How to choose the right water softener for your home
After more than 24 years in the UK industry, I entirely recognise that choosing the right softener for your home with tremendous care is incredibly important.
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.
On the other hand, higher-quality consumer-grade models can give 15 years +, and some even go considerably further than that. The oldest quality domestic softener we have serviced is over 30 years old, and amazingly, the spares all still available!
So my advice is to choose well. You will reap the benefits for years and possibly even decades.
In the video below, this customer chose their softener very well…
When I went to see them, they told me that they had purchased it 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 invited us in to do a FREE Health check on it, 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 it was not going to be possible, and instead opted to change it as they wanted the convenience of lighter-weight block salt and the peace of mind of continued reliability.
Following a site survey and advice, 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.
How to choose the right and best softener for your home
The only way to remove chalk, prevent scaling and make your sanitary ware sparkle and shine, and protect your skin from hard water (eczema), is a salt-based water softener.
Anyone who tries to suggest something else, such as a salt-free 'softener' or magnetic or electrolytic device, is not looking after your best interests and is simply trying to put profit in their pocket. Don't fall for anyone giving you this misleading and wrong advice.
Let me explain what I mean... 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 softeners but also 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 then they started saying that some treatment could be achieved by magentic devices, but the real answer was softening. Our industry is full of smoke and mirrors, all with the purpose of creating confusion.
Hydroworks Litmus Test
At Hydroworks, I have developed a 'Litmus Test' for determining which products we recommend, and we stick to this passionately:
Most softeners sold in the UK are either Chinese or American, plus there are some other ones including a German builder and plumber brand, and depending on the quality of the softener, failure rates in our industry are actually quite high (as much as 14% in the first year can fail, based on figures that were once discussed years ago).
Nowadays, these figures are harder to come by. The better quality manufacturers, back in those days, used to talk about a 6% failure rate with their products. Over the intervening years, that information has been lost as nowadays the UK industry is less transparent.
Failure can be down to various factors, such as build quality or resin failure, and oddly, sometimes even the fact that the softeners are just not suitable for the UK home market. It sounds odd to say that, given they are being sold in the UK, but importers don't tend to worry about that; They simply spot a market to profit in, create a website, and start selling. Buyer beware!
This may come as a surprise... but most softeners cannot even consistently measure flow rates below 10 litres per minute (much of the water we use in our homes is below this flow rate). Resellers don't typically tell customers this in their sales documents because they do not want to put consumers off their products, but they do sometimes put it in their service documents, as can be seen in the screenshot below, taken from one manufacturer's service manual:
Softeners have to produce 'soft water' to be properly classed by the Advertising Standards Association as a water softener, and in the UK, that means that they have to produce softened water that falls within a range of 0-7 drops of hardness, upto 120ppm. And technically, this is correct.
However, what may be 1 drop of hardness one day, could be 5 drops another day. At 1 drop, everything sparkles, at 5 drops, water marks, soap scum and dry skin conditions can still be an issue - So the consistency of softened water is the key!
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.
We base our selection of which softeners are best on four key factors; I call them The Hydroworks Litmus Test:
It's actually quite hard to decide which of these Hydroworks Litmus Tests are most important, because I think we have such high expectations of each of them. Maybe they are equally important?
The way I look at it is to imagine a ladder where all the softeners sold in the UK started off at the bottom of that ladder, but the best climbed their way to the top.
We would start off with maybe 50-70 softeners. Four brands would make their way onto the first rung of our ladder. (You'll notice I am not listing them - that is because within these brands, some of their products are suited more for the budget market and they dont fare well in my list)
As we go through our Hydroworks Litmus Test, these four would become 2 very quickly.
- PRODUCT RELIABILITY
This is a vitally important consideration for us because every warranty claim not only costs us money, but it also inconveniences the customer, and might even cause the customer to doubt the advice we have given them, and 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!
This is such a massive consideration.
- 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 litres of water and 1.2kg of salt on a regeneration and take 120 minutes, while another might use 36 litres of water and 450g of salt on a regeneration and take 12 minutes!
- Annual Servicing
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 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 educate their customers in to the habit of just paying for their annual service through a 'maintenance care plan'.
While some softeners require annual servicing (which can become very costly over the life of the machine), others require no servicing at all (in turn saving a significant amount of money over the life of the machine).
- Length of life is also an important key factor. Some softeners won't last much more than 3-10 years, while others will do 10-15 years, and some can 20 years + or considerably longer. The longer the machine lasts, the cheaper your investment is.
- Water Quality
This is arguably one of my most important Litmus Tests, I feel.
Water Softeners have to produce 'soft water', which on the scale of things (see the hard water table in the section below), equates to anything that is below 120 ppm of hardness (or 7 drops of hardness, or less).
Many softeners, over time, might average 5-7 drops on the scale of softness, particularly where water is stored or water usage is low. The problem with this is that naturally soft water areas (like where I live in Haywards Heath) fall into the scale of soft - but in these areas customers still purchase water softeners.
If they purchased a machine that could only average 5-7 drops of softness, 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.
The reason for this comes down to two factors: Channelling within the resin, and trickle flow. I often feel our industry doesn't understand the sheer importance of these two factors.
- Manufacturer Backup
Getting 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.
Some Questions to Think About
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?
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.
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?
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 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.
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
- What are the benefits of softened water?
- Choosing the right water softener for your home
- Can you safely drink softened water?
- Can softened water help eczema?
- How much salt will my softener use?
- Which salt is best for my water softener?
- How to bypass your water softener
- How damaging is hard water?
- Where does our local hard water come from?
- What are the best energy-saving devices?
- How quickly will a softener pay for itself?
- Can you put softened water into a boiler?
- How to choose the best water softener installer?