Citric Acid Water Softener Systems

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If you want to enjoy soft water at home but you don’t like the idea of adding salt to your water, you might have heard of one salt-free solution: the critic acid water softener.

In this guide, we’ve answered all the questions you might have if you don’t know much about citric acid water softeners, including how they work, how they compare to salt-based water softeners, their costs, pros, and cons, and ultimately, whether or not we think they’re worth it.

📌 Key Takeaways:

  • A citric acid water softener conditions water, preventing scale formation in plumbing pipes and appliances.
  • Citric acid conditioners are different from conventional salt-based softeners because they don’t regenerate, they condition water rather than softening it, and they don’t need salt.
  • While these salt-free softeners are environmentally friendly, cheaper upfront, and don’t negatively affect your water quality, they’re costly to maintain, not as effective as salt-based systems, and backed by limited scientific evidence.

🤔 What is a Citric Acid Water Softener?

A citric acid water softener, or a citric acid water conditioner, is a type of water treatment system that uses citric acid to reduce water hardness.

You can use a citric acid water softener to minimize the effects of hard water. The main purpose of installing a citric acid system is to prevent calcium scale formation in your plumbing system, appliances, and fixtures.

Citric acid water softeners are classed as salt-free softeners because, unlike traditional salt-based water softeners, they don’t add salt to your water supply, so they’re a preferred choice for folks on low-sodium diets or people who simply don’t want to increase their daily sodium intake.

Nuvo H20 DPHB citric acid water softener

🔎 How Does a Citric Acid Water Softener Work?

Citric acid water softeners work by chelating or sequestering hard water mineral ions, preventing them from forming scale deposits.

As water flows through the tank, a citric acid water conditioner works by slowly metering citric acid into the water supply. When the citric acid binds to the hardness minerals, it keeps them in a soluble form, preventing them from being able to stick to surfaces as scale.

Citric acid water conditioners typically use a removable cartridge rather than a regenerative media, which makes them relatively low-maintenance and easy to use.

🆚 Citric Acid Softeners Vs. Salt-Based Softeners: The Main Differences

Let’s take a look at some of the main differences between citric acid water softeners and conventional salt-based softening systems:

Scale Prevention Method

The key difference between a citric acid water softener and a conventional salt-based water softener is the scale prevention process.

Salt-based softeners use ion exchange to physically remove hardness minerals by exchanging them with sodium ions, producing soft water in a literal sense.

Citric acid water softeners use a “conditioning” process to prevent scale formation without actually removing hardness ions from the water. They use citric acid to treat water, making them a salt-free alternative to conventional softeners.

Tap water feels slimy

Regeneration

Regeneration is a process that only occurs in the traditional sense in a conventional softener. This is another difference to note between salt-free citric acid systems and salt-based systems.

Traditional water softeners regenerate periodically to flush the magnesium and calcium ions out of the softening resin and replenish the sodium ions. Because the resin can be regenerated again and again, it can be used for around 10-20 years before it needs to be replaced.

Citric acid water conditioners use cartridges rather than a loaded resin. Once the citric acid in a cartridge has been used up, the cartridge must be replaced. In most systems we’ve reviewed, the cartridges need to be replaced annually.

Water Treatment Outcome

The water treatment outcome is also slightly different when comparing a citric acid water softener to a conventional salt-based water softener system.

As we mentioned above, citric acid softeners don’t actually soften water in a literal sense. The hardness ions remain in the water, and while they’re unable to form scale, you may still experience other hard water issues, like poor lather with soap.

Salt-based softeners, on the other hand, remove dissolved calcium and magnesium ions from water, replacing them with sodium. In its softened form, the water is unable to form mineral deposits, is better for skin and hair health, and lathers better with soap.

Maintenance Requirements

A conventional water softener system requires its own unique maintenance requirements compared to a citric acid softener.

The only maintenance required for a citric water softener system is to replace the citric acid cartridge (usually around once a year).

Ion exchange softeners need more maintenance – you have to top up the salt tank at least once every 3 months, and you’ll also need to clean the resin and brine tanks once every 1-2 years.

Citric water softener cartridge

Water Quality

Finally, the end water quality is a difference worth noting when we compare citric water softener systems with conventional salt-based units.

Like most salt-free water softeners, citric acid softeners don’t actually alter water quality. They simply prevent hardness ions from being able to stick to surfaces, solving the common hard water problem of scale build-up.

Sodium softeners do affect water quality because they soften water with salt. That means magnesium and calcium carbonate are physically removed from the water and replaced with sodium, altering its quality.

💸 How Much do Citric Acid Water Softeners Cost?

The average cost of a citric acid water softener is $600-$1,500, depending on the size of the system, the cartridge capacity and lifespan, and whether or not it comes with add-ons (like a sediment pre-filter).

Generally, citric acid water conditioners are around 25-40% cheaper than conventional ion exchange softeners. They’re more affordable because they have simpler designs: they generally have a single tank containing the replaceable citric acid cartridge, while conventional water softeners have two tanks and a lot more moving parts.

⚖️ Pros and Cons of Citric Acid Water Softeners

Now we know how citric acid water softener systems differ from sodium softeners, let’s take a moment to look at their advantages and disadvantages.

Citric Acid Softener Pros

  • They’re environmentally friendly. Citric acid is a natural and biodegradable substance, so it’s an eco-friendly choice for water softening. It’s chemical-free and doesn’t introduce dangerous substances into the environment.
  • They don’t add salt to your water. Unlike conventional salt-based water softeners, citric acid systems don’t add sodium to your water. That means they’re suitable for you if you’re watching your sodium intake or you just don’t want to add salt to your water.
  • They retain beneficial minerals. Citric acid water softeners retain essential minerals like calcium and magnesium in the water, so you can continue to enjoy the mineral taste and health properties of your water even after treatment.
  • They’re effective at preventing scale. Citric acid is an effective scale prevention method, helping to protect your pipes, appliances, and fixtures from mineral damage, improving their efficiency, and extending their lifespans.
  • They’re easy to maintain. Citric acid units are easier to maintain than salt-based softeners. There’s no salt tank to top up – you only have to replace the citric acid cartridge around once a year.
  • They don’t produce brine discharge. Citric acid water softeners don’t produce a brine discharge, so you don’t have to worry about the effects of discharging a high-sodium solution into wastewater (something that’s regulated in some states). That also means the systems are 100% safe to use if you have a septic tank.

Citric Acid Softener Cons

  • They’re not as effective as conventional softeners. Citric acid conditioning systems are less effective at treating very hard water compared to conventional salt-based ion exchange systems. They might not completely eliminate scaling issues, especially if your water supply is very hard.
  • They need annual filter changes (which are expensive). Citric acid systems require regular maintenance. Your main task is to replace the citric acid cartridges to maintain their effectiveness. These cost hundreds of dollars, but if you don’t replace them, your water will start to form limescale deposits again.
  • Too much/too little citric acid may be used. A citric acid conditioning unit is unlikely to meter the correct amount of citric acid in your water. Too much citric acid could negatively react with cleaning agents, while too little will fail to provide complete scale prevention.
  • They don’t remove iron. Citric acid water softeners are primarily designed for calcium and magnesium ion removal (hardness). Unlike salt-based softeners, they’re not effective at removing low levels of ferrous iron and other specific contaminants that may be present in water. For this reason, they’re usually only recommended for city water supplies.
  • Their conditioning process lacks evidence. At the moment, there’s little evidence to support the efficacy of citric acid for softening water. In fact, Penn State University says that these systems have “shown mixed results of effectiveness and are not generally recommended”.
Citric water softener housing

🧐 Are Citric Acid Water Softeners Worth It?

Ultimately, in our opinion, citric acid water softeners are worth it if you’re dead set on a salt-free alternative to a home water softener system. However, we do think there are other salt-free water softener systems to consider that are better than citric acid cartridge systems.

For instance, other salt-free conditioners that use template-assisted crystallization (TAC) media offer the same benefits as citric systems (scale prevention and the gradual removal of existing scale) without their side effects. TAC systems are, in comparison, easier to maintain because they don’t need salt top-ups or frequent filter changes. They’re tank-based systems that are pre-loaded with TAC media, which typically lasts 7-10 years before it needs to be replaced.

So, our advice is to make sure you know all your salt-free options before settling on a citric water softener.

📑 Final Word

We wrote this article because we wanted to provide a valuable resource to folks looking for clear information on citric acid softening systems, including how they work, how they compare to ion exchange systems, and more. Hopefully, we’ve helped answer any questions you had on the subject of these unique water conditioner units. If not, we’ve covered a few additional questions in our FAQ below.

❔ FAQs

Do citric acid water softeners work?

Yes, citric acid water softener units do work to prevent scale. The hardness ions bind to the citric acid in the cartridge, which converts them into soluble forms and prevents them from being able to stick to surfaces.

What does citric acid do to hard water?

Citric acid conditions hard water by preventing calcium and magnesium ions from forming scale deposits on surfaces. It doesn’t actually soften the water – the only way to do that is to actually remove the hardness ions with a salt-based softener.

Can I put citric acid in my water softener?

No, you can’t put citric acid in your water softener instead of salt. You need an actual citric acid softening system if you want to condition your water with this substance.

How much citric acid do I add to my water softener?

If you have an ion exchange softening system, don’t add any citric acid to the softener tank – the system is designed to take sodium or potassium chloride ions only. If you’re referring to a citric acid conditioning unit, you don’t need to manually add citric acid to the system. Just replace the cartridge with a new one.

  • 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.

2 thoughts on “Citric Acid Water Softener Systems”

  1. Avatar for Brian Campbell

    Can a citric acid cartridge be added in addition to a TAC system? Would there be any interferance between the two and perhaps what might be the best configuration if also using an instant gas hot water tank?

    1. Avatar for Brian Campbell
      Brian Campbell

      Using a citric acid conditioner in conjunction with a TAC conditioner would be redundant and unnecessary. I would choose one or the other. That said, neither conditioning method will provide the same protection as an ion exchange softener that completely removes the hardness minerals.

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