Salt vs. Salt-free Water Softeners

People tend to be very particular about the water running into their home, as they should be. This is the water we cook with, the water we clean with, as well as the water we drink. Naturally, people want this water to be as clean and pure as possible. There have been great advances made in water purification in the past 100 years, and the development of even more sophisticated technology likely ensures that our water supply will only become cleaner going forward. People obviously want to know as much as they can about the water running into their home, for example where it came from and its purification level. However, not many people, especially those outside of the plumbing and/or HVAC industries, know that the water that is pumped into your home naturally contains minerals and ions, such as calcium and magnesium. If your water contains an excessive amount of these minerals, it is known as “hard” water, whereas water with a limited or nonexistent mineral content is known as “soft” water.

What is hard water?

Hard water is water that has a high mineral content. Rainwater is naturally soft water, but as the water percolates through deposits of limestone and chalk it collects minerals and sediments from these deposits, including an abundance of magnesium and calcium. This causes the water to turn hard. The amount of hard water in your water supply depends on your geographic location, as shown in the graphic below.

What are some signs of hard water?

Hard water is not a health risk, as evidenced that nearly 85% of the country drinks hard water to some degree. Hard water is more of a nuisance, as it can damage and shorten the lifespan of your clothes and household appliances. There are some very telltale signs if your home’s water supply is suffering from an influx of hard water:

  • Mineral build-up around water fixtures
  • Soap scum on bathtub, curtain or doors
  • Trouble cleaning your clothes, leading to duller colors and scratchier clothes
  • Clogged plumbing systems
  • Spots on dishes, flatware and glasses

How to combat hard water:

The best way to combat hard water is through the purchase of a water softener for your home. A water softener is a device that connects directly to your home water supply, removing or neutralizing the unwanted minerals in the water. The advantage of water softeners is they can extend the life of your water-using appliances, your plumbing and even your clothes. One study showed that water heaters using hard water lost half their efficiency over a 15-year lifetime, whereas those using softened water retained their original efficiency rating. Showerheads using hard water lost 75 percent of their flow rate in less than 18 months, while those on softened water maintained a full flow. Now, there are two types of water softeners: ones that are salt-based, and ones that are salt-free. There is much belief that these two types of water softeners are the same, and achieve the same results, however there are some very distinct differences between the two one must consider when making the choice of which water softener to buy for his/her home.

Salt-based water softeners:

The typical water softening process works as follows:

  1. Salt based water softeners use an electronic metered valve mounted atop a fiberglass resin tank. The hard water enters your home, and before dispensing into your homes water supply it travels to the water softener.
  2. Resin beads in the tank attract and hold onto hard water minerals, flushing them down a drain line and completely removing them from the water. After this the sodium is replenished in the resin bed and the process is ready to begin again.
  3. Softened water exits the tank and flows to the plumbing throughout your home.

Salt-based water softeners will absolutely ensure that minerals such as calcium and magnesium are completely removed from your water, ensuring that your water is now soft. This will stop all of those annoying habits of hard water usage noted earlier, ensuring that your clothes will be cleaner, there won’t be soap scum on your fixtures, your plumbing systems will flow more naturally, your appliances will last longer on average, and your water will have a more “slick” feeling to it, for lack of a better word. Salt-based systems are more expensive on average than their salt-less counterparts, and will require more maintenance as well, as you will have to check the salt level monthly, and will probably need to add more salt to the tank every 6-8 weeks. However, there are several high efficiency water softeners available, which use up to 75% less salt than older water softeners. An example of this is the Hellenbrand ProMate 6.5 Water Softener. There are also water softeners that have add-on features available which let you recycle up to 30% of the salt used, saving you money in the process. One note that we have to add though, is that with a salt-based water softener we absolutely recommend the addition of a reverse-osmosis system as well. This will completely remove the salt that is used during the softening process from your drinking water.

Salt-free water softeners:

The major difference between salt-based water softeners and salt-free ones comes down to this: salt-free water softeners don’t actually remove the minerals from your water, rather they neutralize them, retaining them in the water but changing their form so they will not adhere to any surfaces in your home. So, salt-free softeners are not actually softening the water, rather they are conditioning it. Because of this salt-free systems are not considered true water softeners by experts. Rather, these systems are often called “water conditioners” or “descalers." There are some benefits to this, as the salt-free water softeners will not add additional chemicals or salt to the water during treatment. This is useful if you have certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure or a heart ailment. These salt-free systems will also stop the minerals from adhering to your pipes, same as the salt-based softeners, so they still have some of the same benefits as their salt-using competitors do. Also, many descalers don’t use electricity, which helps to keep your overall costs minimized, making it an economical choice. However, salt-free water softeners may not work as well when exposed to high levels of hard water, such as what is typically found here in the greater Kansas City area. Salt-free softeners also cannot be used to treat stagnant water contained in your boiler or reservoir, as it can only be used on running water, limiting its overall effectiveness.