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How to choose the right water softener for your home

After more than 25 years in the UK industry, I absolutely recognise that choosing the right softener for your home with tremendous care is incredibly important.

Choose well!

If you select very well, choosing a domestic softener should be a decision you need only make once every 20–30 years, and in a few cases, the right softener could even last you much longer.  

  • Cheaper budget softeners have an effective softening capability of between 3-8 years if you're lucky, while plumber/builder grade models might be more likely to give you 5-15 years, but all too often the range is to the lower end of that scale.  You probably wonder why that is the case, and I will cover that within this page.

  • On the other hand, higher-quality consumer-grade models can give 15-20 years +, and some even go considerably (did I mention ‘considerably’?) further than that.  As two of our recent older-machine customers found out when their softeners went wrong at close to 30 years old, and amazingly, the spares were still available!  

Marketing Hype or Best Advice?

So my advice is to take your time and choose well.  Get independent advice from someone like Hydroworks; that’s us!  We are totally and completely independent with a lot of experience.  With over 10,000 customer base, and every make and model of machine in our care, we can give you best advice based on solid foundations. 

If you choose your softener carefully, you can reap the benefits for years and possibly even decades.

But, and of course there is a ‘but’ coming… choosing well in our sector is not easy because manufacturers and resellers often don’t tell the full story.  There is a lot of marketing hype designed to sell a product, shift a box, and make profit. 

For example:  most manufacturers don’t talk about the difference between soft water and completely soft water!  Why?  Because most machines struggle to measure flow rates below 10 litres per minute.  Of those that can, some do it better than others.  The result - water that feels soft, but leaves cosmetic staining or chalk in the water which can have an effect on dry skin conditions.

In the video below, this customer chose their softener very well…

When I went to see the customer below, they told me that they had purchased their softener in 1976, over 40 years earlier, for about £1,000 in today's money, which in those days was close to £9,000 - considerably more than we would pay for a quality softener today.

When the customer asked us in to do a FREE Health check on their softener, it was still giving softened water. However, the customer had noted that the time clock was no longer working consistently, and this prompted his decision to ask us to do a check.

The customer understood that servicing their machine was not going to be possible, and was also aware that softeners of today were a lot more efficient than their 40-year old model, and asked us to therefore change it for them.  They wanted the convenience of lighter-weight block salt and the peace of mind of continued reliability.  We chose the Harvey Minimax M3 water softener, the most advanced non-electric softener on the market at the time. Harvey's now makes the next-generation Minimax Innova.

Their running costs went from £175 a year to £53!


If you choose your softener well, it could last you many, many years.


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How to choose the right and best softener for your home

The only way to remove chalk, prevent scaling, and keep your sanitary ware sparkling and shiny, plus help protect your skin from hard water (such as eczema), is via a salt-based water softener. Remember, the salt never goes near the drinking water supply, it is purely used to remove the chalk that has been captured from the water supply, and chuck it down the drain via a brine water solution, after which fresh water is used to flush the bed of resin and make the softened water palatable and safe to drink!

Anyone who tries to suggest another product, such as a 'salt-free softener' or magnetic or electrolytic conditioner or a device that gives you 'structured water' is not looking after your best interests, and is simply trying to put profit into their pocket.  Don't fall for anyone giving you this misleading and woefully wrong advice.  

Let me share a story with you... 

I used to look after a dealer back in my EcoWater days when I was running the UK dealer network for the biggest manufacturer of softeners in the world.  

This dealer sold not only softeners but also powerful magnetic scale reducers, which they told customers were better than softeners.  That story stayed like that for years until, one day, they started manufacturing softeners.  

Overnight, their sales message changed, and they then started saying that some treatment could be achieved by magnetic devices, but the real answer was softening.  I found it astonishing that the marketing message took a 180° turnaround when business direction changed.  

I know many in our sector feel that the industry is full of smoke and mirrors, all to create confusion for the customer!

Hydroworks 'Product Suitability Test'

When I purchased Hydroworks, the previous owner, Jeremy, had agreed purchase arrangements with his suppliers, almost all of whom had sales targets linked to them.  These targets meant that I frequently had to decide which products I would recommend to a customer based on how far away we were from the supplier-set sales targets.  Not a customer-focused way to select the best product.

Around 6-months in, I asked the suppliers to please cancel the contracts and let me be entirely independent.  It was not an easy discussion, and while some agreed, most did not.  I found myself excluded from some manufacturers as a result.

By month 9, I was clear of all contracts, and could truly class myself as independent.

To me, to be 'independent' means that I am choosing the right product for the customer, based on my considerable industry experience.  Which products make it into our portfolio are few, because the majority of products out there may look great, and have fabulous marketing, but are not really fit for purpose, other than to make the reseller or manufacturer money.

I have therefore developed a hard-to meet 'Hydroworks Product Suitability Test', and products and suppliers must meet our four points in order to qualify for our endorsement. 

Those four points are:


Anytime a customer’s product goes wrong, a warranty claim not only costs us money, but it more significantly inconveniences the customer, and could even cause the customer to doubt the integrity of the advice we gave them!  The greatest risk is that it will affect our relationship with the customer.  I want our customers to fall in love with us for the long term!

So, for products to pass the first of our tests, the Product Reliability Test, they have to have a seriously high rate of reliability.  

Product reliability

Most softeners sold in the UK today are of a Chinese cheaper brand variant, which means they are imported into the UK and badged up  -and some of them look fantastic!  There are a few American brands, plus there are some other ones including a German builder and plumber brand, and, of course, there is one British manufacturer.

Depending on the quality of the softener, unfortunately, it seems as though looks don’t tally with quality.  I’ve been hunting for it, but I can’t yet find a report that was issued sometime between 2004 and 2006 from a Chinese supplier that talked openly about their group failure rates of softeners - it was meant to be an internal report where this particular export group of multiple manufacturers reviewed overall UK failure rates.  They determined from their research (no details were given how they came up with their figures) that their group were hitting 14% failure in the first year, but their conclusion was that they deemed it to be sustainable based on the profitability of their products. In the same report, they declared that EcoWater and Kinetico were under 6% but had little market share to be concerned about, while Harvey who was the biggest reseller had 11% failure rate (at the time)  and was considered to ‘poorer’.  The report was emailed in error by a Chinese agent to a Wirral-based company.  

So what can be classed as a failure?

Failure can be down to various factors, such as the build quality, or failure in electronics, or simple things like missing overflows, but by far the highest cause of failure of softeners in the world today is resin contamination.

Another key factor in failure might not be that there is even something wrong with the softener, but that it simply is not designed for the purpose of being sold to homes with UK plumbing systems.  It sounds odd to say that, I appreciate, given they are being sold in the UK, but importers don't tend to worry about that; Keep reading for more on this!

Nowadays it’s easy to sell a Chinese product in to the UK.   I don’t mean to single out China, but in our sector, they are the biggest importer in the UK, backed by an excellent export plan from the Chinese government.

They spot a market that looks profitable, create a website, great packaging, back it up with fantastic social media and start selling. I don't think it's unfair to say, 'Buyer Beware!'  


This is such a massive consideration, so it was hard to make this not number one on the list. 

- Salt and water usage

Some softeners use a lot of salt and a lot of water per regeneration (cleanse), and others use very little.

As an example, a typical single cylinder might use 90 - 120L litres of water and 1.1 - 1.2kg of salt on a regeneration and can take 120 minutes, while another might use 36 litres of water and 450g of salt on a regeneration and take 12 minutes!

Do you want to spend a lot, or a little each year?

- Annual Servicing

This is a minefield!  Manufacturers tend to state that if you don't service the machine in line with the recommended instructions, you will invalidate the warranty. 

Some manufacturers, particularly those that sell through plumbers and builders merchants, even make it impossible to go anywhere but to them for servicing, securing their customer base and increasing the cost of the service to the customer.  They go further - they educate their customers into the habit of just paying for their annual service through a 'maintenance care plan’, and then when the softeners get older, they just get the customer to replace the machine with the ongoing maintenance plan!

While some softeners require annual servicing (which can become very costly over the life of the machine), interestingly others state no servicing is required at all (saving a significant amount of money over the life of the machine).

When I worked for Harvey Softeners and was running the UK Minimax and Own Brand dealer network, many a complaint I heard was that Harvey stated no annual servicing of his softeners was required!  To the dealer, this was their bread and butter!

Harvey’s view was that if the dealer focused on the same 100 customers every year and kept trying to service their softeners that didn’t need servicing, in 10 years time, their business would not be much bigger.  But if they instead focused on selling quality machines that didn’t need annual servicing, then they could focus their free time on growing the UK market and their businesses! 

I fully subscribe to Harvey’s way of thinking on this matter!

- Length of life

 What an important factor this is! 

Some softeners won't last much more than 3-10 years, while better quality ones might manage 10-15 years, and the even better ones can do 15-20 years + or even considerably longer.  The longer the machine lasts, the better your investment return is. 


This is arguably one of my most important Product Suitability Tests, I feel.  

If you have a boiling water tap that doesn’t supply boiling water to 100°C, then you won't get the very best cup of tea.

If you have a water softener that can only soften the water within the range of soft, and therefore still leave chalk in the water, then softened water is not going to be as pleasurable to bathe in and it's going to leave cosmetic water staining on fixtures and fittings.  PLUS, if you have dry skin conditions in the family, they are not going to be helped if there is still chalk in the water blocking the pores of the skin.

Water Softeners in the UK have to comply with Advertising Standards and do what they say on the box, and that is that they just need to produce water that is soft, 'soft water', which on the scale of hardness (see the hard water table in the section below), equates to anything that is 120 ppm of hardness (or 7 drops of hardness), or below.

Many softeners, over time, might average 5-7 drops on the scale of softness, particularly where water is stored in the property, or water usage is lower.  

The problem with that statement is that manufacturers are slow to tell customers that most softeners struggle to measure flow rates below 10LPM (litres per minute), and they don’t put this in their sales documents, but the clever ones do put it into their service documents as a get-out clause for those circumstances where a customer complains that they are not getting completely soft water. Customers don't buy water softeners thinking that they won't get completely soft water; they just expect it, understandably. 

Below is one such instance: 

In naturally soft water areas (like where I live in Haywards Heath) that fall into the scale of soft - customers still purchase water softeners, not because of scaling, but because of the cosmetic effects and dry skin conditions commonly found in harder water areas. 

If they purchased a softener that could only average 5-7 drops of softness over time due to 'channelling' or 'trickle flow', then they won't get much benefit from their water softener.  So the best answer is to get something that does between 0 and 3 drops, unfailingly.  

What do I mean?  

Well, most of the water we use in our home is below that 10LPM threshold;  

  • a dishwasher and washing machine might fill at about 1.5-3LPM depending on the model

  • an electric shower might flow at about 5-7LPM

  • a loft tank system and often even a unvented hot water tank will top up between 0.3-2.3LPM
  • The only time where we may get above 10LPM is where a powerful power shower is in use, or we are running a bath. 

    So much of the water we use in our home can indeed be below 10LPM.

At lower flow rates, ‘channelling’ within the resin occurs, which means that the chalk fills a channel of the resin bed, and the next hard water that comes behind tends to find the easiest route through the bed, and if that is already full of captured chalk, then the water that comes out the other side through the taps will have chalk in them.  

And this leads us directly into ‘trickle flow’.  That is the next big problem most softeners have.  They have off-the-shelf standard paddle metres that can’t measure low flow, and at very low flow rates the metres simply stop doing their job.  The result is that the softener electronics or gearing will think that the softener still has the capacity to soften the water, but the reality is that the cylinder is full of chalk and the customer is getting hard water.

Below are some shower photos from a customer who’s softener was working perfectly, but look at the hard water staining!  What a story this one was - I must do a case study of it!  They simply had the wrong machine for their home.  Sadly, they thought all water softeners were therefore not very effective, and were planning to go back to hard water when their machine eventually broke down.  Luckily we were able to help them out, and give them completely soft water with the right machine for their home.

I often feel many in our industry don't have a deep understanding of the sheer importance of water quality, and the impact of channelling and trickle flow.

  • So the consistency of softened water is the holy grail of our sector, in my view! 


4. Manufacturer Backup 

Getting good back-up from manufacturers when it's needed in our sector can sometimes feel like pulling teeth - difficult and painful. 

This is a tremendous shame because sometimes a product is good, but when it goes wrong, and support is needed, if the customer can't get the support they need, they understandably lose faith and have every right to become annoyed. 

And so, we only ever recommend products where the manufacturers give excellent support.  Our customers need to know that they are supported if things go wrong.

If a supplier becomes tardy and doesn’t give good customer support, then that will inevitably impact our willingness to recommend their products, even if the product is great!  There is no value in having a fantastic product you can’t get good support for when you need it.


Some Questions to Think About

Why is it important to get the specification of the softener absolutely correct?

In my opinion, the softer we get the water, consistently, not sporadically, then the better the customer satisfaction, the more their home will sparkle, the happier their skin will feel and the more delighted the family in the home will be.

A well-chosen salt-based water softener should, in my opinion, give you incredibly soft water so that when you shower or bathe, those moments literally become 'WOW' moments. 

You should be able to also walk into your sparkling kitchen and bathroom without all the extra effort of scrubbing and harsh chemicals to remove cosmetic water staining, so common to cheaper or incorrectly specified water softeners.

I believe that every time you use your water, you should be able to remember you have a water softener fitted because the experience is so wonderful.

Additionally, it is very important to ensure that the softener is capable of meeting the needs of the property and the people who live there.

If your property is over three floors with a bathroom on the top floor, careful consideration must be given to the water pressure and flow rates required at the top-level bathroom. Properties designed like this sometimes require a more powerful, larger water softener compared to a standard two-storey home.  But also, increasingly, a few of the better machines can cope with this unique installation well.

The same would apply if you are a larger family – a standard domestic softener in such a circumstance could be expensive to run and inefficient. It would also work so hard that it would last several years less as it would just wear itself out.  No KitKat break moments!

So in these circumstances, it would again be prudent to choose the softener well, sizing the softener carefully to meet the demands of your growing family.‍

However, contrary to the belief of so many people in my industry, when sizing a water softener, it's not always good practice to base it on the type of property, as you would do a boiler, but instead, we base it more accurately on the number of people on average in the home.  There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.

My team at Hydroworks offer a free home survey and completely independent comprehensive advice before you take the plunge and invest in softened water.

Do you need a single-cylinder or twin-tank water softener?

Single-cylinder water softener

Not all softeners are the same.

A single-cylinder softener can only do one thing at a time. It can either soften the water or it can regenerate the resin. It's really as simple as that.

While it is regenerating, it is giving hard water.

Additionally, most, but not all, single-cylinder water softeners cannot easily measure flow rates, consistently, below 10 litres per minute.  The problem with that is that most of the water we use in our homes is below this flow rate!  

Some manufacturers build their softeners to the German DIN standard, where they have to leave hardness in the water supply.  Great for German homes, who don't have a choice, but terrible for British homes who do have a choice!

If a single cylinder is installed into the wrong type of home, we commonly tend to find cosmetic watermarks and staining on taps and shower screens, and blended water between 50-120pm of hardness remains.

Twin-cylinder water softener

A twin-cylinder water softener will provide softened water all of the time.

But not all twin-cylinder softeners are the same.

The American Kinetico softener only works on one cylinder at a time (we call this 'flip-flop'), plus the customer has to compromise between a model that either does high flow rates (but costs more to run), or has higher efficiency (but then has lower flow rates)!  

The British Harveys Minimax uses both cylinders simultaneously, producing guaranteed softer water.

It does high flow rates and high efficiency in one single model – which has made it the biggest-selling softener now throughout the UK and Europe.  

The Harveys also incorporates the exact same water meter as is used by the water authority in meters outside customer homes.  This is called the Elster meter, and it's incredibly accurate!  The water authorities don't give water for free where a meter is installed and so their meters have to be accurate!  It measures pretty much every drop of water passing through the home.  

How efficient do you want your softener, and how soft do you want your water?

Timer Controlled

Old fashioned, cheaper and less efficient.

Some softeners cleanse themselves at the same time of day, every day, even if they don't need to.

These TIMER softeners are very wasteful of both salt and water. Because they cleanse themselves every day, they work exceptionally hard, require more maintenance, and have a much shorter life span.

Even if a single-cylinder softener is metered, they still typically have an inbuilt manufacturer pre-set timer to regenerate every 3-4 days, regardless.  This is done to refresh the resin bed of chalk and remove any possible bacterial buildup.  This is because this type of softener often will struggle to consistently measure flow rates below 10 litres per minute.

Turbine Meter

Old fashioned single-cylinder and Kinetico twin-cylinder.

Most metered water softeners have this traditional aeroplane propellor meter style, but these are prone to letting hard water slip through. This is commonly known as 'slippage', which results in 'Trickle-Flow', which results in hardness remaining in the water, leaving cosmetic water staining.

In our industry, we openly recognise the inaccuracy of these systems, and it's considered best practice to fit extra solutions in the home, where possible, particularly if installed on loft tank gravity-fed systems, or to increase the frequency of regeneration by either changing the time-clock setting or increasing the hardness setting.

Displacement Elster Meter

Most advanced, totally accurate and even used by the water board.

The better the softener, the better the meter.

Within the UK market, the British manufacturer, Harvey, has designed their softener to accommodate the same water meter that is used in your water board-supplied water meters - these are known as displacement water meters, sometimes referred to as Kent Meters.

As we know, if you have a water leak, the water board will bill you for every drop of water you use.  Their powerful metres are just incredibly accurate.  And so, the same can be said for the Harvey Minimax Water Softeners. Their softeners will measure every drop of water used in your home, regardless of the type of plumbing or water system in your home.

They measure even down to a very slow dripping tap, which helps the softener give incredibly soft water.  As a consequence of this, Harveys is the only manufacturer in the domestic sector that guarantees completely soft water at all times, to a maximum of 1 drop of hardness. 

Every other manufacturer states that as long as customer water quality is within a scale of softness of 7 drops or less (see graph below), then the softener is considered to be working within operational parameters. 

Most traditional softeners are operational at 5-8 drops, with some exceptions, which is enough to leave cosmetic water staining due to remaining chalk and hardness in the mains water supply.

Do you want to use tablet salt or block salt?

Tablet Salt

Tablet salt is better for a water softener than the older granular salt and comes in either 25kg bags or easier-to-handle 10kg bags.

Most tablet salt softeners are wildly inefficient, so we select only those softeners that are the most reliable, the most efficient and have the best performances.

Block Salt

Block salt softeners aren't suitable for every home, but for those where they are, you will find the salt easy to handle and convenient.

Block Salt creates a very pure brine solution – this typically means the softener requires less servicing and less ongoing maintenance.

Block salt is typically a little more expensive than tablet salt, which is countered by the savings made because these  machines need less servicing.

Water Softener Quality

There are three grades of water softener quality in the UK:

Budget Grade Softeners

Basic, cheaper to buy, short life expectancy, costly to run and requires more maintenance.

These softeners offer cheap, affordable access to some of the benefits of softened water, such as tackling scale, but they're not very good at giving soft water consistently. They always use older technology and work exceptionally hard, using a lot more salt and water (typically between 80–120 litres of water each time they regenerate), which means they will burn themselves out quickly. These softeners require regular servicing, are less efficient and are replaced much more frequently. They will cost more in the long run as they are more expensive to operate.

  • Typical water wastage: 80–120 litres of water per regeneration
  • Typical Salt Usage:  1.2 - 1.5kg of salt per regeneration
  • Typical length of time to regenerate:  80-100 minutes
  • Pricing: £500–£650 + fitting + VAT (Typical fully installed price £800–£1,000)
  • Life expectancy: 3–8 years at best

Builder and Plumber Grade Softeners

A bit more expensive, costly to run, has older technology and requires more maintenance and 'Lucky Dip' availability.

When a customer asks their plumber or builder for a water softener, they generally want to be as helpful as possible. They will go down to their local plumber's merchant and ask for whichever softener is on the shelf available for them to order.

The merchant staff have so many products that it is impossible for them to know them all well, and they will sell the plumber what is on the shelf that month – normally, this is the softener that the merchant is getting the best rebate back on from the supplier. Effectively, they are being sold 'a box'. The merchant counter staff know very little about all the products they sell despite all their best intentions, and so it becomes a bit of a lucky dip.

There is, of course, a market for this type of softener as it will enable a plumber or builder to tick the "fit water softener" box when the architect or householder asks for one to be fitted. These machines are typically older generation technology, run on electrics, are marginally better on efficiency than the budget softeners, and require annual regular servicing, but they can offer good limescale protection. They are a good introduction to the benefits of soft water but may not always soften the water completely.

  • Typical water wastage: 80–120 litres of water per regeneration
  • Typical Salt Usage:  1.2 - 1.5kg of salt per regeneration
  • Typical length of time to regenerate:  55 -100 minutes
  • Pricing: £725–£1,000 + fitting + VAT (Typical fully installed price £1,200–£1,400)
  • Life expectancy: 5-15 years at best

Consumer Grade Softeners

Higher cost, best efficiency, advanced engineering, high-end materials, best technology, best flow rates, lowest running costs, best guarantees and longest life expectancies.

When we visit customers with very old water softeners, they are almost always from what we would call the Consumer Range of their day.

Regardless of when the softener was purchased, these softeners are the latest technology available at that time, offering the best in performance and efficiency. They are typically built to last twice the life of a quality refrigerator.

A variety of softeners fall within the Consumer Range, some of which will give you soft water some of the time and others that will give you soft water all of the time. Some will give you both high flow rates and high efficiency; with others, you'll have to compromise one benefit over another. So it's very important to be fully aware of all the true features of each softener so that you choose well to make sure the decision you make is one that you'll be delighted for many years to come. However, for the little extra, you'll typically pay for a consumer range softener, you'll definitely appreciate the choice you made, day after day, week after week, year after year.

  • Typical water wastage: 17-60 litres of water per regeneration
  • Typical Salt Usage:  300g - 900g of salt per regeneration
  • Typical length of time to regenerate:  11- 55 minutes
  • Pricing: £1,200–£1,800 + fitting + VAT (Typical fully installed price £1,700 – £2,200)
  • Life expectancy: 20-25 years, and some go on even much longer