Do No-Salt Softeners work?  FACT or FICTION?


Separating Science FACT from Science Fiction…

The BOTTOM LINE truth is there is only one economically practical way to produce TRUE soft water:  Ion exchange. For each ion of calcium and magnesium, the minerals that actually cause hardness, two sodium ions are added into the water.  In effect you are attaching the hardness minerals to an ion exchange resin bead and at that time it releases a sodium ion.  Same applies to potassium chloride which is the only other scientifically proven economical way to soften water.  Do No-Salt Softeners work?  FACT or FICTION?

A salt-based softener often has an R.O. (reverse osmosis) drinking and cooking system at the kitchen sink to remove the added sodium so that the water is as pure as commercial bottled water.  To be PERFECTLY clear, water softened with salt is perfectly safe for drinking and there is no discernible taste of sodium, which, by volume, is present in an insignificant trace amount to begin with. A carbon filter is often added in-line to remove contaminants that may be present in your water.

Salt-Free Water Conditioners on the other hand, all the range on the Internet these days (which are sometimes erroneously referred to as softeners), operate on principles of polarity, where the calcium and magnesium are made to attract to each other and are broken apart from the water molecules and therefore bond together.

The hard calcium and magnesium are thus put into a suspended state.  This process, chemically speaking, is called “increased calcite nucleation.”   A carbon filter is often added in line to remove contaminants that may be present in your water and a reverse osmosis system can be installed in the kitchen for drinking as well.

So are there REAL differences between a Salt-Free Water Conditioner and a salt-based water softener?

From a scientific perspective, CATEGORICALLY YES.  When you test water treated by a “salt free” water conditioner your readings (typically either in milligrams per liter or grams per gallons), show that the relative hardness of the water is pretty much the same coming in to the conditioner as it is going out.  There is in effect no difference in the hardness.

By definition, softening water is a reduction or removal of a calcium carbonate (CaCO3) a combination of calcium and magnesium that no salt free product can remove.  There is no concrete scientific laboratory evidence or measurements system that shows what the actual level of reduction of scale build up is.   It is difficult to simulate in a lab and the evidence used by manufacturers is mostly anecdotal.

Bottom line does a Salt-Free Water Conditioner soften water?  No.   Does it help reduce scale build up, the answer is, there is some evidence that shows a reduced scale build-up.

Manufacturers and retailers of Salt-Free Water Conditioners claim that Salt softened water feels “mushy,” “slippery” or even “slimy.”  They will also assert that people do not like the way softened water feels, because it feels like they can’t ever completely rinse off the soap.  Conversely if you ask a user of an ION exchange water softener, they will tell you that they can’t imagine living without one.

Salt-Free Water Conditioner makers claim their treated water has more of a natural water feel and does not feel slimy or mushy leaving your skin squeaky clean unlike salt softened water.  Actually that is what you feel when you shower in hard water.  What you are in fact sensing is the friction from the soap scum.  Soap scum is the reaction hard water has when it binds with detergent, it’s called soap curd.  That is the SQUEAKY CLEAN feeling you think you feel, because that is what you are accustomed to… until you try soft water.    With hard water when your skin dries, your skins actually tighten ups because as it dries it’s the soap curd or soap scum that is drying in the pores of your skin.

The feeling you get with soften water is in fact not slimy at all, but silky smooth, the feeling of your natural skin without the addition of the soap curd build-up from the soap you bathe with.

Salt-based water softeners prevent the scale build-up in pipes and water heaters by removing  calcium and magnesium. Because of the reduced hard minerals, softened water limits rings in the bathtub, allows for better results with clothes washers and dishwashers, and leaves shower doors virtually free of soap scum build-up typical of hard water.

Comparing Salt-Free Water Conditioners to salt-based water softeners 

  1. Salt-Free Conditioned water, if left to dry on any surface will leave calcium and magnesium hard mineral behind.
  2.  A Salt-Free Water conditioner creates less suds.
  3. The sodium content of salt softened water allows more suds.  This is a scientific fact and is particularly true with some of the biodegradable laundry detergents.
  4. Salt-Free Water Conditioners make the water easier to clean up, just like a traditional salt based water softener, but a dishwasher still needs to be used properly, toilets need to be cleaned, and surfaces need to be wiped off.

Does Salt corrode? 

Yes salt corrodes, this is factual, but unless something mechanically goes wrong with the softener, you cannot get “salt water” in the service line.  PERIOD.  The salt is simply used as a regeneration process.  It simply cleans the ion exchange resin beads. Salt and Potassium chloride systems have been in active used since 1923.  Measuring sodium or potassium content in the downstream side of a water softener will show that there is very little added depending on the incoming hardness level.

So what should I buy?  Salt or no Salt? 

Salt-based conditioners are still considered the only tried and true softening system and scale reduction technology out there.  They have been around for nearly a hundred years.  This said, salt free water conditioners, can be effective in the reduction of some crystallization, which leads to scale build up on pipes and appliances.  This is a legitimate claim and as long as a consumer you understand that you WILL NOT be truly getting softened water or the benefits derived from the process it, it’s a matter of personal choice and how the water feels on your skin.  A good way to determine this is do a test bathing or washing your face with water treated with a real water softener using salt and a salt free system.

About The Author, Terry Reeh, Partner EcoWater Systems of Nebraska:

With more than 25 years experience in the residential and commercial water treatment space , Terry is a WQA (Water Quality Association) certified water specialist, LEVEL 3, as well as a WQA certified sales representative.  In addition to running the day-to-day operations of EcoWater Systems of Nebraska, one of the biggest water treatment and water delivery enterprises in the state, Terry currently sits on EcoWater Systems (a Berkshire Hathaway Company) national Peers committee, as a water treatment expert advising other water professionals with less experience on best trade and technology practices.

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