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Salt-Free Water Softener vs Salt: Pros & Cons Comparison

Scott Winfield
Last Updated on
by Scott Winfield

Hard water is a result of excess minerals and causes a wide range of issues in your home and your body.

But how can you fix it? Will salt-free water softeners work just as well as their salt-based alternatives?

Read below to find out.

What Is Salt-Free Water Softener?

Salt-Free Water Softener
Aquasana Salt-Free Water Softener

Salt-free water softener, also known as water conditioner, is a water treatment system that crystallizes calcium and magnesium hard water mineralsuses potassium instead of salt to reduce the effects of the hard water in your home.

It is designed to be attached to one piece of plumbing in your home and condition the water throughout. It is used when the presence of minerals is excessive.

Most homes have a hard water problem and could benefit from having their water conditioned or softened. Because of this, people turn to water softening systems.

Though salt-free water conditioners do accomplish their mission of reducing building and scale, these water softeners technically do not actually soften your water. They only condition it.

A salt-free water conditioner can be installed once and expected to work for a very long time after. They are low-maintenance and do not require replacement or repair frequently.

These are an overall fantastic option for those who do not want to fully eliminate the minerals in their water but only mitigate the effects the minerals have on their homes.

At the very least, salt-free conditioners will successfully save your appliances and plumbing from being overrun with excessive buildup.

Let’s take a deeper look below at how these systems work and whether or not they’re effective at combatting scaly buildup in your home.

How Do Salt-Free Water Softeners Work?

Salt-free water softeners should more accurately be called salt-free water conditioners because they do not remove the hard water minerals. Instead, they condition them.

The two main culprits that constitute hard, scaly water are magnesium and calcium. Because there is no salt in a salt-free water softener, it must use potassium to chemically transform these minerals.

The physical process of transforming magnesium and calcium found in hard water is called Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC).

Through TAC, the salt-free system conditions the water and stops the minerals’ abilities to cling and adhere to surfaces. (This clinging is what causes limescale and other buildups.)

The minerals remain present in the water, only altered from their original state.

Once installed, they are not meant to be maintained or replaced. They do not collect the same level of gunk that their salt-based substitutes do. For this reason, they will not need to be cleaned or replaced at the rate that the salt-based systems would be.

Are Saltless Water Softeners Really Effective?

Yes, saltless water softeners are effective in avoiding scale and buildup.

They do not remove any minerals, however, so it is important to note that they are conditioning and not truly softening. The minerals are still present; they are just chemically altered.

If you are only trying to save your appliances and plumbing, then saltless water softeners are effective and efficient. They accomplish this well.

Where saltless water conditioners become less effective is if you are looking to totally rid your water of calcium and magnesium. You cannot count on saltless systems to do this.

Pros and Cons of Salt-Free Water Conditioner

The biggest pro of a salt-free water conditioner is that it does not need to be periodically replaced.

Because it is not trapping any hard minerals, it does not collect buildup that would require changing and replacing. Instead, it can be continuously used without stress.

Salt-free water conditioners are also generally cheaper than salt options, which is another pro. Because they require less hardware, they’re more budget-friendly.

Another pro of salt-free water conditioners is that they are easily installed and used.

Unfortunately, on the other hand, the major con of salt-free water systems is that they are not actually removing any minerals.

While the process of chemically altering calcium and magnesium does result in little to no limescale or buildup, it cannot be guaranteed that the water is better for your hair or skin.

The continued presence of these hard minerals could have a negative effect on your home or on your body.

How Much Does a No Salt Water Softener Cost?

A whole house salt-free water system can be found for anywhere from $300 to $1500.

Keep in mind, though, that because the no salt water softeners do not need to be replaced nearly as often as the salt-based systems, they also provide more bang for your buck.

A $1000 no salt water conditioner could last you for multiple years, not requiring you to spend more money in the future.

Additionally, the highest-priced salt-free systems cost much less than the highest-priced salt-based systems.

Saltless Water Softener Maintenance Requirement

Saltless Water Softener Maintenance Requirement

Little to no maintenance is required for saltless water softeners. They do not need to be replaced or maintained on a specific schedule because they do not collect buildup.

While they can certainly benefit from an annual cleaning, it is not a requirement. Theoretically, they could be left alone for long stretches of years without any maintenance.

It is always best to check with the manufacturer of your specific system, however, to know exactly what is required to maintain it. Each system will vary.

Estimated Lifespan of a Salt-Free Softener System

Because the salt-free softener system does not require maintenance, it could ideally be used for years on end. There are many reports of certain products functioning perfectly many years after installation.

There is no set amount of time since each system will differ from the next, but different conditioners claim lifespans of anywhere from 6-40 years. Check your specific system to see how many years it is good for.

There are increasingly more and more highly effective and innovative salt-free conditioners on the market, and some of these can be used for decades. Keep an eye out for these.

Differences Between Salt-Free Water Softener vs Salt

The main difference between salt-free water softeners and salt based systems is that the salt-free version is a conditioner, not a softener. It does not truly change the hardness of the water, but salt systems do.

Salt-free water conditioners:

  • Chemically alter hard minerals
  • Do not change the hardness of the water
  • Do not need maintenance
  • Are more cost-efficient
  • Are easy to install

Salt-based softeners:

  • Completely remove hard minerals
  • Must be maintained and replaced frequently
  • Much higher price tag
  • Have shorter lifespans
  • Require more of a process to install

Though there are large differences between the two options, they both provide good results. Both systems will help you to avoid the scale buildup from hard water minerals in your home.

Salt-free systems may not eliminate the hard minerals, but they succeed in mitigating their harmful effects.

Is Salt-Free Cheaper Than Salt Water Softener?

Yes, salt-free systems are generally cheaper than salt systems, especially when taking into account that you would go through many more salt systems than non-salt in the same period.

Salt-based water softeners can cost up to $6000 sometimes. They also require frequent maintenance and replacement, which costs more money on a consistent basis.

The salt-free option is easily the cheaper of the two. This is because it is functioning differently than the salt system, and it is not facing the task of removing any minerals.

Is Salt-Free More Efficient Than Salt-Based?

It depends on what you’re looking for your system to accomplish.

If you are looking to avoid scaly buildup on your dishes, clothes, appliances, etc., then they are equal. Salt-free systems will accomplish this goal just as well as salt-based ones will.

Additionally, they will accomplish this without having to be maintained or replaced, making them slightly more efficient than their salt-based alternatives.

If you’re looking to completely remove the presence of calcium and magnesium from your water, however, salt-free systems are not efficient.

If you’re also looking to save your hair and skin from the hard minerals in your water, it is not proven that salt-free systems are as efficient as that. To accomplish this, you would require a salt-based softener.

To truly soften the water, the hard minerals—calcium and magnesium—need to be removed. The only option for efficiently doing that is a salt-based system.

So, if you want removal as opposed to alteration, you will find salt-based systems to be the more efficient option of the two.

Does Salt-Free Require Less Maintenance Than Salt-Water Softener?

Yes, salt-free conditioners require much less maintenance than salt-based softeners do. In fact, they hardly require any maintenance at all.

The salt-based softeners require you to add new salt to them about every 8 weeks. This is a process of getting the new salt and reinstalling the softener once it’s been maintained.

The maintenance requirements also pose a great problem in that they are often neglected and forgotten about. If you forget to change the salt in your water softener system, it is essentially doing nothing.

And because the maintenance needed is constant and unending, there is a high probability that you will forget to change it at some point in your lifetime.

Salt-free conditioners work on more of a set it and forget it basis. They do not need changing or reloading.

In all, salt-free systems require a lot less work, time, and effort than their salt-based counterparts.

Commonly Asked Questions

Below are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about salt-free water conditioners.

These could help to make the decision for you and your family about which system is best.

Are salt-free water softeners safe?

Yes, of course. Salt-free water softeners are completely safe for your home and provide better results than hard, unsoftened water.

Though they don’t remove the minerals in the water, they effectively prevent buildup. Therefore, they will be better for your home than nothing at all.

Salt-free water conditioners can be a safe, inexpensive, easy option for those who are tired of the limescale left behind on all of their appliances.

Do salt-free water softeners help hair?

Salt-free water conditioners are a lot less useful for saving your hair from the negative effects of hard minerals.

The buildup in your hair will certainly be less than without any water conditioner at all. But is this enough? Not necessarily.

Even when chemically altered, the calcium and magnesium present in your water can have unforeseen effects on you and your hair.

To truly have softer, shinier, stronger hair, you will need to use a salt-based water softener. This way, it can remove the hard minerals completely, and none will end up in your hair.

Do salt-free water softeners help dry skin?

For dry skin, salt-free water conditioners are a lot less effective.

The same as with hair, your skin will be better off if you use a salt-based water softener. This does not mean that the salt-free water conditioners will not help. They certainly will.

If you’re looking for the best possible system for healthier skin, however, a salt-free option is probably not the best choice.

Instead, opt for salt-based water softeners that totally remove calcium and magnesium from your water so that you can ensure they won’t end up on your skin.

Conclusion: Which System Is the Most Ideal for Me?

The differences between salt and salt free systems are minimal but have big effects. Deciding which system is the most ideal for you will depend on what you’re looking for.

Are you looking to save your appliances and plumbing from fatal scaly buildup? If so, the salt-free conditioner systems are perfect for you. They will help you avoid that gunky buildup.

Are you looking to completely eliminate calcium and magnesium from your water? Are you looking for your clothes, dishes, appliances, hair, and skin to get a break from the hard mineral buildup? Then you certainly will want a salt-based water softener.

Each has its separate purposes, and both are great options for avoiding the horrendous scale that can accumulate in your pipes and on your surfaces.

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Scott Winfield
Scott Winfield
My name is Scott Winfield and researching and writing about water filters and other strategies to purify water has become my full time passion in recent years. I'm glad that you found our site and you can look forward to authoritative and well researched content here to help you get the best in water.
  1. Dear Mr. Scott Winfield
    Your article was very easy to understand. By the way, how popular is the salt-free water system in the United States?
    Please let me know your opinion. Thank you in advance.

    1. Thank you, Kumada. Salt-free systems are fairly popular in the US. More people are switching to potassium-based systems, if they feel the additional investment in the material is worthwhile for their needs.

  2. “Through TAC, the salt-free system conditions the water and stops the minerals’ abilities to cling and adhere to surfaces. The minerals remain present in the water, only altered from their original state.”
    Does this ‘altered state’ prevent their uptake in the body? i.e. is drinking this water safe and beneficial ?

    Do these minerals get trapped in a carbon type drinking water system?

    I have hard municipal water, and get scale on dishes, cars, shower glass, etc. when rinsed and left to dry. I want to eliminate this with a whole house system, but then have really pure, tasty, healthy drinking and cooking water at the kitchen tap. What combination of coditioners/filters can solve this?

    1. Hi Grover, one of the key advantages of salt-free systems (versus RO systems, for example) is the fact that the minerals are still available for our consumption, which is healthful. No, carbon blocks also aid in overall water filtering for quality and do not block beneficial minerals. Yes, a salt-based system, such as those from SpringWell are one of our readers’ favorites and come highly recommended by us. Thank you for reading.

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