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The Truth About Salt-Free Water Softeners

Posted by Brock Robinson on September 15, 2023

If you’re in the market for a salt-free water softener, unfortunately, 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. A more accurate description of units commonly marketed as salt-free water softeners would be a salt-free water conditioner or scale inhibitor. Join John Woodard, Master Water Specialist, as we debunk salt-free softeners and explore water softener alternatives.

What is a salt-free water conditioner? 

A salt-free water conditioner is a water filtration system that crystallizes magnesium and calcium minerals prevalent in hard water. These micro-crystals are unable to leave solution and attach to pipes and water heaters in the form of scale. Water conditioners do not remove hardness minerals, they physically alter them and render them unable to form scale build-ups. Traditional water softeners eliminate 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 the hard water flows through these beads, the sodium ions exchange with the magnesium and calcium ions. The water exiting the tank and into the house is now softened, but does contain low amounts of sodium as a byproduct of the softening process. 

The added sodium content has led to some controversy surrounding water softeners. In reality, the amount of sodium added by water softeners is minimal and far less than popularly imagined. Salt-based softeners also go through periodic regeneration cycles to replenish the resin beads with sodium ions. This results in brine-heavy wastewater flushing into city water drain lines, which has instigated a water softener ban in some municipalities.  All of this has led to a push for salt-free water softener alternatives. Unfortunately, this has resulted in misleading albeit creative marketing strategies. Water conditioners billed as “salt-free water softeners” are targetting those seeking a salt-free system, but the implication that softening occurs is inaccurate. Though these water conditioners do address some of the problematic aspects of hard water, they do not result in soft water. 

Learn more about how water softeners work. | Read our guide on water softener maintenance 101

How does a water conditioner work? 

Water conditioners work through a process called template assisted crystallization (TAC). In template assisted crystallization, water flows through a tank of TAC media. This media consists of tiny polymer beads covered in craters called “nucleation sites.” These nucleation sites act as templates to form the hardness micro-crystals. When the hard water comes into contact with the media, the magnesium and calcium ions are caught by the nucleation sites. As more calcium and magnesium ions build up within the sites, small micro-crystals form. Eventually, when they reach a certain size, these crystals break off of the media and are released into the water. 

These micro-crystals are stable and will retain their crystalline structure as they flow through your plumbing. They will not break off and attach themselves to your water pipes as scale. Scale is destructive and detrimental to household plumbing and one of the most common problems people living with hard water face. Scale prematurely ruins appliances like coffee makers, dishwashers, and laundry machines. The damage done to hot water appliances is particularly devastating, as the hotter the water, the faster the formation of scale occurs. Scale can also lower water pressure, restrict flow rates, and in dire cases, prevent water altogether from flowing through your home. Replacing household plumbing is enormously expensive, so, scale inhibitors or a water conditioner like a ScaleNet is an effective investment if scale prevention is your primary concern. 

Salt-free water conditioners vs. water softeners 

Salt-free water conditioners do prevent scale from forming in your plumbing. But, with a salt-free water conditioner or scale inhibitor, you will not see many of the advantages provided by a water softener. Water softeners physically eliminate the hardness minerals from the water supply and flush them down the drain. The minerals are barred from entering your home and damaging your water heaters and appliances. However, hard water damage extends beyond just scale. Laundry washed in hard water comes out of the machine stiff with dingy coloration. Dishes washed in hard water are foggy and come emerge from the rinse streaked with soap spots. Soap and cleaning products build up in a thick scum, as hardness minerals prevent soap from lathering properly. Hard water also is miserable to shower in as it dries out skin and hair alike. 

A salt-free water conditioner will not address any of these problems. The hardness minerals exist in crystallized form, but they are still present in the water. Your fresh load of laundry will still be drab and dulled and your bathroom will still be covered with soap scum stains. The only way to eliminate these headaches to soften the water. Hence, why the common trade name “salt-free water softener” is not only false, it is deceptive. Salt-free water conditioners do provide protection against scale, but to associate them with all the benefits afforded by water softening is patently dishonest. 

Explore 5 benefits of having a water softener

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 effective applications of a water conditioner. Installing an anti-scale filter before any hot water appliance is a smart investment, especially if your water is high in scale-causing calcium and magnesium. Hot water dramatically accelerates scale accumulation. If scale collects in your tankless water heater, it will suffer diminished efficiency and premature failure. Paying to descale a water heater is exorbitantly expensive and scale-ridden water heaters will send the costs of your energy bills skyrocketing. Scale attaches itself directly to the heating element of water heaters. So, when the temperature increases to heat up the water, it must first heat up all the scale encrusted on the heater. Other anti-scale filters like phosphate filter perform poorly in hot water environments. The temperature of the water causes the phosphate to break apart, allowing some scale formation to materialize. A ScaleNet tank or inline cartridge scale inhibitor will prevent your tankless water heater from amassing scale and will save you the hefty costs of salvaging your water heater.  

Remove existing scale

Another appealing feature of TAC water conditioners is their ability to clear existing scale from pipes. The micro-crystals formed by the TAC media have a snowball-like effect on scale. As the crystals flow through your pipes, they tear apart and scrape up the existing scale attached to your plumbing. You could actually unclog years worth of scale build-up from your pipes by installing a whole-house salt-free water conditioner system. However, if it releases too much scale, it could very well clog downstream and block off your plumbing entirely. Once that section of plumbing is replaced, however, you’d likely have the cleanest pipes your house has ever seen. 

Communities where water softeners are banned

If you live in a county with hard water that has implemented a water softener ban, a salt-free system is a viable alternative. This is most common in California, where areas in northern Los Angeles and Santa Clarita have imposed bans on water softeners. The wastewater produced by softeners is extremely briny and very difficult to desalinate for reuse. In states like California, where drought is prevalent and water conservation is important, the wastewater produced by softeners is controversial. The municipal water treatment centers are then tasked with the difficult task of removing the large quantities of dissolved salt from the water before recirculating it throughout the community. 

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

There are several advantages to salt-free water conditioners that set them apart from traditional water softeners. 

1. Low maintenance 

Salt-free water conditioners are very low maintenance systems. Installation is very simple, as the systems consist of either a single tank or cartridge. Since water conditioners neither backwash nor go through regeneration cycles, they do not need drain connections. They don’t require storage tanks for regenerating brine or control valves to monitor flow and initiate backwashing cycles. They don’t require salt or potassium and rarely demand any sort 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 any electricity to operate, saving you on electric bills.  

2. Environmentally friendly 

Since salt-free water conditioners do not go through regeneration cycles, they produce no wastewater. They don’t dump chlorides into the waste stream, which can be strenuous on municipal water treatment plants. They also save water since all the water processed by the water conditioner goes straight into your home or tankless heater.  

3. Low media consumption 

The TAC media in salt-free water conditioners only has to be replaced once every three to five years. Furthermore, it takes remarkably little media to sustain an entire whole-house water conditioning system. Unlike water softeners, salt-free tanks do not need to be filled with the media. Most whole-house systems only require between 5-10 liters of media to last them several years. 

4. Diversity of applications 

If you don’t want to install a whole-house system, scale inhibitors come in a variety of cartridge sizes and flow rates. This means you can install a single anti-scale filter cartridge in front of your tankless water heater or inline with your other water filtration systems. If you want a whole house system with more extensive filtration abilities, a whole-house chlorine reduction and salt-free conditioner system is available. This will both prevent scale accumulation in your home and improve the taste and odor of your water supply. The removal of chlorine and chloramines will also protect the TAC media and prolong the life of the system. 

5. Soft water alternative

Some people dislike the “slippery” feel of soft water. Others complain how showering in soft water can leave you feeling the soap is still clinging to skin and the shampoo never fully washes out of your hair. This is entirely preferential, but, if you adverse to the feel of soft water but still desire the removal of scale from your plumbing, water conditioners provide you with a happy medium.

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

Though they have their share of applications, keep in mind, there are several downsides to water conditioners.

1. Unusable on well water 

Unfortunately, salt-free water conditioners are useless where hard water is the most common: well water. Well water is very likely to possess moderate to high levels of iron and manganese. Water conditioners are rendered utterly ineffective against iron and manganese. The iron coats the TAC media, blocking the nucleation sites that create the hardness micro-crystals. In water heavy with iron and manganese, the magnesium and calcium ions will bounce off the anti-scale media and flow into your household plumbing, creating scale formations along the way. 

2. No soft water benefits

Again, despite the common “salt-free water softener” title, these systems do not provide soft water. Soft water alleviates the stress of endlessly cleaning up after hard water. You will still have to use double the amounts of laundry detergent and dishwasher soap to only achieve mediocre results. You will still have to clean soap scum stains out of your sinks and bathtubs. Salt-free water conditioners only have limited efficacy against very hard water. 

Comments 1-10 of 21

The problem with crystalized calcium and manganese ions is they dissolve in hot boiling water back into ions.
We have the Watts Pure H2O OneFlow Plus water softener (conditioner) in our house but I see water spots everywhere in shower, on sinks, bathrooms and faucets.
Before we installed RO water filter there was scale build up in the kettle. That’s why I think it’s pretty much useless if the water undergoes the boiling as the ions return to their original state.
Could you write a bit on this and let me know if I am right or wrong as I hope you have much broader knowledge on the subject.
Thank you.

Vondi Rfull on March 28, 2023

Have seen what ceramic can do! No salts are required.

German Avalos on December 13, 2022

Hi John, would you be willing to debunk the scale inhibitors on the market that are simply a 3 inch length of pipe coated in some special (magic?) metal alloy? I find it incredibly difficult to believe these can do anything useful. Surely TAC will need good surface area contact to function?

James Jack on November 29, 2022

Great article. I had a salt free water conditioner system installed about 5 years ago. I have well water with a high amount of iron. Before this system I had rust stains everywhere. The water is now crystal clear and leaves no stains and has no smell at all. This system is on a timer that flushes the system every three days. I’m wondering how this system handles the iron when your article says it is useless for that. Thanks!

Josh on August 08, 2022

i am confused. I have hard water (scale buildup on faucets, rust-stains in bathtub/shower). My plumber said salt-free product is easy and I wont have to worry about replacing salt but I want to condition AND soften the water. That said, do I get a “Salt-based” conditioner/softener? Thanks for your help with this.

Tom on July 12, 2022

If I have a salt free water softener installed in my house , would it make it difficult to replace he tank water heater for a tankless water heater.?

Tirso on December 07, 2021

I live in Hickory NC, where do I get help to install it , I am interested in the unit for the whole house.

Tirso on December 07, 2021

Does an “ion exchange water softner” remove and clear already existing scale from pipes, like a “salt-free water conditioner” does? Or maybe not so much? Thank you.

Roger on October 22, 2021

Thanks for the detailed article – it clears all the vendor obfuscation and fud.

Many houses in our subdivision have gone for a company branded version – with little (other than the misleading fud) on their website – and requiring an in-person visit for any additional information, sizing, price ranges.

I’m also a DYI guy and appreciate the options to just buy and install myself.

As it is we have very hard water – 20 or so – and also with iron (not sure about manganese) – and appreciate your information that while we DO want soft water- the iron precludes it’s use anyway.

Thanks! Mike

Mike on September 08, 2021

Are water conditioning effective for water heaters and tankless

Duke on September 01, 2021
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