Frugal Water Softener Solutions

by Reader Contributors

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Is there a way to soften water inexpensively? Or make homemade water softener? Our frugal readers share their most effective, least expensive water softener solutions.

Dear Dollar Stretcher,
Does anyone have any experience with tightwad approaches to water softeners? A regular one (based on ion exchange) came with our house and I am just about to give up on lugging salt down to it. I am frustrated with the continuing expense and don’t like the idea of putting all that salt into our fresh water supplies!

Also, I don’t see the benefits of reduced soap/detergent use outweighing the cost of the salt. Things do not seem to get cleaner, with the exception of needing a little less softener for our clothes and a little less scrubbing on our fiberglass tub. Our clothes are a little brighter, but that’s not worth any money on to us. Our detergent and cleaner costs are negligible anyway, as I seriously shop sales and use coupons.

I have seen “electronic” water softeners advertised and would appreciate any feedback from anyone who has installed one. But, I have to say the principles of the alternative ones sound like “junk” science to us.

Thank you very much for any and all feedback!

Frugal Water Softener Solutions

We don’t have to use water softeners where we live so we reached out to our frugal readers for any solutions or suggestions they might have for frugal water softeners. Read on to see if one of their solutions could help save you money.

Adjust to Harder Water

We live in an area with hard water, and decided against using a water softener at all. We switched to liquid laundry soap and use only half the amount specified on the label. If things start looking dingy, I add a couple tablespoons of laundry additive to a load.

In the shower I use a washcloth and inexpensive gel soap. Foam up the washcloth, scrub and rinse. We do keep bottled water, but use it only when we want a glass of plain water to drink. We use tap water for coffee, rice, pasta, etc. So for the two of us, it’s about two gallons a week because we both work. Even with the bottled water, we spend less than with the water softener and salt.

We have a friend who compromised and put the water softener just on the line into his hot water heater, not on the main line into his home. (Most homes use about two thirds cold water, one third hot water.) He gets more suds when he uses warm or hot water – like showers and the kitchen sink – and has fewer deposits in his water heater, but still has to mess with the salt and backwash occasionally.

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Test First before Implementing a Water Softener Solution

I would recommend t6aking a sample of PRE-softened water to a lab and get it tested for hardness. Once you know the extent of the problem, you can then better weigh the hassle of upkeep. You may even find it is unnecessary. I know someone who a water softening system just because they like the feel of really soft water. Others get them because they call a “Culligan man” and ask if they need one. Guess what the answer always is. And they finance, too!

Shop Building Supply Stores for Cheaper Water Softener Supplies

We have our own well and must have a pH filter because the area’s water is acidic and would erode our copper water pipes over time. We also have a water softener to cleanse the water filter and to bring the water softness back up after the filtering process. Without the water softener we would have too much manganese in our tap water which is a health concern as well as making it difficult to clean sinks, toilets, and bathtubs/showers.

We’ve found that the large building supply stores like Home Depot and Builders’ Square occasionally run a great sale on 40 pound bags of food-grade course rock salt. Otherwise we generally buy our salt at our local farm supply store (Wilco Farmers.) The cost seems to be well worth it in terms of the benefits (no eroded pipes, no high level minerals to cause health and cleaning problems, etc.) our water softener provides. Why have an expensive piece of equipment if you don’t intend to use it to your advantage?!
AS in Beavercreek, Oregon

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Do the Math

The electronic saltless softeners do not soften the water. The idea is to prevent the hardness from having an effect, but in test after test these units have not functioned satisfactorily. If your water is less than 5 grains hard, sell the softener. If it is harder than 5 gpg, you would miss it when it was gone.

Perhaps your unit only needs adjustment. If you find that your ion exchange water softener is using a large volume of salt for the benefit you get, try this formula to calculate what your salt use should be per volume of media.

1 cubic foot of softener resin volume = 30,000 grains of capacity for removing hardness. (CaCo3) To yield 75%, or about 24,000 grains, requires approx. 6 lbs. of salt. To get the remaining capacity requires about 21 lbs. more salt, so it is not economical to brine to over 75%.

Take the number of people in your family x 75 gallons of water per day x total grains per gallon of hardness. This will give you the total grains per gallon you need to remove per day. (Hardness information available from your municipality. If you are on a well, you need your own test results.) (NB. if your results are read in parts per million, you divide parts per million by 17.1 to get grains per gallon.) Divide the total of grains per gallon you need to remove per day by the 75% of the volume capacity of your unit. This gives you the number of days between regenerations.

For example, if you have a one cubic foot unit (most common urban size) and four people in your home and 10 grains per gallon hardness, the math would be 4 (people) x 75 (gal) = 300 x 10 (hardness per gal) = 3000 grains per day 24,000 (75% of capacity of unit) 3000 (grains per day) = 8 (days). This means your unit should regenerate about 46 times a year using roughly 275 lbs. of salt. By following this formula, the unit will work at peak efficiency. By the way, if you use this formula, the salt is almost completely utilized, breaking down in its chemical formula so you are not adding salt to the fresh water supply.
Les, “The Water Guy”

Try a Water Magnet

I don’t know about softeners but I hate chlorine so I bought and installed a water magnet on my water line coming into the house. I love this thing. I don’t have to let the water for my fish sit for 2 days or add chemicals to the water to remove the chlorine. A neighbor has said my water tastes a lot better than hers. It’s supposed to be better for plants and make your hair softer and other things but I can’t testify to that. This magnet specified chlorine. Most of them don’t.

It Could Cost You If You Ditch Your Water Softening System

We live in an area with very hard water and have lived with no water conditioning system for 3 years, but we are having a system installed this week. Though you may not think that you are reaping any benefits from your system, you may want to think again. You may be tolerating using more detergents and soaps, and may not care if your clothes are not as bright, but the real benefit is in the places that you cannot see – your pipes. Without a softening system, the inside of your plumbing pipes will collect the mineral deposits that are typical of hard water areas.

We recently had an experience in which the inside of the sprayer arm of our dishwasher got clogged with mineral deposits. The dishes did not get clean because the water could not get out. The soap sort of oozed over the inside of the dishwasher and hardened on the drain and filter surfaces into a cement-like crust. It took a lot of patience and time to clean up the mess. The situation happened gradually, so we were unaware of it until it got really bad. We were lucky because the blockage was easily accessible, but this would not have been the case if this had happened to one of the pipes leading to our shower or toilet!

You may want to check out the newer models of water softeners. The resin beds that are used today are much more efficient and do not require as much salt. The best models are the two-tank system with Autotrol valves. They generally hold about 400 lbs. of salt, so the number of times that you have to add salt is greatly reduced.

I have done extensive research on the various solutions that are marketed for hard water conditions. I got a lot of information from a website called You can spend a lot of time searching the archives, and ask your own questions. The basic view is that there is no scientific proof that these devices are effective. Take a look. Though I do believe in keeping costs down, I believe that maintaining a water softener is the most cost-effective means of maintenance for the plumbing in my home.

Electronic Water Softeners Are Junk

Most “electronic” water softeners have been tested by many reputable organizations, including Consumer Reports and an investigative team for one of our local TV stations. They found that there was no change in the condition of the water at all. In this case, I would say that “junk science” is an accurate term.

Water Softener Upkeep Important

One day I was picking up something from a water treatment store and in visiting with the owner he commented that they sometimes get water softeners in trade that aren’t working as well as they should. All they do is run a resin bed cleaner through them – sometimes he said they run it through as many as three times if it’s really full of deposits, iron, etc. – and he claims that many softeners have become salable by this method. There are several brands, etc. of this cleaner and I think it costs around $25 per gallon.

If your softener can’t be salvaged, I recommend a Kinetico. (Shop around with different dealers – prices vary a lot.) They have dual resin beds, regenerate automatically (with softened water due to the twin beds) and are easy on salt. Our model injects this resin cleaner every time it regenerates. We may go through 3 gallons per year. (8 people in our family – so we use lots of water.) Our dealer also recommended the coarse salt claiming that sometimes the pellet type has added ingredients to help with the molding process, etc. and this can buildup in softeners also. We fill the softener maybe two times a year – four bags fill it once. You should be able to notice a definite difference if your softener is working in everything from deposits on faucets, to the way hair and body lathers in the shower, and reduction of detergents in laundry, and graying of whites.

No, I’m not a Kinetico dealer, just a very happy customer! From the lack of our service experience, the Kinetico man has to be lonelier than the Maytag man!

Try This Additive for Washing Laundry in Hard Water

I don’t have water softened in my apartment. I don’t notice except when it comes to laundry. I add in Arm & Hammer’s Washing Soda, following the directions on the box. It really helps the detergent foam up more and I use less. Plus, you can use it to clean other items in your home as well. I get mine at the grocery store and I would never do without it.
Laura G.

Reviewed November 2021

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