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What Size Water Softener Do I Need for My Home?

A white master bathroom

There are many benefits to having a water softener, but going through the process of purchasing one for your home can be confusing. What size do you need? What are grains? What type of water softener is best for what you need?

If you live in an area with hard water, you’re probably already aware that a water softener can help get your dishes cleaner, leave your skin and hair feeling softer and extend the life of your appliances. The first question you probably have after deciding to buy one of these appliances: “What size water softener do I need for my home?” The first thing you should know is that the square footage of your home isn’t necessarily the biggest consideration when looking at water softener size. Instead, you should consider how many water outlets there are in your home. The more water your home can potentially be using at once, the bigger your water softener should be. Start with the number of bathrooms in your home. The more you have, the bigger you’ll need your water softener to be, because each bathroom equates to additional water outlets. You should also take into account the number of people who live with you. In the United States, the average person uses about 65 gallons of water a day. One can assume that the more people living in a household, the more water that household will use on any given day. If you really want to get specific, you can locate the exact amount of water you used the previous month on your water bill.

You should also think about the quality of your water. Every municipality treats and filters its water differently, and the source of where you’re getting your water could also mean there’s a higher likelihood that your water is hard. For example, if you use a well, your water softener will likely be filtering out more particulate matter than if you use city water. Furthermore, water systems using groundwater typically have harder water because the water flows across rocks and soil and minerals can easily be picked up.

When it comes to water quality, water is considered either hard or soft. Hard water contains a higher concentration of minerals like magnesium and calcium, whereas soft water will not have as high a percentage. Although it may sound like a good thing to have minerals in your water, larger amounts of these minerals can actually lead to a variety of undesirable consequences for your appliances, plumbing and skin.

You can measure how hard your water is by testing how many grains of minerals per gallon are in your water. To help visualize this, one tablet of aspirin weighs about five grains. So, if your water hardness was five grains per gallon and you solidified all of the tiny particles of minerals in your water into one solid block, it would be about the size of one pill.

If your water has less than 3 grains per gallon (gpg), you typically don’t need a water softener. Generally speaking, anything above that amount typically means that you’ll benefit from having a water softener installed in your home.

You may also see water quality measured in milligrams per liter, or mg/L. For conversion purposes, one grain per gallon is equivalent to 17.1 milligrams per liter, or 17.1 parts per million. If you have measured your water hardness in milligrams per liter, you’ll likely want to consider getting a water softener if your water measures in at over 60mg/L.

The harder your water is, the higher grain capacity you’ll need. Grain capacity is the measure of how much water hardness your softener can strip. Your water softener’s grain capacity should be able to handle a week’s worth of water hardness for all the people who live in your home.

For example, let’s say your water is hard at a level of 10 grains per gallon. If you have five people in your home and you all use 65 gallons of water a day, that equates to 325 gallons a day. Multiply that by seven days and you get 2,275 gallons. At a water hardness of 10 grains to the gallon, your water softener needs to manage 22,750 grains every single week. You can do your own calculations based on your personal water usage and water hardness.

Between the measuring, calculating and converting, you may begin to wonder if you really need a water softener. Given the particulars of your situation, do the pros of water softeners outweigh the cons?

Why Should I Get a Water Softener?

As we have already mentioned, first and foremost, softening your water will improve the lifespan of your plumbing and your appliances. Water hardness is an accumulation of tiny particulate matter in the water, and these particles can build up in pipes and appliances, as well as cause corrosion, scratches on parts and other plumbing problems. Similarly, when you wash your clothes in hard water, all that particulate matter wears down the fibers that make up your clothing, resulting in your clothes becoming exhibiting signs of wear at a quicker rate.

If that’s what hard water does to your clothes, imagine what it does to your skin! Another sign of hard water is skin irritation and itchiness, since your body may react to regular contact with these minerals. Softer water will help your skin feel refreshed after your showers instead of dry and scratchy.

Soft water also makes cleaning easier. When your water is hard, your soap and detergent have to work harder and don’t produce as many suds. Furthermore, hard water can lead to spotty looking dishes, an odd smell or taste to your water, low water pressure, rust stains and scratchy towels and linens.

Lastly, soft water heats up quicker than hard water. This is because the particulate matter absorbs heat rather than the water absorbing it. You can think of it as putting a pot of water on the stove to make noodles. When you salt the water in the beginning, it will take the water longer to boil. This same theory can be applied to hard water in your water heater. By removing the “salt” in your water heater, it can heat up your water faster, which can help lower your expenses.

Now that you know all of the benefits that come with having a water softener installed and you know how to calculate how big of a water softener you’ll need, it’s time to figure out which type of water softener will be the best fit for your needs.

A kitchen with a dining area that would benefit from an ion exchange type of water softener

Types of Water Softeners

There are three main types of water softener: ion-exchange, dual-tank and salt-free softeners. Each type has its own unique set of benefits, as well as reasons they might not be the right fit for your situation.

Ion-Exchange Water Softeners

When you get down to it, all water softeners work through ion-exchange. That is the process of exchanging calcium and magnesium ions for sodium and chloride ions. Single-tank salt softeners are simply called ion-exchange models for simplicity. Some of the benefits of ion-exchange water softeners are that they are compact, typically not as expensive and the easiest to install. One potential negative is that during regeneration, soft water is unavailable for use.

Dual Tank Water Softeners

Dual tank systems run two water softener tanks at once. That allows for the household to have soft water all day, every day. Whenever one tank needs to regenerate, the other tank covers your water needs instead. In a single-family home, these are not usually necessary. However, in multi-family homes or on commercial properties, dual-tank units can make things much simpler. Due to their large size, these softeners are typically a bit more expensive.

Salt-Free Softeners

Salt-free softeners don’t soften water the way you would expect. Instead, the technology prevents minerals from building up inside pipes. Since these softeners do not strip out the hardness from your water, they only protect your plumbing. That means that you will still experience dry skin, worn-out clothing and more challenging cleaning. That’s why this type of water softener is typically not recommended in homes.

Once you have purchased your water softener, you’ll have to get your system set up.

A stainless steel showerhead that has been turned on

How to Set a Water Softener

Setting up your water softener correctly the first time is important. You’ll want to make sure your softener is calibrated for your particular water hardness and the amount of water you tend to use. Handling your water softener set up properly will help you save money and prevent you from wasting salt.

There are a few things you’ll need to set up on every water softener. These tasks help the onboard computer chip manage your water and choose the best time to regenerate. You’ll also need to tell your system how much work it needs to do to provide you with the proper level of softness.

First, set up the clock on your unit. There should be a button labeled “Mode” that you can hit to set the clock to the current time of day.

Next, input your water hardness. This hardness is most likely calculated in grains per gallon. A home water test will give you the number to input here. If you have iron in your water, you may need to increase the hardness level. A qualified professional will be able to calibrate this for you if you have them install your softener.

You may also need to set the time at which your softener should regenerate. If you have a typical schedule, sometime in the early hours of the morning when the members of your household are asleep is usually a good time. Regeneration takes two hours for most units, so have the process start at least two or three hours before people wake up.

You will likely need to set up the salt level in your water softener as well. When you fill the brine tank, you should see a numbered scale on the inside. Check to see where on that scale the salt reaches and set that as your salt level. This will help your unit tell you when it’s about to run out of salt.

If you have all the correct calculations, setting a water softener isn’t too difficult. While these initial calibration steps sound deceptively easily, actually installing the softener involves a lot of plumbing work and may be best left to a professional, especially if you are prone to making common plumbing mistakes. Additionally, setting one of these values incorrectly can lead to a variety of problems. You may run out of salt early, you might use more salt than you need or you could wind up having your machine regenerate too often.

Again, all of these problems can be prevented by having a professional do the water softener installation for you. A specialist will not only be able to install your unit quickly and efficiently, but can also be a resource later on if you experience any issues with your appliance.

ABC Can Take the Guesswork out of Buying a Water Softener

When you consider the measurements, numeric calculations and the physical labor involved in putting in a water softener, you may realize you are in over your head. You can prevent this from happening and save your precious free time by having the licensed plumbers at ABC Home & Commercial Services help with your water softener. We are a full-service provider of water quality services, so we can advise you on water filtration, install your water softener and help with any issues that may come up once your appliance is installed. With ABC’s help, you won’t even notice anything wrong with your water and your life and everyday routine can go back to normal.

Tom Riggs

Tom Riggs is the Division Manager for Mechanical Services, overseeing sales and operations for HVAC, Plumbing, Electrical, Appliance Repair and Water Quality for all ABC Austin branches. He joined ABC in 2014. Before ABC, he was an HVAC Service Technician, HVAC Comfort Advisor/Sales and Operations Manager. Tom attended Universal Technical Institute. He's an avid outdoorsman and enjoys country living with his wife and two sons.

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