Today we’ll explore how salt-free water softeners work, how they differ from traditional water softeners, and if they could be right for your home.
Let’s quickly refresh ourselves on what hard water is and how it effects us. Then look at what traditional water softener do and their pros and cons. Finally, we’ll look at options for salt-free water softeners, how they work, and when they are less effective.
What is hard water?
Hard water is just water that contains minerals, specifically calcium, and magnesium. Water hardness is a measure of the calcium in the water and falls on a scale of 0 to over 180 mg/L or ppm (milligrams per liter or parts per million). Soft water has less than 60 mg/L of calcium. Moderately hard water has between 60 and 120 mg/L of calcium. Very hard water has 120 or more mg/L of calcium. Most drinking water in the United States is at least moderately hard.
- Your body can absorb some trace minerals during consumption
- Minerals in your water also make it taste good
- The biggest problem is scale build-up caused by hard water
- It can leave residue on your skin and hair
- It leaves deposits on your mirrors, dishes, faucets, and in sinks
- It makes soaps and detergents less sudsy and less effective.
- The bigger issue, however, is that it can build up inside pipes and lead to decreased water pressure
- Scale can also accumulate in your water heater thereby decreasing its efficiency
How a traditional water softener works
Traditional water softeners remove the calcium and magnesium minerals, which are positively charged ions, by a process called ion exchange. They use sodium or potassium, which are also positively charged ions, to replace calcium and magnesium. Sodium and potassium are more soluble than calcium and magnesium and so they do not form a residue on your clothes and skin or form scale buildup on your appliances.
- Less scale buildup in pipes and on appliances
- Less spotting on dishes and glass
- More effective use of soaps and detergents for cleaning
- Less residue left on skin and hair
- Many people enjoy the slippery feel of softened water on their skin
- They aren’t good for water conservation – Some communities in the southwestern US, such as Santa Clarita Valley in California, have banned traditional ion-exchange water softeners because of this. Concentrated brine that is discharged during regeneration leads to poor-quality wastewater making reclamation difficult.
- They require regular maintenance and salt replacement to keep them running efficiently
- Finally, they can add a small amount of sodium to your drinking water, which may be a concern for those on a low-sodium diet.
Types of salt-free water conditioners
There are 2 main types of salt-free water conditioners. They are alternatives to water softeners, but they do not actually soften water because they do not remove the hard minerals. Instead, they change them physically so that they produce less scale. They are more accurately described as water conditioners or descalers. Do not expect a salt-free water conditioner to make the water feel the same as a traditional water softener. It will not have the same slippery feel on your skin and it will have minimal effect on the amount of detergent and soap you need for cleaning. Also, these systems can remove scale build-up inside your plumbing over time, which is a big benefit. You may need to clean your aerators more frequently for the first few months.
Depending on the current condition of your pipes, you may significantly improve your water flow.
TAC and NAC
Template-Assisted Crystallization and Nucleation-Assisted Crystallization work in similar ways to convert the dissolved hard minerals into microscopic crystals. These crystals have less ability to cling to surfaces and form scale.
- Work well in hot water tanks and tankless water heaters
- Dissolve current scale build-up in pipes over time
- Reduce the ability of hard minerals to form scale on your faucets and appliances
- Not effective in water with iron and manganese, such as well water
- Media needs to be replaced, but only about every 3 years
- Significantly more expensive initial cost than a traditional water softener
Electromagnetic water conditioners use an electromagnetic frequency that temporarily disrupts the mineral ions and prevents them from clumping together and building on surface areas such as the inside of your pipes and inside your water heater. Hard minerals remain in the water but form less scale build-up and softer scale build-up, so it is easier to clean.
- They require no maintenance after installation
- They will break down the scale that has already built up inside your pipes and water heater
- Easy installation that you can do yourself
- It works on all plumbing types
- The disruption they cause in the minerals is temporary – According to ISpring, their electronic descaler, the ED200, lasts about 50 feet before the calcium minerals can start clumping again, so larger homes may need a second unit.
- Water with high iron content, such as well water, reduces the effectiveness of electromagnetic devices and may require an iron filter to be fitted before the descaler is installed.
- They do use electricity and therefore need to be installed near an outlet.
- Depending on the condition of your plumbing, it may take a few months for you to get the full benefit.
- A salt-free water conditioner may be a good option for you if
- You are concerned about the environment
- You want to reduce the amount of scale in your pipes and around your home
- You are less concerned about the feel of the water
- You don’t have iron or manganese in your water (as may be found in well water)
Salt-free water conditioners allow you to keep the benefits of minerals in your drinking water, but have less scale build-up to clean around your home. Though the initial price is higher than traditional water softeners, the time and cost for maintenance are significantly less. If you are used to using a traditional water softener, do not expect the same feel on your skin or in your hair. You may still see some scale on your fixtures, but it should be less and it should be easier to remove.
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