A salt-free water softener does not work in terms of softening hard water with the ion exchange process. It works by using Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC) to condition water. Therefore, a no-salt water softener is more accurately referred to as a salt-free water conditioner or descaler.
This is because a water softener does not work without salt. 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.
In this article, we will explain how a salt-free water softener can work without using salt, how it compares to a salt-based softener, its application, and finally, its advantages and disadvantages.
Salt-Free Water Softener: How Does It Work?
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.
A salt-free water softener, unlike salt-based water softeners, does not work by eliminating minerals such as calcium and magnesium from water. Instead, it makes them unable to stick to surfaces by changing their physical composition, making the hard water harmless.
The salt-based water softener 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.
Saltless 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.
Template-assisted crystallization is the conditioning process used by a saltless water softener 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.
Hard Water Treatment
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 to 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 Softener
The no salt water softener inhibits the formation of scales in your plumbing and home. However, they don’t come with many of the advantages you would get from salt-based water softeners.
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 making 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.
When to Use a Salt-free Water Softener
Water Heaters 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.
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.
Where Softeners Are Banned
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.
Pros and Cons of Salt-free Water Softeners
Easy to Maintain
No salt water softeners 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 and 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).
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.
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.
Do Not 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.