Two glasses of water purified with a water softener

Hard water can wreak havoc in your home. It causes build-up on your plumbing fixtures, your dishes, and even your hair and skin. What makes water hard is the concentration of minerals like calcium and magnesium that build up in household water supplies. Luckily a water softener can help solve these problems and even save you money in the process.


When you need a solution for your hard water issues, there are two main options on the market: salt-based and salt-free water softeners. These systems are frequently marketed as the same, but they are different. And there are significant pros and cons that homeowners need to consider before deciding which one to use. Both salt-based and salt-free water softeners help negate those minerals’ effects, but they do it in different ways.


Together, let’s look at the difference between water softening systems and determine which one is right for you.



How Salt-Based Water Softeners Function

Salt-based water softeners are a more traditional system. They work by actually removing the excess minerals from your water. This process is called ‘ion exchange.’ Essentially this exchanges the hard minerals for salt, using a tank filled with resin beads that trap the hard minerals. When the tank is full the system enters a brining process to flush out the minerals with saltwater.


The resin beads are high quality and should last the life of your water softener. The salt, however, does need to be replenished regularly. Experts recommend salt pellets which are thankfully an affordable option. Contrary to popular belief, the amount of salt added to the water is small and has no adverse effects on drinking water.



Should You Buy a Salt-Based Water Softener?

Salt-based water softeners are incredibly effective at providing soft water (i.e., drinkable water), even when you have exceptionally hard water. With a salt-based water softener in your home, you’ll notice that limescale buildup is a thing of the past. Clothes fresh from the laundry will feel lighter and cleaner. Your hair will even feel softer and look shinier!


That lack of buildup means longer-lasting and more reliable appliances, as well as fewer repairs and plumbing maintenance. Filtration systems with salt-based water softeners require semi-regular care to keep them functioning correctly. You’ll need to refill the salt regularly. The amount of salt you need and how often you replenish it all depends on the system’s size and manufacturer.


Tip: You should choose your water softener size based on the number of people in your family and your water usage.



How Salt-Free Water Softeners Function

Unlike salt-based softeners that actually remove minerals in hard water, salt-free softeners merely crystallize them. The process uses potassium instead of sodium to chemically transform hard minerals into crystals. The catch is, it’s not really softening the water; it’s just conditioning it through a process called template-assisted crystallization or TAC. The crystallized minerals don’t build up on your plumbing or stick to any surfaces the way that hard water does, but it’s still hard water at the end of the day.



Should You Buy a Salt-Free or a Salt-Based Water Softener?

Technically, there is no such thing as a saltless water softener. They are merely water conditioning devices that do not use salt. The minerals are not entirely removed, as they would be in a salt-based environment, but instead restructured.


When you use a saltless water conditioning system, you can see some changes, but many of the hard water issues still exist because the hard minerals are still there. For example, you might still end up with a soapy film on your dishes since hard water makes it more difficult for soap to rinse. The same goes for your laundry.


Many people opt for a salt-free system because it is less costly up-front and is relatively simple to install— provided you have the proper equipment. This form of the device also needs less maintenance because the cleaning cycle does not require energy, and no water is lost when the minerals get removed from the resin bed.


Despite the money-saving benefits, a salt-free softener is not as effective as its salt-based counterpart. Not to mention, it doesn’t work as well when it is exposed to toxins like lead and chlorine. If you choose this system, performing a water test beforehand is a must.



Which One is the Best for Your Home?

On the surface, a salt-free water softener might seem like the best choice. It appears less expensive and equally as effective as a salt-based softener. In actuality, while a saltless softener helps with some hard water issues, it doesn’t actually soften the water.


Salt-free water softeners typically end up needing unexpected maintenance because they don’t reduce scale buildup in the system itself, which can cause long-term issues. A traditional salt-based water softener may be more costly upfront but is more effective in the long run. It provides the benefits you’re looking for when you have hard water with only a little regular maintenance (refilling the salt).


Ultimately, only you can decide which type of water softener is best for you and your home. You’ll need to look at how hard your water is and your main priorities in terms of water softness. To an extent, your system should be customized for your family and your specific water. For example, a family of four with water with calcium will probably use a different system than a family couple who don’t have minerals or metals in their water.



The Science of Water

Choosing a water softener doesn’t have to be stressful. All you need to do is take stock of your needs and priorities regarding water softness and select the model that best suits your home. We hope this explanation of salt-based and salt-free water softeners helps in your decision-making process.


While water softeners help with hard water concerns, they don’t remedy the smell, taste, or bacteria in your water. For that, you’ll need a water filtration system. That’s where The Science of Water comes in. We provide and install Puronics treatment systems for top-class water filtration.  We serve homes and offices alike, providing you with the clearest, contaminant-free, and best-tasting water you’ve ever experienced. But first, we need to perform a water test to learn what water issues we need to treat.


To request a free water test or learn more about our services, contact our team at (352) 745-7070 or (904) 580-0000.