To keep your water softener operating efficiently, it’s imperative to use the right salt for your particular device.
In this article, we’ll explain what water softener salt is, give you an overview of the different types of water softener salt available on the market, and help you figure out what kind of salt you need for your unit.
What Is Water Softener Salt?
Traditional water softener salt is commonly made of sodium chloride (NaCl), and it is used to regenerate and clean the water softener resin that softens hard water. However, there are also less common salt variations, like potassium chloride and, even rarer and less effective, magnesium chloride.
Why is Water Softener Salt Important?
Water softener salt plays an important role in the regeneration process of a water softener.
To give you the full scope of its importance, let’s recap how a water softener works:
Hard water contains high levels of minerals, especially calcium and magnesium, which can build up in the piping system of your house, clog and reduce the efficiency of appliances like washing machines, and leave limescale residue on surfaces. A water softening unit removes these minerals from the water through a process called ion exchange, making it softer and easier to use.
In this process, as the water passes through the water-softening resin, positively charged molecules of minerals like calcium and magnesium are attracted, trapped, and replaced with negatively charged sodium or potassium molecules.
After a while, however, the resin gets saturated with minerals, and its sodium charge starts decreasing drastically. This is where water-softener salt enters the picture in a pre-programmed process known as the regeneration cycle. Before the minerals start saturating the resin, a salty water solution prepared in the brine tanks of softening devices automatically travels through the whole system, flushing out the mineral buildup in the resin and recharging it with new sodium or potassium molecules that are amply present in salt.
To ensure the system continues functioning properly, you should add salt to your water softener every four to six weeks. This, however, ultimately depends on the recommendation of the manufacturer of your device based mainly on the hardness level of your water supply.
Water Softener Salt Ingredients
As we established above, water softener salt is often made of sodium chloride or potassium chloride as the main ingredients.
There are also rare cases when manufacturers utilize magnesium chloride in the making of their water softener salt, but there’s very little research on its effectiveness. Additionally, as magnesium is one of the minerals that contribute to water hardness, we don’t recommend its use in household water-softening systems.
Sodium Chloride (NaCl)
Sodium chloride is the most common water softener salt ingredient, and it is quite similar to regular table salt.
The only difference between sodium chloride and regular table salt is that sodium chloride water softener salt is processed to remove impurities like dirt and clay, so it’s a purer form of salt. The reason why it is processed is because the mineral debris present in normal salt, while safe for human consumption, is more likely to clog the lines and hoses of the brine tank once the salt dissolves in water.
However, while sodium chloride is the most popular type of salt used for water softening, its usage in water softener devices is not without controversies. Since the brine solution prepared with this type of salt is flushed out frequently during regen cycles, it has negative implications on the environment. Sodium-rich water isn’t good for plants, and the salinization of soil may cause serious problems in the long run, like soil degradation and erosion.
Lastly, although the presence of sodium in softened water is rarely at alarming levels, it’s best for people with cardiovascular issues to avoid consuming salt as much as possible, particularly people with a pre-existing heart condition, as sodium increases the risk of stroke.
Potassium Chloride (KCl)
Potassium chloride has seen increased usage as a water softener salt due to the effects of sodium on the environment and human health. However, it’s a less effective water softener salt than sodium chloride, so it becomes costlier in the long run as you need to use more of it, more often. While it’s generally a healthier alternative to NaCl, people with hyperkalemia (who have high levels of potassium in their blood) need to limit their potassium intake, so potassium chloride wouldn’t be the ideal choice for them.
Types of Water Softener Salt
There are different types of water softener salt available on the market, each with its advantages and disadvantages. Salt pellets are the most common type, but some manufacturers recommend using a different form of salt.
- Salt pellets: Salt pellets are like cubes of salt that are processed to get rid of the debris and then compressed together. They’re the most common water softener salt type simply because the pellet surface is the most suitable for preparing a brine solution, they don’t have any debris that can clog the system, and they’re least likely to form salt bridges inside the brine tank.
- Salt blocks: Similar to salt pellets, salt blocks are also processed and compressed. However, whereas pellets are small cubes, these are huge blocks that can reach up to 50 lbs in weight. Their size makes salt blocks harder to dissolve than a salt pellet during brine preparation. So, a salt block may not clean and recharge the softening resin as effectively as salt pellets. Additionally, most contemporary water-softening devices feature a computerized system that measures the amount of salt that’s in the brine tank. These systems sometimes err when there’s a salt block in the tank.
- Solar salt crystals: Solar salt crystals are made by evaporating salty seawater by exposing it to the sun and wind. Depending on the manufacturer, salt crystals may or may not be cleaned of debris and processed. However, since solar salt is in crystal form, its fine particles may be too small for use in water softeners.
What Type of Salt Do I Need?
What type of salt you need depends on the kind of water-softening device you have and what the manufacturer of the device recommends. More often than not, manufacturers, like Rheem and Kinetico, for example, produce their own water softener salt. Since they typically test their devices with their own salt, this is what they recommend, and it’s likely to ensure optimum efficiency.
That said, our ultimate recommendation is to utilize salt pellets in water softeners because salt pellets are specifically produced to increase the efficiency of the regeneration process in water softeners. Additionally, they rarely cause water softener problems like salt bridges or standing water inside the brine tank as long as you properly maintain your softening system.
It’s important to note that under no circumstances should you put regular table salt or rock salt that’s used to melt ice in a water softener brine tank. As these types of salt are rarely processed or cleaned of debris, they can easily clog the system. Furthermore, since they’re not as pure as water softener salts, they won’t be as efficient and might even render the whole water softening system ineffective quite quickly.
Of course, as we mentioned above, people suffering from cardiovascular issues should limit their sodium intake, so it’s recommended that they use only potassium chloride in their softening devices.
Similarly, people with high levels of potassium in their blood should avoid using potassium chloride salt.
For people who want neither potassium nor sodium in their diet, there are other types of water-softening solutions. Salt-free water conditioners that utilize a technology referred to as template-assisted crystallization or water descalers that work on an electromagnetic basis are effective alternatives to traditional, salt-based water softening techniques. Lastly, beware that using sodium chloride in water softeners is banned in some states. Check your local laws before purchasing salt for your device.
No, water softener salt does not expire. However, when it’s exposed to moisture, the pellets or crystals may clump together and reduce the salt’s efficiency. Also, the salt should be packaged and sealed to prevent it from coming into contact with contaminants. After all, its molecules are going to end up in your drinking water supply, so it’s best practice to keep it as sterile as possible.
Water softener salt is generally not safe for pets. Ingesting salt can cause vomiting and diarrhea in pets. If you think your pet has ingested salt, contact your veterinarian immediately. Even small amounts of sodium can exacerbate problems associated with heart and kidney diseases in dogs. However, potassium chloride water softener salt is safe for dogs as it contains no sodium.
You cannot use regular salt for water softener. Normal salt will dissolve too quickly, making the water softening much less efficient and potentially accelerating mineral build-up in your water softener unit. Additionally, regular salt is rarely as pure as salt that’s designed and processed for use in water-softening units. By putting regular salt in the brine tank, you’re risking clogging the lines and hoses of the whole system.
No, they’re not the same. You can use water-softener salt to melt ice on the driveway, but you can’t use rock salt in a water-softening system. As we said above, rock salt is not processed. Especially varieties that are used to melt ice contain minerals and debris from wherever they were mined, so putting rock salt into your water softening unit is equal to putting the whole system at risk.
Although dishwasher salt might differ from water softener salt in terms of coarseness and granule size, their ingredients and purpose are the same. Most dishwashers feature a built-in water-softening resin that prevents calcium and magnesium from affecting the quality of dishwashing, and dishwasher salt is used to clean and regenerate this resin.
However, the granule size of dishwasher salt is smaller than that of the salt pellets that are commonly used in water-softening units. So, if a water-softening device is designed for salt pellets and you put dishwasher salt in that device, the granules might escape and clog the lines and hoses of the system. So, although they’re the same in essence and purpose, we don’t recommend you use these two types of salt interchangeably.
Yes, you can use water softener salt in your bath, but we don’t recommend it since it won’t soften the bath water, and bathing in saltwater on a regular basis has its own risks.
Water softener salt by itself doesn’t have any water-softening properties. It just cleans and recharges the water-softener resin which is what actually softens water.
Moreover, although saltwater can remove dead skin cells and consequently make your skin smoother, it can also cause hyperpigmentation. Additionally, if you already have skin conditions like acne and eczema, it will exacerbate your irritation.
Water softener salt cleans and regenerates the water softener resin that attracts and traps positively charged mineral molecules and replaces them with negatively charged molecules of sodium or potassium.
It may come in the form of salt pellets, salt blocks, or solar salt crystals. The type of salt you need will depend on the recommendations from the manufacturer of your device, typically made in line with the specifications of your device and the hardness of your water.