Trickle-Down Effect: How Water Filters & Softeners Are Evolving (cont.)

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But single models from Culligan, EcoSoft and Kenmore have granular activated carbon (GAC) pellets that are added to the resin beads that soften water. The result is that the odor and taste of chlorine are removed from the water at the same time that the water is softened for improved bathing, cleaning, cooking and laundry. (Excessive heavy minerals that are in “hard” water make your water heater less effective, which means that you’ll pay more in energy costs; these minerals also clog showerheads, leave deposits in toilets and bathtubs and can dull the brightness of clothing during washing.) Andrew believes that for chlorine reduction, these hybrid models are as effective as inline filters are.

Like any other carbon-based filtration system, the GAC pellets that are in the resin bed eventually must be replaced. And you’ll pay a bit for the convenience of having a hybrid water softener/filter where you don’t have to change the filter frequently. An inline carbon filter typically is replaced every 6 months at a cost of $14–$28 per year ($84–$168 over 6 years). Hybrid water softeners can last 6–10 years until you have to replace the carbon pellets and repack the resin beads. Prices to accomplish that start at about $200.

And the hybrid models typically carry a price premium themselves. For example, the Kenmore Hybrid Elite water softener ($749) costs about $200 more than Kenmore’s models that don’t filter water also.

Although filtering the chlorine taste out of the water might be attractive in a water softener as a whole-house solution, you should know that this hybrid solution doesn’t have the same capability to target specific pollutants in drinking water that you can accomplish if you install a separate filter system. The reason, Andrew says, is that the type of carbon that’s used in hybrid models isn’t as effective as are the materials  that are in separate systems.

So, if reducing chlorine taste and odor is your goal, these hybrids will do the job. But if your water supply needs more treatment to reduce metals or other substances in addition to softening, you’ll want to consider additional filtration systems. 

TECH TRACK. An advancement that we’ve reported in appliances and air conditioners—the ability to keep tabs on your model’s functions wirelessly—now has reached water softeners, at least in one model. In 2011, Culligan launched the High Efficiency water softener line ($2,500). That series has sensors that measure how much of the softening resin bed has to be regenerated (the process of rinsing clean of heavy minerals), and then it measures out only enough salt to clean the resin beads.

Although sensor technology in water softeners isn’t new, having an electronic sensor in the resin bed is unique to Culligan. (Other water softeners that use so-called upflow regeneration rely on water usage to determine the amount of salt that’s needed for regeneration.) The sensor, which is based on the amount of salt reduction that’s part of WQA’s testing, can save about $80 in salt over the life of the unit compared with other softeners that use traditional regeneration.

The High Efficiency water softener’s wireless control pad, which is included in the purchase of the unit, is unique among water softeners. The pad can be mounted anywhere in the home and tracks information such as daily water usage and the last regeneration. That can be a handy feature for consumers who live in a drought-stricken area who want to keep an eye on consumption to control high water bills, and it also makes it easier to monitor salt usage. In other words, the control pad eliminates trips to the garage or a mechanical room to see whether the softener needs another bag of salt. Instead, the control pad displays a message when the unit needs maintenance.

For a monthly charge of $25–$35, the water softener can be connected to a phone line and can dial a local dealer when salt or repairs are needed.

Representatives of other water-softener manufacturers with whom we spoke say such technology eventually will become widespread, but they were mum about whether they were working on such innovations. The logical next step might be mobile applications that can provide live updates on usage, problems and maintenance. At least one manufacturer, which declined to be named, tells Consumers Digest that it was researching the appeal of such an app.

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