If you live in an area that has hard water, even washing your hands can leave your skin feeling filmy and dry. Thankfully, water softening systems remove the minerals that cause this, giving your water a more pleasant feel and taste. In this guide, we’ll break down the cost of a water softener system, types of water softeners, money-saving tips, and frequently asked questions.
What Is a Water Softener System?
Hardness or softness refers to the concentration of dissolved minerals—namely calcium and magnesium—found in water. Hard water has a high proportion of these minerals, and though they aren’t dangerous to your health, they do leave behind a residue called scale. Scale can build up in pipes and leave a film on your hair and skin. Hard water can also make soaps and detergents less able to lather, leave sediment behind in your water heater, and dry out your skin.
Water softeners work by removing or neutralizing these minerals from your home water. An ion exchange water softener uses a water filtration system with magnetically charged resin beads to attract minerals. Alternatively, some systems use conditioners, magnets, or reverse osmosis to create soft water.
Water Softener System Cost
The average price to professionally install a whole-home water softener is $1,500, including both materials and labor. Depending on the type of system you choose, the process could cost as little as $500 or as much as $6,000. You’ll also need to budget between $10 and $50 per month in maintenance costs for most systems.
Water Softener System Cost by Type
The most significant price factor is the type of water softener you choose. The most popular type is an ion exchange system, which can have one or two tanks and must periodically be refilled with sodium or potassium salts.
There are also salt-free water softeners that can service a whole home. Reverse osmosis systems and distillers are typically only used to create drinking water, but proponents say they dramatically improve the taste of tap water. Below, you will find price ranges for the units themselves, minus the installation cost.
Cost by Type of Water Softener System
|Type of System||Cost|
|Ion exchange (single tank)||$400–$1,700|
|Ion exchange (double tank)||$1,000–$2,500|
|Reverse osmosis (point-of-use)||$100–$500|
|Reverse osmosis (whole house)||$4,000–$11,000|
Water Softener System Cost by Capacity
The larger the system, the greater the volume of hard water it can soften and the higher the price. Capacity is measured in the number of grains of hard minerals that the system can remove. The capacity of the system you need will depend on how many people live in your home, how much water they use, and the hardness of your water.
The grain capacity of whole-home systems usually starts at 24,000 grains. Smaller units of about 16,000 grains are available, but they aren’t substantially cheaper. Note average price ranges by grain capacity in the table below.
Cost by Grain Capacity
|Up to 24,000 grains||$300–$600|
Cost Factors for Water Softener Systems
In addition to type and capacity, there are some other considerations to take into account when pricing water softeners, including your home size, region, and selected brand. When evaluating these factors, it’s important to know that water hardness is measured in either parts per million (PPM), milligrams per liter (mg/L), or grains per gallon (GPG) of calcium and magnesium. The GPG figure is a number between 0 and 20, and anything at a seven or above is considered hard water. PPM and mg/L are two ways of saying the same thing, and one GPG equals about 17.1 PPM or mg/L.
Home Size Costs
The actual square footage of your home is less important to the price of water softening than the number of people who live there and the amount of water they use. The average adult uses about 90 gallons of water per day for drinking, bathing, cleaning, and more. Review your home’s water bill if you want a more specific estimate. Most four-person households need a water softener system with about a 24,000-grain capacity, but this can also depend on where you live. See the section below to calculate your home’s water softening needs.
|Hardness Level||Milligrams per Liter||Parts per Million||Grains per Gallon|
The hardness of your home’s water supply is regional, as water in different areas contains different trace minerals. There is variation in water hardness within states and even counties. The U.S. Geological Survey maintains a map of water hardness across the U.S., but you can get more specific information about your area by contacting your city’s water department. If your home uses well water, you can purchase a test kit for $10–$20 and test its hardness yourself.
Note that if your household tends to use a lot of water at the same time—for example, if all four members of the family shower in the morning—you may want a system with a higher capacity to be sure it can keep up with surges of heavy use. With all that in mind, here’s a rough estimate of pricing for a four-person household with average water usage based on the regional hardness of the local water.
Cost by Water Hardness
|Water Hardness||Necessary Capacity||Approximate Water Softener Cost|
|6–9 GPG||24,000 grains||$300–$600|
|10–12 GPG||32,000 grains||$400–$1,000|
|13–18 GPG||48,000 grains||$500–$1,200|
|18–20 GPG||64,000 grains||$1,000–$1,500|
|20+ GPG||80,000 grains||$1,200–$1,800|
The brand of water softener system you choose also plays a role in your total cost. Most brands offer a range of sizes, with larger units being more expensive. High-end water softeners with large capacities or sophisticated technology are also pricier than smaller, traditional models.
Cost by Water Softener Brand
Additional Costs for Water Softener Systems
The same system may require different installation costs for different homeowners. Here are some factors that may raise or lower your water softener installation cost:
- Water testing
- Inspections and permits
- General contractors
- System replacements
Labor and Installation Costs
The labor costs to install a water softener depends heavily on the type of system you select, the accessibility of your plumbing, and the complexity of the installation. Point-of-use water softeners that attach to a single appliance or faucet may only cost $100 to $300 to install. Whole-home systems usually start at $300 and can cost as much as $1,000 or more.
Licensed plumbers typically charge $50 to $200 an hour. If the area near your home’s water main is difficult to access, water softener installation will take additional time and cost more than average.
Simple DIY water test kits are inexpensive, usually costing less than $50. However, if your home has its own well or you have concerns about water quality, you might want to hire a water treatment specialist to perform a more in-depth test. Water testing can cost up to $500.
Some water softeners can work with a home’s existing plumbing systems. Others will require a new plumbing loop that directs the softened water only to the necessary indoor areas of the home. The existence of a soft water loop has multiple long-term benefits, including extending the life of the water softener and preventing mineral build-up. On the other hand, a loop will require up-front plumbing costs of $500 to $2,000.
Inspections and Permits
Your city or county may require an inspection or a permit to install a whole-home system, so contact your local permit office for costs and guidelines before starting your project.
In most cases, you don’t need a general contractor to oversee the installation of a water softening system. However, if the installation is a part of a larger home improvement project, a general contractor will add about 20% to your total labor costs.
If you’re replacing a water softener rather than installing one for the first time, your home’s plumbing may already be prepared for installation, reducing overall costs.
Five Types of Water Softener Systems
There are various types of water softener systems that each address water hardness in a different way. Nearly all commercially available water softeners fall into one of the five following categories:
- Ion exchange systems
- Salt-free systems
- Water distilling systems
- Magnetic systems
- Reverse osmosis systems
Ion Exchange Systems
Ion exchange systems, which are by far the most popular, are also called salt-based water softeners because they require the input of sodium or potassium pellets to work. They may have one or two tanks depending on the capacity of the system. Dual-tank systems can handle a greater volume of water but are more expensive than systems with a single tank. In ion exchange systems, water flows into a mineral tank full of negatively charged resin beads. These beads attract calcium and magnesium and trap them, softening the water.
A control valve will determine when the resin beads in the first tank are fully saturated with minerals. When this happens, the first tank is backflushed of debris. Next, the salty water from the second tank, called the brine tank, is released and recharges the resin. The brine tank must be stocked with sodium or potassium, which coats the resin beads and restores their negative charge. In a single-tank water softener, both of these tanks are housed in one cabinet.
Ion exchange systems have some drawbacks. First, they need monthly refills to keep their charge. Secondly, this type of system adds trace amounts of these salts to your drinking water, which can be a problem for people on low-sodium diets. Currently, potassium is recommended for ion exchange water softener systems. Unfortunately, it’s also somewhat expensive to maintain. It’s typical to use one or two refill bags per month, which cost $5 to $10 for sodium and $35 to $45 for potassium.
When you hear the term “salt-free water softener,” that usually refers to a type of treatment that doesn’t actually remove calcium and magnesium from water. Instead, these systems use water conditioners to chemically treat the minerals so that they don’t stick to things and form scale.
Water Distilling Systems
Distillation heats water to a high temperature near boiling point to create steam. Minerals and other contaminants can’t vaporize along with the steam, which is then cooled and condensed back into clean liquid water. Due to the lengthy wait for heating and cooling, water distillers are only useful for small-volume tasks like creating drinking water.
Magnetic water softeners use electromagnets clamped around water pipes to prevent the minerals in the water from forming scale. Similar to salt-free systems, they don’t remove minerals from water but purport to treat them instead. Unlike chemical water conditioners, there’s limited evidence that they actually work.
Reverse Osmosis Systems
Reverse osmosis systems are the most effective, the most complex, and the most expensive of the water softener systems listed here. As it travels, water passes through several pre-filters to remove contaminants like chlorine, VOCs, and sediment. Then, these systems force water at high pressure through a very tight water filter called a semi-permeable membrane.
Just like distillation, reverse osmosis doesn’t happen at the speed of a faucet. Small volumes of water must be pre-filtered, so reverse osmosis systems are usually only used as a single-point system for creating drinking water. You would only need a whole-home system if your water was severely contaminated. Additionally, the process creates a great deal of wastewater that isn’t useful for most household tasks.
How to Save Money on a Water Softener System
Whole-home water softener systems can be costly. However, there are some ways you can save money, particularly in the long term. The following tips will help you spend less on soft water:
- Do your research: Shop smart, wait for seasonal sales, and take advantage of any manufacturer rebates. You’ll also want to choose a unit with a good warranty.
- Consider renting: Some companies rent water-softening systems at a lower price than the cost to buy and install them. This may be a good option for renters. If you own your home and plan to stay in the area for multiple years, purchasing your system is likely more cost-effective.
- Opt for metered control valves: If you’re purchasing an ion exchange system, look for one that has an on-demand or electric metered control valve. Systems with timer-based controls are often cheaper, but they tend to run recharge cycles before they are needed, wasting sodium or potassium refills.
- Know your home’s needs: Make sure you’re using the right size and capacity for your home to get the maximum benefits.
Pros and Cons of Water Softener Systems
✔ Your home’s water will work better for cleaning
✔ You won’t have to worry about water stains or soap scum
✔ You’ll save on plumbing and appliances by protecting them from mineral scale
✘ Whole-house water softening systems can be expensive to buy, install, and repair
✘ Ion exchange systems could cause problems by leaving salt deposits
✘ Creation and disposal of wastewater isn’t environmentally friendly
When to Buy a Water Softener System
Aside from actual testing, here are some signs that your home’s water is hard enough to require a water softening system.
- Your water has an unusual or unpleasant taste or odor
- When you use bar soap, you notice soap scum left behind
- Soap, shampoo, and other cleaners don’t form enough lather
- Your hands still feel slimy or filmy after washing
- Your hair and skin feel dry after washing
- Your pipes, faucets, or showerheads frequently clog
- Your clothes don’t feel clean, and the colors seem to fade quickly
- You notice water leaving stains on countertops and appliances
DIY vs. Professional Water Softener Installation
Some point-of-use water softeners attach directly to faucets or the pipes beneath the sink. These are good for DIY installation. However, whole-home systems deal with such a large volume of water that they’re best installed by a licensed plumber.
It’s also common for Local Departments of Public Health to have codes that residential water softening systems must meet. Therefore, we recommend professional installation for whole-home water softeners.
If you’ve spotted the signs of hard water in your home, on your skin and hair, or from water taste, you’ll likely benefit from a water softening system. Having minerals like calcium and magnesium in your water won’t hurt you, but they can make domestic life less pleasant and lead to unwanted expenses.
Research the type and capacity of system that’s right for you, and make sure it’s properly installed by a professional. Fill out this simple form or enter your ZIP code into the tool below to connect with local plumbers for professional water softener system installation.
How to Choose a Professional Installer
When choosing a plumber to install a water softening system, take the time to talk to and get quotes from at least three different professionals. Here are some questions you can ask.
- Is your license and insurance current?
- Do you have experience installing water softeners?
- What permits do I need to install my system?
- What is your company’s Better Business Bureau (BBB) rating?
- Where can I read reviews from your past customers?
Benefits of Water Softening
If you’re still wondering whether a water softening system is right for your home, here are the most prominent benefits of having softer water.
- Your drinking water will taste and smell better
- Your hair, skin, and laundered clothes will feel softer
- Soaps, detergents, and shampoos will be more efficient
- Any fixtures and appliances that use water will run more efficiently and last longer
- Your energy bills will likely be lower because of improved water heater performance
- You won’t need to scrub away soap scum and water stains or descale coffee pots and kettles
FAQs About Water Softener Systems
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