Learn More: Water Softening and Salt-Free Conditioning
Traditional water softening systems and salt-free water conditioning systems both address the issue of water containing hardness minerals. To choose the best system for your needs, it's important to know how they are similar, and what the differences are between them.
Why use a water softener or water conditioner?
The reduction of hardness in water prevents the scale buildup which can clog plumbing, fixtures, and appliances.
Salt-Based (traditional) softening systems
Water softening reduces hardness by a process called ion exchange. During ion exchange, polymer resin beads release sodium particles in exchange for hardness minerals. As sodium particles are released into the water, hardness minerals are collected on the resin beads.
When the resin beads have reached a saturation point, the cleaning cycle, or regeneration, removes the trapped minerals, flushes them through the system, and discards them down a drain line. Fresh saltwater pulled into the system from the brine tank refreshes the sodium particles so that the system continues to soften.
Salt-Free systems (water conditioning)
Salt-free water softeners, more accurately known as water conditioning systems, move water through a catalytic media using a physical process called Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC). This process converts hardness minerals from their ionic form to a harmless crystalline form.
Essentially, TAC causes hardness minerals to bind tightly together. In this stable crystalized form, calcium and magnesium do not attach to pipes, appliances, and fixture surfaces. The crystals are so small, that they are easily rinsed away by the flow of water. Because salt-free systems don’t collect any materials, there is no need for a regeneration cycle to remove trapped contaminants.
Technically, because of the continued presence of minerals, these systems do not soften the water. This process leaves water “conditioned” rather than softened.
The pros and cons of water softeners
PRO: Because salt-based water softeners significantly diminish hardness minerals, for very high hardness, they outperform salt-free systems. They also prevent scale build-up on fixtures or appliances, so they last longer with fewer repairs and plumbing issues.
CON: This type of system requires significantly more maintenance. There is also the added expense of buying salt, water wasted during regeneration, and the need to replace the resin bed every ten years. Because of environmental concerns of the wastewater, a small but growing number of municipalities do not allow the use of salt-based softeners.
The pros and cons of water conditioners
PRO: Salt-free systems require considerably less maintenance than salt-based softeners, and don’t introduce additional sodium into your water. They are also simpler to install, have minimal maintenance costs, and don’t create wastewater.
CON: These systems are not as effective as salt-based because you still have the elements that cause scale build-up in your water, which means you are still exposed to them. Salt-based systems often show faster results, because filtration starts at the source the minute you begin using it. Salt-free conditioners can take longer for results to show, and are initially more expensive.
Comparison Chart of Traditional vs Salt-Free Systems
|Salt-based Softener||Salt-Free Conditioner|
|More Maintenance||Less Maintenance, Simple Installation|
|Reduces hardness minerals||TAC coats hardness minterals|
|No scaling or scale build-up||Still have elements that cause scale build-up|
|In high hardness situations, outperform salt-free||Not as effective as salt-based systems in high hardness environments|
|Added expenses and maintenance (salt)||More expensive system purchase|
|Water discarded in regeneration cycle||No waste water|
|Use prohibited in some areas||Use allowed in all areas|
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