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How Do Salt-Free Water Softeners Work?


Even if you don’t know exactly what hard water means or why it occurs, you might be familiar with the problems it causes. Half of all Canadian municipalities have been found to have water hardness issues, and much of the United States experiences hard water as well. That means you could be one of the millions of households dealing with dry skin, soap scum, mineral buildup and other effects of hard water.

Fortunately, these issues don’t have to be permanent. A water softener can help address hardness issues in your water supply, but the traditional softening process requires the use of salt. If you live in a brine-restricted area or are exploring salt-free options for other reasons, you may be wondering how salt-free water softeners work. 

The key thing to understand is that salt-free water softeners are actually water conditioners. They don’t actually soften the word – that is, they don’t remove the calcium and magnesium that cause hard water like a traditional softener does. Rather, they change the structure of the hardness minerals to make them less adhesive, meaning that while scale can still form, it’s much easier to clean.

Is this alternative as effective as water softening? Are there other considerations to keep in mind? Read on to find out.

What is a Water Softener?

Water softeners are an important part of any complete water solution, especially if you use a private well or are in an area where the public water supply has a high mineral content. That’s because hard water isn’t just an irritant — it could also reduce the efficiency and lifespan of your water-using appliances, increase the amount you spend on soaps and detergents, irritate your skin and more. 

Tired of hard water headaches? Get your FREE Hard Water Solutions Handbook.

At first glance, water softeners might look like a pair of air tanks. It’s often installed in the basement or garage, where it’s connected directly to your water supply. Water flows into the main tank and filters through resin beads — tiny balls that may resemble fish eggs.

These beads have a negative charge. That’s important because the minerals that cause water hardness — most often calcium and magnesium — have a positive charge. This allows the resin beads to attract each hard water mineral like a magnet and remove them from your water.. By the time your water supply has filtered through these beads to reach your tap, it’s soft and more comfortable for you and your home.

So where does the salt come in? It’s used in a process called regeneration. 

Imagine the resin beads as magnets. They attract hard minerals in the same way a magnet attracts little pieces of metal, which means they’ll eventually fill up. To keep doing their job, the beads need to be rinsed so they can keep attracting the hardness minerals. This saltwater solution is kept in the water softener’s secondary tank, known as the brine tank.

The regeneration process happens in one of three ways:

  • Time: Your water softener will flush minerals on a regular basis, regardless of how often you use the system.
  • Water usage: The water softener tracks your water usage and regenerates as needed before softening performance is impacted.
  • Aqua-Sensor®: Proprietary Culligan® technology monitors resin beads inside your water softener. The system intelligently schedules regeneration to optimize water and salt usage and improve water softening efficiency.

No matter which method of regeneration your water softener uses, one thing remains constant: Water softening requires salt. That means a “salt-free water softener” isn’t actually a softener at all.

The Ins and Outs of Salt-Free Water Conditioners

Products that may be called a salt-free softener are actually water conditioners. It’s important to remember the distinction, because salt isn’t the only thing that sets these systems apart; they actually work in different ways and have different benefits.

Let’s take a closer look:

Do Salt-Free Water Conditioners Soften Your Water?

By definition, “water softening” is removing hardness minerals — and a salt-free conditioner doesn’t do that. Instead, it changes the physical structure of the water, crystalizing the minerals to reduce their adhesive properties. Calcium and magnesium are still present, so you don’t technically end up with softened water.

Do Salt-Free Water Conditioners Make Water Feel Different?

Because water conditioners leave hardness minerals in your water supply, you probably won’t notice a difference in the way your water feels. 

Do Salt-Free Water Conditioners Prevent Scale Buildup?

Remember, a water conditioner doesn’t remove calcium and magnesium. These minerals can still eventually build up to create scale on your shower heads, faucets, dishes and even in your home’s plumbing. However, because the adhesive properties are reduced, salt-free conditioners can minimize scaling and make it easier to clean.

Do Salt-Free Water Conditioners Prevent Water Spots?

One of the most frustrating symptoms of hard water is the spots left behind on dishes, shower doors and other parts of your home. While a water conditioner doesn’t stop these spots from occurring, it does make them easier to wipe off. That’s because the conditioning process makes hardness minerals less “sticky,” so you’ll need less time and effort (and likely, fewer cleaning products) to keep your house looking tidy.

Do Salt-Free Water Conditioners Use Electricity?

A water softener — that is, a system that uses salt — relies on electricity to move water through its multiple tanks. A salt-free system, on the other hand, doesn’t have this requirement. That means you can cut back on energy consumption while still getting the benefits of conditioned water.

Do Salt-Free Water Conditioners Create Wastewater?

Because there is no regeneration process in a water conditioner, there is no wastewater in these systems.

Do Salt-Free Water Conditioners Address Other Issues?

Even in nature, water is rarely 100% pure. That means hardness may not be the only issue in your water supply. Luckily, some water conditioners come prepared to multitask with optional carbon filters. This filtration step reduces the amount of chlorine in your water, which can help address tastes and odors that might remind you of a swimming pool.

Why Choose a Salt-Free Water Conditioner?

Water softeners and water conditioners are not interchangeable — so what might drive you to choose one over the other? Here are a few situations where a salt-free system might be a better fit for your home:

You’re in an Area With Brine Restrictions

The biggest reason to get a salt-free conditioner is if you live in an area with brine restrictions, which means individuals and businesses aren’t allowed to drain saltwater from any source. The goal is to protect the environment, but the result is a limited list of hard water solutions like salt-based water softeners. In this case, water conditioners are the perfect compromise: They address many hard water concerns without bringing salt into the picture.

You Don’t Want to Change Your Water

In some cases, a salt-based water softener can make your water taste and feel different. That’s because minerals like magnesium and calcium don’t exist just to cause trouble; they have both benefits and drawbacks — and by eliminating the latter, you also lose out on the former. 

A water conditioner doesn’t impact your water’s taste or feel. Instead, it leaves your water as-is by changing the minerals’ structure instead of removing them entirely.

You Want to Save Energy

Unlike a water softener, water conditioners don’t need electricity to do their work. That means you could save a little money on your energy bill while still making scaling problems easier to address.

You Don’t Want to Manage Salt Refills

Many people have questions about the regeneration process — for example, when to add salt to your water softener, how much is necessary and where to get the proper supplies. Salt delivery is a convenient way to make this process simple, but not all companies make this a quick, stress-free experience.

While Culligan water solutions come with plenty of options for your salt needs, a water conditioner may be the right fit for you. It all depends on your preferences and soft water expectations.

Choosing the Best Water Softener for You

You have plenty of options when it comes to water softening and other hard water treatment solutions. However, if you’re wondering how to choose the best water softener or conditioner, there are a few important things to keep in mind:

  • Water solutions begin with water testing. No matter what water issue you’re facing, a water test and consultation is the first step toward relief. You’ll learn what’s causing water quality problems, whether there are certain contaminants in your water supply and what to do about it.*
  • Local water experts can help. Water hardness levels shift depending on where your water comes from. That’s why it’s best to have a local Culligan water expert available to answer questions and identify the best solutions for your needs, including drinking water filtration, water softening or conditioning and more.
  • Water conditioning isn’t right for everyone. Some people prefer water conditioning, while others want complete water softening. It all depends on what’s best for you and your water (and any local restrictions, too).

Start Addressing Water Hardness Today

The symptoms of hard water — such as spotty dishes, dry skin and soap scum buildup — can be a real frustration. If you want some of the benefits of water softening without the salt, your best bet is a water conditioner.

While a water conditioner may not be the same solution as a water softener, it has a long list of benefits, including environmental friendliness, easy maintenance and more. 

To find out whether a water conditioner is right for you, start by scheduling your free, in-home water test and consultation. Our local water experts will take it from there.

*Contaminants may not be present in your water.

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