6 Types of Water Softeners and How to Choose One

Hard water can cause a variety of problems in homes and businesses, from dry skin and hair to spotty dishes and limescale buildup on plumbing fixtures. Water softeners are an effective solution, removing the minerals that make water “hard” and transforming it into softened water suitable for all household uses. With different types of water softeners available, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of each to choose the right system for your needs.

What Is Hard Water and Why Softening It Matters

Hard water contains high levels of dissolved minerals like calcium and magnesium. These minerals bind to soap, detergents, and other cleansing agents, preventing them from forming a proper lather and working effectively. The minerals can also leave behind chalky mineral deposits on everything the water touches – think showerheads, faucets, dishes, laundry, hair, and skin.

Over time, the effects of hard water can range from nuisance issues like spotty glasses to more serious problems like reduced appliance lifespan and clogged plumbing. Clothes washed in hard water may look dingy and feel rough. Hard water leaves behind a scaly, dry residue on your skin after bathing. By removing the problematic minerals, water softeners transform hard water into soft water, resulting in the following benefits:

  • Improved lathering action of soaps and detergents
  • Minimized spotting on dishes, glasses and surfaces
  • Less scale buildup and clogging in pipes and fixtures
  • Longer appliance lifespan
  • Smoother, softer skin and hair
  • Bright and clean laundry
  • Overall easier household cleaning and maintenance

How Water Softeners Work

Water softeners use a process called ion exchange to remove calcium and magnesium ions from the water by substituting them with sodium ions.

Inside a water softener is a resin bed made up of small, negatively-charged polystyrene beads called resin or zeolite. As hard water passes through this resin bed, the calcium and magnesium ions switch places with the sodium ions. The water exiting the softener now contains sodium ions instead of the harder mineral ions.

Salt, usually in the form of rock salt or solar salt, is used to replenish the supply of sodium ions. During the regeneration process, brine solution (water saturated with salt) flows through the resin bed, releasing a high concentration of sodium ions that displace the accumulated calcium and magnesium ions. The regeneration cycle restores the resin beads’ capacity to exchange hardness ions for sodium ions from the brine solution.

The softening process does not remove minerals but exchanges one kind (calcium and magnesium) for another (sodium). The resulting soft water retains trace amounts of calcium and magnesium but is now dominated by sodium ions.

6 Types of Water Softeners

There are six main types of water softeners, categorized by their regeneration method and whether they soften water on demand or on a schedule.

Timer Based Ion Exchange Softeners

The most common type of water softener is the timer based ion exchange softener. It softens all the water entering the home and regenerates based on a preset schedule – typically every 2-3 days for a household.


  • Effective at removing hardness minerals
  • Provides whole house softening
  • Simple to operate
  • Lower initial costs compared to on-demand models


  • Softens more water than required
  • Require regular additions of salt
  • Use more water and salt for regeneration

Meter Based Ion Exchange Softeners

Meter based ion exchange softeners regenerate based on actual water usage rather than a timer. A water meter measures the volume of water that flows through the softener. Regeneration initiates once a pre-set level of water volume is reached.


  • Only regenerates when needed based on water usage
  • More efficient use of salt and water
  • Customizable settings suit household needs


  • Higher initial costs than timer models
  • Requires accurate settings and proper metering
  • Settings require adjustments for changing demand

Dual Tank Ion Exchange Softeners

Dual tank softeners have two separate resin tanks that operate together. One tank softens the water while the other regenerates, allowing an uninterrupted water supply.


  • Provides continuous soft water, even during regeneration
  • Good option for higher water demand households
  • Each tank can regenerate separately


  • Larger and more expensive than single tank models
  • More complex programming and settings
  • Requires more space for installation

Magnetic Water Conditioners

Magnetic water conditioners use magnets to alter the structure of mineral ions, preventing them from bonding and causing scale buildup. The minerals are not removed but become suspended in the water.


  • Do not require salt or chemicals
  • Retain trace minerals in water
  • Lower operational costs


  • Do not remove minerals or hardness
  • Effectiveness is debated
  • May need periodic maintenance

Salt-Free Ion Exchange Softening

Salt-free ion exchange softeners substitute potassium chloride for common salt (sodium chloride) during the ion exchange process. The resulting soft water has potassium rather than sodium ions.


  • No sodium added to softened water
  • Potassium helps reduce scale
  • Lower sodium intake benefits some diets


  • More expensive than standard salt-based softeners
  • Potassium chloride is more costly than rock salt
  • Some staining may still occur

Reverse Osmosis Softening

Reverse osmosis (RO) uses water pressure to force water through a semipermeable membrane, filtering out dissolved ions and molecules. This removes calcium, magnesium, and other hardness minerals.


  • Effective removal of nearly all minerals
  • Also filters out contaminants
  • Can treat all household water


  • More expensive than ion exchange softeners
  • Wastewater produced in the process
  • Membranes require cleaning and replacement

How to Choose the Right Water Softener

Choosing the best type of water softener for your home depends on several factors.

Hardness Level

Consider your water hardness level, measured in grains per gallon (gpg) or milligrams per liter (mg/L). Check with local water authorities or use water test strips.

  • For very hard water (over 20 gpg), ion exchange softeners are usually the most effective and economical choice.
  • Reverse osmosis can also handle very high hardness levels but at higher costs.
  • Moderately hard water (5-10 gpg) can be treated with any system. Salt-free ion exchange may suit cost and environmental preferences.
  • For mildly hard water (less than 5 gpg), non-salt systems like magnetic treatment may be adequate.

Household Size and Water Use

Calculate the average and peak water usage rates your household requires. Large families with high water demand do best with large capacity units like dual tank or efficient meter-based ion exchange softeners. For smaller households, timer models offer adequate capacity at lower prices.

Water Quality

If your water has problematic levels of other contaminants like heavy metals, reverse osmosis can remove hardness while also purifying the water. For water with hardness as the primary or only contaminant, ion exchange is most efficient and economical.

Salt and Water Efficiency

Salt-free or meter-based softeners minimize salt use. However, they involve more costly initial purchase and installation. Timer models are simplest and most affordable but use more salt and water.


Ion exchange softener prices start under $500 while advanced RO systems run over $2000. Determine how much you want to invest upfront and on ongoing salt supply and maintenance. Electricity use is minimal for all types.

By considering these factors, you can zero in on one or two softener systems that match your household’s needs and budget. Be sure to have your water tested first to know your hardness level and steps required for optimal softening.

Frequently Asked Questions About Water Softeners

How much does a water softener cost?

Basic manual ion exchange softeners start around $400-500. Automated softeners with timers and advanced electronics run $800 to $1500. Premium models with dual tanks and high efficiency designs cost $1500 to $2500. Reverse osmosis systems range from $1500 to over $3000. Professional installation adds $200 to $500 or more.

How long do water softeners last?

With proper maintenance like regular salt additions and cleaning, an ion exchange water softener will last 15-20 years. Reverse osmosis system membranes require replacement every 2 to 5 years at around $200 each time. Overall lifespans of RO systems are 10-15 years.

What is the process my softener uses to soften water?

Most residential water softeners use ion exchange. The system passes hard water through a bed of resin beads which are charged with sodium ions. An exchange occurs where the resin attracts and holds the hard mineral ions (calcium and magnesium) and releases its sodium ions into the water. Sodium ions do not cause hard water issues, effectively softening the water.

How much salt does a water softener use?

Standard efficiency softeners use about 8-12 lbs of salt per 1000 gallons of water treated. Higher efficiency models utilize 4-6 lbs per 1000 gallons. On average, expect to add 40-80 lbs of salt pellets to the brine tank monthly for a family of four.

Is softened water safe to drink?

Yes, softened water is safe for all household uses. The sodium content of softened water is similar to unsoftened tap water, at only 15-35 mg per liter on average. Softened water retains trace minerals for taste and health. For those on sodium-restricted diets, potassium chloride salt substitutes are available.

Does softened water work for gardening and plants?

While softened water does contain more sodium, which some plants like azaleas and hibiscus are sensitive to, it won’t harm most household plants and lawns. The removal of calcium and magnesium can even benefit plants prone to limescale buildup. Moderation is advised, so try blending equal parts tap and softened water.

Can I install a softener on my own?

Some basic manual models allow DIY installation. However, most residential softeners are best installed by professionals to ensure correct positioning, valving and plumbing connections. Complex programmable models with remote access require specialized programming as well. Improper installations often result in leaks or units failing prematurely.


Hard water’s annoying and costly effects have a straightforward solution – installing a water softener tailored to your household’s needs. With smart choices based on hardness levels, water use, efficiency, and budget, one of the quality softening systems available today can restore the many benefits of softened water throughout your home. Give your faucets, fixtures, appliances and skin a break and prevent scale buildup with cleaner, softer water.