Salt-free water purifiers, everything you need to know

Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a salt-free water softener, you’re out of luck. There is no such thing as a salt-free water softener. The ion exchange process used by water softeners does not work without the sodium ions displacing the calcium and magnesium ions, creating hardness in the water. A salt-free water conditioner or scale inhibitor is a more accurate description of units commonly marketed as salt-free water softeners.

What is a salt-free water conditioner?

A salt-free water conditioner is a water filtration system that crystallizes the magnesium and calcium minerals prevalent in hard water. These microcrystals cannot leave the solution and stick to pipes and water heaters as scale. Water conditioners do not remove hardness minerals; they physically alter them and render them incapable of forming scale buildup. Traditional water softeners remove hardness minerals through a process called ion exchange. In an ion-exchange process, plastic resin beads are rinsed with a salt solution that charges each bead with a sodium ion. When hard water flows through these beads, sodium ions are exchanged for magnesium and calcium. The water that leaves the tank and enters the house is now softened but contains low amounts of sodium as a byproduct of the softening process.[1]

The added sodium content has generated some controversy surrounding water softeners. In reality, the amount of sodium added by water softeners is minimal and much less than popularly imagined. Salt-based softeners undergo periodic regeneration cycles to replenish the resin beads with sodium ions. This results in wastewater with a lot of brine being discharged into city water drainage lines, which has led to water softener bans in some municipalities.

All of this has led to a push for salt-free water softener alternatives. Unfortunately, this has resulted in deceptive yet creative marketing strategies. Water conditioners that advertise themselves as “salt-free water softeners” are aimed at those looking for a salt-free system, but the implication that softening occurs is inaccurate. However, these water conditioners address some problematic aspects of hard water.

How does a water conditioner work?

Water conditioners work through a process called template-assisted crystallization (TAC). In mold-assisted crystallization, water flows through a tank of TAC medium. This medium consists of tiny polymer beads covered by craters called ‘nucleation sites. These nucleation sites act as templates to form the hard microcrystals. When hard water comes into contact with the medium, magnesium, and calcium ions are trapped by the nucleation sites. Tiny microcrystals start as more calcium and magnesium ions accumulate within the sites. Finally, when they reach a specific size, these crystals detach from the medium and are released into the water.

These microcrystals are stable and retain crystal structure as they flow through the pipes. They won’t break off or stick to your water pipes like scale. Scale is destructive and detrimental to home plumbing, one of the most common problems people who live with hard water face. The scale prematurely ruins appliances like coffee makers, dishwashers, and washing machines. Damage to hot water appliances is particularly devastating; as the water’s more alluring, the faster scale formation occurs.[2]

Scale can also reduce water pressure, restrict flow rates, and, in extreme cases, prevent water from flowing through your home. Replacing home plumbing is hugely expensive, so scale inhibitors or a water conditioner like ScaleNet is a worthwhile investment if scale prevention is your primary concern.

Salt-Free Water Conditioners vs. Water Softeners

Salt-free water conditioners prevent scale from forming in pipes. But, with a salt-free water conditioner or scale inhibitor, you won’t see many of the benefits of a water softener. Water softeners physically remove hardness minerals from the water supply and flush them down the drain. Minerals are prohibited from entering your home and damaging your water heaters and appliances. However, hard water damage extends beyond the scale. Clothes washed with hard water come out of the machine stiff and dirty in color. Dishes washed with hard water are cloudy and come from the rinse smeared with soap stains. Soap and cleaning products build up into thick suds as hardness minerals prevent the soap from lathering properly. Hard water is also miserable for showering as it dries skin and hair.

A salt-free water conditioner will not solve any of these problems. Hardness minerals exist in crystallized form but are still present in the water. Your new laundry load will still be drab and dull, and your bathroom will still be covered in soap suds. The only way to eliminate these headaches is to soften the water. So, the reason the common trade name of “salt-free water softener” is not only false, it’s misleading. Salt-free water conditioners provide scale protection, but associating them with softening water benefits is patently dishonest.

Where should I use a salt-free water conditioner?

Tankless water heaters

Pretreatment for a tankless water heater is one of the most popular and practical applications of a water conditioner. Installing an anti-fouling filter before any hot water appliance is a wise investment, especially if the water is high in calcium and magnesium, which cause scale. Hot water drastically accelerates tartar buildup. If scale builds up in your tankless water heater, it will decrease efficiency and cause it to fail prematurely. Paying to descale a water heater is expensive, and scaling water heaters will drive up the costs of your energy bills. The scale adheres directly to the heating element of water heaters. So when the temperature rises to heat the water, you must first warm all the scales embedded in the heater—other anti-limescale filters such as phosphate. The filter performs poorly in hot water environments. The temperature of the water causes the phosphate to break down, allowing some scale formation to materialize. A ScaleNet tank or in-line cartridge scale inhibitor will prevent your tankless water heater from building up the scale and save you the high cost of repossessing your water heater.

Delete existing scale

Another attractive feature of TAC water conditioners is their ability to remove existing scale from pipes. The microcrystals formed by TAC media have a snowball effect on the scale. As the crystals flow through your pipes, they break up and scrape off the existing scale attached to your lines. You could unclog years of scale buildup in your pipes by installing a whole-house salt-free water conditioning system. However, if you release too much scale, it could clog wholly and downstream block the line. However, once that plumbing section is replaced, you will likely have the cleanest pipes your house has ever seen.

Communities Where Water Softeners Are Banned

A salt-free system is a viable alternative if you live in a rugged water county that has implemented a water softener ban. This is most common in California, where areas north of Los Angeles and Santa Clarita have imposed bans on water softeners. The wastewater produced by softeners is highly salty and very difficult to desalinate for reuse. In states like California, where drought is frequent and water conservation is essential, the wastewater produced by softeners is controversial. Then, municipal water treatment centers take on the difficult task of removing large amounts of dissolved salt from the water before recirculating it throughout the community.

What are the advantages of a salt-free water conditioner?

Salt-free water conditioners have several advantages that set them apart from traditional water softeners.[3]

1. Low maintenance

Salt-free water conditioners are shallow maintenance systems. Installation is straightforward since the plans consist of a single tank or cartridge. Since water conditioners do not backwash or go through regeneration cycles, they do not require drain connections. They do not need storage tanks to regenerate brine or control valves to monitor flow and initiate backwash cycles. They do not require salt or potassium and rarely require any type of service from a plumber. They are unlikely to have a dramatic effect on your flow rate. Unlike salt-based softeners, they don’t require electricity to operate, saving you on electricity bills.

2. Environmentally friendly

Since salt-free water conditioners do not undergo regeneration cycles, they do not produce wastewater. They do not dump chlorides into the waste stream, which can be taxing on municipal water treatment plants. They also save water since all the water processed by the water conditioner goes directly to your home or tankless heater.

3. Low media consumption

The TAC media in salt-free water conditioners only needs to be replaced once every three to five years. In addition, minimal means are required to maintain a whole house water conditioning system. Salt-free tanks do not need to be filled with medium, unlike water softeners. Most whole-house systems only require 5-10 liters of medium to last for several years.

4. Diversity of applications

If you don’t want to install a whole-house system, scale inhibitors come in various cartridge sizes and flow rates. This means establishing a single anti-scale filter cartridge in front of your tankless water heater or line with your other water filtration systems. A whole house salt-free, chlorine-reducing air conditioner system is available if you want a whole house with more extensive filtration capabilities. This will prevent scale buildup in your home and improve the taste and odor of your water supply. Removing chlorine and chloramines will protect the TAC media and extend the system’s life.

5. Soft water alternative

Some people don’t like the “slippery” feel of soft water. Others complain that showering in soft water can make it feel like the soap still sticks to the skin and the shampoo never thoroughly removes from the hair. This is entirely preferential, but if you object to the feeling of soft water but still want to remove scale from your pipes, water conditioners provide a happy medium.

What are the disadvantages of a salt-free water conditioner?

Although they have their share of applications, keep in mind that water conditioners have several drawbacks.[4]

1. Unusable in healthy water

Unfortunately, salt-free water conditioners are useless where hard water is most common: healthy water. Water is likely to have moderate to high levels of iron and manganese. Water conditioners become completely ineffective against iron and manganese. Iron coats the TAC medium, blocking the nucleation sites that create hard microcrystals. In water laden with iron and manganese, the magnesium and calcium ions will bounce off the anti-scaling medium and flow into your home’s pipes, creating scale formation.

2. No benefits of soft water

Again, despite the common title of “salt-free water softener,” these systems do not provide soft water. Soft water relieves the stress of endlessly cleaning up after hard water. You’ll still have to use twice as much laundry detergent and dishwasher soap to achieve mediocre results. You’ll still need to clean soap scum stains from your sinks and tubs. Salt-free water conditioners have only limited effectiveness against hard water.

Salt-based vs. Salt-free Water Softeners: The Pros & Cons

Is there a difference between the two? Which is better for my home? What is the cost comparison of the two different systems? These are just a few of the questions we get on a day-to-day basis on the differences between a salt-based softener and a salt-free system.

If you have kept up with our posts, you would know that I discussed how a water softener works in our first blog. If you want to improve your knowledge of how they operate, check it out!

Below, I will touch on the pros and cons of both systems and answer the questions we receive to help make your decision easier. Take a look!

Salt-Based Water Softeners

Water softening means removing the hardness (minerals like calcium and magnesium)from the water through an ion-exchange process. Salt-based water softeners contain a resin bed that filters the water through, exchanging those hardness minerals for sodium particles. When the resin bed is full of hardness and can’t hold onto anymore of it, the cleaning cycle (or regeneration) begins. This is when a series of backwashes purge the trapped minerals and flushes them out of the system. The salt is replenished, and the system continues to soften. (I touch more in-depth on this topic in our previous blog post :).

The Pros

  • A salt-based water softener removes minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, from your water.
  • A saltwater system will reduce the excess amount of lime-scale buildup in your sinks, faucets, and bathtubs.
  • Another long-term benefit includes more efficient and longer-lasting appliances and fewer repairs and plumbing maintenance.
  • It will make your water feel “soft” and “silky” and won’t be as harsh on your skin.
  • You will also notice that more suds and bubbles are formed when the water is soft from salt.
  • This is due to the minerals being taken from the water and not being present to dry your skin.

The Cons

  • Unfortunately, a salt-based system can be a little bit more expensive.
  • The salt-based water softeners require maintenance to clean the resin bed and replenish the salt. Unfortunately, water is “wasted” during the regeneration, and the resin bed will need to be replaced every five to ten years.

Salt-Free Water Softeners

Salt-free systems do not use ion exchange to remove hard minerals like salt-based systems. Instead, the water is processed through a catalytic media using a

physical process called Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC). The minerals’ form is changed to a hardness crystal that does not adhere to or stick to surfaces. That is why it is called a water conditioner instead of a water softener since it does not technically “soften” your water. Since these systems do not capture minerals, there is no need for a cleaning cycle to remove trapped components.

The Pros

  • They are commonly less expensive than salt-based systems.
  • Salt-free water softeners do not use softening chemicals to soften the water in your home and do not have wastewater.
  • This softener will counteract contaminants like calcium and magnesium so that they do not stick to the surface instead of removing them from your water.

The Cons

  • A significant con that many confuse is that a salt-free system is a water conditioner, not a water softener.
  • With a salt-free system, your water will never feel “soft.” It will not give your skin the silky and smooth feeling that a system that uses salt would.
  • In the salt-free process, it creates hardness crystals but leaves minerals in the water, so although there will be a reduction in the buildup on fixtures, there will still be buildup.
  • Systems that use salt are typically quicker at showing results versus a salt-free system. This is because filtration in the salt base system starts immediately, whereas, with a salt-free system, it takes a bit longer since it uses electricity.

What is better, salt or saltless water softener?

That reduces scale buildup in your plumbing, which is the only benefit of a salt-free system. This falls far short of the many benefits of a natural water softener. Salt-based systems will outperform salt-free for overall water softening. The best way to soften water is with a salt-based softener.[5]

Are salt-free water softeners any good?

Unfortunately, if you’re in the market for a salt-free water softener, you are out of luck. A salt-free water softener does not exist. The ion exchange process used by water softeners doesn’t work without the sodium ions displacing the calcium and magnesium ions that create water hardness.[6]

How long does a salt-free water softener last?

Q. How long will my salt-free water softener last? This depends on the type of salt-free water softener. An electromagnetic water softener can last up to 40 years or more, while an enclosed filter-based water softener may last up to 6 years before needing replacement.[7]

Which is better, water softener or water conditioner?

However, we always recommend a water softener over a water conditioner because it removes the hardness particles from your water and is far more effective. It also has added benefits of keeping hardness particles off your appliances, clothes, and skin and reducing soap and detergent usage.[8]

Is it safe to drink water from a salt-free water softener?

Most American households have hard water, and unless it has specific contaminants considered harmful, it is generally safe for consumption. Soft water is also safe, but many softeners are sodium-based (salt-based), which might increase sodium intake levels.[9]

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