If you want a breakdown of the pros and cons of salt-free versus salt-based water softeners, this guide was made for you.
In this article, we'll cover...
- Which softener has the best performance
- Why salt water softeners are banned in some U.S. states
- The cost of maintenance
- How saltless softeners actually work
- And more...
I have inspected a lot of hard water treatment systems as a home inspector, and the differences between traditional salt-based softeners versus the newer softeners without salt can be confusing.
One of the big differences between the two is that saltless filters aren't truly softening systems. Technically, they are water conditioners because the hard minerals aren't removed. The calcium and magnesium minerals are crystallized so they don't stick to appliances and pipes.
Keep reading to learn the pros and cons of salt vs. salt-free water softeners!
What Is A Salt-Based Water Softener?
Salt-based whole house water softeners use a process known as ion exchange to remove hardness minerals from the water.
A tank of resin beads—known as a resin bed—collects the magnesium and calcium ions in the water as the water flows through thousands of tiny resin beads. Since these resin beads have a positive charge of sodium ions (salt), as the magnesium and calcium flows over the resin beads, there is a chemical exchange.
The hard minerals become stuck to the beads while the sodium ions are released into the water and flushed down the drain. Some systems also use a potassium solution instead of sodium for ion exchange.
9 Pros And Cons of Salt-Based Water Softeners
Pro #1: Removes Hardness Minerals
Salt-based softeners remove hardness minerals from the water which greatly reduces scale buildup in appliances and the plumbing system.
The softening process is called an ion exchange which is the substituting of hard ions (calcium & magnesium) for soft ions that are attached to the resin beads.
Pro #2: Stops Staining
Since the hard water minerals are totally removed from the water, hard water spots and soap scum will be eradicated or greatly reduced.
This means all of the home's fixtures, glassware, dishware, and clothing will be easier to clean.
Pro #3: Higher Performance
Salt water softeners really can't be beat in terms of effectiveness. Since hard minerals are actually removed from the water supply, it will always outperform salt-free water conditioners.
Pro #4: Increases Soap Lather
A great benefit of salt-based softeners is that the water lathers better with soap.
When there are hard minerals present, it prevents the soap from completely dissolving in the water. Due to this lather effect, it also reduces the amount of clothing detergent required as well as the amount of soap scum left behind.
Con #1: Salt Costs
Probably the biggest downside of salt water softener systems is that salt will need to be purchased every 1-2 months depending on water usage.
For an average sized water softener, it will typically use the equivalent of a 40-lb bag of salt every month. A 40-lb bag of salt will cost anywhere from $20 to $50 per bag.
Homeowners can expect at least a $20 monthly maintenance cost or $240 a year.
Con #2: Backwashing Required
At least every few days depending on water usage, the system will need to be regenerated which means backwashing the resin tank with a brine solution.
During this time—around 3 to 10 minutes—water shouldn't be used in the home in order to prevent scale going into the water heater and the home's plumbing. Either the softener system has automated backwashing or the homeowner will have to perform it manually along with the required calculations.
Con #3: Slick Water Sensation
Some people don't like the slippery or slick sensation of the water coming from a salt-based system. The lather from water and soap takes a little longer to rinse off and leads to a silky feeling.
It is mostly related to the hard minerals being removed as well as the added sodium to the water which creates a stronger chemical bond between skin and soap. It's important to point out that many people also hate the sticky coating on skin due to having hard water.
Con #4: Wasting Water
Salt-based systems use up water during the backwashing process in order to regenerate the resin bed.
The regeneration process typically happens every 2-3 days but may happen every day depending on water usage. Around 20-60 gallons of water will be used during the backwashing depending on the size of the system.
Con #5: Banned In Some States
Salt hard water treatment setups are currently banned or heavily regulated in Connecticut, Wisconsin, Michigan, Massachusetts, and California.
Since salt-based water softeners waste water during the backwashing process, areas that have scarce water supplies have reasons to want to prohibit it. In addition to water waste, salt water systems leave sodium in the waste water that can pollute groundwater, rivers, and lakes.
What Is A Saltless Water Softener?
A salt-free whole house water softening system reduces hard water scale without actually removing any minerals.
It does this by crystallizing the hardness minerals like calcium and magnesium. Through this chemical change, hard minerals do not stick to plumbing or appliances.
According to Energy.gov, saltless water softeners actually conditions the water since the hard minerals stay in the water. Since these hard water treatment filters simply crystallize the hardness minerals, there is no need for a salt tank or backwashing.
6 Pros And Cons of No Salt Water Softeners
Pro #1: Stops Scale
Since salt-free water softeners crystallize the hard minerals in the water, it effectively prevents scale buildup in pipes and appliances.
The crystallization of calcium and magnesium doesn't remove it from the water like a true softener, but it makes it non-sticky so it won't adhere to any surface.
Pro #2: No Water Waste
No salt water softeners do not waste water since a regeneration is not needed.
No water is ever flushed down the drain in association with a salt-free system. Homeowners can also rest easy knowing that the backwashed water which contains sodium won't pollute the groundwater or nearby waterways.
Pro #3: No Salt Replacement
Salt will never need to be purchased for a salt-free water conditioning system which is a big plus.
Manually adding salt and doing a backwash can be tiring. The cost of a 40-lb bag is salt is around $20 to $50 which can add up over time.
Con #1: Less Soap Suds
Saltless systems will not lather up better than a salt-based system.
Since the minerals are still present in the water, homeowners probably won't notice a difference in lathering ability.
Con #2: Technically A Conditioner
A water softener without salt is technically a water conditioner since it doesn't remove hard minerals. A no salt water system has its perks, but it will never outcompete a salt-based water softener.
Con #3: Hard Mineral Spots & Soap Scum
Homeowners may notice that there are still mineral spots and soap scum on plumbing fixtures and glassware. Since hard minerals are still present in the water, residue gets left behind even though it may be easier to clean off due to the chemical change.
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When homeowners have to choose between a salt water and salt-free water softening system, it really comes down to personal preferences and perhaps local regulations.
If homeowners desperately want improved hair, skin, and cleanliness, a salt-based system is clearly the way to go.
But if you can't install a salt water softener (banned in some U.S. states), don't want to waste water, want reduced maintenance, or if reducing scale is your primary concern — then a no salt system is the best choice.
I hope you enjoyed this guide and please leave a comment or question below!