Salt-free water softeners use Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC) to condition water. Therefore, salt-free water softeners are more accurately referred to as salt-free water conditioners. This is because a salt-free water softener does not work without salt, and therefore it is actually not alt-free.

You can’t convert hard water into soft water unless you use the ion-exchange process to remove magnesium and calcium from the whole house water supply and exchange them for sodium. So the salt-free water softener is a salt-free water conditioner.

This article aims to dig deeper into this salt-free system, an alternative to the salt-based water softener, how it works, its comparison to the water softener, its application, and finally, its advantages and disadvantages.

What Are Salt-Free Water Softeners?

Salt-free water softeners or salt-free water conditioners are water treatment systems that act on water hardness minerals (magnesium and calcium) by crystallizing them. When calcium and magnesium have been crystallized, they are impeded from dissolving in the water and sticking to pipes, appliances, and certain surfaces. This can prevent scale formation in the whole house.

Salt-free water conditioners, unlike salt-based water softeners, do not eliminate minerals such as calcium and magnesium from water. Instead, they make them unable to stick to surfaces by changing their physical composition, making the hard water harmless.

When it comes to the salt-based water softener, it carries out water softening primarily by the ion-exchange process. As mentioned earlier, it exchanges the magnesium and calcium minerals for sodium, producing soft water in the process. The media bed is charged with sodium ions.

Salt-free water softeners do not actually “soften” water. Instead, they produce saltless water safe for use in the home because it has been conditioned to inhibit scale build.

This water filter is the go-to system for those who desire a salt-free system. It’s the solution for those who want to curb the issue of scales forming in the home and, at the same time, get salt-free water.

How Does a Salt-Free Water Softener Work?

Template-assisted crystallization is the conditioning process used by a salt-free water conditioner on hard water minerals. The salt-free water softener contains a TAC media bed through which the water flows.

The TAC media bed consists of miniature beads made of polymer encased in craters referred to as nucleation sites. These craters are responsible for creating the template for the minerals to form crystals in the water.

When hard water moves through the TAC media, the polymer beads draw magnesium and calcium. As the quantity of magnesium and calcium increases, they begin to form small crystals. Once magnesium and calcium have crystallized to a specific size, they are released by the media bed back into the water.

These crystals are harmless to your pipes, and they are also consistent, meaning their form won’t change as the water goes through your home’s plumbing system. So there’s no chance of these minerals going rogue on your pipes and forming scales in the house once they’ve been conditioned.

Why Is this Water Treatment Important?

The primary function of these water systems is to produce water that doesn’t leave scales. Scale is a serious household issue. It wrecks the pipes in the home, and it is also harmful on surfaces and your water-using appliances. In addition, they make your appliances and pipes prematurely eligible for replacement or repairs.

They also wreak more havoc with hot water appliances. Again, this is because scales form quicker as the temperature of the water rises.

They can reduce water pressure and the flow rate of your home’s water supply. In extreme cases, they can stop the flow of water to your home.

Salt-based Softener vs. Salt-Free Conditioner

The salt-free water conditioner inhibits the formation of scales in your plumbing and home. However, they don’t come with many of the advantages you would have enjoyed from salt-based water softeners.

The video below explains the differences in more detail. Let’s have a look:

Now that you have a basic understanding of the differences, let’s dive a bit further into the  details:

The Prevalence of Hard Water Elements

Salt-based water softeners get rid of magnesium and calcium by flushing them out of the water, whereas the salt-free water softener leaves them in the water in a harmless state. So when it comes to the prevalence of hardness elements in salt-based water softeners vs. salt-free water conditioners, it all comes down to what you want.

The Mineral Content of Water for Drinking

You can opt for the water conditioner if you still want your drinking water to contain calcium and magnesium and if you’re trying to reduce your daily intake of sodium. The water softener is for those who want soft water and are not bothered about their daily sodium intake.

The Processes they Use

The conditioner uses a TAC, while the water softener uses a resin bed to initiate the ion exchange. As a result, they both inhibit scale buildup in the home.

Tackling Other Hard Water Issues

When it comes to other things caused by hard water, the water conditioner is deficient in this regard. When you use hard water for a bath, it dries out the skin and hair and makes your skin and hair itchy. They ruin laundry by discoloring your clothes and make them feel coarse on the skin.

They also leave spots in your kitchenware. Also, when combined with soap, they form soap scum which is an eyesore in your home, and it’s very hard to remove from surfaces.

While the water softener can tackle these issues by converting hard water to soft water, the water conditioner does not. Instead, it’s limited to the prevention of scales. In this regard, it’s inferior in the salt-based system vs. salt-free system comparison.


After some time, the water softener carries out a regeneration process by using a strong concentration of salt in its salt tank to recharge the sodium ions in the media bed and flush out water hardness elements. However, the water conditioner doesn’t carry out the regeneration process.

Where Can You Use the Water Conditioner?

Where the Water Heaters are Without Tanks

Because scale forms faster in heated water, the water conditioner is usually installed to pretreat the water or remove any scale-forming elements prevalent in hard water.

Using a tankless water heater will only result in an eventual decline in the appliance’s efficiency, and ultimately, the device will be due for repair or replacement. In addition, the cost of descaling a water heater is pretty high because scales develop on the heating element itself.

The hotter the water gets, the more scales are formed because they are heated before the water. Other water descalers, such as the phosphate filter, don’t perform well in water of higher temperatures because the heat of the water triggers the phosphate to split. This leads to scaling buildup.

Where Scales Already Exist

Conditioners are not just good at preventing scale buildup but also handling the issue of already formed scales in your home’s plumbing system. This is because the crystallization of calcium and magnesium affects the already existing scales.

As the crystals flow through with the water in your pipes, they scrape off the existing scales in the process. As a result, they can tackle years of accumulated scale buildup in your pipes.

Areas the Softeners are Prohibited

The conditioner is the perfect alternative to areas that have a ban on using the water softener. The northern part of Los Angeles and Santa Clarita are such areas known for this.

The ban was placed due to the high salt level contained in the wastewater from the regeneration process. The wastewater is hard to desalinate and recycle for further use due to the high salt content.

Just like the reverse osmosis system, the softener is not environment-friendly.

Merits of the Water Conditioner

Easy to Maintain

Conditioners are very easy to maintain. They usually come with one tank/cartridge, which makes them very easy to install. In addition, they don’t require any connection to drains because they don’t regenerate periodically like the softeners.

They don’t need storage tanks and valves to regulate the flow of regeneration cycles. They also don’t need a stack of potassium or salt.

Water conditioners don’t lessen the flow of water into your home. Even more, they don’t need electricity to function (which means a lesser electricity bill). Lastly, they don’t require the services of a plumber.

They are Environment-Friendly

Since there’s no regeneration process, that means there’s no large quantity of water and salt to release in the form of wastewater. They also don’t release huge amounts of chloride into the city’s waste stream, which can be tasking for their treatment plants. It saves water since all the water that comes through the conditioner enters your home’s plumbing system.

Demerits of the Water Conditioner

Not Effective on Well Water

This is simply because well water contains significant levels of manganese and iron, and the conditioner is helpless against these elements. The iron will coat the media bed and impair the nucleation sites so it can’t form crystals.

It Doesn’t Soften Water.

The conditioner “conditions” water so that it doesn’t leave scales, but it doesn’t produce soft water. This means that aside from the buildup of scales, you will still suffer the other effects of hard water, such as discolored laundry, spotted kitchenware, and soap scum. One can’t soften hard water without sodium.

Note: Salt-free softeners, as a name, can be deceptive. It’s important to note that You can only soften water with the use of salt or potassium.

About the Author

Diana Masson

Diana works as a saleswoman in a hardware store. She knows the smallest differences between the various water filter brands and knows exactly what her customers want. Diana is a mother of 3 children and has been a homeowner for 2 years. Her family can rely on having the purest drinking water because she had a water filter installed herself last summer. Which one? Ask her yourself :)

View All Articles