Q&A: How can I tell if I need a whole-house water softener?

Consumer Reports News: February 08, 2011 05:13 PM

A: Hard water can be a drag on a home’s aesthetics and efficiency. It leads to soap deposits in the bathtub, dull-looking laundry and spots on dishes. Scaly deposits inside faucets, showerheads, and appliances restrict water flow, rob heating elements of their efficiency and shorten their service lives.
Those factors can make the frequent pitches from water-softener companies attractive, especially when the systems are sold as “water conditioning systems.” But before you commit to spending up to $4,000 on a system, check to see if the hardness of your water warrants the expense. Start by checking your water company’s water-quality report—water with more than seven grains per gallon of calcium or magnesium is considered hard—or see how your region rates for calcium carbonate deposits. If you don’t have municipal water, test kits costing $10 to $25 can be purchased at home stores.

When we last tested traditional ion exchange water softeners, we did not find measurable differences in performance. Every softener removed essentially all the water-hardening elements like calcium and magnesium. And the amount of water they consumed (a concern if you have high water bills) was mostly consistent among models.

Cation exchange water softeners remove the calcium and magnesium ions found in hard water by exchanging them with sodium (or potassium) ions, according to the EPA's WaterSense website. Once all the ions are fully exchanged, the water softener undergoes a regeneration process to flush the system of excess ions and recharge with new sodium (or potassium) ions. This process can use 25 gallons of water or more per day, or up to 10,000 gallons per year.

If you're considering a water softener, check with your water supplier to see if your state or municipality has any restrictions on the type you can use. California recently passed a law to address excess salinity from residential water softeners and allows local water boards to set limitations on softener systems.

Before submitting to the hard sell, contact two or three more dealers for recommendations and for estimates of the cost of installation and additional maintenance. Some companies will let you lease a system for a between $30 and $50 a month if you wish to avoid a large up-front outlay, although you'll still have to pay an installation fee ranging from $200 to $400. And whether you lease or buy, you should budget $100 a year for a service call to check the unit's settings, plumbing and electrical connections.

—Reporting by Gian Trotta

Aaron Bailey

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