You’ve likely heard of a salt-free water softener — but what does that mean? How are these systems different from a traditional water softener? What are the pros and cons of salt-free water softeners?
The upside of a salt-free water softener – beyond the no-salt requirement – is that it doesn’t use electricity or chemicals and creates no wastewater. The potential downside is that salt-free systems don’t technically remove hardness, which means some issues — such as scale buildup — will not be entirely eliminated.
Let’s explore salt-free water softener alternatives, also called salt-free water conditioners, to find out what this solution means for water hardness, the environment and more.
Salt-Free Conditioners: Pros and Cons
While a salt-free water conditioner may not be capable of creating soft water, it has plenty of other benefits. It also has some drawbacks — which is why it’s important to know exactly what you’re getting into before you choose this solution over any other.
Salt-Free Water Conditioner Pros
The first and perhaps most important benefit of a salt-free water conditioner is that it doesn’t use salt. That means you can use a salt-free water conditioner in situations where a water softener may not be allowed. For example, some areas have imposed brine restrictions, which means you can’t have a softener that requires regeneration through a brine-based backflushing process.
A salt-free solution can have other benefits, too. For one, you won’t have to manage buying and refilling salt to keep your system operating as it should. Furthermore, salt-free water conditioners don’t use electricity. As such, you might be able to reduce your power consumption while still addressing some of the most frustrating elements of water hardness. Some users also prefer the feel of the water.
As an added benefit, salt-free water conditioners can also come with a built-in carbon water filter that helps reduce chlorine in water. That’s a big deal for city water users, because public water supplies are generally treated with chlorine for decontamination purposes — and too much of this good thing can impact water taste and odor.
Salt-Free Water Conditioner Cons
All that said, unlike a water softener, a salt-free water conditioner doesn’t actually remove the calcium and magnesium that cause hard water. It just changes their structure so the minerals are non-adhesive. Scale buildup still forms, but it’s easier to remove because the conditioning process changes the structure of these minerals to make them non-adhesive. (On the contrary, softening removes the hardness minerals, so scale buildup is actually prevented.)
Another downside of leaving hardness minerals in your water is that they can prevent soap from lathering and detergents from operating effectively. This means you’ll have to spend more time and money when doing laundry, washing dishes and even bathing. You might also notice that your skin stays dry and your hair gets brittle, all thanks to that calcium and magnesium still lingering in your tap water.
Finally, water conditioning is difficult to measure. While you can track a water softener’s results with a water test, conditioning doesn’t add or remove anything, which means hardness levels stay the same. Many people gauge the success of their salt-free water conditioner based on how easy it is to remove soap spots — and waiting for the spots to get sticky and difficult to clean is the best way to tell when the salt-free conditioner needs maintenance, service or replacement.
Traditional vs. Salt-Free Water Softeners
When it comes to water hardness, you have two basic options: a system that uses salt or one that doesn’t. Let’s take a closer look:
Traditional Water Softener
A traditional water softener, also called an ion-exchange water softening system, removes calcium and magnesium. It uses negatively charged resin beads to attract and trap positively charged hardness minerals. When those beads have been worn out by their work, they go through a process called “regeneration,” where they’re rinsed with a specialized sodium solution. That’s why salt is a vital ingredient for a water softener: It helps keep the system working effectively.
Keep in mind that this salt doesn’t interact with your tap or drinking water, so it doesn’t add sodium levels to your diet. Instead, it’s flushed into the sewer or septic system.
Salt-Free Water Softener
A salt-free water softener isn’t a softener at all. In fact, it’s more accurately described as a salt-free water conditioner.
Water softening occurs when hardness minerals are removed; however, salt-free systems don’t technically remove anything. Instead, they change the chemical structure of the minerals so they’re less adhesive. That means calcium and magnesium will still be present in your water, but won’t be as sticky and troublesome as before. As such, you’ll enjoy better but not softened water.
Remember, because a salt-free water conditioner uses different techniques from a softener, it doesn’t have a regeneration process — so it doesn’t use salt.
Why Hard Water Matters
Whether you’re researching a water softener, a salt-free water conditioner or both, you probably have one goal: eliminating the issues caused by hard water.
Water with high hardness levels doesn’t necessarily look or smell any different from any other kind of water, so it’s not always easy to identify. However, when it comes to hard vs. soft water, hardness does have a few telltale signs that are generally caused by its higher levels of calcium and magnesium.
While these minerals don’t turn hard water into a health risk, that doesn’t mean they’re good news for your water supply.
Hard water can:
- Create limescale buildup
- Leave water spots on dishes
- Dry out your skin
- Make your hair feel brittle
- Leave laundry stiff and uncomfortable
- Reduce the lifespan of your water-using appliances
- Force you to spend more time (and money) on housecleaning
Can City Water Be Hard?
Municipal water supplies are overseen, managed and protected by a variety of public health organizations. As such, city water users may have fewer concerns about contaminants such as chemicals and bacteria, but still need to be vigilant about their water quality.
With that in mind, you might wonder if hardness is one more thing the city takes care of. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. This is because municipal water regulations are generally related to health risks, not limescale buildup and spotty dishes. As such, city water users may have hardness issues.
Can Well Water Be Hard?
Hard water is a common issue for well water users. That’s because this water comes from a different place — one that may be more directly exposed to rocks and other natural sources of minerals. That’s why well owners often choose a water softener for a better water experience.
How is Water Hardness Measured?
Some water issues are easy to spot because they have obvious clues, like a rotten egg smell (indicating hydrogen sulfide) or a reddish tint (which means you may have iron water issues). Unfortunately, hard water is a little more difficult to identify.
That’s why the best way to measure water hardness is to have a professional water test and consultation performed. These tests can place your water on a hardness scale so you know exactly what you’re looking at and what it means.
How Do You Address Water Hardness?
The good news is that hard water solutions are easy to come by. The only thing you have to do is decide whether a water softener or salt-free water conditioner is best for your needs.
Choose the Right Water Hardness Solution
Hard water may not be a health risk, but it’s certainly a big – and costly – irritant. If you want to protect your skin, hair, dishes, laundry and home from this nuisance, you need a water softener.
However, if soft water isn’t a necessity and you’d rather have an alternative solution, a salt-free water conditioner might be the better option. These appliances eliminate the need for salt and electricity and create zero wastewater.
How do you decide which choice is best? Simple: Start with a water test and consultation. This will give you important information about hardness levels in your area, other water quality issues you might want to address and whether you need softening or conditioning.
Take the first step by scheduling your free, in-home water test and consultation today.
*Contaminants may not be present in your water.
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