Do Salt Free Water Softener Systems Work? (Here’s The Truth)

If you know anything about water softening, you’ll know that traditional water softeners use sodium chloride (salt) to remove hardness minerals from water in a process called ion exchange.

But recently, a new trend is emerging in the water softening industry: salt-free water softening.

In this guide, we’ve shared everything you need to know about salt-free water softeners, and answered the important question: Do salt-free water softeners work?

📌 Key Takeaways

  • Salt-free water softeners use a salt-free process to alter the structure of hard minerals, preventing scale formation.
  • The term “salt-free softeners” is technically incorrect because salt-free softeners don’t actually soften water (i.e. remove calcium and magnesium) – they condition it.
  • Some types of salt-free water softeners are proven to work, while others have little evidence to support their performance.
  • It’s difficult to know if a salt-free softener is working because your water’s hard mineral content will still be the same.

🚿 What Are Salt-Free Water Softeners?

Salt-free water softeners are a type of water treatment system that prevents the effects of hard water without the use of salt.

The correct definition of a salt-free softener is “water conditioner”. Why? Because water conditioners aren’t capable of softening water, so to call them a “water softener” of any sort is incorrect.

A salt-free water conditioner is installed as close as possible to a water supply’s point of entry into a home, upstream of the hot water heater.

When water flows through the system, the hard minerals are altered. Water that leaves the system is exactly the same quality, but it’s no longer able to form scale.

Check out the best salt-free water softener systems reviewed by WFG. 👈

Aquasana salt-free water softener installed in basement

🔎 How Do Salt-Free Water Softeners Work?

Salt-free water conditioners use a conditioning process to prevent scale formation in a water supply.

There are two popular water conditioning processes: template-assisted crystallization (TAC) and nucleation-assisted crystallization (NAC). These processes are effectively the same (we’ve compared them both in this guide).

The TAC/NAC conditioning processes involve sending water through a specially-treated media bed that contains hundreds of microscopic nucleation sites.

The media captures the hard water minerals, then converts them into crystals, releasing them back into the water once they grow to the template size. In their new crystallized form, the hard minerals are unable to stick to surfaces as scale.

🤔 Do Salt-Free Water Softeners Actually Work?

Some manufacturers of salt-based water softeners are insistent that the effects of hard water can only be treated by a system that uses sodium ions to physically remove hardness minerals. They say that saltless conditioners are a scam, and that they don’t actually do anything to water.

It doesn’t help that there’s no way to know whether or not a saltless conditioner has worked by testing your water, since conditioners don’t actually remove hard water minerals or make any difference to your water quality.

So, do salt-free water softeners actually work? The answer is yes. While these systems aren’t capable of softening water, they do prevent scale formation – by about 88%, according to a 2014 study.

💡 How does this compare to a conventional water softening system? A good ion exchange softener should eliminate all scale (100%) if it’s programmed properly, so salt-based water softeners still produce the best results. However, saltless conditioners are still a good alternative to consider.

There are a few things to note about the effectiveness of water conditioners, though: they work best on city water, not well water, and they don’t produce all the same soft water benefits of a traditional water softener system, such as better skin and hair health.

Salt free water softener flow diagram
Salt-Free Water Softener Process

Do Electromagnetic Water Descalers Work?

Let’s quickly discuss another less popular saltless scale prevention solution: electromagnetic water softeners.

Electromagnetic descalers treat water with electromagnetic waves, which have a similar outcome to TAC or NAC, preventing minerals from forming scale. The advantage of these systems is that they don’t affect water pressure and they require virtually no installation and no maintenance whatsoever – but some people say they don’t work at all.

From our research, we think that electromagnetic descalers DO work, but they’re not as effective as other water conditioning methods. The same 2014 study found that electromagnetic treatment reduced scale by around 50% – still a good result, but not a fully effective solution for managing the effects of hard water.

Here are the most effective water descalers in 2023 according to our research. 👈

🆚 Salt-Free Water Softeners Vs Salt-Based Water Softeners

Saltless conditioners and salt-based water softeners are, on the whole, fairly similar: both are installed at a home’s POE upstream of hot water heaters, and both are designed to tackle the effects of hard water.

The biggest difference between a water softener and a water conditioner is the water treatment process and, resultantly, the outcome.

  • Salt-based water softeners have two tanks: a brine tank and a resin tank. The brine tank contains salt, and the resin tank contains the water softening resin. These systems use the ion exchange process to remove hard water minerals, replacing them with equal amounts of sodium ions. The result is mineral-free, soft water.
  • Salt-free water conditioners have a single tank that contains a conditioning media. These systems use a conditioning process to alter the formation of hard minerals in a water supply, preventing scale buildup. You don’t get soft water from a water conditioner – it’s still hard, but it’s no longer capable of forming scale.
water softener vs water conditioner

Why Use A Salt-Free Softener Instead Of A Salt-Based Softener?

There are a few occasions in which you might benefit from using a salt-free system rather than a salt-based softener in your home:

They Can Be Used In Regions Where Salt-Based Softeners Are Banned

Some regions, such as communities in California, ban the use of traditional water softening systems that use salt. This is due to the high salt content in the wastewater produced during a water softener’s regeneration cycle.

If you live in a region where a traditional softening system is banned, you should still be able to install a saltless water softener as an effective alternative.

They’re Suitable For People On Low-Sodium Diets

Saltless water softeners don’t add salt to water, so they’re a good solution for people who don’t want to deal with the damaging effects of scale, but also don’t want to add salt to their drinking water.

📌 Note that you could still use a traditional salt-based water softener without salt – just buy potassium chloride instead. However, potassium chloride is about four times the price of water softener salt, so it’s more expensive than opting for a salt-free water softener.

They’re Virtually Maintenance-Free

Some people prefer to set and forget their water treatment systems. If you don’t want the hassle of maintenance or you don’t think you’ll remember salt top-ups, you’re best looking at a salt-free softening system.

Salt-free water conditioners don’t require salt top-ups, so they’re the best choice for people who prefer low- or no-maintenance scale prevention solutions.

⚖️ Pros & Cons Of Salt-Free Water Softeners

Pros:

Retain Healthy Minerals

Traditional salt-based water softeners eliminate healthy calcium (Ca2+) and magnesium (Mg2+) ions from water in the ion exchange process. Salt-free water softening systems retain these healthy minerals, so water still has a pleasant alkaline taste and the same health properties as before treatment.

Minimal Maintenance Required

A salt-based water softener needs regular salt top-ups, while saltless water softeners are completely maintenance-free. You only need to replace the media (which usually lasts at least 7 years) and the sediment pre-filter (which has an average 6-month lifespan).

Better For The Environment

Salt systems use a lot of water and release chloride salts (usually sodium chloride ions) into the environment. Salt-free systems don’t need salt to condition water, so they’re better for the environment.

Doesn’t Alter Water Feel Or Taste

A traditional ion exchange water softener gives water a slippery feel and a slightly different taste due to the added sodium. A salt-free system, on the other hand, doesn’t add salt to water, so it retains water’s original taste and feel.

rinsing hands in sink

Cons:

Don’t Offer All The Benefits Of Salt-Based Softening

Because salt-free water conditioners don’t actually produce soft water, they don’t offer all the same benefits as salt-based water softeners. You won’t enjoy better lathering with soap, reduced cleaning, and better skin and hair health, as you would with a salt-based ion exchange system.

More Expensive Upfront

The cost of a salt-free water softener depends on the brand and the model, but generally, salt-free conditioners are about $200-$450 more expensive upfront than ion exchange water softeners. You pay for the perks of low maintenance costs and no salt top-ups.

Not Suitable For Well Water

Well water is often very hard, and usually contains high levels of iron and manganese. The combination of high water hardness and these additional minerals is damaging to a water conditioner’s media. The only way to effectively treat well water in the long term is with a salt-based water softener.

Here’s a deeper dive into the pros and cons of salt free water softeners.

❔ Does A Salt-Free Water Softener Work? FAQ

Is there an alternative to salt water softener?

Yes, there’s an alternative to a salt water softener: a salt-free water conditioner, often referred to as a salt-free water softener. Unlike traditional water softeners, salt-free softeners don’t actually remove hard water minerals. Instead, they use a conditioning process to retain these minerals in water while preventing them from forming scale.

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 levels, or you live in a region where salt-based water softeners are banned. However, some people prefer salt-based softeners because they physically remove hard mineral ions from water, which means they offer a broader range of benefits, including better lathering with soap and no skin and hair irritation.

Can you soften water without salt?

No, you can’t soften water without salt. There are salt-free water softening options, but they don’t actually soften water, they condition it. That means that the hard minerals aren’t actually removed, but they’re altered in a way that prevents them from sticking to surfaces as scale. You’ll need a dedicated water conditioner for this – you can’t just use a water softener without salt.

How long does a salt-free water conditioner last?

A salt-free water conditioner lasts 10-20 years, perhaps even longer, with the right care and maintenance. Salt-free conditioners have fewer parts than water softeners, but they still have a few technical processes and will become worn after so many years of use. You may be able to replace a tank or component rather than the entire system.

Is water conditioning a type of water filtration?

No. A water filtration system can’t condition water and doesn’t treat water hardness. A water conditioner is designed solely to prevent scale formation, but can’t remove contaminants. Some manufacturers sell combined water conditioners and water filtration systems, offering two benefits in one.

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