Most Americans focus on removing chlorine from their water along with contaminants like heavy metals and pesticides. When you have hard water, an entirely different solution is needed, and only the best water softener can handle tap water with high hardness levels.
What is a Water Softener?
If you want to clear up iron or common tap water contaminants, you need proper filtration. If you have hard water, you have a completely different problem on your hands which is where a water softener comes into play.
A water softener will not remove bacteria from your well water or clear up sediment. They are typically used in conjunction with other systems in areas with poor water quality and as stand-alone units for city dwellers with treated municipal water. There are a few combo units that can remove iron and other contaminants, but many of the top systems simply focus on lowering your hardness levels.
An area of confusion among consumers is the emergence of salt free softeners and conditioning systems. They are completely different from a traditional water softener despite what marketing and manufactures would lead you to believe. Anything dubbed as a saltless or salt free water softener isn’t a true water softener, but more of a descaler or water condition system.
We’ll touch on the different types of “alternative systems” in our guide, but first, it is important to understand how a whole house water softener works.
How a Water Softener Works
The process of “softening” water involves removing minerals like calcium and magnesium from your tap water. While there are several ways you can do this, using ion-exchange resin is the most popular method for homeowners today.
As water passes through resin beads inside the mineral tank, molecules on the resin bind positive magnesium and calcium ions to it while releasing sodium ions back into the stream. Gradually, the resin becomes saturated, and the system will need to backwash, regenerate, and charge itself. When the regeneration process is complete, the salty solution from the brine tank will need to be disposed of. You’ll need to replace salt on a regular basis as well although how frequently depends on the system.
With that in mind, several communities and regions across the United States have actually banned salt-based softeners due to environmental concerns. Kentucky, Texas, Florida, and California are just a few states which have cracked down in recent years, so you may want to check on the laws in your region as well.
The Benefits of a Whole House Water Softener
You may be wondering how a softener can benefit your home now that you know how they work and that most don’t do anything but lower hardness levels. Well, there are many perks with a whole house water softener, but one of the biggest advantages is the amount of money it can save you down the line.
Hard water can wreak havoc on your appliances, including ice machines, coffee pots, and washing machines. A water softener eases the burden on any system using water in your home and prevents mineral buildup from calcium and magnesium in your pipes. You might be surprised by how detergents perform as well.
You don’t need to use nearly as much soap or detergent with soft water, and hard water stains on silverware or your bathtub will be a thing of the past. Your clothes will come out better in the wash, and your hair and skin will also appreciate softer water.
How to Find the Best Water Softener
Choosing the best water softener for your home requires a bit of forethought. You’ll need to calculate your water consumption and consider a few tech specs, but before we go any further, ask yourself a simple question…
How hard is your water?
You can’t choose a water softener without knowing how hard your water is to begin with. The good news is finding those levels is easy as picking up a hardness test kit which can give you a general range. You can also check out the USGS map below to get an idea of what to expect or check with your utility board if you live in the city.
The USGS has guidelines that constitute soft and hard water as 0 to 60 mg/L is considered soft water and a whole house softener will be a waste. 61 to 120 mg/L is on the threshold and considered moderately hard while anything above 121 mg/L is most definitely hard water. If you’re over 180 mg/L, you’re going to need a beefy system in your home.
Water Softener Capacity
Deciding how large of a water softener you need is a little tricky compared to regular whole house filters or systems that sit under a sink. In most cases, a family of up to 4 people will be just fine with a 40,000-grain water softener, but you could get by with a 32,000-grain unit as well. There are also 80,000-grain dual tank water softeners that can handle a mini-mansion, although a quick equation can help you find a more accurate number for your needs.
To find out how many grains per gallons you need from a system, you may have to do a simple conversion. If you have a test kit that measures hardness in GPG, you’re halfway home, but labs and the government tend to prefer measurements like mg/L or PPM, which is parts per million. If you’re dealing with one of those measurements, take that number and divide it by 17.1. That’s your new hardness level although if clear iron is present in your H2O, you will need to add 3 GPG for every 1 PPM of iron.
After that, you’ll need to multiply the number of people in your home by how many gallons of water they use each day. The national average is around 70 gallons per person, but that number can vary wildly for several reasons including conservation efforts in certain areas. The best course of action is to look at your utility bills and find a good average.
In order to find out how many grains you need weekly, multiply your daily water usage number by 7, then multiply that number by your hardness level. If your household uses 3,000 gallons a week and your hardness level is 10, you’ll need 30,000 gallons per week. When in doubt, round up, not down unless you want to run the risk of your system regenerating more often than it should.
Types of Water Softeners
As mentioned, a real water softener that reduces hard water uses salt. Everything else is essentially a pretender and not a contender when you are looking for the best. You still need to understand the different styles available, however, to ensure you choose the right system to suit your needs.
While not a true variant, there are two other styles you’ll want to know about with dual tank and combo softeners. A dual tank water softener doubles up on the softening power and can provide you with soft water on demand 24 hours a day.
They are typically large water softener systems in the 60,000 to 80,000-grain range. Combo water softeners are a great way to handle certain elements like iron, although still not a true replacement for a filter built to deal with heavy metals.
The Regeneration Cycle
Every salt-based water softener will need to regenerate, and there are two choices – valves that have a demand initiated meter or a timer. Softeners that use a timing system are set up to regenerate on a predetermined schedule. While they perform as advertised, you have to stay on top of the schedule. If you go out of town for a week, it’s still going to regenerate every few days. You also have to account for extra usage as well.
Valve’s with a demand initiated meter are far more efficient, but a little more expensive than a simple timer. The water softener system keeps track of how much water has been used along with your hardness levels and regenerates as required. They don’t waste as much salt or use as much electricity as time initiated softeners.
Regardless of how the valve works, you will still need to deal with wastewater from your system periodically, and it’s a good idea to keep disruptions in mind. The time it takes a water softener to regenerate varies, and it’s a tech spec that is not always easy to find.
What about the resin?
There are also two types of resin to consider although most home-based water softener systems use one. Your new water softener will come preloaded with resin, but what’s in the mineral tank can have a large impact on your H2O.
Standard cation resin is the most common option and is usually 8% crosslink resin. Occasionally, manufacturers will use a 10% mix which is better suited to last longer in homes with chlorinated water. Either strength will get the job done, but fine mesh resin is a better alternative for iron.
As the name implies, this resin is “finer,” which happens to make it more effective at reducing iron. Most systems with fine mesh resin can remove dissolved iron up to 10 ppm. Whatever resin your softener comes with, you can switch the mix if needed but you may need to alter your system slightly to handle the smaller beads if you change to a fine mesh resin.
Water Softener Maintenance
We’ve already touched on what you’ll need to do with your wastewater after regeneration, and softeners are not particularly hard to maintain – just follow the manual for your product. Well, there is more to think about with water softener maintenance than simply refilling salt or dumping brine water. You also have to consider the company that makes your water softener along with the warranty and price of replacement parts.
The best water softeners are built to last, but eventually, an O-ring will give way, or you’ll need to replace your mineral tank. It may be a decade, which is ideal, although it can be a problem depending on who makes your water softener. Just because it’s listed as a “Fleck water softener system” doesn’t mean it was made by Fleck. It probably means it has a valve from the company, but you should also know that Fleck is actually owned by Pentair Ltd.
Therein lies the problem as the company that makes your filter now, may not be in business by the time you need a part. A good warranty is one solution, but not always an option unless you can pick up an extended plan. You can also look for systems that are compatible with third-party parts or stick to a brand with a proven track record that has been in business for decades.
Whole House Water Softener Installation
Whenever you have to cut into a water line, it can be a daunting experience for the uninitiated. Thankfully, installing a water softener is far easier than installing a whole house filtration system or dealing with other types of water filters.
Location is key, but you won’t need many tools from a pipe cutter or hacksaw and some fittings depending on what’s included in your kit. As always, you’ll want to follow the manufacturer’s directions, but the video below will give you a good idea of how the majority of salt-based water softeners are installed.
The Best Whole House Water Softeners
Now it’s time to take a look at our water softener reviews. All of our picks use basic water softener salt and can deal with hard water in homes that have anywhere from two to over a half-dozen people. While there is a style and size for everyone and our choices all have high reviews, you’ll still want to know what’s in your water before settling on a system.
- Capacity: 48,000
- Flow Rate: 14
- Warranty: 5 Years
- Capacity: 30,000
- Flow Rate: 7.6
- Warranty: 1 Year
- Capacity: 80,000
- Flow Rate: 18
- Warranty: 5 Years
- Capacity: 40,000
- Flow Rate: 9.5
- Warranty: 1 Year
AFWFilters Iron Pro 2
- Capacity: 64,000
- Flow Rate:
- Warranty: 5/10 Years
Pentair Dual Tank Fleck
- Capacity: Dual 80,000
- Flow Rate: 21
- Warranty: 5/10 Years
Tier 1 High Efficiency
- Capacity: 48,000
- Flow Rate: 11.2
1. AFWFilters WS48-56sxt10 Water Softener
Best Whole House Water System Overall
Fleck is a name you can trust when it comes to water softeners, and it’s not uncommon to find their control valves on tanks from various manufacturers. That’s the case with the AFWFilters WS48-56sxt10, which is our top option for the best whole house water softener due to a solid combination of price and reliability.
While this water softener resembles the popular WS48-56SXT, AFWFilters upgraded this model with additional resin. There is 10% crosslink resin in the mineral tank compared to the typical 8%, which is ideal if you’re dealing with a lot of chlorine. The standard brine tank measures 14” x 33” and can hold around 250 pounds of salt.
Both the brine and mineral tank are durable although the latter is constructed from poly-glass. It has a 10-year warranty while the Fleck 5600SXT head has a 5-year guarantee. The digital head is top of the line with a backlit touchscreen that’s a breeze to use. It also has a 48-hour internal backup in case you lose power, and as it’s a Pentair product, you’ll have access to a number of helpful apps as well.
This salt-based system is rated at 48,000 grains, so it’s large enough to handle a family of four without any problems. It will regenerate as needed thanks to its metered nature and utilizes a paddlewheel instead of a turbine. It’s of average size compared to other models and heavy at 130 pounds with a water consumption rate of 3.5 gallons per minute.
We’re big fans of the Fleck 5600SXT head, and while you can find it on a half-dozen tanks, they only have 8% resin, and this one has 10%. The bypass valve and yoke are built for 1” lines, and the kit comes with everything you need to get started. That includes lubricant for your O-rings, test strips, a USB drive with instructions, and a sanitizer pack.
2. Whirlpool WHES30E Water Softener
An Affordable Softener from Whirlpool
One of the few disadvantages to any whole house water system is the design. Tanks and pipes aren’t necessarily easy on the eyes, and the same problem affects softeners as well. Well, that isn’t an issue with the Whirlpool WHES30E, an attractive unit that can handle an entire household.
From a design standpoint, the Whirlpool WHES30E is the only system on our list that resembles an appliance. The top-loading softener has a digital control panel on the top for ease of use and is listed at a 30,000-grain capacity so it can handle up to 3 to 4 people without issue although an extra person or two would push this one to the limit.
This water softener can remove up to 8ppm of iron, manganese, sediment, calcium and lead while bringing your hardness levels down. As it’s an automatic system, it will regenerate when necessary, so it’s economical and requires less salt than other systems. We’re fans of the low salt indicator light as well along with the fact its NSF certified.
The hardness removal level for the WHES30E is 95 grains per gallon, and the expected output between refills is listed at 35 gallons. It only requires 2.3 gallons of water for regeneration, holds 175 pounds of salt, and has a service flow rate of 7.6 GPM. It’s not as heavy as other models on our list, but you still may need a little help setting this one in place.
Whirlpool is one of the few brands on this list consumers will be familiar with, and we’re pleased to say the WHES30E won’t let you down. It’s not the best option for larger households due to the flow rate, but has a nice price tag and is easy to use. The WHES30E comes with an install kit and sports a 1-year warranty on parts and labor.
3. Pelican Water Heavy Duty Water Softener
The Best Water Softener for Large Homes
Pelican Water manufactures some of the best water filtration systems around, so it should be no surprise they have a product on our list. The Pelican PLS80 heavy-duty water softener is our top pick from the company, and a water softener system we think you’ll love if you want a flexible system that lets you set it and forget it.
The PLS80 is no different from other systems with large tanks and exposed heads, but a bit sleeker thanks to the big black tank and bright blue logo. We don’t have tech specs on the brine tank, but the system itself is around 62” high. This salt-based water softener weighs 210 pounds unboxed and can hold up to 300 pounds of salt.
The system is rated at 80,000 grains and uses high-capacity resin with a hardness removal rate of 75 GPG. It provides your home with plenty of pressure considering the flow rate is listed at 18 GPM. The PLS80 can soften 4,000 gallons between before needing refilled. Pelican used a digital metered head on this system, but one that has three modes of operation with delayed, time clock delayed, and meter immediate.
Overall, we think this softener is extremely easy to use, and it even comes with 36 pre-programmed regeneration cycles as well. A few other features to note include an 8-hour battery backup, 1 to 28-day override system, and a double backwash function. Needless to say, you’re getting a great set of features from the PLS80.
You generally pay a premium with Pelican and the PLS80 is no exception as it’s one of the more expensive systems to make the cut. This particular system is also available in 24,000 and 48,000-grain configurations, but you’re getting more bang for your buck with this one. Pelican’s system comes with a 5-year warranty for the head and tank.
4. GE Smart Water Softener GXSHC40N
The Best Water Softener for Connected Homes
It’s taken a while, but we have slowly seen more companies introduce Wi-Fi to their products. GE is one of them although you might be surprised to find that functionality on one of the company’s water softener systems.
The GE GXSHC40N shares a lot of similarities with Whirlpool’s system. Both are top-loading devices with digital valves, and neither would look out of place in your laundry room. GE’s softener is larger; however, with a 40,000-grain capacity and has a maximum hardness removal level of 110 GPG. You’ll get more flow at 9.5 gallons per minute as well, but Wi-Fi is what sets this one apart from that model and the rest of our picks.
Want to shut off your water remotely or get notifications when your salt is running low? You can do that with the app as long as you can get a Wi-Fi signal near your softener. Their SmartSoft tech also monitors your lines to keep tabs on your usage, which increases its overall effectiveness. Salt Saver, customizable levels, and leak alerts are a few other perks of the GXSHC40N GE water softener.
This softener is a fairly compact product at only 47” high, but it can hold 230 pounds of salt. As a bonus, it can remove iron up to 8ppm, and its smart home enabled, so it should work with Alexa, Google Home, and other systems. Regeneration time is listed at 114 minutes from 37 gallons of water while the output time is 4,000 gallons between refills.
Considering the number of consumers that own smartphones, the ability to shut-off and monitor your softener is a major perk in our eyes. While it is more expensive than similar models in this class, the fact it can remove iron, has Wi-Fi, and performs admirably should put it high on your list. Just keep your households consumption in mind, along with the flow rate.
5. Iron Pro 2 Combination Water Softener AFWFilters
The Best Water Softener for Well Water
Any of the water softener systems on our list is guaranteed to reduce your hardness levels. Only a few deal with iron, however, and the Iron Pro 2 combo softener from AFWFilters can hang with the best of them.
Our second pick from AFWFilters shares a few similarities with our first, but this one uses a different concoction in the mineral tank. That tank is filled with fine mesh resin, so it will last longer than tanks using an 8% mix and does more than just filter your water. This system will remove iron within 4 to 7 ppm along with rust, sediment, and sand. It can also handle manganese up to 6 ppm as well.
That tank has a 64,000 grain capacity with a hardness removal rating of 70 GPG. The popular Fleck 5600 digital control head is in use on this system, while the brine tank is sturdy, but standard at 12” x 48”. This NSF certified water softener has a water consumption rate of 45 gallons and is fairly lightweight considering it tips the scales at 95 pounds.
We think the Iron Pro 2 is a nice alternative to the GE and Whirlpool water softeners that reduce iron. It’s also better suited for well water due to the open nature of the design as well. The head is guaranteed for 5 years, and the tank has a 10-year warranty. You’ll also get a 1” bypass valve along with an installation kit but will want to check the box carefully as some reviews mention missing accessories.
6. Pentair Dual Tank Fleck 9100 Water Softener
The Best Whole House Dual Tank Water Softener
While there are dozens of whole house water softeners that can deliver water throughout your home, a dual tank system is the only way to ensure soft water at any time. The best dual tank water softener on our list comes from Pentair, and it’s an excellent choice for large homes.
This beastly softener is built to provide your family with softened water 24/7 courtesy of two resin tanks that are 54” tall. There are 80,000 grains in each of those big blue tanks which are well-built and made in the U.S.A. The brine tank is large as well at 18” x 40” and has a safety float. The tanks aren’t any different from what you’d see in single tank softening systems, but the valve certainly is.
Most water softeners use the Fleck 5600, but this system sports the Fleck 9100 SXT. This programmable digital head is geared for continuous operation and allows you to switch between tanks automatically. It regenerates as needed just like the smaller valve, and you’ll get most of the features found on that version as well. This head has 5 cycles of control with a continuous flow rate of 21 gallons per minute under optimum conditions.
At over 200 pounds and 65” wide, you’ll need to make room for this one although that’s the only real drawback in our eyes. There have also been a few reports of parts mix-ups, so check the box and verify the contents once it arrives. If you need a dual tank system for a large home or light commercial use, it’s hard to go wrong with this one. The valve has a 5-year warranty while the tanks are warrantied for 10 years.
7. Tier1 High-Efficiency Digital Water Softener
The Best Budget Water Softener
Tier1 isn’t a name you’re likely to be familiar with unless you’re well-versed in water treatment systems. If you’re in the market for a budget-friendly system, it would be a mistake to pass up this softener as it’s an affordable 48k system with a respectable flow rate.
This system is built for a family of up to four people, and while it doesn’t have a Fleck valve, the digital head is a breeze to use. It has fully adjustable cycle times with a clear LCD display although it’s missing a low salt indicator. The company went for a turbine meter as well to cut down on the footprint, which means the system is only 10” deep.
This 48,000-grain whole house water softener system has a matching brine and mineral tank. The mineral tank is prefilled with 1.5 cubic feet of 8% cation resin, and the brine tank can handle 120 pounds of salt. It takes two hours to regenerate with the WS-165-150 and uses a demand initiated system with an impeller, so it’s not automatic or as care-free as our other choices. It’s also geared towards 3/4” water lines.
This water softener is a great choice if you don’t need an automatic valve and don’t mind interruptions during regeneration. The flow rate is solid compared to other models in this range at 11.2 GPM, and it can also remove 3.0 ppm of clear iron. Alternatively, there is a black variant with similar capabilities but with an automatic head.
Water Softener FAQ
Q: Does a water softener strip minerals from my drinking water like a reverse osmosis system?
A: No, they just remove calcium and magnesium, which gum up your pipes along with a little iron. It does add a measure of sodium to your water, but it’s minimal.
Q: How long do the mineral tanks last in a water softening system?
A: Great questions, but one that’s difficult to answer unless the manufacturer clearly lists what’s covered in their warranty. In most cases, you can expect between 5 to 10 years out of a tank-based, but some may last 20 years or more.
Q: How often should I add water softener salt to my system?
A: You can expect to top off the salt anywhere between 4 to 6 weeks in most cases as it varies by usage and the hardness of your water.
Q: Are water softeners expensive to run like a whole house filter?
A: No. The electricity used is minimal, so the only real cost in the short term will be salt, which is relatively inexpensive.
It’s important to remember that a water softener is not a replacement for a whole house filter, reverse osmosis system, or even a good fridge pitcher. Those devices “filter” your water while a water softeners sole purpose is to bring your hardness levels down. If you’re not a fan of using salt or live in an area where the use of softeners is restricted, be sure to check out our list of the best salt-free water softeners.