Mineral-rich water is beneficial for humans and all living things, and it is the healthiest water to drink.
However, an excess of calcium and magnesium in the water supply gives it a hardness that can create problems with plumbing pipes and household appliances.
Using hard water also leaves a ring of soap scum on sinks and tubs, which is difficult to remove, and it makes bathing unpleasant.
Thus, if you are considering the purchase of a water softener or water conditioner, there are 4 main types to consider:
1. Salt–Based Water Softeners (ion exchange)
These water softeners use an ion exchange process to replace the hardness ions (primarily calcium and magnesium) with salt ions (either sodium or potassium). Salt-based water softeners are recommended when the water supply has a hardness that is above 25 grains per gallon.
The main advantage of salt-based water softeners is that they do help protect plumbing pipes and appliances from the damaging effects of mineral buildup.
The main disadvantage is that salt-based softened water is not healthy to drink. We also do not recommend it for watering plants, lawns or gardens due to its sodium content.
2. Reverse Osmosis Systems (pressurized micro filtration)
Reverse osmosis water systems use an ultra-fine membrane with applied water pressure to separate out minerals and contaminants from the water.
The main advantage of reverse osmosis systems is that they remove up to 98 percent of unwanted contaminants as well as the hardness of minerals. It also removes salt and, for this reason, reverse osmosis drinking water systems (countertop or under sink) are often used in conjunction with salt-based water softeners.
The main disadvantage is that demineralized water is not healthy to drink, according to the World Health Organization and many other authorities. Other disadvantages include the fact that demineralized water is also hard on plumbing and fixtures, a significantly high amount of water is wasted (goes down the drain after separation), water production is affected by low water pressure, and R.O. membranes are expensive to replace.
3. Magnetic Water Softeners (magnets)
These softeners use magnets in or near the water pipes which are supposed to create a magnetic field that alters the water so that the mineral deposits do not form as scale but are reduced to finer particles.
The main advantage of magnetic water softeners is that they are the least expensive type.
The main disadvantage is that they are not as reliable or efficient as other softeners for a number of reasons. In addition, the water will return to its original hardness within 48 hours of passing the magnetic field. Thus, if the water is not used for 2 days or more, it will return to hard water.
4. Salt-Free Water Softeners (filtration media)
Most of the salt-free water softeners use a special filtration media that targets hard mineral carbonate crystals (calcium, magnesium, barium) and alters their ionic charge. This prevents these mineral crystals from clumping together to create scale. Salt-free water softeners are recommended where water hardness levels are at or below 75 grains per gallon. By definition, salt-free water softeners are actually water conditioners, not softeners.
The main advantage is that these water conditioners do not use any chemicals, salt or potassium, and the water is mineral rich and healthy to drink.
The main disadvantage of a salt-free water softener is that if you have very hard water (above 75 grains per gallon), the salt-free water softener may not be adequate.
Considering the pros and cons of the different water softener types, we recommend using the salt-free water softener whenever possible.
1. Salt-free water softeners are best
Most water softeners (with the exception of reverse osmosis) do not remove many toxic water contaminants. Thus, a drinking water filter is a necessary addition if you want healthy drinking water -- in addition to the household and cleansing benefits of soft water. Thus, we recommend installing a whole-house water filter or a drinking water filter (countertop or under sink) in addition to the salt-free water softener.
2. Salt-based water softeners for extreme hardness
If your hardness is above 75 grains per gallon, a salt-based water softener may be necessary to prevent scale buildup. However, in order to get healthy drinking water with this type of softener, you would have to also install a drinking water system that removes the excess salt.
3. Reverse osmosis and magnetic softeners are not recommended
We don’t recommend reverse osmosis as a water softener because it produces demineralized drinking water, which we believe is unhealthy for long-term use. In addition, R.O. water can also cause problems with plumbing pipes because it is so acidic. And we don’t recommend magnetic softeners because they are less efficient and unreliable.
Our highest rating goes to the Aquasana salt-free water softeners because they provide excellent filtration and softening for both municipal water and well water.
You can often find local franchise dealers for salt-based water softeners, such as Culligan or Kinetico. However, the following are our best choices for online purchasing and self-education.