• September 08, 2022 7 min read

    Do Salt-Free Water Softeners Work?

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    If you’re in the market for a salt-free water softener, unfortunately, you are out of luck. A salt-free water softener does not exist. The ion exchange process used by water softeners doesn’t work without the sodium ions displacing the calcium and magnesium ions that create water hardness. A more accurate description of units commonly marketed as salt-free water softeners would be a salt-free water conditioner or scale inhibitor. 

    Saltless water softeners claim to deliver the same results without the size and hassle of salt-based systems. These salt-free setups promise no more large salt tank taking up room, no more spending money on salt bags, and no more back pain from hauling them home to refill the system. Sounds great, right? So, how do they really measure up?

    The truth is that salt-free water softeners aren’t water softeners, don’t provide many of the same benefits that salt-based systems do, and aren’t certified to meet industry standards. Here’s a breakdown of how they compare and why a salt-based system is a better investment.

    What is a salt free water condition?

    A salt-free water conditioner is a water filtration system that crystallizes magnesium and calcium minerals prevalent in hard water. These micro-crystals are unable to leave solution and attach to pipes and water heaters in the form of scale. Water conditioners do not remove hardness minerals, they physically alter them and render them unable to form scale build-ups. Traditional water softeners eliminate hardness minerals through a process called ion exchange. In an ion exchange process, plastic resin beads are rinsed with a salt solution that charges each bead with a sodium ion. When the hard water flows through these beads, the sodium ions exchange with the magnesium and calcium ions. The water exiting the tank and into the house is now softened, but does contain low amounts of sodium as a byproduct of the softening process. 

    Salt-based water softeners turn “hard” water into “soft” water through a process called ion exchange. Using the electronic metered valve mounted atop the resin tank, the system measures water by the gallon before running a cleaning cycle. Once the resin bed reaches its saturation point, the cleaning cycle begins. During the cycle, a series of backflushes purge the trapped minerals and washes them out of the system. When water flows through the resin bed inside the tank, salts like sodium and potassium chloride are exchanged with hardness-causing minerals (primarily calcium and magnesium), resulting in “soft” water. The salts are also replenished in the resin bed during the cycle and the system is ready to go again. 

    The added sodium content has led to some controversy surrounding water softeners. In reality, the amount of sodium added by water softeners is minimal and far less than popularly imagined. Salt-based softeners also go through periodic regeneration cycles to replenish the resin beads with sodium ions. This results in brine-heavy wastewater flushing into city water drain lines, which has instigated a water softener ban in some municipalities. All of this has led to a push for salt-free water softener alternatives. Unfortunately, this has resulted in misleading albeit creative marketing strategies. Water conditioners billed as “salt-free water softeners” are targetting those seeking a salt-free system, but the implication that softening occurs is inaccurate. Though these water conditioners do address some of the problematic aspects of hard water, they do not result in soft water. 

    How do salt based water softeners work?

    In the salt based process above (true water softening), hardness minerals are actually removed from the water. In the salt-free process minerals are retained in the water, but their form is changed so they will not adhere to surfaces. “Salt free” water softeners are actually not softeners, they are “water conditioners”.

    Water is processed through a catalytic media using a physical process called Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC). What happens is the hardness minerals are converted to a hardness crystal that is not able to bind to surfaces. This is actually water conditioning, not softening.

    A water test would show this result: Before treatment 10 grains/gallon, result post/treatment 10 grains/gallon. Again, The hardness is still there… just changed so it won’t adhere to surfaces.

    There is no electrical valve needed on a salt-free system because the system works as a conditioner and never captures anything therefore eliminating the need to purge any minerals

    Unlike salt-based softeners which use ion exchange to remove hard water minerals from water, salt-free water softeners use a physical process known as Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC). This process converts the hardness minerals in the water to a hardness crystal that will not stick to any surface in your home. Salt-free softeners are also known as water conditioners because they do not actually “soften” the water; They condition (or neutralize) it. And because these types of systems do not trap any materials, there’s no need for a cleaning cycle to remove captured ions.

    Do salt free water softeners really work?

    Despite having “water softener” right in the name, salt-free water softeners aren’t actually water softeners and don’t give you soft water. They’re actually just water conditioners, and they do nothing to reduce water hardness.

    Water hardness results from excess mineral content in the water, like calcium and magnesium. A salt-based water softener removes those minerals, thus lowering the hardness and creating softer water. On the other hand, a salt-free system works by crystallizing calcium, but not removing it.

    If you’re wondering whether that defeats the whole purpose of buying a water softener, you’re on the right track.

    Since a salt-free system crystallizes the calcium in your water, the calcium won’t be able to adhere to the insides of your pipes. That reduces scale buildup in your plumbing, which is the only benefit which a salt-free system offers. This falls far short of the many benefits a real water softener.

    Salt-based vs salt-free

    As discussed above, salt-based water softeners utilize a negatively charged resin bed to attract and remove magnesium and calcium from the water supply. These water softeners also utilize salt to clean the water softener and regenerate the resin bed. During regeneration, positively charged sodium ions replace the hard water minerals trapped in the resin bed, and the hard water concentrate is flushed down the drain.

    Salt-free water softeners, on the other hand, do not remove hard water minerals from the water. Rather, they transform the magnesium and calcium chemically, so that they do not cling to surfaces and precipitate into scale. Because the hard water minerals are not actually captured by salt-free water softener systems, there is no need for salt or a regeneration cycle to purge the minerals down the drain.

    Since the very definition of water softening requires that hard water minerals be REMOVED, and the salt-free process only ALTERS the minerals, allowing them to remain in the water, salt-free water softeners are not actually softening water – rather, they are for “water conditioning”.

    Salt-free water conditioners do prevent scale from forming in your plumbing. But, with a salt-free water conditioner or scale inhibitor, you will not see many of the advantages provided by a water softener. Water softeners physically eliminate the hardness minerals from the water supply and flush them down the drain. The minerals are barred from entering your home and damaging your water heaters and appliances. However, hard water damage extends beyond just scale. Laundry washed in hard water comes out of the machine stiff with dingy coloration. Dishes washed in hard water are foggy and come emerge from the rinse streaked with soap spots. Soap and cleaning products build up in a thick scum, as hardness minerals prevent soap from lathering properly. Hard water also is miserable to shower in as it dries out skin and hair alike. 

    A salt-free water conditioner will not address any of these problems. The hardness minerals exist in crystallized form, but they are still present in the water. Your fresh load of laundry will still be drab and dulled and your bathroom will still be covered with soap scum stains. The only way to eliminate these headaches to soften the water. Hence, why the common trade name “salt-free water softener” is not only false, it is deceptive. Salt-free water conditioners do provide protection against scale, but to associate them with all the benefits afforded by water softening is patently dishonest. 

    A salt-based water softener actually removes minerals like calcium and magnesium from your water, giving you soft water. Benefits from a salt-based system include:

    • Preventing scale buildup
    • Softer, healthier skin and hair
    • No stains on dishes and laundry
    • Reducing the amount of cleaning and hygiene products you use
    • Increasing the efficiency of water-using appliances

    Overall, a salt-based water softener saves you money and gives you more pleasant water. So, what do industry regulators think of these two types of systems?

    Benefits from a salt-free system

    On average, a salt-free softener is usually less expensive than a salt-based one and is very easy to install – once you have the right equipment. Also, this type of system requires less maintenance since no electricity is needed to run the cleaning cycle and no water is wasted when purging the minerals from the resin bed. And as easy as that, you can save on your water and electricity bills. If you’re health-conscious (as you should be), you’ll appreciate the fact that no added salts are used in the softening process.

    However, a major drawback of using a salt-free softener is that it may not work effectively when exposed to other contaminants like lead and chlorine. That’s why we urge customers to have some sort of filtration in front of the system so the media does not foul up. But if you do not want to deal with salts/chemicals, then salt-free softeners are the way to go.

    Once you’ve installed your salt free water softener, the only maintenance involved is changing the pre-sediment filter once a year.


    Which one is the right system for you?

    Salt-based softeners are designed to remove hardness-causing minerals from your water. As a result, you’ll probably notice a little to no limescale buildup on fixtures and appliances in your home. You’ll also see your clothes appearing brighter and cleaner and your hair and skin no longer feeling dry and itchy. Other long-term benefits include more efficient and longer-lasting appliances as well as fewer repairs and plumbing maintenance. But despite all these great benefits, most salt-based softeners are more expensive than their salt-free counterparts and often require regular maintenance.

    Salt-based softeners are effective in softening your water and should be used if your hard water levels are considerably high.  

    The choice is clear: only a salt-based water softener is proven to provide softer water, healthier skin, and no scale buildup or soap scum. We at Angel Water have been installing and servicing water softeners in Barrington, IL and the Chicago area for decades, and have the hands-on experience necessary to give you the system you deserve. Give us a call at (847) 382-7800 and talk to a water expert today!