4 Water Softener Alternatives for Dealing with Hard Water

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Water softeners are the best solution for anyone looking to eliminate the effects of hard water. But they’re not the right choice for everyone.

In this guide, we’ve shared the 4 best water softener alternatives and discussed their effectiveness in dealing with hard water.

📌 Key Takeaways:

  • The best alternatives to traditional ion exchange water softeners are template assisted crystallization (TAC) water conditioners, electronic water descalers, reverse osmosis systems, and liquid water softeners.
  • Our top recommended alternative choice is a TAC water conditioner, which produces results that are most similar to softened water.
  • No alternative system is quite as effective as the traditional salt-based water softener.

🔂 4 Effective Water Softener Alternatives

Let’s take a look at the possible water softener alternatives, starting with the system we recommend the most:

Water Conditioners

Our top recommended alternative to water softeners is the salt-free water conditioner, or salt-free water softener.

Rather than softening water with an electrically regenerated ion exchange resin, water conditioners condition water.

Most water conditioners use a process such as template assisted crystallization (TAC), which crystallizes hardness minerals and prevents them from sticking to surfaces. This process takes place in a conditioning tank that’s loaded with a TAC media.

So, a salt-free water conditioner doesn’t physically remove calcium and magnesium from water – it just prevents the scale-causing effects of these minerals.

There are some benefits of this:

  • You can enjoy the same mineral taste and health properties of hardness minerals in your drinking water.
  • No sodium ions are needed for the template assisted crystallization process, so the composition of your water doesn’t change.

However, template assisted crystallization systems have their setbacks, too. Unlike water softeners, these systems don’t eliminate limescale issues because they don’t remove hard minerals from the water.

Plus, because template assisted crystallization doesn’t soften water, some of the effects of hard water – such as poor lather with soap, and dry skin and hair – remain a problem.

Still, despite their setbacks, we’d recommend salt-free water conditioners as the best alternative to water softeners because they offer virtually the same benefits as an ion exchange system, without the salt use.

There have also been a number of studies that have confirmed the effectiveness of TAC as a water softening alternative, including this study, which determined that TAC conditioners were the most efficient alternative scale-reducing solution, reducing a minimum of 88% scale in hard water.

Springwell futuresoft salt-free water conditioner

Electronic Water Descalers

Electromagnetic water treatment systems, also known as electromagnetic water softener systems or electronic water descalers, prevent scale formation without the use of salt, TAC media, or even a tank.

These compact systems are designed to be installed above your home’s main water line. Some electromagnetic water softeners have a coil of wire that wraps around the pipe, while others have a series of magnets that are placed against the pipe.

When water flows through the pipe into your home, the electronic water conditioning system produces electromagnetic waves, which suspend the hardness minerals in water, preventing them from forming scale deposits.

Electronic water descalers aren’t the most popular water softener alternatives for a couple of reasons:

  • They require electricity.
  • There’s little scientific evidence to suggest that they work.

With that said, there are a few studies into the effectiveness of electromagnetic descaling, including this one, which found that an electronic water descaler significantly reduced scale – and the scale that did form was “soft scale” that could be easily removed.

And, of course, there are benefits of these salt-free systems, too. Although they do need power, they actually require very little electricity, and they don’t waste water or use brine discharge, so they’re more efficient than many of the other water softener alternatives.

Like TAC systems, magnetic softeners retain healthy minerals in your drinking water. Plus, they take up minimal space, are easy to install, and require no maintenance whatsoever throughout their lifespans.

👨‍🔧 You might also like: Water Descaler Vs Water Softener: Which One is Right for You?

Yarna electronic water descaler in basement

Reverse Osmosis Systems

Want to remove contaminants and deal with hard water at the same time? A reverse osmosis system could be the right solution for you.

Reverse osmosis (RO) systems eliminate up to 99.99% of all total dissolved solids from your water supply using a process known as membrane separation.

Water flows through the RO membrane, which consists of tiny pores that allow only water particles to pass through. All impurities in the water, including the calcium hardness minerals, are flushed down a drain along with a small amount of wastewater.

A reverse osmosis system can be an effective solution for hard water. However, there are a few things you should keep in mind when considering an RO system as opposed to a traditional water softener:

  • Reverse osmosis is primarily intended for water filtration. Water with a high mineral content may damage the membrane or form a layer of scale that prevents the water particles from passing through the pores, massively reducing its efficiency. We don’t recommend using a reverse osmosis system to treat hard or very hard water because you’d have to replace the membrane more frequently.
  • RO systems are popularly used as point-of-use filtration, such as under-sink or countertop units. That means you wouldn’t be protecting your entire home from the effects of hard water. There are some point-of-entry RO systems that you can install at your water supply pipe. However, these are very expensive (about 3-4x the price of a water softener) and waste a lot of water.

Do we recommend reverse osmosis systems as water softener alternatives? Yes, but only if your water is only mildly to moderately hard. Otherwise, we don’t think they’re the best solution.

Tank based RO system installed under the sink

👨‍🔧 Continue Reading: The Ultimate Comparison: Reverse Osmosis Vs Water Softener Systems

Liquid Water Softeners

Finally, you might consider a liquid water softener as an alternative to a traditional ion exchange unit.

We’ve included this salt-free system last in our list because it’s the least popular and there aren’t many choices available at the moment. However, it’s still worth knowing about if you want to be aware of all your water softener alternatives.

A liquid water softener is similar to a traditional softener, but it doesn’t use salt (sodium chloride). Instead, the softener uses a food-grade, non-toxic solution called liquid polyphosphate, which eliminates hardness minerals and prevents limescale buildup.

The good news is that this softening alternative doesn’t need to be connected to a power supply, so you can use it even if you’re cut off. It’s also better for the environment since it doesn’t drain salty water, and it’s much smaller than a tank-based ion exchange softener because it just uses a liquid pouch. There’s also no water waste from this system.

However, there are a few setbacks to be aware of:

  • You’ll probably have to replace the pouch regularly, especially if you have a big household and use a lot of water. The liquid is pretty expensive, too.
  • Just like a traditional softener, liquid softeners remove healthy minerals that contribute to water’s pleasant alkaline taste.

We recommend looking into liquid water softeners if you want a salt-free solution that actually removes hardness minerals. However, just be aware that there aren’t currently many options to choose from since this product is relatively new.

🆚 Water Softeners Vs Alternative Options

So, now you know the alternatives to a traditional salt-based water softening system.

But which should you choose: a water softener or a water softener alternative?

The answer is: it depends on your personal situation.

Consider a water softener alternative if:

  • You can’t stand the idea of drinking salt in your water, even if only tiny amounts of sodium ions are added and your water won’t taste salty.
  • You’re on a low-sodium diet or need to avoid salt for health reasons.
  • You really don’t want to deal with the maintenance aspect of topping up the brine tank with salt.
  • You don’t mind that none of the water softener alternatives are quite as effective as water softeners at tackling hard water.

Consider traditional water softeners if:

  • You want the very best solution that eliminates hard water minerals and their effects.
  • You’re prepared to buy salt and top up the sodium tank when needed.
  • Your main water quality issue is hardness, and you want to tackle the solution with the system designed for just that: an ion exchange water softener.

Remember, if you’re just concerned about adding salt to your water, traditional water softeners can also be used with potassium chloride. This saltless solution plays the same role as sodium in the ion exchange process. If you want the most effective water softening without the salt, consider using potassium chloride in a traditional softener.

In short, water softening systems are the best way to protect your home from water hardness minerals, but you can still get great results from the water softener alternatives mentioned in this guide.

Water softener vs water conditioner

❔ Water Softener Alternatives: FAQ

Is there a way to soften water without a water softener?

Yes, there are a few ways to soften your water without a water softener: you could use a water conditioner, a form of electrochemical water treatment, or (in cases of mildly or moderately hard water) a reverse osmosis system. None of these solutions are quite as effective as water softening, but they still have similar outcomes.

How do you soften hard water without salt?

There are a few ways you can soften hard water without salt. If you want to physically soften your water (by removing hardness minerals) you could add potassium chloride instead of sodium chloride (salt) to an ion exchange water softener. Or, if you just want to prevent scale formation, you could use a salt-free water conditioner or electronic descaler.

Do alternative water softeners work?

Yes, alternative water softeners work. Several studies (which we’ve referenced in this guide) have found that water descalers and conditioners can effectively reduce scale. Template assisted crystallization (TAC) conditioners have been found in studies to have the most effective scale-reduction abilities.

Do you really need a water softener?

Not everyone really needs a water softener. It depends on your water’s calcium hardness, and how much you personally want to eliminate limescale and other effects of hard water. Water softeners have multiple benefits and can help you save money in the long run, but they’re an expensive upfront purchase, and not everyone wants the commitment of regular salt top-ups.

Is salt-free water softener better?

A salt-free water softener is better if you’re on a low-sodium diet, you don’t want the hassle of topping up the salt, or you prefer not to add even a tiny amount of salt to your drinking water. However, in terms of effectiveness, a water softener is best because it’s the only system to completely remove hardness minerals, eliminating the effects of hard water.

What is the cheapest way to soften water?

The cheapest way to soften your home’s water is by boiling it. Obviously, this solution is only suitable for small batches of water, and it’s only good for temporary hardness. Otherwise, the cheapest option is a cabinet-style water softener, which usually costs $400-$600 (as opposed to tank-based softeners, which cost $800+).

  • Brian Campbell
    President & CEO, CWS, CWR

    Brian Campbell, a WQA Certified Water Specialist (CWS) and Certified Water Treatment Representative (CWR) with 5+ years of experience, helps homeowners navigate the world of water treatment. After honing his skills at Hach Company, he founded his business to empower homeowners with the knowledge and tools to achieve safe, healthy water. Brian's tested countless devices, from simple pitchers to complex systems, helping his readers find the perfect fit for their unique needs.

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