By Rehan Iqbal
How much does it cost to put a water softener system in your home? Installation costs vary depending on the type of softener you use, and what it takes to connect it to your water supply. The spending doesn’t stop there.
Over the life of the softener, you need to spend money on maintenance, including salt, resin, cleaning and repairs. How do you figure out which water hardness solution is the most cost effective? We’ve broken down the costs of different options, including water softeners, water conditioners and rental tanks.
How Much Does a Water Softener Cost?
You can get a water softener for as little as $400. However, these cheap systems have major issues. Component quality is poor, and they often use proprietary valve heads. When something goes wrong, you can’t get the parts needed for repairs.
Corrosion from the brine tank’s salt water is also an issue, since there’s little effort to protect the valve head. These softeners only last between 3 and 5 years. You’ll mostly find these disposable softeners at home improvement stores.
A quality home water softener usually costs between $1,000 to $1,500. At this price, you’ll get a water softener with a name brand valve head and controller. That means the head is built to last longer, and parts will always be readily available.
Most softeners in this price range use separate media and brine tanks. By separating the two, the controller isn’t subjected to corrosive salt water. All-in-one softeners have sealed control heads that aren’t affected by corrosion.
The tanks are also high quality, and should last the life of the system. The average usable life for these softeners is between 15 and 25 years. It may be more money up front, but you’ll spend less in the long run.
What is Crosslinking? Is it Important When I Buy a Softener?
Water softeners use media made of styrene crosslinked with divinyl benzene. As you use the softener, these links break down, reducing the softener’s salt capacity. In turn, it has to be recharged more often.
Quality systems use either 7 or 10% crosslinked resin. All things being equal, a tank with 10% crosslinked resin has about 15% more ion capacity than a tank with 7% resin.
Is this important? In real world use, probably not. Manufacturers take resin quality into account, and size their systems accordingly. You won’t see that much of an increase in resin life by choosing a model with 10% resin.
How Much Does a Water Conditioner Cost?
Water conditioners are often marketed as salt-free water softeners. However, instead of using ion exchange, they act as a catalyst for crystalization. That means they don’t need a brine tank or a complicated valve control system.
All they include is a sediment filter to prevent debris from being trapped inside the media tank. However, the resin they use for nucleation and crystal formation is expensive. On average, residential systems range in price from $1,500 and $2,500, depending on their grain capacity.
How Much Does It Cost to Run a Water Softener vs a Water Conditioner?
You can expect 15-25 years of service from a water softener, as long as it’s well maintained. Over that time, you’ll need to provide salt for recharge cycles, along with rust remover, water and electricity. At some point during that lifespan, you’ll also need to replace the softener resin.
Sodium chloride costs between $10-12 per 40 lb. bag. Potassium chloride costs between $25-35 per bag, and softeners require 10-30% more of this salt than sodium chloride. You might be required to use potassium chloride in areas that have restrictions on sodium contamination.
Functionally, both salts are identical. With most systems requiring one or two bags of salt per month, you need to spend between $120-$265 per year on sodium or $300-840 per year on potassium. You also need to use a rust remover to clean the system, which costs between $20-40 per year.
Recharging the softener with brine uses between 20 and 50 gallons of water per cycle. If you’re recharging your softener every week, that’s 80-200 gallons per month. That sounds like a lot, but it’s insignificant compared to the 70-90 gallons of water the average person uses each day. This water doesn’t cost anything, if you’re on a septic tank and well water. If you have access to municipal water and sewer, the added cost will be insignificant.
Electricity is only used to keep the electronics in the head running, and to cycle the valves on and off for recharging. On average, this costs $10 per year in electricity. In total, you need to spend between $150 and $900 per year to keep your system running. New resin costs between $100 and $150 per cubic foot. Most residential water softeners hold between ¾ and 1.5 cubic feet of resin. If you don’t want to refill the tank yourself, expect to spend $200-$300 to have a plumber do it for you.
A water conditioner requires no maintenance. Water flows through the media tank, and that media crystallizes minerals until it breaks down. The media usually fails after 5 to 7 years of use. Replacement media is hard to find and expensive. One liter of media costs at least $100, and a residential tank holds somewhere between 8 and 15 liters. Often, owners will choose to replace the entire tank, instead of replacing the media, since there isn’t that much difference in cost.
Over 15 years, an average water softening system running on sodium chloride costs a little over $4,000 in materials and maintenance. Switch to potassium chloride, and that cost goes up by another $3,000. Once you factor in the cost of equipment, most people will find that a conditioner costs a little more to run than a softener using sodium, but a little less than a softener using potassium.
Should I Use a Water Softener to Remove Iron, or Get a Separate System?
Like calcium and magnesium, most iron in water is made of ions that attach to the media in a water softener. In fact, it will absorb iron before it absorbs hardness minerals, limiting the softener’s overall capacity. A salt-based water softener can handle up to 1 PPM of iron. If you use your softener for iron, it will need to recharge two to three times as often, and require frequent cleaning with an iron removing treatment. If you have any iron in your water, it must be removed before it reaches a water conditioner.
Most iron removal systems cost between $1,000 and $2,000. If you only have small amounts of iron in your water, a salt-based water softener is the cheapest treatment option.
How Much Does a Water Softener Exchange System Cost?
Water softener exchange uses a sealed salt-based tank that is replaced by a service provider every one to two months. Prices vary widely depending on your needs and the company you work with. Residential systems cost between $50 to $150 per month, although most households will spend between $60 to $100 per month for this service.
Policies also vary depending on what companies cover for installation, but you’ll at least need a water line close to where you want the tank. Rental policies also require a service contract that typically lasts one year.
How Much Does a Water Softener Installation Cost?
On average, installing a system costs between $200 and $500, with a typical installation costing around $300. The difference in price mostly comes down to piping. If you can place your water softener next to your main water line, it takes less work to connect the system. If you need to put your softener far away from your water line, labor and material costs increase substantially.
The average cost is around $5 per foot of pipe, as long as no additional work is required, like digging or cutting through walls. In the worse case scenario, where you have to locate your tank 10 or more feet from the water line, you could end up spending over $2,000. However, these cases are rare.
Aside from pipe length, there are two factors that affect the total cost of your installation:
Are you adding more pieces of equipment to your water filtration system? You can save money by having everything installed at the same time. The plumber only needs to come out once, and all the pipes can be built to form a single pipe system, instead of having to be modified later.
Can I Install a Water Softener Myself?
This depends on your skills and the difficulty of your installation. There isn’t anything special about the connections to and from a water softener. The shutoff valves are built into the valve head, so you just need to connect the water line to the valves on the media tank. Keep in mind that you’ll need special tools to fit the pipes. If you’re installing pex, you need a line crimper to get a good seal on connections. If you’re using copper, you need a torch to melt solder. You also need a way to cut pipe.
Why is Hard Water a Problem, and How Can Water Softening Save Me Money?
When water passes through limestone, gypsum or chalk, it picks up calcium and magnesium-based minerals. These minerals precipitate out of water, forming lime scale. This causes major issues for plumbing and appliances:
When you soften your water, you extend the life of your appliances and plumbing while reducing energy and soap use. Depending on how hard your water is, your treatment system could pay for itself in a few years.
Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Utah and Southern California have the largest areas with hard water. However, any area can have hard water, as long as it has the right types of rock surrounding the local aquifer.
What Do I Need to Know Before I Shop for a Water Softener?
The capacity you need can vary widely depending on the number of people in your home, how hard your water is, and if you have iron in your water. You also need a place to put your new water treatment system.
Water Conditioners and Water softeners work by attracting ions. For both hardness solutions, the resin attracts iron before it attracts calcium and magnesium. Conditioners only work with iron free water, so you may need to pair it with an iron treatment system. Softeners can absorb a small amount of iron, but this limits capacity. Like hardness, you can test iron levels using an at-home kit, or sending a water sample to a lab.
Don’t know how much water you use? A good rule of thumb is to assume each person in your home uses 75 gallons of water each day. By knowing the number of gallons you use and the grains per gallon, you can estimate the total grain capacity you need from your water softener.
The closer you can get your water softener to the water main, the less it will cost to install. Look in your basement or under your home for areas where you can fit the softener and take some measurements. In some cases, an all-in-one system or a short resin tank can be placed closer to the water main, cutting down on the amount of pipe you need to connect the system.
What are My Options for Treating Hard Water?
Salt-based water softeners use ion exchange to remove hardness minerals. When water passes through the media tank, calcium and magnesium swaps places with sodium or potassium ions. Once most of the salt is used up, the media needs to recharge. The valve head bypasses the resin tank, so water flows past the system.
Next, brine from the brine tank is flushed through the media tank. The salt in the brine swaps places with the minerals on the media. This brine, now loaded with calcium and magnesium, is flushed down the drain. These softeners also remove iron from water, but they struggle with iron content higher than 1 GPG.
Ion exchange water softeners require periodic maintenance, including loading the tank with salt, breaking apart salt layers, and cleaning out salt deposits and mold. The brine ejected by the system also causes environmental problems. Salt builds up in the soil over time, poisoning plants. It also affects the health of water ecosystems.
While one water softener isn’t a problem, regions with hard water have thousands of softeners dumping salt into the waste water. Currently, Texas restricts the use of these water softeners statewide, while municipalities in California, Connecticut, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have outright banned salt-based softeners.
Fortunately, there is an environmentally friendly, easier-to-use option that works for most water: water conditioners. Also marketed as “salt-free” water softeners, they modify hardness minerals instead of removing them. They contain media that acts as a nucleation site.
Once minerals latch onto the surface, it kicks off a reaction that forms crystals and microscopic bubbles of carbon dioxide. Eventually, the microscopic crystals flake off into the water. These crystals are inert, so they don’t leave deposits on plumbing, sinks or appliances. In fact, the bubbles formed by the conditioner scrubs limescale off of pipes, increasing flow rates through your plumbing.
When you first install a conditioner, this will make your water harder for a while as this scale is removed. Depending on the hardness of your water and how long you’ve gone without a softener, this process can take up to two months.
Water conditioners have some disadvantages. They don’t perform well on water with a hardness over 10 GPG. They’re more expensive then salt-based softeners, but some of this cost is reduced over the lifetime of the filter, since it doesn’t need salt, electricity or extra water. Water conditioners are easily fouled with iron, and aren’t effective at removing it. They also don’t last as long as water softeners.
There’s another option available in some cities with water softener restrictions: water softener exchange. This uses a softener tank that is replaced by a service provider. They do the recharging off-site, where they can capture and filter brine. This gives you the benefits of an ion exchange system without the environmental impact.
Along with these options, there are two other treatment methods that aren’t practical for home use: phosphate treatment and magnetic softening. Phosphates react with calcium, iron and magnesium, so these minerals can interact with appliances and plumbing. This doesn’t work if the water is heated, so it doesn’t protect most appliances.
Magnetic water softeners use a strong magnetic field to charge ions, so they won’t attach to pipes and appliances. Softeners that have enough power to do this for your home water require several feet of copper wiring wrapped around your inlet pipe, not to mention a large amount of electricity. Most systems sold for home use are far too small to be effective.
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