Salt Free Vs Salt Water Softener: Which Is Better?

Salt Free Vs Salt Water Softener_Which Is Better

If you’re part of the staggering 85% of Americans dealing with hard water issues, you’re in the right place [1]!  Hard water damages skin and hair, but it also leads to scale buildup and corrosion that destroys plumbing and appliances. 

A good water softener system will help you lower your electric bill, save on detergent, get rid of water spots, and reduce costly appliance repairs [2]. But with all the options springing up on the market, which one to choose?  

In this article, we’ll discuss the differences between salt free vs salt water softeners to see which is better for your home.  Additionally, we go over the costs, and what option works best under different scenarios. 

What is a Salt-Free Water Softener?

Salt-free water softeners condition hard water with a process called Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC) to prevent hard water minerals from sticking to plumbing and appliances [3]. The process physically alters minerals like calcium rather than removing them altogether, which is why salt-free systems are technically water “conditioners” or “descalers”.

They are particularly attractive because they will even remove existing scale buildup, unlike traditional salt-based softeners that only address future scale [4]

A salt-free water system consists of only one tank that contains small pieces of potassium to transform mineral buildup.  Whereas a salt-based system consists of a resin tank and a brine tank. 

Salt Free Vs Salt Water Softener_Template Assisted Crystalization (TAC) Process Diagram Infographic
Calcium, Magnesium, and Bicarbonates Are Attracted To Template Sites [5]

Therefore conditioners require no salt or chemicals, while salt-based softeners utilize an ion exchange process, which mixes sodium into the drinking water supply.  For that reason salt free water softeners produce zero regeneration discharge and do not require electricity to operate.  

The salt-free systems are ideal for soft hair and skin, while preventing costly effects of scale buildup on appliances.  The filter media will last well over ten years, so once installed, they are practically maintenance free. 

Pros of Salt-Free Water Conditioners

There are many advantages of a salt-free water softener for your home, including: 

Does Not Require Salt 

The main benefit to using a salt-free conditioning system is they require no salt or chemicals to operate. This means the end of lugging around heavy bags of salt to refill a brine tank.  But it’s also budget friendly because purchasing salt can add up over the life of a water softener. Lastly, you won’t have to worry about consuming elevated levels of sodium in your drinking water.   

Removes Scale Buildup 

Water passes through the conditioning tank to neutralize hard water minerals.  This process not only addresses future scale buildup, but also helps to remove existing scale buildup throughout your home’s plumbing. 

Wastes No Water

Regular water softeners rely on backwashing where water flushes through the resin tank to remove accumulated sediment, dirt and iron from the resin media. The water is washed down the drain leading to waste water. Salt-free conditioning requires no backwashing and does not waste any water so they are more efficient. 

No Electricity

Salt-free water softener systems do not require any electricity to operate.  Many salt-based systems come with a programmable head which can be nice, but if the power goes out, the system will not function. 

Takes Less Space 

Since salt-free systems consist of only one tank, they take up less space. This allows them to be installed in more compact spaces.  Salt water softeners, on the other hand, consist of a media tank and a brine tank.    

Cons Of Salt-Free Water Conditioners

Well Water Treatment

Well water can have heavy contamination. If you have well water as a source, a salt-free system should have a pre-filter to remove iron, manganese, hydrogen sulfide, and other contaminants that could obstruct the media.  Sediment filters will cost about $50 a year to replace. 

Water Hardness 

Salt-free systems crystallize hardness causing minerals to prevent them from sticking and forming scale while extending the life of your home’s pipes and appliances.  Because they utilize a different process, salt free conditioners do not remove hard water causing minerals from your water and the hardness levels will not change.   

Do Saltless Water Softeners Really Work?

Yes, saltless water softeners work to neutralize your home’s hard water causing minerals so they don’t stick to your plumbing and appliances.  The crystallization process provides over 99% scale prevention without the use of salt or chemicals.  A key differentiator is they will actually break down and clean the scale inside of your pipes and heating elements over time. 

However, because salt-free systems do not change the water hardness composition, they are often referred to as water conditioners or water descalers. They should not be confused with another distinct type of salt-free water softener called electro-magnetic descalers which are completely different and have mixed results. 

How Long Does A Salt-Free Water Softener Last?

The template assisted crystallization media inside a salt-free conditioner tank only has to be replaced once every 10 years or more. Furthermore, it takes very little media to support a whole-house water conditioning system so it is not a significant expense. Most conditioner systems only require about 7 liters of media that will last several years. Unlike ion exchange water softeners that need to be completely filled with media that can cost hundreds of dollars. 

What is a Salt-Based Water Softener?

Traditional salt-based water softeners eliminate hardness causing minerals like calcium and magnesium through a process called ion exchange. The system consists of two tanks, a resin tank for the media and a brine tank for the salt. 

With the ion exchange process, small resin beads are washed with a salt solution to charge them with a sodium ion. The sodium ions then exchange with calcium and magnesium ions as the hard water flows through the system [6]

As water exits the resin tank and into the home’s plumbing, it is now soft and completely free of hard water minerals. However, the softened water will contain low levels of sodium as a side effect of the ion exchange process. 

Salt Free Vs Salt Water Softener_Salt Based Water Softener Ion Exchange Process Diagram Infographic
Ion Exchange Process Removes Calcium And Magnesium [7]

To cleanse the system of contaminants and replenish the sodium ions, salt based softeners require a backwashing cycle where additional water is used to flush the tank. The brine water byproduct is then washed away through the home’s drain line. 

Pros Of A Salt-Based Water Softener

Completely Remove Hardness Causing Minerals

Salt-based softeners will completely remove hard water minerals like calcium and magnesium from water. Whereas saltless conditioners will crystalize these minerals so that they don’t stick to any plumbing.  

Ideal For Well Water Sources

Well water is notoriously contaminated with iron, manganese, and sulfur. A whole house salt-based system is an ideal solution for water with harsh heavy metals. With a salt-free system, the media can get fouled if you don’t use a pre-filter under these circumstances.  

Additionally, most salt-based water softeners are rated to remove 1 ppm of iron. So if you have well water with light levels of iron, and salt-based softener will be able to remove it without having to purchase an additional iron filter system. 

Programmable Control Head

Salt based softeners include an electronic control head that can be programmed to fine tune to your specific water requirements.  Some are even capable of being controlled remotely with a mobile smartphone application.  This will allow you to view water usage and adjust backwash settings right from your phone.    

Cons Of A Salt-Based Water Softener?

Requires Salt 

A salt softener system requires regularly filling the brine tank with salt.  It is also an incremental cost to keep in mind over the life of the unit. Additionally, the ion exchange process will lead to low levels of sodium being released into the water. The exact amount of salt added will depend on the hardness of the water, but in general, it is 12.5 mg of sodium per 8 oz glass.

Requires Backwashing 

In order to cleanse the media beads of calcium and magnesium minerals, the sodium solution from the brine tank is used to flush the system. This process creates waste water that is then drained into the municipal water lines.

Requires Electricity 

The actual use of electricity is rather minimal.  However, if the power goes out, the system may stop working and need to be reprogrammed. 

Cost Difference Between Salt Free and Salt Water Softeners

The upfront price for both residential salt free softeners and salt softeners are comparable.  They average between $900 – $2,500 depending on the brand and model specifications. 

As far as ongoing maintenance, a salt-free conditioner has a rather low cost of ownership over its lifetime.  Once installed, the systems are practically maintenance free for at least 10 years. They require very little media to support a whole house system. If you do need to replace the media, it may only require up to 10 liters.

In comparison, the salt based media needs to be replaced every 5 to 10 years depending on the water hardness and iron levels. Since a salt based system requires the media tank to be completely filled, it will need more media and will cost approximately $400 depending on the type of media used. 

The additional costs for salt based softeners include water use and salt refills. For a softener that regenerates 3 times per week,  it will cost approximately $75 per year for water to backflush the system.  A salt based softener requires on average one 40 pound bag of salt per month, which will cost about $100 per year.  

Final Verdict: Salt-Free Water Conditioner Vs Salt Water Softener

Salt-free conditioners work great in certain scenarios, but salt based ion exchange softeners might be required in others. 

Overall, if you have well water or extremely hard water, a salt based softener is the best option.  

If you want an environmentally friendly method of neutralizing hard water minerals in your home’s plumbing, and eliminating scale buildup, a salt-free conditioner is the way to go.     

Hopefully this guide helped shed some light on the right water softener for your home.  Both of the water softener alternatives discussed use a different process to solve hard water issues.  If you have any questions, drop us a message on our contact page!  

Article Sources

Freshnss uses only the highest-quality sources to support the facts used in our articles including: government organizations, independent studies, peer-reviewed journals, and lab testing results. Read our editorial review guidelines here to learn more about how we verify and fact-check our writing to keep our content reliable, accurate, and trustworthy.

  1. Hardness Of Water, United States Geological Survey (USGS)
  2. Benefits Of Removal Of Water Hardness (Calcium and Magnesium Ions) From A Water Supply, Water Quality Research Foundation (WQRF)
  3. Drinking Water Softening/Scale Prevention Technology Assessment and Performance of Template Assisted Crystallization, University Of Waterloo
  4. Conditioning Water Using Template Assisted Crystallization to Prevent Scaling in Boilers, Northern Arizona University
  5. Template Assisted Crystalization (TAC), Watts
  6. Drinking Water Treatment: Water Softening (Ion Exchange), University Of Nebraska – Lincoln
  7. Purchasing and Maintaining A Water Softener, United States Department Of Energy

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