Salt vs Salt Free Water Softeners

Salt vs Salt Free Water Softeners

Do Salt free conditioners work as well as a traditional salt based softeners? In most cases people are led to believe that they work the same and the only difference between them is one doesn’t use salt. This is far from truth and we will break down the two of them so you can decide what will work best for your home.

Before we break down each one individually let’s look at what a water softener and a water conditioner will and won’t do for your water.

A water softener will:

  • Remove calcium and magnesium (hardness particles) from your water supply
  • Reduce or eliminate scale build-up in appliances and pipes
  • Reduce soap and detergent usage
  • Reduce dry skin after washing

A water conditioner will:

  • Change the hardness particles chemistry for a certain amount of time
  • Reduce scale build up in plumbing for a certain amount of time
  • Removes additional chemicals, like chlorine, from water
  • Waste less water than a water softener

Now lets look at what they won’t do:

A water softener won’t:

  • Remove additional harmful chemicals like chlorine, herbicides, and pesticides
  • Remove viruses or bacteria from water

A water conditioner won’t:

  • Remove hardness particles from the water
  • Keep scale build-up from your appliances, dishes, shower, and bathtub
  • Lower TDS (total dissolved solids) in your water

Salt Based Water Softeners

The process of removing the dissolved calcium and magnesium salts that cause hardness in water is called ion exchange. In which a polymer resin exchanges a sodium particle for a hardness mineral.


Salt based softeners use an electronic metering valve on top of a fiberglass tank. The metering valve monitors the water going through it and runs a cleaning (regeneration) cycle when the ion beads have reached full saturation.

During the regeneration cycle sodium on the resin beads is exchanged for hard water minerals in the water. After some time, the resin beads need to be rinsed free of the minerals and “recharged” so they can continue attracting and collecting hard water minerals. This is called the water softener regeneration cycle, and it’s why people add salt to water softeners.

Cycles  (Regenerate or Recharge)

Back wash: 

In this stage of the cycle the resin bed is cleaned of dirt, broken resin beads, and debris that can all clog the resin bed. Water is forced to the bottom of the tank through the resin (unless you have a up flow style softener). Once the water has flowed through the resin it flows through the center tube removing all suspended solids and debris to waste. Backwash takes between 4-10 min depending on your units settings.

Brine Draw:

Brine (salt water) is drawn from the brine tank into the softener resin bed. Brine water flows through the resin bed forcing a ION exchange. (ION exchange is the swapping of sodium for calcium and magnesium) Brine draw takes between 1hr and 1hr 30min.

Slow Rinse:

Fresh water is sent to the resin bed to give the resin beads a rinse. This is a slow moving rinse allowing the ION process to complete. Slow Rinse takes between 10-30 min.

Fast Rinse:

More fresh water flows through the resin bed to remove any remaining brine solution or hardness compounds. Fast Rinse takes between 20 and 60 min.

Brine tank refill:

Fresh water is directed through the control head to the brine tank where it sits and dissolves salt so that its ready for the next Regeneration.

What are the ion exchange resins made of:

Ion exchange resins are divided into two types: cation exchange, which contain positively charged ions and anion exchange, which have negatively charged ions. The same basic organic polymers are used to make anion and cation resins. The ionizable group linked to the hydrocarbon differs. 

Cation ion exchange resins exchange positive ions, while anionic ion exchange resins swap negative ions. Cation exchange resins have acidic functional groups like sulfonic, but anion exchange resins are often noted as strong acid, weak acid, strong base, or weak base based on the type of the functional group. Similar to soluble acids and bases, the strength of the acidic or basic character is determined by the degree of ionisation of the functional groups. As a result, a resin containing sulfonic acid groups would be a good cation exchange resin.

Water Usage 

Softeners are known to use 25-65 gallons of water for regeneration. There are a few factors that go into how much water is used.

  1. How efficient your softener is. Most newer style softeners use a electronic metering valve that senses hoe much water is being used in the home and will regenerated when it reaches a set limit. Older softeners have a pre determined setting and they regenerate whether it is need or not. 
  1. How many people live in your home. The more people you have in your home the more water usage there is. The average usage per day is between 60-75 gallons. 
  1. Proper sizing of softener equipment. Bigger is not better when hit comes to water softeners. You want a softener that is sized properly to your homes needs. To big and it may not regenerate enough and you’ll be left with hard water bypassing the softener. To small and it will be regenerating more often then it should.

“Salt Free Softeners”

These units are referred to as Salt Free water softeners. Their correct name is water conditioners. Without sodium you can not “soften” water.

How do they work?

Unlike a water softener, a water conditioner does not remove hardness particles from your water supply. It “conditions” water and changes the chemistry of the particles for a certain amount of time to keep it from building up.

There are a few types of water conditioners on the market. Here are the most common types of water conditioners:

Citric Acid Systems. 

These systyems use citric acid that is slowly relesed into the water supply. Its a process called chelation.  It binds the mineral ions together and flushes them out of the system. Chelation eliminates the metal ions that cross link and stabilize most stain structures.

Polyphosphate Systems .

These systems utilize polyphosphates that are salts or esters formed from tetrahedral structure units linked together by sharing oxygen atoms. As water passes through the filter small amounts of polyphosphates dissolve in the water changing the calcium and iron reaction in the water 

Magnetic water treatment

Pass  hard water through a magnetic field in order to form microscopic precipitates that do not form scale on water heaters, pipes, and other plumbing fixtures.   There is no scientific evidence  as to the effectiveness of magnetic water treatment.

Electrically induced precipitation

A direct electrical current to precipitate water hardness and other compounds.  Reducing the scale by approximately 50%. The hardness precipitate forms on an electrode that must be cleaned periodically. 

Each one of these “Salt Free Softeners” condition the water in a different way but all come to the same out come of reducing scale. Not removing hardness from the water but instead filtering the minerals as best that they can. They all need yearly cleaning and maintenance. They are a great option for apartments, places that do not have the ability to have a drain for a Softner, city water systems where the hardness count inset very high, and homes that are trying too watch how much water they use. Either way you go water treatment is a good thing to have in your home.