Hard water contains a high concentration of certain elements, particularly magnesium and calcium. Over time, these chemicals can affect our clothes, appliances, dishes, kitchenware, skin, and plumbing fixtures.
The good news is, you can eliminate these problems by installing a suitable water softener in your home. There are two different variants: salt and salt-free softeners, and the two have clear distinctions. This salt vs salt-free water softener comparison provides sufficient information to help you choose the best system for your needs.
Salt vs Salt-Free Water Softener: Important Factors to Consider
Ion exchange is used to chemically convert hard water to soft water. Hard water passes through a column of resin beads charged with sodium ions. The mineral ions are replaced with sodium ions that hardly interfere with appliances or household functions. You will then flash the hard minerals from the system once the beads have reached capacity.
Salt-free systems, however, do not remove the offending minerals from hard water. They are basically water conditioning systems. The hard minerals are being restructured instead – chemically altered into harmless minerals that won’t adhere to surfaces. The minerals will remain in the water but in a different form that won’t affect your appliances and plumbing work.
Salt-free systems crystalize magnesium and calcium but do not remove them from the water. They only prevent scale build-up but hardly remove other effects of hard water. Salt-based systems, on the other hand, remove hard water minerals, giving you soft water. They prevent scale build-up, soap scum, and stains, among other common hard water effects.
Note that neither water softener system is designed to remove health-damaging contaminants such as lead or arsenic, or odor-causing substances. Depending on what contaminants are in your home water, you may consider using an under-sink RO system or simply some Brita pitchers to make sure you have clean, freshwater for drinking.
A series of flushes purging the magnesium and calcium particles from the water occurs during the salt system cleaning cycle. These particles are collected and flushed down the drainage, and the salt will be replenished. Regeneration allows you to regenerate and reuse the salt once again. However, the process requires an electrical hookup and up to 100 gallons of water on average per cycle. You may also need to replace the salt once in a while.
Salt-free systems do not capture magnesium and calcium minerals and are hardly seen as actual water softeners. They use Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC) to convert the hardness minerals to hardness crystals. Since these crystals won’t be eliminated, there’s no need to purge the minerals from the water.
Certification to Standards
Water softeners must meet the NSF/ANSI 44 standards. Salt-based systems meet the relevant industry standards and building codes; hence are NSF-certified. However, salt-free systems do not meet all the standards and are not NSF-certified. You can legally only install salt systems in your new construction project.
Where you live determines the type of system to purchase. Some cities, such as Santa Barbara, Riverside, and Los Angeles, have banned the use of water softeners. Therefore, you might be limited to salt-free conditioners.
Industrial waste inspectors are occasionally sent to homes to check for banned salt-based systems and ensure compliance. Check with the local authorities if there are any restrictions to using a particular product before purchasing it.
Size of Softener
Size is a crucial factor to consider for your softener, especially with salt systems. However, physical size doesn’t matter that much. These systems are usually rated by their salt efficiency and the number of mineral grains they can remove. Check your water hardness and average daily household usage to determine the size of the water softener needed.
For a salt-free softener, you won’t have to worry about the hardness level, provided it’s below 80 grains per gallon.
Salt vs Salt-Free Water Softener: Pros and Cons
Salt-Based Water Softener
- Completely removes hard minerals from the water
- Reduces scale build-up on appliances, kitchenware, and plumbing work
- Longer-lasting and more efficient appliances
- “Soft” and “silky” water that’s less harsh on your skin
- Wastes water during the regeneration
- Requires constant maintenance to clean out the resin beads
- Can be a bit expensive
Salt-Free Water Softener
- Relatively cheaper
- Does not “waste” water
- Eliminates hard water effects
- Doesn’t remove essential minerals
- Does not soften water
- Crystalizes hard minerals but doesn’t remove them
Which system do you think is better? Salt systems outperform salt-free systems in terms of water softening by removing the hard minerals. Salt-free systems retain the essential minerals in the water, which contain several health benefits. However, both systems can efficiently take care of the scaling caused by the minerals in hard water. Your water needs, preferences, and location will play a big part in your ideal system’s decision.