Water Softeners: The Flow of Innovation

Smart Controls • Salt-Free • Hybrid Systems

Water-softener technology is getting smarter and more connected. That can translate into more-efficient salt and water use. However, questions remain about water softeners that eschew salt altogether.

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Today’s water softeners put more information about your salt and water use at your fingertips, which gives you the chance to adjust your water-use habits to save energy and money.

Manufacturers also improved the operating efficiency of their water softeners by fine-tuning electronic sensors and valves that control salt use.

Finally, more models combine water softening and water filtration than they did previously. However, so-called salt-free water softeners still aren’t ready to compete with conventional models when it comes to removing hard minerals.

SMART SYSTEMS. Most water softeners use demand-initiation regeneration (DIR). DIR water softeners monitor water use over time and regenerate, or self-clean, when the water softener’s salt-coated resin beads deplete. (During the regeneration process, the salt is swapped with hard minerals, which stick to the beads.) During low water-use times, such as when you’re on vacation, the system won’t regenerate.

Smarter DIR models even anticipate when they should regenerate. This technology is found in models that start at $400.

Water softeners that have smart controls use accumulated data that sensors collect to determine your water-use patterns. The water softener then regenerates to meet your water demand based on the data. For example, if Sunday were your laundry day, a water softener that has smart controls would know to regenerate beforehand to ensure that enough soft water was available.

Water softeners provide basic operating-status information, such as “low salt,” to the homeowner typically through indicator lights that are on the unit or on a remote in-home monitor. However, today’s advanced models provide more-detailed information—and you don’t have to be home to receive it: Wi-Fi-equipped models allow you to keep tabs through your mobile device.

In the past 3 years, EcoWater, RainSoft and Whirlpool launched Wi-Fi-connected monitoring in their high-end water softeners. In April 2016, Kenmore said it would have such a model in stores by the end of the year.  In all cases, the models use their own free mobile app that allows you to receive alerts from, and actually control, your water softener through an Apple iOS or a Google Android mobile device or a computer. Such models start at $800. The apps alert you when your water softener is low on salt or when your water softener detects a malfunction, such as continuous water flow from a broken pipe. The apps also can be programmed to send service reminders to a dealer.

According to Ron Hoffman, who is a drinking-water-quality specialist in Department of Civil Engineering at University of Toronto, this feature benefits homeowners who, say, forget to add salt to their water softeners or don’t schedule regular maintenance. Ultimately, the apps help people to take better care of their water softener, he says, so they don’t break down too soon.

In addition, Wi-Fi models provide you with enough information to allow you to fine-tune your water use. Keith Johnson of EcoWater notes that its system lets you track how you use water, and how much, throughout each day. Previously, data were restricted to the total water amount that was used in a day and average water use per day based off the previous 7 days, he says. Hoffman says this new level of information can be helpful if you live in an area that experiences drought and has water-use restrictions or if your family takes long showers. In both cases, he says, homeowners can use the data to develop a water-use plan and save money overall.

Whirlpool’s WHESCS Wi-Fi water softener connects through your home’s Wi-Fi or Iris Cloud, which is part of Lowe’s new smart-home management system. (Either way, you have to register at Iris to download the free app.) The system sends alerts to one device on the basic plan (free) or up to six devices on the premium plan ($9.99 per month). The latter is linked to a whole-house system, which includes home security and lighting control.

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