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There are two main categories that water softeners fall into – salt based and salt free systems. Each has its pros and cons, and which you choose depends on your specific requirements and situation.
Here’s a breakdown of how they stack up against each other.
Salt Based Water Softener
Salt based softeners work using a process known as ion exchange. This process completely removes the hardness minerals, like calcium and magnesium, out of the water, softening it in the process. When the hard water enters the water softener, it flows through a resin bed where the ion exchange process begins. The hardness minerals are taken out of the water and replaced with sodium ions. When the resin bed becomes depleted of sodium, a regeneration cycle (a.k.a. recharge cycle) is initiated to clean the resin and replenish it.
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Salt based water softeners are the most effective and popular method of treating hard water, but they do require a commitment to maintenance and ongoing costs. Here’s a look at the pros and cons.
- Salt based water softeners completely remove the hardness minerals out of the water, making the water perfectly soft.
- As there are no minerals in the water, lime and scale can’t buildup and create deposits on your faucets, tiles and bathtubs. This makes cleaning easier.
- You may notice a significant difference in your skin and hair, with less dryness and more vibrancy and life.
- Laundry will look less faded and worn out, with colors lasting longer and looking more vivid.
- Appliances that work with water, like washing machines, steam irons, dishwashers and water heaters, will last longer and prove to be more energy efficient.
- There will be no white residue at the bottom of kettles, coffee makers and humidifiers. This residue occurs when minerals settle in containers that hold water.
- Water will have a slicker texture and soaps and detergents will lather up perfectly when used. You also won’t have any soap curds or residue in your hair or the bathroom.
- Salt based softeners require ongoing maintenance because of the way it works. You’ll have to make sure that the system is clean and working as required, with weekly regeneration cycles to clean the resin bed and replenish it. While these cycles are mainly automatic, once programmed into the control valve, you’ll still have to ensure that everything is on track.
- This process uses up a lot of salt which is an ongoing cost for the life of the unit. It’s important to choose the right type of salt for your system and this can be expensive and heavy to handle. These systems also use up a lot of water and energy to maintain.
- Salt based softeners are generally larger than their salt free counterparts and can take up a fair amount of space. Additionally, depending on their size, they can be very heavy to deal with.
- The purchase price of salt based softeners are generally higher than salt free systems.
- The brine tank can become encrusted with salt, and will require cleaning to ensure that the system is working effectively.
- Many people dislike the taste of softened water, due to the sodium/potassium chloride. This can result in reduced water consumption. Some people add a bypass water line for hard water to flow into the kitchen for drinking and cooking.
Salt Free Water Softener
This brings us to salt free water softeners. The trouble with salt free softeners is that they don’t work exactly like softeners should. They treat the water, but they only solve half the problem.
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There are several types of salt free water softeners, but most typically work by turning the hardness minerals into crystals, to prevent them from sticking together and building deposits. While this stops the issue of mineral buildup, it doesn’t take the minerals out of the water. You won’t have clogged pipes and buildup around faucets, tiles and in appliances, but you’ll still have to deal with the minerals in your water. These aren’t a comprehensive solution for water hardness but are great as descalers or to simply condition the water. Here are the pros and cons.
- Salt free systems are smaller and more compact, making them ideal for smaller apartments and spaces.
- They are much easier to install than salt based systems which typically require the services of a professional. With some models, all you have to do is to attach some wires onto your pipes and mount the device onto the wall.
- They don’t demineralize the water, as salt based systems do. This allows you to still have the beneficial nutrients in the water, without the annoying mineral build up that comes with it.
- These systems keep pipes and appliances from mineral buildup by changing the structure of the hardness minerals. As such, the minerals simply flow out of the fixtures instead of sticking together.
- Salt free systems don’t add anything into the water, like potassium or sodium salts. The water is free of any unnecessary chemicals or additives. Because of this, the taste and feel of the water isn’t changed.
- They’re very easy to maintain and require hardly any active maintenance or ongoing costs. This, of course, depends on the exact type of salt free softener you choose. Some may have filters which may require replacing, but the systems that work with electro-magnetic waves require no maintenance.
- These systems are cheaper to purchase compared to salt based systems.
- Salt free systems aren’t a comprehensive water softening solution. You’ll still see and feel the negative effects of the hard water, on your hair and skin, cutlery and glassware, the laundry and so on. Because of this, many people consider these systems to be water conditioners or descalers, rather than water softeners.
- Salt based water softeners outperform salt free systems every time.
Salt Free vs. Salt Based
If you quickly scan the list of pros and cons above, you’ll see that salt based systems have more cons compared to salt free systems. At a glance, it would seem that opting for a salt free softener is the better choice.
However, the most important point to note is that salt based systems, regardless of their higher maintenance and cost, are the most effective way to treat hard water comprehensively.
The main thing to consider when choosing between the two is your specific requirements.
Choose a salt free water softener (descaler) if:
- You want to avoid chemical additives in your water
- You don’t want to demineralize the water
- You want a smaller, compact unit
- You don’t want to invest too much in the system
- You want minimal maintenance
- You’re mainly worried about mineral buildup and clogging pipes
Choose a salt based water softener if:
- You want a comprehensive treatment for water hardness
- You are willing to commit to ongoing costs and maintenance
- You have the budget for a higher initial outlay as well a professional plumbing services, if necessary
- You don’t mind the taste of softened water
- You like the slick, clean feeling of softened water