What Is the Difference Between a Salt-Based “Softener” and a “Salt-Free” Water Filtration System?


When shopping for home water treatment systems, one thing usually comes up that can often be confusing for the homeowner: how to choose between a system that uses salt and one that is “salt-free” or “no-salt.” The overwhelming amount of information on the internet can make the confusion even worse, as each company tries to promote its own product as the ideal solution – which often leads to some misinformation that makes the decision even more difficult.

So how are these systems really different and just what are they taking out of the water?Well, let’s start by first breaking down the key difference between the two types of systems.

A softener is a system that uses salt in what’s called an “ionic exchange process” that exchanges materials like magnesium carbonate or calcium carbonate for salt ions to clean out the resin (also known as “media”) in the tank. Softener is a play on words: “hard” minerals are exchanged for “soft” minerals like salt or potassium to clean out the tank and start fresh again to completely remove the hard minerals from the water. And yes, you can use either mineral to clean out the system, but with systems like those from H2OToGo, you don’t have to worry about the extra cost of potassium because our systems go through a clean rinse cycle after each regeneration to eliminate the salt. With salt at about $6 for a 40lb bag, and potassium as much as $30 a bag, that is a big savings over time.

A “salt-free” or “no-salt” system uses carbon and other materials (resin/media, carbon, and even filters that require fairly frequent changes) to remove impurities and chlorine, but they do NOT remove hard minerals. Sometimes they are mislabeled as “softeners” but they are not, because only a salt-based system is a softener. A salt-free system is only a conditioner. Many companies will explain that citric acid, magnets, and other materials and gadgets will buffer the hard minerals and “reduce” scale buildup from them. In certain markets where the hardness level is not very high, these may work just fine, although they will still leave spots, stains and a lot of cleanup in their wake (think shower door, dishwasher and refrigerator water/ice dispenser tray.) Worse, if you live in an area with extreme hard water like Las Vegas, you will still see eventual scale buildup, and even run the risk of damaged appliances and water heaters.

So in which markets are salt-based systems a likely better choice? Well, here in Las Vegas, we have water so extremely hard that it doesn’t even register on the standard hardness chart, which is measured by grains per gallon. The EPA’s accepted hardness guideline for water is 0 — 10.5 grains, with 0 being “soft” and 10.5 being “extremely hard.” Las Vegas ranges from approx. 20 — 25 grains, which is triple what the vast majority of water filtration systems are designed to handle. In fact, most manufacturers design systems to treat at 5 — 7 grains of hardness and offer a 10-year limited warranty, neither of which is beneficial for homeowners here in Las Vegas or in communities with hardness that exceed the cutoff of the chart. You’ll want to look for systems that are custom designed to handle extremely hard water like our H2OToGo systems, which are manufactured to our specifications so that you have truly soft water at minimal maintenance and lifetime warranties.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority, in an effort to help homeowners differentiate between these two system types, has weighed in on this topic on their website:

Ion exchange
These systems use sodium (or potassium) ions to coat an exchange medium in the softener. As hard water passes through the unit, the water “trades” its calcium and magnesium for the sodium or potassium.

Water conditioners or “salt-free” water softeners
In the last several years, as concerns have grown over the impact of salt from water softeners on the environment and on our health, there has been an increasing interest in water treatments systems that are labeled as “no-salt” or “saltless” water softeners.

Researchers in the water community are in agreement that this “salt-free” label is a misnomer. By definition, a water softener removes hard minerals (calcium and magnesium: and replaces them with soft minerals (sodium or potassium). Salt-free systems “condition” the water, but do not soften it.

These systems are not recognized by the American Water Works Association, and there remains considerable debate within the scientific community about their effectiveness.

There are other key differences to consider when debating between these two system types:

Most companies selling salt-free conditioners require a main-line install, which is generally much more expensive due to added labor hours and materials. And with these types of systems, as previously mentioned, they require routine and often pricey annual maintenance — and the hard minerals are still coming into the house and causing a mess and damage. This means more cost to homeowners for routine maintenance as well as plumbing, fixture and appliance repairs, which the installer will be thrilled to charge you at a premium to do. They also generally won’t include a reverse osmosis to purify our drinking water and protect your refrigerator. With H2OToGo we install our salt-free system, the ECE, on your loop and never up-charge you for the install. And we are truthful about the quality of the water you should expect, as well as the minimal maintenance on our ECE, which requires only one scheduled maintenance visit from our technicians every 7-8 years, at a fraction of the cost of other units. There are no filters, and our bacteria static KDF-55 resin keeps the carbon fresh twice as long as other brands while removing chlorine, heavy metals like lead, and other contaminants. We even include a reverse osmosis, since no salt-free system is actually *“bottled quality water” in our market, where kidney stones are problematic due to the mineral content at levels above the recommended PPM for the hard minerals.

If the salt-free idea doesn’t appeal to you, we offer not one, but several salt-based systems such as our SSR Seven Stage Refiner, our Custom DB refiner, our Custom 3000 conditioning softener, or our Custom 2000 softener. Please fill out the Contact Page form for more information on these systems and I will be happy to help break it down for you personally.

*Look for more on the “bottled quality water from every faucet” claims in my upcoming blog, as well as a breakdown of the difference in the levels of filtration between our refiners, conditioner and softener.