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Types of Water Softeners and Their Advantages

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard about or even used a water softener in the past. Or maybe you’re interested in purchasing a water softener right now and want more information. Whatever the case may be, the first important step in choosing a good water softener is to know what type is good for your needs.

As such, we will be going through each available type of water softener and how it handles the softening process, its approximate size, and other variables that you will need to take into consideration. Although all of these systems will reduce the mineral content in your water to leave you with beneficial softened water, they do so in different ways. So let’s see how they all work.

Differences Between Types of Water Softeners

First off, we would like to point out that there is no “perfect solution”. Each type of water softener has both advantages and certain disadvantages that you’ll have to take into account before making a purchase.

The reason we insist on pointing this out is because we wouldn’t want you making a choice that you would regret down the line. So, did you understand all of that? Great. Let’s get on with it then.

Salt-Based Water Softeners

Traditional water softeners, also known as ion-exchange water softeners, have been around for what seems like an eternity. Although they’re the most common type, many have started moving away from them simply because of the softening method itself.

How it works is relatively straightforward: a resin inside attracts calcium and magnesium from your water and replaces them with sodium ions in a process called ion-exchange. Once the resin ends up with no positively charged sodium ions to exchange for the hard minerals in your water, you’ll need add more sodium to the mix.

Is it effective? Definitely. A salt-based water softener will completely remove hard mineral from your water supply. However, the concentration of sodium can cause other problems in the long run, such as making the water undrinkable for people with heart conditions or negatively impacting your septic system. And you’ll have to perform some weekly maintenance as well. But, for all intents and purposes, it works. Salt-based softeners are also relatively cheap these days, making them relatively desirable despite the obvious disadvantages and the requirement of more and more salt bags. In short, let’s look at the pros and cons:

Pros

  • Completely removes all hard minerals
  • Will last you a long time with proper upkeeping
  • Easy to use once installed in its place
  • You’ll have no trouble finding a professional to install it in case you don’t know how

Cons

  • Outputs a lot of sodium, not great for the environment
  • Requires maintenance on a weekly basis
  • Need to constantly buy bags of salt

Salt-Free Water Softeners

If you’re worried about sodium intake or any of its other side effects, or if having a salt-based water softener is heavily regulated in your region, then this is a good option for you. Salt-free systems don’t require the same continual upkeep that ion-exchange systems do since they don’t need regeneration or salt for that matter.

The one difference in the softening process is that saltless water softeners don’t actually remove hard minerals. Instead, they work by neutralizing the hard minerals and making them less sticky. With that said, you still get the benefits of drinking calcium and magnesium from hard water, but you’ll no longer have to deal with the nasty side effects like limescale, hair loss, dingy clothes, and other harsh things caused by sticky minerals.

Another great thing you can say about salt-free water softeners is that, depending on the make and model, it can also come with additional filtering solutions that can screen out common pollutants like sediment or even heavy metals.

However, there is a catch. Salt-free water softeners are significantly more expensive than their salt-based counterparts. Sure, they cost less in the long run since they don’t require salt bags or maintenance, but the initial asking price is a major turnoff for a significant amount of the population. In short, the rundown is as follows:

Pros

  • No maintenance required
  • Absolutely no sodium added to the water and no additional salt packs or any other similar items required
  • Many models can often filter out common pollutants

Cons

  • Very expensive, with some units going even beyond the $1000 mark
  • Doesn’t always manage to neutralize all hard mineral particles

Water Descalers

Since we’re on the topic of salt-free water softening solutions, a very similar type of device is a water softener. However, physically speaking, the size of a water descaler is significantly smaller than that of either a salt-based or salt-free water softening system. More specifically, a water descaler is about the size of a traditional TV remote, whereas water softeners are, as you probably know, much, much larger.

It works similarly to a saltless water softener, except that instead of neutralizing hard minerals, it reshapes their crystals from a rough, chunky form to a smooth round form that guarantees they won’t stick to any surface. This is all thanks to capacitive electromagnetic signals that directly affect inorganic minerals. The installation process is very easy and the descaler doesn’t require any maintenance whatsoever. All you need is electricity.

With that said, it won’t work if there’s a power outage and no backup generator or any other alternative power source. Otherwise, the water descaler requires no maintenance and no additional accessories or extras.

Pros

  • Actively descales currently formed limescale and limestone formations
  • Doesn’t require any maintenance or the purchase of other materials
  • Leaves beneficial minerals inside the water
  • No maintenance to speak of whatsoever
  • Significantly easier installation process than traditional salt-based or salt-free water softeners; requires absolutely zero plumbing skills
  • Isn’t limited and doesn’t limit GPM or other factors that contribute to the quality of water

Cons

  • Requires electricity to work, so if there’s a power outage you’ll be out of luck
  • It can take up to three months to notice a change depending on the water’s hardness level
  • Certain models only work with a set pipe thickness
softened water

Portable Water Softeners

If you’re the type of person who travels a lot, then you might want to consider a portable water softener. They require no electricity and can go for several weeks between regenerations. And you won’t be needing those special salt packets that traditional salt-based water softeners use. Instead, you can just regenerate the portable softener with a bit of regular or kosher table salt.

You should be aware, however, that these units contain the word “portable” in their name for a reason. Well, a couple of reasons. Sure, they’re great for traveling purposes, no doubt about that. But don’t expect a large amount of water from them. They won’t give you the same water flow compared to regular softeners and don’t expect to be able to chain a few of them together for a whole-house solution.

However, they’re significantly less expensive, they can produce enough softened water for a small group of people, and can even soften the water for a bathroom for about an hour or so depending on the amount of water and the GPM. As such, they’re ok for the RV traveler. Just don’t expect such a unit to fulfill a bigger role and you’re good to go. 

Pros

  • Portable, you can easily fit one inside your backpack or your car’s glove compartment
  • Good enough for a small group of people’s drinking needs
  • Can be used to soften the bathroom’s water supply for a limited time
  • You can use regular table salt to regenerate it instead of special salt packets
  • Perfect for the RV traveler
  • Significantly cheaper than their whole-house counterparts

Cons

  • Won’t provide enough water for a whole house
  • It is fairly rare to find a non-salt-based system within this category

Dual Tank Water Softeners

This is somewhat of a newer system, even if it works the same as a regular salt-based water softener at its core level. However, there are a few key differences that might make it worthwhile especially for larger families.

The caveat here is that unlike a single-tank water softener, this model has two tanks that allow it to keep working while one of the tanks is regenerating. As such, you'll no longer have to go through the downtime that you would otherwise endure with a regular water softener. Even though it's not as good as a water descaler from this point of view, it's still a far better option if your household sees constant water usage.

Pros

  • You won't be interrupted nearly as much as with a single-tank water softener
  • Great for households that house a large family of 5+ people
  • Softens water significantly, so it's great even for households with a large amount of TDS

Cons

  • Significantly more expensive than a single-tank solution, and even more expensive than salt-less solutions
  • Still puts salt in your water, so you might want to avoid it if you have certain health problems

Showerhead Water Softeners 

It’s true that most American households have to deal with hard water. However, not everyone has to deal with the same hardness levels. For example, only slightly hard water won’t necessarily leave an observable amount of limescale, but it might still cause nasty skin conditions such as eczema.

In those cases, you’ll only need a softener for your showerhead and not for your entire home. Showerhead water softeners are much more affordable than traditional softeners regardless if we’re talking about salt-based or salt-free units or descalers. They are fairly comparable to portable water softeners when it comes to price.

Using a showerhead softener will make your hair and skin will feel much more hydrated and healthier. You’ll also have no more hard water spots on your shower walls and doors, and you’ll have less soap scum to clean up as well. Showerhead water softeners can be installed very easily by unscrewing your old showerhead and screwing on the new one. That’s it. Nothing more.

As for maintenance and upkeep, the showerhead softener uses cartridge filters to condition the water and remove any unwanted minerals and more. As a general rule of thumb, the filter needs to be replaced once every two or three months. It’s best to read the manual to know exactly when you need to change it.

Pros 

  • Very affordable; even the replacement filters are meagerly priced
  • So easy to install that even a kid could do it
  • Perfect for people with minimal water hardness levels

Cons

  • You need to change the filter cartridge once every two or three months
  • Only provides softened water in the shower and nowhere else
  • Some models might contain unwanted additives

Reverse Osmosis Systems

While not meant solely for softening, reverse osmosis is by far one of the best options if you want to get rid of the nasty effects of hard water. Well, it’s not perfect, if we’re going to be honest. But neither are all the other methods mentioned so far.

They strip the water of all substances, including hard water causing minerals like calcium and magnesium. These systems often feature extra steps to re-introduce healthy minerals into the water, so you’ll still have them for drinking. Many restaurants around the world prefer using reverse osmosis units because they make the cooking water, and subsequently the food, taste much better.

If you’re wondering how it works, an RO system pushes water through a membrane where all pollutants get trapped, leaving only the fresh water to flow through the pipes. The best part is that the membranes filters pollutants out at a microscopic level, so it’s also great for getting rid of bacteria and parasites.

Long story short, we recommend it more as an all-in-one solution if you don’t want to spend extra money on filters and other water-related necessities in your household. Fair warning, however, that an RO system tends to waste a lot of water. if you’re concerned about the environment, you should take note of this.

Pros

  • Removes a significant number of contaminants beside hard minerals
  • Makes water far better for cooking
  • Reintroduces beneficial minerals inside the water after the filtration process
  • A great choice for people who want an all-in-one solution
  • Requires no electricity to run
  • Doesn’t add any chemicals or negatively affect the water itself in any way 

Cons 

  • Wastes a significant amount of water, thus potentially increasing bills
  • Might affect the GPM in certain scenarios
  • Most RO systems are under-sink units, so they can only provide softened water to one faucet
  • Noticeably more expensive than the other solutions posted here

The Bottom Line

After looking through this extensive list of the available types of water softeners, you should have a much better idea about what works for you.

If you’re still uncertain, we can make a few small specifications that might make your decision a little easier. A traditional salt-based softener is straightforward and cheap if you don’t mind sodium in your water. On the other hand, a salt-free softener is just as straightforward but far more expensive, with the added benefit of no sodium or other chemicals.

Going further, are extremely easy to install, require no maintenance, do an extremely good job with the only real downside being that they require electricity. RO systems are meant as an all-in-one solution, though they do come at a high price and waste a lot of water.

Finally, portable and showerhead softeners are extremely affordable but very niche and only meant for specific purposes. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to choose which benefits and downsides you can afford to live with. And with all of this said, we wish you the best of luck in choosing your next water softening device!