NOTE: This is a 2023 update of a blog published in 2015.
For over a decade, marketing companies have been selling customers on the idea of salt-free water softeners. It's unfortunate that salt-free water softeners don't really exist. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines soft water as,
“Water that is free from dissolved salts of such metals as calcium, iron, or magnesium, which form insoluble deposits such as appear as scale in boilers or soap curds in bathtubs and laundry equipment.”
Soft water is made possible by the cation resin in traditional water softeners which use an ion exchange process to displace calcium and magnesium ions from the water.
How Do Salt-Based Water Softeners Work?
Chuck Wright, who is a chemistry professor at the University of Utah, wrote this in the Scientific American, almost 20 years ago, but the science is still the same:
“A typical water-softening system removes calcium and magnesium ions from hard water and replaces them with sodium ions. Calcium and magnesium ions interfere with the action of household soaps and detergents, but sodium does not. The water-softening process thus helps detergents to more effectively remove dirt and oils from clothing and dishes. It also helps soaps to give a "slippery" feel to your skin when you wash. Most manufacturers of water softeners recommend that you reduce the amount of soap and detergents you use after installing a water softener.
The water softener unit is located in your household plumbing near the place where water enters the house so that it softens the water used for drinking and washing but not for irrigation. The unit contains several cubic feet of porous plastic resin covered with molecules that attract and bind to positive ions dissolved in the water. Normally, sodium positive ions coat the resin, but as water flows over the resin on its way to your sink or washer, the naturally occurring calcium and magnesium positive ions that exist in hard water stick to the resin. This releases sodium ions into the water in order to maintain a balance of electrical charge on the resin. Gradually, most of the sodium ions are released into the household water, and the resin becomes saturated with calcium and magnesium ions. Every few days, the unit must renew the resin by rinsing it with a concentrated solution of saltwater (sodium chloride), usually in the middle of the night. The high concentration of sodium ions in the salty water displaces the calcium and magnesium ions the resin, and the resin becomes once again covered with sodium ions. The salty rinse water, calcium, and magnesium ions are flushed down the drain, and the system resumes normal operation. (Every so often it is necessary to add a bag of sodium chloride salt to the softener unit to prepare this salty rinse water.)
Each cubic foot of resin can effectively remove calcium and magnesium from about 3,200 gallons of hard water, which the Water Quality Association defines as 10 grains per gallon hardness. The process adds about 750 milligrams of sodium to each gallon of water, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers to be in the "low sodium" range for commercially sold beverages. For people who are concerned about their overall intake of sodium, resins that instead of release potassium into the water do exist, but the potassium chloride salt used to renew the resin every few days is more expensive than ordinary sodium chloride salt.”
So, a water softener simply softens the water by exchanging sodium or potassium for calcium and/or magnesium. It's a straightforward process that has been commercialized over the past 75 years. In some parts of the country, the water is somewhat naturally soft and water softener usage is rare, while in other parts of the county, it is the opposite.
The level of hardness is measured in grains per gallon (gpg) or milligrams per liter (mg/l). Both terms are a measure of weight.
1 gpg = 17.1 mg/l
So, if your water were 276 mg/l it would be 16.14 gpg (276 divided by 17.1 = 16.14). The Water Quality Association or “WQA” (www.wqa.org ) rates water hardness as follows:
Water Hardness Chart
|Term||Grains Per Gallon (GPG)||PPM (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||1210 - 180|
|Very Hard||> 10.5||> 180|
How Do Salt-Free Water Conditioners Work?
However, if you want to understand the science behind salt-free water softeners, the information and science behind them is not so clear. One online seller of salt-free water softeners on their website, say this is how they say their process works:
“The process our salt-free water softener media use water flow to naturally prevent limescale build up. The process takes hard water (calcium and magnesium) and transforms the ions into microscopic nanocrystals. This suspends the particles so that it cannot “stick” or cause scale while the water travels through.”
Another online seller of “salt-free water softeners” is Nuvoh2o. They describe how their process works here:
“First, instead of removing beneficial minerals like old-fashioned salt softeners, the NuvoH2O system binds and isolates the hard mineral ions with a process known as chelation. Once bounded to CitraCharge®, NuvoH2O's binding agent, the mineral cannot form scale.
So, that sounds pretty good, doesn't it? US Water Systems also sells a Salt-Free System called the GreenWave, but we call it a “Salt-Free Water Conditioner” not a “salt-free water softener.” We also explain the science a little more in depth:
The GreenWave 2.0 utilizes Filtersorb SP 3 Media by Watch Water. The Filtersorb SP 3 Media utilizes a process called Nucleation Assisted Crystallization or “NAC” for short. As the hard water passes through a pressure vessel (in the upflow configuration) the calcium bicarbonate or Ca (HCO3, is transformed into the aragonite form of calcium carbonate CaCO3 crystals. These crystals are formed through decomposition and crystallization process, forming very stable harmless crystals.
The following equation describes the reaction that occurs inside the pressure vessel when flow over grains of nucleation.
Ca(HCO3)2 → CaCO3 + CO2 + H2O
Most companies do not tell you how much Anti-Scale Media is inside their tanks. However, if you check, you will find out that it is generally about half of what we use. Ours is engineered to be long lasting and more efficient, typically lasting 4-6 years.
TAC & NAC Systems
Insofar as I can tell, the US Water Systems Green Wave, Pelican Water's Natursoft, Aquasana's Salt-Free Water Conditioner, Filtersmart, Smartwell, nextScale Stop, Spring well Water, Watts One Flow, Lifesource, and several others all use the TAC or NAC technology. This is time-proven technology that does not soften the water but does provide protection from hard water scaling.
Citric Acid Systems
The second type of salt-free system is the introduction of citric acid into the water stream, which is what NuvoH2O offers. We have used this technology and it is highly effective at preventing scale. We have utilized in streamers and several other food service applications. My problem with this technology is that it lowers the pH of the water, which could potentially create corrosion. I believe they prevent that problem by only injecting a small amount into the water supply. However, that makes it less effective in preventing scale.
We do not believe it is a viable option for home usage and we have chronicled many people who have tried it… only to be disappointed. Having a product work in “test conditions” versus “real life” conditions are two entirely different things. Franky, we would sell this technology if we were convinced that it worked. We know it works in steamers and the like, but the flow rate is low, and the steamers are generally stainless steel, so they can withstand the acidic pH. You don't want that in your home water treatment system.
Polyphosphate or orthophosphate systems effectively "seal" the plumbing and appliance surfaces so that calcium and magnesium (often called limescale) cannot stick. Limescale is formed when cold water is heated in a water heater, boiler, or tea kettle.
In heating water, such as in a water heater, calcium carbonate precipitates and forms limescale. We recommend installing our Limeblaster on the line to the water heater as the limescale generally does not form inside cold water pipes. About half the water used in a home is hot water. While it is completely acceptable to install it on the entire home water supply, some people do not like the idea of adding a chemical to the drinking water, even though it is a "food grade" product and is safe for human consumption according to the WHO and FDA recommendations. It meets all FDA requirements for being "food grade. Still, we use the Limeblaster just on the line feeding the hot water heater.
When installed in tandem with the GreenWave, the combination of the Limeblaster offers the most protection possible for all the plumbing in your home and protection for the water heater.
Note: It should be noted that hard water scale in a water heater insulates the heat from the water and inhibits the transfer of heat to the water. This dramatically increases fuel costs by 30% to 40% while cutting down the life expectancy of the water heater in the process. This is especially true with the new tankless water heaters.
Why Do We Call Our System a Conditioner, Not a Softener?
The short answer is that it is not a softener, so we call it what it actually is: a salt free water conditioner. Words are powerful. Words have started wars, caused murders and divorce, alienated siblings, and have tricked people into buying something they believe will soften the water, when in fact, it does no such thing!
Compared to a few years ago, only a few companies are now calling their product a salt-free water softener. In the past two years, these companies have stopped calling their products “salt free water softeners” because they really do not soften the water.
Why is that? Well, I would like to think that I have had a hand in this as I have blogged about this very deception for over ten years, but I think that the big blow to the bogus salt-free softener claims was delivered by the Water Quality Association (www.WQA.org ) when they decreed that any member who claimed that their product was a salt-free softener, but did not, in-fact soften the water, would be removed as a member… literally booted out!
The WQA, according to their website is devoted to providing water treatment solutions to end-users in an honest and ethical manner:
“WQA primarily represents the sector of the water treatment industry devoted to treating water on the homeowner's or business-owner's property. We often refer to this aspect of treatment as the Final Barrier that prevents waterborne contaminants from entering a home or business. Whether your water arrives from a community treatment plant, municipal well or other source, WQA's member companies are committed to making that water safe and aesthetically pleasing for those who consume or use it.
WQA does not provide testing services directly to consumers, does not sell any products, and does not solicit door-to-door or over the telephone. Its members, who offer critical water technology products and services for households, businesses and industry, do not engage in scare tactics and follow a strict Code of Ethics. If you have any questions about whether someone is a WQA member or is working on behalf of WQA, please reach out at email@example.com.”
As I mentioned, a couple of years ago, WQA took a stand against deceptive and unethical claims, such as claiming to sell a water softener, which, in fact, does not soften the water. Occasionally, some people ask: “What's the big deal?” Here's the big deal: If you asked me for a facial tissue and I gave you a Kleenex or a Puffs, you would be getting what you asked for. But what if I handed you a paper towel? While it might work to some degree, a paper towel is not a facial tissue.
If I asked for a quart of milk, would you give me almond milk or soy milk? I think we all understand that milk is from a cow, but some people prefer almond or soy milk which is why almond, and soy are part of the name. The words clearly communicate what it is. Words matter!
A conditioner “conditions” the water but does not “soften” the water while a softener conditions and softens. The accepted meaning of the term “water softener” is a device that removes the hardness to below 1 grain per gallon (gpg). Let's consider some definitions of water softener or soft water:
- Wikipedia: "Water softening 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 lime softening or ion-exchange resins."
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Water softening, the process of removing the dissolved calcium and magnesium salts that cause hardness in water.
- Oxford Language Dictionary - A device or substance that softens hard water by removing certain minerals.
- McMillian Dictionary - A substance or piece of equipment used for removing unwanted (not wanted) minerals from the water.
A salt-free water softener only exists in the minds of unscrupulous marketers who want to deceive you into buying one.
Water Softeners vs Salt-Free Conditioners
As mentioned earlier, it was in 2007 when US Water Systems released our 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 ... and whether the water is soft or not is scientifically provable."
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 its 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 that softens the water without salt. This is simply not true.
Salt-free "conditioners" are a much larger category because they do not soften the water by using ion-exchange. The hardness minerals exist in crystallized form, but they are still present in the water. This means that loads of laundry will still be drab and dull and of course, your bathroom will still have to deal with soap scum stains. The only way to eliminate these headaches to soften the water.
This is why the name “salt-free water softener” is not only false, but also deceptive. Salt-free water conditioners do provide protection against scale, but they are not to be associated with all the benefits afforded by water softening.
Where To Use A Salt-Free Conditioner
Don't misunderstand, there are many benefits to salt-free water conditioners, but they are just not the same as a salt-based water softener and some people are OK with that. Some people do not like the “slick feeling” of soft water in the shower or bath. Personally, I love it, but it is not for everyone. That part is subjective, but the savings part is a fact.
Benefits of Salt-Free Conditioning
- Removes the existing scale in plumbing
- Prevents scale INSIDE the plumbing
- Very easy to install
- Provide the best quality healthy water without the addition of Sodium or Phosphates
- Carbon Neutral
- Eco - Friendly
- The perfect water softener alternative for people who do not like the slippery feel of soft water.
Pretreatment For Tankless Water Heaters
Tankless water heaters are gaining popularity all over the country for several reasons, but the top two reasons undoubtedly are (1) saving money on energy; and (2) never running out of hot water. Limescale is formed when cold water is heated in a water heater. In the process of heating water, calcium carbonate precipitates, and forms limescale.
As I mentioned earlier, many of our customers choose to install the GreenWave to the entire house and then put the Limeblaster on just the line to the water heater as the limescale does not form inside cold-water pipes.
One of the features of a TAC or NAC water conditioner is its ability to remove preexisting scale from pipes. The CaCO3 crystals formed by the NAC or TAC media are able to slowly dissolve away the existing scale as they move through the pipes of your home. Doing this slowly ensures that the dissolved scale does not block off plumbing and prevents clogging.
Where Water Softeners Are Banned
If you live in certain parts of California, Michigan, Connecticut, Texas, or Massachusetts, you might live in a part of the state that has strict water softener regulation or has outright banned the use of water softeners. If you live in a state that experiences frequent droughts, then water conservation may be a key factor in the water treatment system you use. Water softeners produce wastewater, so the use of a water conditioner may suit your needs perfectly. Salt-free water conditioners produce ZERO wastewater and are usually carbon-neutral and eco-friendly.
But if you are looking for a salt-free water softener, I can save you the trouble - There are none! Several companies have complied with the Water Quality Association Code of Ethics and have discontinued this type of false and deceptive use of words and advertising. I applaud them! This is a partial list (I am sorry if I left anyone out):
- Aquasana - They call theirs a “salt-free water conditioner”
- Apec Futura - They call it a “salt-free anti-scale water conditioner”
- Pelican Water - They call it a “water softener alternative using salt-free technology”
However, there still are several companies who persist in calling their product a salt-free water softener. (I apologize if I missed anyone)
Do We Sell Salt-Free Systems?
We get lots of calls every day asking us about this. In short, yes we also have two salt-free systems, called the GreenWave and the Limeblaster. However, we clearly state what each system is capable of. These systems do not soften the water, rather, they condition it, but most of the benefits that you get with softened water are not benefits you will get with a salt-free system.
Things like spot-free glasses and dishes, whiter, brighter, and softer clothes, and reduced soap usage are not the benefits you receive with salt-free systems. The main benefit is the reduction of scale. We also have a full line of salt-free systems that uses no energy and waste no water while removing dramatic amounts of contaminants, called The Disruptor Filter System.
So the question is, why do these companies persist in calling these "salt-free water softeners?" Let me attempt to answer this. The "baby boomers" are getting up in years and don't like carrying salt, and it has become in vogue to ban softeners in some areas. This is America - the land of opportunity and marketers see an opportunity to sell a salt-free softener, but if they called it a conditioner, would it be as easy to sell? I doubt it! In my opinion, the use of the word softener instead of conditioner is an attempt to deceive the consumer. At the very least, it confuses them. Earlier, I mentioned that these companies are "Marketing Companies." Do they have any Certified Water Specialists on staff? Well, the only way they can be certified is by the WQA and if they engage n these practices, the WQA terminates their membership, so the answer is NO.
US Water System is first, foremost and always, a Water Treatment Company - we have nearly 5,000 products because no one product is the solution to everything. If it filters, we call it a filter. If it produces ozone, we call it an Ozonator. If it softens, we call it a softener and if it conditions, we call it a conditioner. We don't call a squirrel an elephant. We call them what they are. We are not a marketing company - we are a full-service water treatment company with many Certified Water Specialists on staff. The fact is, a salt-free conditioner may or may not be right for you, but we can help you decide. However, a salt-free softener is never right for you... because it simply doesn't exist!
Mark Timmons, aka/The Water Doctor, is a Certified Master Water Specialist with 50 years of water treatment industry experience. He is the Founder, President and co-owner of US Water Systems, Inc. located in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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Now that you've learned a thing or two about salt-free water conditioners, which do you think is better a water conditioner or a water softener? Comment below and let us know what other types of water treatment you'd like to learn about.