Are salt-free water softeners effective?

Water softeners are beneficial because they can extend the life of your water-using appliances, plumbing and clothes. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Kevin F. of San Antonio.)

Water softeners are beneficial because they can extend the life of your water-using appliances, plumbing and clothes. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Kevin F. of San Antonio.)

Dear Angie: Do salt-free water softeners work better than the other salt type water softeners? Would you recommend a salt free water softener? – P.T. Portales, N.M.

Dear P.T.: I think there can be some advantages and disadvantages to both types of systems, but let’s start by talking about how they differ.

First, salt-free systems are not true water softeners. These systems are often called “water conditioners” or “descalers”. Salt-free systems can help reduce the buildup of limescale, the chalky substance you see in dried hard water spots, as well as other chemicals. The systems work by altering the chemical structure of water minerals through the descaling process, which prevents solids from depositing in pipes and water-using fixtures.

Water softener salt removes minerals, like calcium and magnesium – which cause hard water – through a process called ionic exchange and replaces them with soft minerals potassium and sodium.

One concern with salt-free systems is they’re not as effective in places where water sits, like in your water heater. Those areas can still get a buildup of limescale. Some nice things about salt-free systems are that they don’t waste water the way water softeners do. They cost less to operate and don’t require much maintenance. Conditioned water also doesn’t have the “slippery” feel you get from a water softener, which can be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on your preference. The operation of water conditioners can also be affected by the types of contaminates you have in your water, which can vary by region. Some salt-free conditioners work really well and others don’t live up to their claims, so it’s important to do your research if you’re considering one.

The advantage of water softeners is they can extend the life of your water-using appliances, your plumbing and even your clothes. One study showed that water heaters using hard water lost half their efficiency over a 15-year lifetime, whereas those using softened water retained their original efficiency rating. Showerheads using hard water lost 75 percent of their flow rate in less than 18 months, while those on softened water maintained a full flow.  

With a water softener, you also don’t need to use as much soap when doing dishes, laundry or bathing, as you do if you have hard water. Water softeners have become more efficient and some use up to 75 percent less salt.

Before you buy a water conditioner or a water softener, do your due diligence and investigate the product and company supplying it. Avoid companies that try unsolicited to sell you a system or use high-pressure sales tactics. Be sure to deal with a reputable company that offers a money-back guarantee. Look for a company that has installers certified by the Water Quality Association.

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Have lived in present home 20 yrs and am on third water softener (salt). In all cases, the pellets have dissolved and have ended up in the house plumbing. Another symptom is the loss of water pressure until the softener is put on by-pass. All three machines were "consumer" grade softners costing approx. $500 to $600 with warranties timed to expire when the pellets did. Had I to do it again I would have gone with a two-tank system with premium grade pellets from the beginning. I have only recently learned that, like all products, there are different grades of pellets and "consumer" grade machines are the bottom rung. The water here is very hard and living without a machine is not really an option, especially since we have become accustomed to the benefits of having soft water. Do your homework and don't go cheap.

I do use a salt system in my home. We have lived in our home for 7 years and I want to shower without the slime on my skin when done as well as regain my soft curly hair. HELP as from what I am reading going salt free is not a great idea.

Hi Kathy, I'm one of the Angie's List Experts writers and I work for Peterson Salt in Hopkins, MN. I wanted to respond to your question about the slimy feel of the soft water. With soft water, it is common for customers to notice that their water feels smoother, or more slippery. A couple of things to note: 1. Most softeners can NOT be programmed to add hardness back into the water, the softener's goal is to remove all hardness. There may be something in the California market or in places where they are very conscious of water conservation, but here in Minnesota I know we don't offer anything like that. 2. With soft water, you can use a lot less soap (maybe even 50% less) and so that may help. 3. If you really want hardness in your water to reduce that "slippery" feeling, you can crack open the softener bypass just a little bit. However, there is no way to regulate how much hardness you will get by doing this. Also, this is not recommended for your appliances, as now they would all be exposed to the hard water, which is why you probably purchased a softener in the first place. I'm sorry I don't have a better solution for you. I know this is something customers occasionally ask about. If someone out there has a better solution, I'd love to hear it. Best of luck! Michelle

Moving into new house. House is plumbed for water softener. I am researching salt, no salt systems. Need objective advice on which system to go with. Each retailer say's theirs is the best. I realize that each process has pro's and Con's. I am looking for an informed opinion. Thanks

Hi Robert! I'm sure by now you've made your decision. I'm curious to know what you went with and why? We don't have anyone out here in the MN market who is in favor of no-salt. What option did you choose? Michelle

The three main technologies capable of producing soft water are ion exchange water softeners, reverse osmosis, and distillation. Of these, ion exchange is currently, and is anticipated to remain, the dominant technology for softening water on a residential or small commercial scale. Other technologies, such as specialty media, electrochemical demineralization, citric acid, and magnetic and electromagnetic devices do not produce soft water, defined as less than one grain of hardness per gallon. Their performance is not yet validated by independent third parties due to lack of scientific standards and accepted testing protocols. Scottsdale az. water department technical report

What is the best no salt water softener. NJ

am looking at a salt free electric free system to treat well water (iron content the biggest issue)...any feedback??

I have read info on the Pelican and the Aquasana systems that are salt free water softners. I had my well water tested and it has sediment, some iron, a little hardness and a pH of 6.5. Besides the two systems mentioned, is there another salt free water softner or possibly another traditional whole house water softner or conditioner system that may be more suitable? I want a reliable reputable system that won't break my wallet and not leave a slippery salty taste when drinking a glass of treated water. Thanks for your input and advice. Respectfully, Mark

Is the salt bad for us in water softener s

Water softeners Do NOT use salt to soften the water. A water softener softens water by using small silicon beads. Dissolved and not so dissolved minerals become attached to these beads as the water passes through the tank full of these silicon beads. At some point the silicon must be cleaned of the material collected in order to be able to collect more. Here is where the salt comes in. At intervals designated by you or whoever programs the softener for you, a cleaning cycle is started. Water from the salt tank, goes into the silicon tank where it removes the collected material from the silicon, and then goes down the drain. Fresh water then rinses the silicon and that is sent down the drain as well. More water then goes into the salt tank to absorb salt be ready at the next cycle. These cycles take about 20 minutes are usually set to occur at hours when it is least likely water will be used, ie. middle of the night. First few uses of water after the cleaning cycle could have small amounts of salt residual. But very small and will rinse away quickly as water is used. These cleaning intervals are needed less frequent with less water usage and could be needed as little as once a month or as often as once a day/night. So this notion that softeners use salt to soften the water therefore carry lots of salt into the water you use all day is erroneous.

Conventional water softening is most often based a process known as ion exchange, utilizing a synthetic polymeric (plastic) material in the form of very small beads called ion exchange resin. The resin is porous so that each bead has tremendous surface area and the surface area is chemically constructed to contain billions of active or "exchange sites". These sites have considerable affinity for metals in the water with valences (i.e., charges of +2 and +3). Thus, when water containing calcium, magnesium (the two major constituents of hard water), dissolved iron, copper or aluminum, the active sites attract and "hold" these ions. However, in order to do so, the sites must have a less tightly held ion to "exchange" for the metal hardness ions. While the resin does not prefer ions with a single charge, fortunately under conditions of high concentration and extended time of exposure, sodium ions can be "forced" onto the active sites by slowly passing a concentrated solution of sodium chloride (table salt) over the resin. These ions are released into the water when the hardness cauing ions are absorbed.

I agree with this response 100%. and you can easily test sodium concentrations in conditioned versus non conditioned water. the question remains are the sodium levels elevated enough to pose a health risk? what level is to high?

THE AMOUNT OF SODIUM IN Your drinking water depends on how hard your water is . The more exchange that takes place the more salt is released into your water. As far as if the amount of salt in your drinking water is safe depends on you, if you eat or drink canned or processed products . If you eat and or drink products that are packed in metal, plastic, or cardboard you probably already consume to much salt.

magnetic and electromagnetic devices are bogus. watch saltless devices for cartridge replacement costs. consider brine recapture for deicing use and minimizing enviro impacts. consider softening of hot water supply only - if shower and dishwasher function poor, but your water otherwise good.

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