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Salt-Free Conditioners vs. Salt Water Softeners

by Mark Timmons & Zileni Milupi May 22, 2024 0 Comments

It was in 2007 when US Water Systems introduced a salt-free water softener alternative called the
Green Wave Salt-free Water Conditioner, and from its inception, we called it a “salt-free water conditioner,” not a softener because it did not soften the water. Undoubtedly, we could have sold a lot more of these had we called them “GreenWave Salt-Free Water Softeners,” but as a family-owned business, we cannot conscientiously engage in that kind of deception. "Not only is it a specific type of device, but its specific purpose is to soften water. Whether the water is soft or not is “scientifically provable." Some companies continue to falsely claim that they have a device that softens the water without salt. This is simply not true and provable beyond any doubt.

Salt-free "conditioners" are a much larger category because they do not soften the water by using ion exchange. The hardness minerals are transformed into a crystallized form, but they are still present in the water. This means that laundry will not be as soft or white and bright as with soft water, and of course, in your bathroom, you will still have to deal with soap scum and buildup. The only way to eliminate these headaches is to soften the water. This is why the name “salt-free water softener” is not only false but also deceptive.

Although preference might be given to salt-based systems or water softeners, it’s important to highlight some of the pros and cons of salt-based and salt-free systems to get a clearer picture of what system may be right for you.

How Salt-Based Water Softeners Work

Salt-based water softeners remove calcium and magnesium ions from hard water and replace them with sodium ions. This ion exchange process occurs within a tank filled with porous resin beads coated with sodium ions. As hard water flows through, the resin attracts and binds the calcium and magnesium ions, releasing sodium ions into the water. This softening process improves the effectiveness of soaps and detergents by over 50% but does produce a  "slick or slippery" feel on the skin. Most people like the fell, but some do no0t. Periodically, the resin must be regenerated with a concentrated saltwater solution to recharge the sodium ions. The Water Quality Association defines water hardness using grains per gallon (gpg) or milligrams per liter (mg/l), classifying water as soft, slightly hard, moderately hard, hard, very hard, and extremely hard. 

How Salt-Free Water Conditioners Work

Salt-free water conditioners, like the GreenWave 2.0, utilize Nucleation Assisted Crystallization (NAC) technology with Filtersorb SP3 media or Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC) Technology. The processes are similar, but the media are somewhat different. This process transforms calcium bicarbonate into stable aragonite crystals that remain suspended in the water, preventing scale buildup on plumbing and appliances. Unlike salt-based softeners, these systems don't remove minerals but modify them to minimize scaling. Other salt-free conditioners use different technologies, such as dissolving citric acid into the water or processes that bind hard minerals through chelation or polyphosphate systems that coat surfaces to prevent scale adhesion. Though salt-free conditioners don't soften water, they can effectively prevent limescale buildup and protect plumbing when applied properly.

Combining Technologies for Comprehensive Scale Protection
For optimal scale prevention, combining salt-free conditioners with additional technologies like the Limeblaster can offer comprehensive protection, particularly in hot water systems. The Limeblaster, installed on hot water lines, uses polyphosphates to coat surfaces and prevent scale buildup. This combination ensures protection against scaling in water heaters and other hot water appliances where these problems are magnified. By preventing scale accumulation, these systems reduce energy costs and prolong the lifespan of water heaters. Although salt-free conditioners are effective, it's essential to choose a system that suits your water quality needs and home plumbing setup.

Marketing Deception in the Water Softener Industry

There are a few “bad actors” in the water treatment industry who can be very misleading in their marketing claims, particularly regarding salt-free water conditioners. While most water treatment companies are ethical and honest, some manufacturers and/or sellers describe their products as "salt-free softeners," even though they don't remove minerals from water. Instead, these systems condition the water to minimize scaling without technically softening it. At US Water Systems, we believe in clearly explaining the differences between salt-based softeners and salt-free conditioners to ensure customers can make informed decisions that best fit their needs.

Pros of Salt-Free Conditioners 

  • No Sodium Added to Water: Unlike salt-based water softeners, salt-free conditioners do not add sodium to the water. This makes them suitable for individuals on sodium-restricted diets or those concerned about sodium intake in their drinking water.
  • Preservation of Mineral Content: Salt-free conditioners do not remove minerals from the water but rather transform the minerals into a crystalline form that prevents scale buildup. This means that the beneficial minerals in the water, such as calcium and magnesium, are retained for consumption. However, it should be noted that water is not a significant source of minerals.
  • Environmental Friendliness: Salt-free conditioners do not require the use of salt or chemicals for regeneration, making them more environmentally friendly than salt-based systems. They do not discharge brine or salt-laden wastewater into the environment, reducing the impact on ecosystems.
  • Low Maintenance: Salt-free conditioners typically require minimal maintenance compared to salt-based systems. They do not need regular replenishment of salt or potassium chloride and often do not require electricity for operation, resulting in lower ongoing maintenance costs.
  • Extended Lifespan of Appliances: By preventing scale buildup in plumbing systems and appliances, salt-free conditioners can help extend the lifespan of water heaters, dishwashers, washing machines, and other household appliances. This can lead to cost savings on repairs and replacements over time.
  • No Slick Feeling: Some users of salt-based water softeners may experience a slippery or slick feeling on their skin due to the presence of excess sodium ions in the water. Salt-free conditioners do not produce this effect, resulting in water that feels more natural to the touch.
  • Compatibility with Existing Plumbing: Salt-free conditioners are often easier to install and integrate into existing plumbing systems compared to salt-based water softeners. They typically require less space and do not necessitate modifications to plumbing lines or electrical connections.
  • Prevention of Scale Buildup: Salt-free conditioners can effectively prevent scale buildup on plumbing fixtures, faucets, and appliances by altering the structure of minerals in the water. This helps maintain water flow rates, water pressure, and overall plumbing system efficiency.

Cons of Salt-Free Systems 

  • Limited Effectiveness with Very Hard Water: Salt-free systems are generally less effective at treating very hard water compared to water softeners. They primarily prevent scale buildup rather than removing minerals from the water entirely. In areas with extremely hard water, salt-free systems may not provide sufficient protection against scale formation.
  • No Softening of Water: Unlike water softeners, which remove minerals like calcium and magnesium to soften the water, salt-free systems only prevent scale buildup by altering the structure of minerals. This means that the water may still feel hard to some users, even though it is protected against scale deposits.
  • No Reduction of Hard Minerals: Salt-free systems do not reduce the calcium and magnesium levels in the water. While they prevent mineral scale buildup, the mineral content remains unchanged.
  • Requires Pre-existing Water Quality: Salt-free systems are best suited for treating water that is already relatively clean and free from sediment, iron, or other impurities. If the water contains significant levels of these contaminants, additional filtration or treatment methods may be necessary to achieve satisfactory water quality.
  • Potential Maintenance Needs: While salt-free systems generally require less maintenance than water softeners, they may still require periodic cleaning or replacement of the conditioning media to maintain effectiveness. Failure to perform maintenance tasks could result in reduced performance or scale buildup over time.
  • Initial Cost: Salt-free water conditioning systems can have a higher initial cost compared to water softeners. While they may offer long-term savings in terms of maintenance and operating costs, the upfront investment may be prohibitive for some consumers.
  • Environmental Impact: While salt-free systems are often marketed as more environmentally friendly than softeners, they still require resources for production and may not be entirely eco-friendly. Additionally, their effectiveness at preventing scale buildup may vary depending on local water conditions, which could lead to increased water usage for cleaning or maintenance purposes.
  • Limited Market Availability: Salt-free water conditioning systems may not be as widely available as water softeners, particularly in areas where traditional water softening methods are more common. Limited availability could make it more difficult to find replacement parts or obtain professional maintenance services.

Pros of Salt-Based Systems  

Although our blog on water softeners goes in-depth on their functions and advantages, here is a quick rundown of some of their pros and cons. 

  • Extended Appliance Lifespan: When supplied with softened water, appliances such as water heaters, dishwashers, washing machines, and even faucets and plumbing are less likely to suffer from scale buildup and corrosion. This can lead to longer appliance lifespans and reduced maintenance costs.
  • Improved Water Quality: Softened water often tastes and smells better than hard water, as it lacks the metallic odor associated with mineral-rich water. This can lead to increased water consumption and improved hydration for individuals who prefer the taste of softened water. Of course, consumers who are really concerned with other potential contaminants may opt for reverse osmosis for drinking as it removes the widest spectrum of contaminants of any water treatment process.
  • Less Cleaning Required: Softened water makes cleaning tasks easier and more efficient. Scrubbing and harsh cleaning products are less needed to remove mineral deposits from surfaces such as sinks, faucets, and shower doors.
  • Health Benefits: While the health benefits of softened water are debated, some individuals with skin conditions like eczema or sensitive skin report experiencing relief from symptoms when using softened water. Additionally, softened water may help prevent mineral buildup in plumbing fixtures that could harbor bacteria.

Cons of Salt-Based Systems 

  • Initial Cost: The upfront cost of purchasing and installing a water softener can be relatively high compared to other water treatment options. This includes the cost of the softener unit itself, as well as installation expenses if you're not doing it yourself.
  • Ongoing Maintenance: Water softeners require regular maintenance to function properly. This includes adding salt or potassium chloride to the softener, cleaning or replacing the resin bed periodically, and performing routine checks to ensure proper operation. Neglecting maintenance can lead to decreased efficiency and potentially costly repairs.
  • Salt Discharge: Salt-based water softeners regenerate by flushing the resin bed with a saltwater solution, which results in the discharge of salty wastewater. This discharge can be harmful to the environment if not properly managed, particularly if it enters freshwater ecosystems or contaminates drinking water sources.
  • Limited Effectiveness on Iron and Manganese: Traditional ion exchange water softeners are not extremely effective at removing high levels of iron and manganese from water. Specialized systems or additional treatment methods may be required if these contaminants are present in the water supply.


Brenda asked: I have had salt-based water softeners in the past and loved them. I now live in a multi-story townhouse, where the water source for the unit is in the front, and the HOA will not allow a water softener unit in the front. I considered the saltless system because it is smaller and I could possibly hide it, I'm still considering it. Another option is to put whatever I get in the garage with the tankless hot water units, meaning only my hot water will be soft. Will this be enough to do anything for my appliances or my skin?

Answer: Putting a water softener only on the hot water is kind of like putting one foot in ice water and the other in boiling water on average you won't like the experience!

In your case, I would recommend a salt-free water conditioner. While it may not rise to the level of a water softener (using salt), it will protect your appliances and the carbon filter in the Green Wave will reduce or remove the chemicals and chlorine which are skin irritants. Here's what I would recommend: Salt-Free Water Conditioners by US Water Systems.                                 


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