Water softeners function as a kind of water filtration system for your entire house that utilize ion exchange to remove calcium, magnesium, and certain other deposits from your water. If you have hard water, or if your current water softener isn’t working properly, you’ll need to do some research and buy a new water softener. However, this can be intimidating to someone with minimal plumbing experience—or if you’ve never bought a water softener before.
How can you know which water softener is the right one, and how should you conduct your research?
First, if you have a water softener already, you’ll need to know how to tell when it needs to be replaced. If your water feels harder than usual, if you’re having a hard time getting soap to lather in the shower, or if you notice a buildup around your pipes and faucets, it could be a sign that your softener isn’t working properly. Sometimes, replacing a part or conducting basic maintenance on the unit can rectify the issue. If it doesn’t, you may need a new unit.
Determining Your Water Hardness
One of the first steps you’ll need to take is measuring your water’s hardness. Generally, water hardness is measured in grains per gallon, or gpg. A single “grain” of hardness equals 1/7,000 pounds of solid rock material. 1 gpg is also equal to 17.1 mg/L or 17.1 ppm; your municipal water source may measure water hardness using these metrics. You can call your municipal water supply to get details on your city water if you’re using city water. Otherwise, you can purchase a water hardness testing kit and find out your water’s hardness on your own.
Soft water is considered to be between 0 and 60 mg/L, or somewhere between 0 and 4 gpg. Moderately hard water is 61 to 120 mg/L, or between 4 and 8 gpg. Any more than that, and you’ll be in significantly hard territory.
Water softeners are rated for capacity, based on the amount of grains they can filter prior to being regenerated. To figure out which grain capacity you need, take the number of people in your home and multiply the gallons of water they use each day. For reference, the average person uses between 80 and 100 gallons of water. Then, multiply that by the number of grains of hardness in your water. This is the number of grains you’ll need to remove each day. For most four-person households, a 33,000-grain capacity unit is ideal.
Water softeners eventually become coated with hardness particles in the resin bed. At this point, the softener proceeds with a “regeneration” cycle. During this process, any salt remaining in the tank is mixed with incoming water to cleanse the machine of these leftover particles. When complete, the unit will be ready to continue softening incoming water.
Getting the Right Type of Salt
Your unit will likely be able to use any water softener-approved salt. Clean pellet and nugget-style are recommended. You may also be able to find specialized types of salt for different applications. For example, sodium-based water softener salt is the most common, but potassium-based water softener salt can sometimes be used by people with specific, sodium-related health issues.
Setting a Budget
Next, you’ll need to set a budget for your water softener. Price varies tremendously based on the type of model you choose, the grain capacity of the unit, and how you have it installed. You can get a small, basic unit for as little as $500, while higher-end, more advanced models can run into the thousands. In many cases, the extra money is worth it; however, you shouldn’t buy a model far above your grain capacity needs. Otherwise, you’ll be wasting money.
It’s possible to install the water softener yourself. If you do, make sure you have two 1-inch national pipe thread taper (NPT) female connectors, and plenty of tubing to connect your softener to your existing plumbing. Your pipes may be made of copper, PVC, CPVC, or PEX; you may need different tools and materials depending on what types of pipes you have.
You’ll also need to drain your water softener when regenerating or recharging; your drain shouldn’t be more than 30 feet away from the softener, and shouldn’t be more than 8 feet above the floor. Most homeowners will benefit from having a professional oversee the installation.
With a properly installed water softener, your home should have access to softer, better tasting, less damaging water. Make sure you keep an adequate level of the right kind of salt in your water softener, and conduct regular maintenance to ensure it stays in good condition.