Salt-Free Water Softeners and Water Softeners - What's the Difference?

Salt-Free Water Softeners and Water Softeners - What's the Difference?
By Mark Timmons
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Salt-Free Water Softeners and Water Softeners - What's the Difference?


I have been researching systems till I am ready to slit my throat. So many inconsistencies on the web. I live in Temecula, CA.  Our water is 184 mg per liter / 10.7 per gallon. The water flow in our house (10 years old) is terrible. I am ready to replace the hot water heater and all of the shower valves. Before I do I know I need a system. We have a 5 bed/5 bath house but only 3 people live in it. I want a slightly over-sized system just so I have some peace of mind. Can you suggest a system? Also…will your system do anything for the buildup that has already occurred? Is there anything I can do to repair the current buildup other than replace everything? --- Vic


Well, you don't have to slit your own throat, because there are a lot of companies out there willing to do that for you...and take your money in the process.  Beware of what you read on the internet and especially beware of companies who have one "Super Duper Product" that is the solution to just about every water problem. There are some good products out there... but lots of "snake oil." The internet is a wonderful source of information... and dis-information. There are essentially two ways to prevent and remove scale: (1) a water softener; and (2) a water conditioner. What are the differences? Well, there are plenty of differences, and they both do not do the same things... and then, there's the little matter of companies of calling their product a water softener, when in fact, it does not even soften the water. Why would they do that?  It's very simple: they do it to trick you into buying their product. So, let's discuss just the facts.

Water Softener

A "water softener" according to the plain and simple understanding of the English Language and Wikipedia is "the removal of calcium, magnesium, and certain other metal cations in hard water. The resulting soft water requires less soap for the same cleaning effort, as soap is not wasted mopping up calcium ions. Soft water also extends the lifetime of plumbing by reducing or eliminating scale build-up in pipes and fittings. Water softening is usually achieved using ion-exchange resins." So, if you have soft water, you will experience certain benefits you WILL ABSOLUTELY NOT GET with a "water conditioner."  Benefits like: [caption id="attachment_6468" align="alignright" width="300"] Professional Water Hardness Field Test Kit[/caption]
  • Softer, cleaner skin and silky smooth hair;
  • Much less shampoo needed;
  • Dramatically reduced soap usage, by 50% or more;
  • Softer clothes, whiter whites and brighter colors;
  • All clothing, fabrics and linens last longer;
  • Cleaner, shiner, spot-free glasses, silverware, faucets, fixtures and anything water touches;
  • Extends the life of appliances, fixtures, water heaters and plumbing; and
  • Saves money on water heating energy costs
A water softener is a specific type of device utilizing ion-exchange resins to "soften" water.  Not only is it a specific type of device, but it's specific purpose is to soften water... and whether the water is soft or not is scientifically provable.  Some companies claim that they have a device which softens the water without salt.  I think they are hoping that you will not actually check and see if it really is soft. We sell a water hardness test kit.  It is the same type of test kit that many labs and water treatment professionals use to precisely determine the water hardness level.

The Water Hardness Scale

Degree of Hardness Grains per Gallon  ppm or mg/l
 Soft <1.0 <17.0
Slightly Hard 1.0-3.5 17.1-60
Moderately Hard 3.5-7.0 60-120
Hard 7.0-10.5 120-180
Very Hard >10.5 >180
[caption id="attachment_6471" align="alignleft" width="300"] Water Hardness Test Strips[/caption] That test kit is less than $50 and you can verify whether the water is soft or not by a simple titration method that even a 5 year-old can do.  This test kit is good for about 50 tests and the titration chemicals can then be replaced for a few dollars. We also have hardness test strips, which come in a protective foil pack.  You can buy a 5-pack for less than $5 to see if your water is hard or soft. You simply draw some water into a glass and then dip one of thse test strips into the water.  Wait a few seconds and then match up the color.  Again, even a 5 year-old can do it. Once you have soft water, you will be able to tell the difference immediately without a test, and if you forget to put salt in it, you will be rudely awakened to a hard water shower and spots on your dishes and fixtures. My wife has threatened me with bodily harm more than once when I let the softener run out of salt.

Salt-Free Conditioners

Salt free "conditioners" are a much larger category because they do not soften the water by using ion-exchange.  Oh, some companies call what they have a "salt-free water softener" but if you ask them "If I have the water tested by a laboratory, will it test "soft?"  The answer is no!  If fact, recently a customer who bought what they said (and he believed) to be a salt-free "softener", called up the manufacturer and said that the water did not test soft.  He was told "Well, it doesn't ACTUALLY soften the water." Oh, so he bought a "Doesn't Actually Soften The Water Softener." Would he have bought it if he knew it did not actually soften the water? So, salt-free conditioners can embrace a lot of devices and technologies... some very good, some not so good, and some outright silly! Here is a partial list of some technologies that could be considered salf-free conditioners. I am going to give you my opinion of each technology, but I want you to remember one thing:  US Water Systems is an independent family-owned and operated company and we are on the Cutting-Edge of technology... and have been for years. We stick with the latest technology that is scientifically proveable, dependable, scalable and economical. We have to utilize products that work, since we sell all over the world.

Type of Salt-Free Conditioners

  • Magnetic & Electro-Magnetic Devices - Look, I have been interested in magnetic and electro-magnetic or electronic water treatment for over 40 years and I have spent thousands of dollars in testing these devices over the years. If I ever find a product that really works on a provable, sustainable, scientific basis, we will sell it.  The fact that we don't says it all.
  • Template Assisted Crystallization, Nucleatiion Assisted Crystallization and other Similar Technologies - These products are sold as TAC or NAC technology by any number of companies. We stated selling these products about a dozen years ago and finally stopped selling then about three years ago because the results were simply unsatisfactory.  We sell our products all over the world, and while sometimes they seemed to work, most of the results were problematic. Simply put, if we believe they worked, we would be selling them.
  • Catalytic Devices - I don't even know what that means.  It's a great buzzword... that means nothing.  By definition, a catalyst is something that increases a reaction.  Reaction with what?
  • Chelation - This typically involves the introduction of citric acid into the water supply, which reduces the pH of the water and thus prevents scale foramtion.  In theory, this is the best of the aforementioned technology, but I dislike lowering the pH and question whether if can done on a consistent basis across all flow rates, both low and high. It does prevent scale, but it does not create softened water.
  • Sequestration - This method consists of introducing a balanced blend of food grade organic phosphates, which form a one-molecule thick coating on water-touching surfaces.  It prevents new scale from forming and slowly losens existing scale deposits.  It effectively "seals" the pipe or surface from the limescale, so that it cannot form and also prevents corrosion.  One of the most popular methods of doing this involves Silphos.
  • Filtration - Filtration can be accomplished with an number of medias, but you cannot simply "filter out hardness." Mechanical filtration involves the use of sediment filters, media filters or granular activated carbon filters.  A good filtration regimen can be an important part of any water softener or salt-free water conditioner system.
None of these methods are perfect, in fact, it is my learned opinion that some have very little scientific validity, and not one of them produce softened water! Filtration can and should be very useful on any water supply.  I always recommend a whole house 5 micron filter to remove sand, sediment and solids, to say nothing of fish and turtles.  A tank-type carbon filter (non-backwashing or backwashing) is also very beneficial for removing chlorine, chloramine (municipal water) as well as chemicals, pesticides, tastes and odors.  Many companies who sell products that they represent as water softeners, which really don't soften the water (and maybe don't do much period) get by with including a carbon filter with their product.  The carbon does improve the water, leaving the people somewhat impressed, even if it is not soft or does little for limescale. [caption id="attachment_6479" align="aligncenter" width="338"] The Bodyguard Whole House Filtration System[/caption]


There is no device that produces soft water without salt and provides the benefits of a water softener.  If you want those benefits, you simply have to utilize a salt using water softener (although the new high efficiency models use a very small amount of salt and water). Even with a water softener, I would recommend pre-filtration along with carbon filtration.  Our Bodyguard System is very affordable and our most popular system. [caption id="attachment_6480" align="alignleft" width="165"] The US Water Limeblaster Salt-Free Water Conditioner[/caption] If you don't care about most of the benefits of soft water and only want to prevent and eliminate limescae, then the technology we utilize is Sequestration with our Limeblaster Salt-Free Water Conditioner.  We do not "oversell" this product like many of our competitors.  It does not soften water, so we do not call it a water softener, but it does an excellent job of removing and preventing scale.  The US Water Limeblaster totally prevents limescale on and in appliances, pipes, fixtures - actually everything water touches. The US Water Limeblaster system uses a unique and patented dosing system which adds a small amount siliphos (a food grade material) to the water, effectively "sealing" Calcium and Magnesium from sticking to any surface or pipes. Silcopolyphosphate is a "food grade" product and is safe for human consumption according to the WHO and FAO recommendations. It meets all FDA requirements for being "food grade." Of course, I always recommend using a reverse osmosis system for your drinking water.  This polishes off the water, delivering the highest quality water at the lowest cost and if you have a softener, it removes the sodium added as well.  With the Limeblaster, it removes the polyphosphate, so even though it is safe for human consumption, it is gone with the RO system.

Cheers to your water!

September 8, 2018
October 16, 2018 at 8:26 PM
Wow, now that’s a true sales job! Attaching a Company name to an article like this is unethical in itself. I’ve been in the water buifor over 35 years and want you to know, the TAC process in water treatment does work as an alternative to soft water. As a matter of fact, it is the best alternative! No everybody likes soft water, or the sensation you feel while showering. I’ve sold hundreds of conditioners and the only complaint we receive is from prior Softener customers. Sometimes they are oversold by sales people and don’t give accurate information. If you see a sales offer on line, or an add that says “salt free softener”, move on to the next company! My company sells both softeners and conditioners. We do our best to provide enough information to our clients so they make the best decision for their family.
Mark Timmons
October 21, 2018 at 6:09 PM
Mike, you seem to be a little slow, so let me break something down for you. It is unethical to do things to trick customers such as calling salt-free conditioners, "softeners." It is totally wrong for you to say that it is unethical to attach a company name to an article when that article (Blog) is on US Water Systems website! Also, maybe you have never read any of the trade journals, but in most csaes there is a company name attached to those articles. It is unetical and slanderous to call someone unethical when you evidently have no idea what you are talking about. I guess I missed the part where someone died and made you the person in charge of determining what the best alternative to soft water is. We should just believe you because you daid it? I would appreciate you getting your facts in order and not violate the WQA Code of Ethics with your slander against us. We take that very seriously.
Tony Mannan
October 27, 2018 at 4:29 PM
Thank you Mark for writing a clear and concise article for the layman to understand. I have a far better understanding of what actually is softened water compared to "conditioned" water. Unfortunately lot of sellers do not provide this information clearly.
Douglas Brown
December 28, 2018 at 5:25 PM
Thanks, Mark! You answered my question. One of my biggest concerns with salt free water conditioners, is...what does the water taste like? Well, it seems clear, that it still tastes like calcium! My water is 65 hardness, and tastes like crap, unsoftened. Luckily, I am knowledgeable enough to have rebuilt my on-demand softener, that I purchased in 1995. It is currently working great. The only concern I have, is the waste brine, eating away at my concrete septic tank. If there were only an alternative to prevent this. And, I have a 5 stage reverse osmosis filter system, under our kitchen sink. That is the water we drink. I realize that it is probably pulling minerals, out of our bodies, so it's almost no-win! Thanks for the great article!
Mark Timmons
December 29, 2018 at 9:26 AM
Douglas: Brine (at least brine in the concentration that comes out of a softener) does not eat away concrete. That is a misconception some people have because they have seen concrete driveways and sidewalks errode when salt is applied for ice removal. What causes that is the salt reaction with the ice heats the cold concrete surface and causes it to pull away or "pop." Put a torch to concrete and you will see how that works. RO water doesn't "pull out" minerals from your body. It doesn't work that way and water is not a significant source of minerals. For that matter, due to overfarming and the like, food does not contain nearly as many minerals as in years past. A good supplement is something to consider.
Rod Wiggins
January 27, 2019 at 9:48 AM
So what I'm reading is that if I put the Bodyguard, the Limeblaster and a reverse osmosis system in my home I have the best tasting and softest water possible?
Mark Timmons
January 28, 2019 at 8:17 AM
That is quite likely... depending upon what is in your water.
Ed Curry
January 28, 2019 at 8:19 PM
I live in Baja California about 35 miles south of San Diego. How would I go about getting your company to test and perhaps install a complete home softwater/RO system?
Mark Timmons
January 30, 2019 at 9:25 AM
The testing is easy. You just purchase this water test: We send it to you and you mail the sample to the Laboratory for testing. In 7-10 days you will get the results and then we can recommend what system you need and guarantee the results. We do not install, but have a full tech support department that works with any installer (we recommend any handyman) by phone, facetime or skype to facilitate installation. We sell direct to the end-user and cut-out-all-the-middlemen to save you money. Installtion is easy.
June 27, 2019 at 8:05 AM
So is your US Water BodyGuard Whole House Water Filtration System a water softner that uses salt, or just a filtration system? I don't see any mention of salt on the page.
Mark Timmons
July 18, 2019 at 10:21 PM
There is no mention of salt because it is not a water softener. What do you mean "just a filter?" It's a filter that is capable of removing more contaminants than any other filter?
January 28, 2020 at 6:39 PM
Mr. Timmons is correct in that you cannot soften water without the use of salt. Water softening is an ion exchange process. It exchanges or removes divalent cations (ions with a positive charge of +2) and replaces them with two monovalent cations (ions with a positive charge of +1). So for every calcium or magnesium ion (divalent ions) in the hard water that are removed they are replaced by two sodium or potassium ions (depending on the type of salt used). It is always a two for one exchange doubling the ions present in the water. However it does soften the water - which means removal of calcium and magnesium ions. The regeneration of ion exchange resins requires a high salt concentration because ion exchange resins have a greater affinity to calcium and magnesium and takes a lot more sodium to displace them. Water softening always creates a high salt waste stream. The blog is incorrect about chelation. Chelation is the binding of a metal ion to make it soluable. It is the same as sequestration. With the exception that polyphosphates do add a coating. Most chelation agents are chemicals like EDTA and used in the food industry. Citric Acid is used as an anti-scalent in the water industry meaning it dissolves mineral salt deposits. It does not bind metal ions. It was a good blog in general. There are lots of companies that will sell salt free water softener they are deceiving you. Personally I prefer chelation / sequestration over softening. You are adding less chemicals (meaning excessive salt) in the water system overall but that is my preference. Also I like keeping the heath benefits of calcium in the water over sodium.
Jhon Martin
March 19, 2020 at 4:38 AM
Nice blog. The efforts you have put in to create the posts are quite interesting. Looking forward to seeing you soon in a new post.
Susan M. Lavey
March 25, 2020 at 6:46 PM
Just trying to figure this all out. If RO removes all the minerals and that's what also causes scale to build up, would I even need a water softener if I got RO? We live in Denver and are currently using an Aprilaire 800 all house steam humidifier that requires minerals, but our water is SO hard, we got a water softener (salt) to try and reduce the build up on the humidifier filter which is over $60.00 per filter. I don't think it's made much of a difference. The filters get scaled over in about a month, maybe two. Mark, you mentioned elsewhere you are using the Aprilaire 700, which is not steam, with your RO. Do you have hard water? I'd hate to pony up for RO, get a new humidifier and still need a softener.
Mark Timmons
March 27, 2020 at 1:49 PM
I have a water softener, followed by my RO which I use for the humidifier. No issues!