead to the development of cardiovascular disease.
Bottom Line: Softened water has been proven to be more effective in cleaning alongside soap. In comparison, hard water leaves soap ineffective and causes you to use more of it. Softened water can even benefit pets as they create shinier and sleeker hair. It is recommended that you keep consuming soft water at a minimum.
7. Water Softeners Allow Water Appliances to Last Longer
Minerals can buildup in coffee makers, dishwashers, washing machines, and other water appliances, which can cause them to work harder (7). Eventually, these devices can burn out from the intensity or the clogging of minerals within the machines. These appliances may have to be replaced.
While you can clean out these appliances regularly and prevent the minerals from building up, it may be easier to purchase a water softener, which will stop the minerals from entering these appliances in the first place.
Bottom Line: When water appliances use hard water, the devices can clog from the mineral buildup and burn out. To prevent this, you can clean these devices regularly or you can use a water softener in your home.
8. Water Softeners Reduce Monthly Energy Costs
When hard water produces buildup in your pipes and water appliances, your water heaters will be working more than it should to produce your desired effects in your home (4). This means that the amount that you will be spending on your water heater will increase.
Yet, these utility costs lessen when a water softener is used in a household (14).
People sometimes avoid purchasing a water softener because they assume that it costs too much year-round, but they are mistaken (12). In fact, the cost of using a water softener in one year is the same as the cost of using an alarm clock within the same time period.
For regeneration concerns, the more up-to-date water softeners only regenerate when necessary (typically about 5 times each month).
In regards to salt use, generally only 10 bags of salt are used in newer water softeners each year, which is an upgrade to older water softeners. Cost-wise, you may have to purchase more salt than you would if you did not have a water softener, however using a water softening would decrease water bills, and comparatively, paying for salt is cheaper than paying for water.
Additionally, if you choose a water softener that uses potassium instead of sodium to regenerate, it may cost more to purchase the potassium.
Bottom Line: With a water softener, your utility bills will lower due the decreased amount of water that you will use. However, you may have to pay for salt or potassium for the regeneration process in the water softeners, though the purchase of these items could be worth it to save money on water overall.
9. Water Softeners Increase Sodium Intake
Though some people are on strict low sodium diets, sodium is still a vital mineral that needs to be consumed regularly for a healthy lifestyle. Water softeners do, in fact, contribute to a your sodium intake especially if you are drinking beverages that have been processed through a water softener.
Though water softeners do increase sodium intake, it is not a very large one, and if you are looking to consume more sodium, it is best to do so through the consumption of foods rather than water (5).
Very few people need to eat more sodium, however. Actually, consuming too much sodium may cause cardiovascular health problems such as high blood pressure (6). Therefore, it is recommended that you do not drink softened water. The main purpose of a water softener is to keep utensils, appliances, pipes, and surfaces clean. It does not produce healthier drinking water.
Bottom Line: Sodium is a necessary mineral that needs to be consumed modestly and regularly for a healthy lifestyle. Your sodium intake can increase by drinking softened water, but only slightly. It is recommended that you avoid drinking an abundance of softened water because there is already too much sodium in people’s diets.
10. Water Softeners Decrease Mineral Consumption
Though the consumption of most minerals are significant to living a long and healthy life, there is the possibility of consuming too many minerals (15). For example, calcium is responsible in maintaining strong bones, muscle movement, timely nerve reactions, healthy blood pressure, and the release of hormones and enzymes in the body (10).
However, getting too much calcium can cause constipation and a higher risk of getting kidney stones, prostate cancer, and heart disease. Eating a lot of dairy products and grains can raise calcium levels in the body. Drinking soft water rather than hard water can keep calcium levels low, though drinking soft water should be kept at a minimum.
Magnesium can also be found in hard water, and, though it is unlikely, it is possible to have an overdose of magnesium (11). In healthy doses, magnesium is useful in disposing toxins in the body through urine, feces, and sweat.
People who are at risk of magnesium overdose include those who are subject to or have had experience with kidney failure, renal failure, or chronic constipation. Signs of a magnesium overdose are confusion, musculoskeletal weakness, slurred speech, low blood pressure, and slow heart rate. Serious side effects of magnesium overdose is cardiopulmonary arrest and death.
Magnesium levels in the body can be regulated by drinking some soft water, but only by a little.
Bottom Line: Drinking softened water is not recommended, but drinking some can keep calcium and magnesium levels in check, too much of which can cause constipations, kidney stone, prostate cancer, and heart disease.
Considerations When Choosing the Right Water Softener
While most water softeners are useful in many aspects, some contain more beneficial features than others do. In addition, each one differs in water use and how it affects the environment (1). In fact, at least 34 states banned certain water softeners for the damage that they may cause.
Therefore, it is important that you do your research when looking for a water softener. Do not just search for a water softener that adheres to your needs and preferences, but choose one that is environmentally safe and is approved by the proper authorities.
1. Types of Water Softeners
You can choose a water softener that has a programmable timeclock (2). These water softeners will regenerate on a schedule of your choosing and will return to softening the water as normal. The problem with these types of water softeners is that they tend to waste a lot of water and salt as they regenerate.
Demand-control models will also be able to regenerate automatically, but only after it has softened a certain amount of gallons of water. These models can regenerate either with electrical or mechanical sensors. You are encouraged to use these models if you are flexible with your water use.
Other water softener options are salt based water softeners and salt-free water softeners (4). Salt based water softeners tend to produce better result in the softness of your water, the effectiveness of soap when cleaning, the brightness in your clothes after a load of laundry, and the tenderness in your skin.
Salt-free water softeners, on the other hand, can do everything that a salt based softener can do, but without any sodium. It is a healthier option, and one that is better for the environment. They alse require no maintenance and use no waste water.
Bottom Line: You can choose a water softener that regenerates whenever you prefer or a water softener that regenerates after it softens a few gallons. Salt-free water softeners may be better over salt based devices because they are healthier, more convenient, environmentally safe, and saves water. Whichever you decide depends on how much water you are planning on using.
2. Maintenance Required in Each Water Softener
Before operating your water softener, it is recommended that you read its manual or manufacturer’s instructions (2). There is a certain procedure that needs to be done in each water softener, but depending on the manufacturer or the device, the procedure may be slightly altered. Should something go wrong, the water softener may not perform well.
In most water softeners, the brine solution must be kept in the brine tank and stirred regularly. Clogging of the resin can also occur in many water softeners, but can be resolved through backwashing or mixing the resin during the backwash cycle. Filtrating iron out of the water before softening will prevent the resin from clogging as well.
You should also disinfect the water with chlorine bleach before it is placed in the water softener, so that bacteria and fungi does not grow inside the resin. If a resin is already contaminated, you can use a commercial cleaner on it or else have it replaced. You should speak with your water softener dealer for advice if you wish to perform the latter.
Bottom Line: The procedure required in maintaining a water softener is basically the same for each model, with some slight alterations, which should be consulted through a manual or water softener dealer. Most models, however, have a brine tank that needs to be mixed regularly and a resin that can clog is iron is not filtered out of the water. Commercial cleaners can unclog the resin.
3. Water Softeners and Their Sizes
You can determine which size water softener to use by performing a certain equation.
The factors involved in this equation is the capacity (or number of grains per regeneration, which you can determine from the water softener device), the average amount of gallons a person uses each day, the amount of raw water hardness (measured in grain per gallon), and the number of people in one household (2).
By multiplying the average amount of gallons a person uses per day by the amount of raw water hardness, and they multiplying that with the number of people in a household, you will get the number of grains your home will use per day. You then divide your capacity number by this number, and you will get your average day regeneration cycle.
You ought to base your water softener size preferences on how long you wish the regeneration cycle to be. Assuming that your water softener will regenerate every 6 or 7 days, you will be using more water on those days because of this. The larger the water softener, the larger the regeneration cycle.
However, the more time there is between each water cycle, the more water you may save overall. Make sure to choose one that fits best with your needs.
Bottom Line: The larger the water softener, the longer the regeneration cycle and the more time there is between cycles. You should take the time to calculate which size water softener is best for your budget and preferences.
4. Get a Water Softener that Automatically Switches to the Regeneration Cycle
When in the regeneration cycle, the resin is backwashed with a salt mixture (2). This needs to be done in every water softener because resin is an inexhaustible substance that can build up hardened minerals overtime. Resin will then become useless in softening water.
After the resin is backwashed, the calcium and magnesium that it had absorbed is reverse flushed through the water softener. The resin is then able to soften water. The only issue is when it needs to be done.
In certain water softeners, switching to the regeneration cycle will have to be done manually. However, if you purchase a water softener that will switch to this cycle automatically and then return to its regular functions after this task is complete, switching the cycles manually will be one less thing you will have to worry about.
Additionally, if you forget to change the cycles, your water softener may not be performing its functions correctly, thus a waste of money.
Bottom Line: Every water softener needs to go through a regeneration cycle which extracts the calcium and magnesium that the resin absorbs from the water and reverse flushes them. If this is not done regularly, the resin will not be able to soften the water. For your convenience, it is best to choose a water softener that can switch to the regeneration cycle automatically.
5. Make Sure Your Diet Allows for a Water Softener
For all the advantages of a water softener, they may not be suitable for everyone due to their use of sodium (2). Those who have low sodium diets may experience a larger intake of sodium when using a water softener which involves 7.5 milligrams of the substance per quart of each grain per gallon of calcium and magnesium removed from their water.
Likewise, since both calcium and magnesium will be removed from the water, it will also be reduced from your diets.
If you still want a water softener, but you are on a low sodium diet, you can use potassium in your water softeners instead (3). Potassium is more expensive at $27 per 40 pound bag whereas sodium is $5.50 per 40 pound bag, but depending on your diet and your state regulations, purchasing potassium for your water softener may not be avoided.
Bottom Line: Water softeners that use sodium may not be the best for those on low sodium diets. As a substitute, water softeners that use potassium are available, but there are more expensive.
6. How Much Should Your Water Softener Soften Your Water?
Each water softener only softens the water a certain amount. It is recommended that you search for a water softener that can soften the amount you need. The best way to determine how much your water softener should soften your water is to have your water tested by an independent lab (2).
The independent lab should be able to determine the water’s classification, the levels varying from soft (less than 1.0 grain per gallon) to very hard (greater than 10.5 grain per gallon). From this test you can figure out which water softener is best for your needs, should you need one at all.
Water softening companies do offer free hardness testing, but it is suggested that you have a third party check your water just in case. If you choose to receive your testing elsewhere, chances are it will not be very expensive.
Bottom Line: If the hardness level in your water is greater than 1.0 grain per gallon, using a water softener may be beneficial to you. To check which classification your water falls under, either get a free hardness testing from a water softening company or from an independent lab.
7. Determine Which Water to Soften
Within the home, some water can be softened, but other water does not necessarily have to be. For example, water in showers, sinks, and laundry should probably be softened because these are areas where your body will be in contact with water the most often (2).
More specifically, household drinking and cooking only uses up to 1 gallon per day while washing clothes can use up to 33 gallons per use and bathing or showering uses up to 60 gallons of water per use. You should use this scale to place your water softener or water softeners where you see fit.
On the other hand, water in toilets, outside spigots, and basement sinks can probably be ignored because either you will not use these items or the water in these items will not get in contact with your skin very often.
You should also decide whether it is worth it to soften your cold water. Since you are most likely going to use warm or hot water, it may cost less to soften hot water only.
Bottom Line: What kind and how many water softeners you should get depends on where and how you plan on using it. Water in showers, sinks, and in laundry rooms may need water softeners because you use the water there often. Likewise, hot water should be softened over cold water because you use it more often as well.
8. The Price of a Water Softener
On average, a water softener can cost anywhere from $500 to $1500, but the price can vary depending on factors such as installation, maintenance fees, the size of the device, and the features it has (2).
To install a water softener on your own, a basic installation kit and unit would cost about $500 (3). If you choose to get a professional to install your water softener, the minimum cost would be $800 for a 1 bedroom home while the maximum cost is $3,000 for the installation of a larger unit with purifiers and wi-fi controls. The average professional installation cost is $1000 to $2,500.
The larger or higher capacity the water softener is, the more it costs. A 33,000 grain softener can cost as low as $350 and can be enough for the normal 5 person home. On the other hand, a 75,000 grain softener can cost $1,800, which is more expensive, but, in addition to being larger, it can also be installed either inside or outside.
Bottom Line: Without installation and extra features, the cost of a water softener can be anywhere from $500 and $1500. Installation can cost $500 to $3,000 depending on if you want to do it yourself or get a professional. A small or 33 grain softener can cost $350, but a large or 75,000 grain softener can cost $1800.
Having a water softener in your home generally does more good for your appliances, pipes, and utensils than with your general health. However, if your appliances, pipes, and utensils work well and look well, it can boost your mood. There is nothing more obnoxious than a clogged pipe, the result of hard water.
With a clogged pipe, water pressure can lower, and finding the pipes that are responsible for the problems can be difficult and replacing them can be costly. Additionally, when the water pressure is low, you tend to use up more water to compensate.
Soap can also be overused, which poses as another waste of money. Soap film as well as mineral deposits can clog washing machines and dishwashers, which are difficult and expensive to replace.
The only significant downside to owning a water softener is drinking or consuming it. Though, there can be some advantages to drinking softened water, like it can increase sodium intake and decrease calcium and magnesium levels in the body, these slight health benefits may not work for everyone.
In fact, it has been recommended that people do not drink softened water. It should only be used to keep utensils clean and appliances working efficiently.
To purchase a water softener, you can choose between many options, the main ones being those that regenerate with salt and those that regenerate with potassium. Though water softeners that use potassium are better for your health, they do cost more to maintain. On the other hand, salt water softeners are more common in households.
There is a certain amount of maintenance involved in a water softener. Each device is different and it is suggested that you read the manual for whichever water softener you have so that you are able to use it well and effectively.
The type of water softener that you get depends on what you intend to use it for. Water softeners are typically used for areas where you use the water the most, such as your bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms.
Finally, the most important thing to remember when it comes to a water softener is the price, which, of course, depends on the size of the device and the features it has. The best water softeners can process the most water and generally have an automatic regeneration feature.
Therefore, it is recommended that you determine which water you want to soften, test exactly how much water your water softener should soften (which can be figured out through an independent lab), and limit your search for a water softener to those that can handle the appropriate grain per gallon.
Looking for a water softener in this fashion will help you find the best water softener for your needs and at a reasonable price.
Jen Miller is a former electrical engineer and product specialist with more than 20 years of product design and testing experience. She has designed more than 200 products for Fortune 500 companies, in fields ranging from home appliances to sports gear and outdoor equipment. She founded Jen Reviews to share her knowledge and critical eye for what makes consumers tick, and adopts a strict no-BS approach to help the reader filter through the maze of products and marketing hype out there. She writes regularly and has been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, The Muse, The Huffington Post, Tiny Buddha and MindBodyGreen.