Salt-free water softener systems are more affordable, compact, eco-friendly, and require less maintenance than other water softener alternatives.
However, they don’t remove hard water minerals, they only crystallize them. So, if you want to have completely mineral-free water, salt-based water softeners will be a better choice for you.
In this article, we’ll explain what a salt-free water-softening device is, how it operates, and whether it’s better than its salt-based alternative.
What is Salt-Free Water Softener?
Salt-free water softener, also known as water conditioner, is an electronic device that reduces the effects of hard water by crystallizing the calcium and magnesium minerals to prevent them from sticking together (limescale buildup).
Salt-free conditioners have emerged as a more eco-friendly alternative to salt-based devices, and they’re designed to eliminate the sodium-related problems that arise in the process of water softening.
A standard salt-based water softener device operates on the basis of ion exchange. In this process, a negatively charged resin bed attracts and traps the positively charged mineral molecules. Then, the sodium molecules that are amply present in salt replace the minerals.
A salt solution that’s prepared in a separate (brine) tank is responsible for regenerating and cleaning the resin bed before the trapped molecules reach saturation.
However, the sodium-rich water you get with this method in place of the mineral-rich hard water does come with its own share of problems. Too much sodium can be detrimental to the environment around your home, as it can cause soil degradation in the short term and soil erosion in the long term.
Most households across the US have a hard water problem that leads to limescale formation on appliances, stains on clothes after laundry, and itchy skin after a wash, among other problems. By installing a salt-free conditioner instead of a regular water softener, you can solve these problems without putting your plants and garden at risk.
How Do Salt-Free Water Softeners Work?
Salt-free water softeners should more accurately be called water conditioners because they don’t remove the hard water minerals. Instead, they condition them.
The two main minerals that constitute hard, scaly water are magnesium and calcium. To neutralize their effects, salt-free devices use potassium, as it chemically transforms the molecular structure of these minerals.
This process is scientifically referred to as Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC). Similar to salt-based systems, TAC also features a resin bed, but unlike salt-based devices, this resin bed doesn’t trap and replace mineral molecules.
Instead, there are nucleation sites in these resin beads, which crystallize the mineral molecules. When minerals are crystallized, they can no longer cling and adhere to surfaces since the crystal-like contact surface suspends molecules in the water. As a result, they can’t stick to appliances, clothes, skin, or hair.
Moreover, salt-free systems require minimal maintenance, as they don’t collect the same level of gunk that their salt-based alternatives do. For this reason, they don’t need to be cleaned or replaced at the rate that salt-based systems do.
However, the downside to salt-free systems is that this technology doesn’t clean and take care of itself as well as the technology in salt-based systems does, so their lifespan isn’t as long.
Also, since they don’t actually remove minerals, in other words, since the minerals remain present in the water, their efficiency isn’t the same as salt-based devices. That being said, there’s not much of a difference between the two, as a 2014 study establishes that saltless systems can reduce scale up to 90%.
Customer reports suggest that the salt-free devices are quite effective at reducing limescale formation as well. Customers also report improved skin and hair appearance thanks to these units.
Are Saltless Water Softeners Really Effective?
Yes, saltless water softeners are effective in eliminating scale and buildup. Although they don’t actually remove or replace minerals, they still prevent limescale formation in appliances and mineral buildup in plumbing systems.
Additionally, since calcium and magnesium are an important part of our diet, the fact that saltless systems don’t really remove them makes them a healthier alternative to regular water softeners.
That being said, if you are looking to totally rid your water of calcium and magnesium for whatever purpose, it’s better to stick with salt-based systems.
Pros and Cons of Salt-Free Water Conditioner
- They are low-maintenance, since they don’t trap mineral molecules in their system
- They don’t suffer from salt-related problems like salt bridges since they don’t make use of salt
- Healthy minerals are still present in water treated with a water conditioner, albeit in a crystallized state
- They’re more affordable than salt-based units because they’re less complicated devices that don’t have regeneration cycles or brine tanks
- They take less space than salt-based systems since they don’t have brine tanks
- They are easier to install compared to salt-based devices because, again, they are less complicated, smaller, and have no brine tank
- Not all of them are as long-lasting as salt-based systems
- They don’t actually remove minerals, and not all salt-free systems are equipped to handle high mineral presence
- It’s difficult to prove that they work, so none of them have certifications from third-party organizations like the National Sanitation Foundation, but user experience as well as our own experience and research suggest that they’re at least effective at reducing limescale and improving the quality of laundry and dishwashing
- Despite big strides in water technologies, there are still only a few reliable salt-free softener options on the market.
How Much Does a No Salt Water Softener Cost?
The best whole house salt-free water softener systems can cost anywhere between $300 to $1500. Should you opt for professional installation, you might have to pay an extra $200 on top of that.
Also, considering that these systems are low maintenance and don’t require you to purchase salt every once in a while, they can be more affordable than salt-based systems in the long run.
Saltless Water Softener Maintenance Requirement
Saltless water softeners require little to no maintenance. They don’t need to be replaced or maintained on a specific schedule because they don’t allow limescale buildup.
While they can certainly benefit from an annual cleaning, it’s not a requirement. Theoretically, they could be left alone for long stretches of time, years even, without any maintenance.
However, it’s always best to consult the manufacturer of your specific system to know exactly how to maintain it. Each system might have its own particular requirements, which the manufacturer has probably outlined in perfect detail in the instruction manual you get with your product.
Estimated Lifespan of a Salt-Free Softener System
TAC systems last for 6 years on average. Of course, this number varies from product to product and from manufacturer to manufacturer.
Salt-Free Water Softener vs Salt
The main difference between salt-free water softener vs salt-based is that a salt free water softener uses Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC) process to condition calcium and magnesium hard water minerals, while salt-based water softener uses sodium salt to remove the minerals.
|Salt-Free Water Softener||Salt-Based Water Softener|
|It chemically alters hard water minerals||It completely removes hard water minerals|
|Does not remove healthy minerals||Should be maintained frequently|
|Doesn’t release sodium into the environment||They’re more expensive|
|No maintenance needed||Takes too much space due to their brine tanks|
|They’re less expensive||Require professional help to install|
|Compact & easy to maintain|
Though there are big differences between the two options, they both provide good results. Both systems will help you avoid the scale buildup from hard water minerals in your home.
Is Salt-Free Cheaper Than Salt Water Softener?
Yes, salt-free systems are generally cheaper than salt-based ones, but they are not as durable. Salt-based water softeners can cost up to $6000 sometimes. They also require frequent maintenance and salt replacement, which adds up to the costs in the long term.
The salt-free option is easily the cheaper of the two. This is because it functions differently than a salt system and doesn’t take on the task of removing any minerals. But considering that a salt-free unit has a shorter lifespan than a salt-based one, the long-term costs might even out.
Is Salt-Free More Efficient Than Salt-Based?
It depends on what you want your system to accomplish.
If you’re 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.
If you’re looking to completely remove the presence of calcium and magnesium from your water, however, salt-free systems are not efficient.
To truly soften the water, the hard minerals—calcium and magnesium—need to be removed. The only option that does this effectively is a salt-based system.
Does Salt-Free Require Less Maintenance Than Salt-Water Softener?
Yes, salt-free conditioners require considerably less maintenance. In fact, they hardly require any maintenance at all.
Salt-based softeners require you to add new salt to them about every 8 weeks. Additionally, you need to sanitize their tanks on a regular basis to prevent mineral buildup and carry out regular inspections to ensure it is working properly.
In that sense, salt-free systems are less of a headache.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes. They 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.
That being said, the safety criteria for water treatment devices have always been NSF certifications. Since hard water minerals are still present in the water after the conditioning process, it’s difficult to have these systems certified by third-party organizations.
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 when using them 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 lead to dry and irritated skin and dull hair, which is especially likely for people with eczema, irritated, and itchy skin.
To truly have softer, shinier, stronger hair, you will need to use a salt-based water softener, as it would completely remove the hard minerals from the water in your home
The same as with hair, your skin will be better off if you use a salt-based water softener. This does not mean that salt-free water conditioners will not help. They will- to an extent.
If you’re looking for the best possible system for healthier skin, however, a salt-free option is probably not the best choice.
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.
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.
“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?
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.
Does the salt free system need a drain?
Hi Laura, generally speaking, the salt free systems function exactly the same as their salt-based peers. The only difference is the medium that is used (potassium chloride instead of sodium chloride). Ultimately, you’ll have to decide on which brand and model you’d like to get and then the details will come forward in terms of exactly how the system works and requirements it has for your home and installation.
I hope this isn’t an overly anxious questions, but do salt-free systems–the processes by which they work–pose any health concerns? Have they been used long enough for this to be known? I ask because one thing I read mentioned “chelation” as part of the process (specifically, the Nuvo system: https://nuvoh2o.com/faqs/), and I know there has been some concern about that process as a medical therapy (https://www.webmd.com/balance/guide/what-is-chelation-therapy). I recognize that I’m comparing dissimilar things with a likely superficial, perhaps only nominal, link. But I like to understand everything before I do anything, and I’ll appreciate any perspective you can offer.
Hi Jeff, thanks for your question. First, please note that chelation isn’t something exotic and it simply refers to a process of bonding. So Nuvo will use the word to describe how bonding happens in their water process to give you a desired outcome with their system. As well, in medicine, you take something that will bond to something inside your body and then more easily get removed through normal body processes like urinating.
Salt-free systems have been used for decades and there’s nothing really strange about how they work that should produce any health concerns. The industry is well governed through both governmental oversight as well as industry groups like the Water Quality Association (WQA, of which we are a member), and there are no issues that are identified with quality manufacturers’ systems available to the public. You’ll note that from a health perspective, it’s actually salt-based systems that produce some concern for those that are strictly controller sodium in their diets because of their introduction of additional sodium into the drinking water.