Salt vs Salt Free Water Softener – What’s the Difference?

Updated: June 10, 2021 by Zac Harding

Salt vs salt free water softener, which one is the better option for your application.

Having hard water in your home is pretty easy to see. You will notice scale stains around showerheads, faucets, and drains. Hard water can be a headache and in the long term can cost you a lot of money in damaged plumbing. How do you fix this? There are two main solutions for your immediate problem, salt, and salt-free water softeners.

Are they both true water softeners or is one a water softener and the other one a water conditioner? Let’s find out in this detailed discussion.

Main Difference Between Salt vs Salt-Free Water Softeners

The main differences between salt and salt-free water softeners are:

  • A salt-based water softener is a system that uses an ionic exchange process to trap minerals and replace them with sodium ions from the salt, whereas a salt-free water softener transforms calcium ions into crystals.
  • A salt-based system flushes and drains out minerals from your water system, whereas a salt-free system doesn’t completely remove minerals from the water but it changes the chemical structure to stop them from sticking and forming scales along your pipes and fixtures.
  • A salt-based softener will give you truly soft water, whereas a salt-free system doesn’t technically soften water but only conditions it.

When it comes to true water softening that removes hard minerals from your water, salt-based softeners will win that battle. But a salt-free system is a greener alternative to address limescale without changing the taste of your water or creating waste that will ultimately impact the environment, not to mention your overall water consumption..

Salt vs Salt-Free Water Softener: The Top 3 Products of Each Type

Top 3 Salt-Based Water Softeners

1. On The Go Portable Water Softener — Best Overall

On The Go Portable Water Softener

Reduce the concentration of magnesium, calcium, and other elements in hard water with this incredible salt-based system from On The Go.

Key Features

  • Portable design
  • Large-mouth opening
  • Easy carry handle
  • Tool-free hook-up
  • Allows high flow rates

The most impressive feature of this system is the compact, portable design, which saves space and is so easy to install. It is a great option for spas, boats, RVs, and home use.

This model doesn’t need electricity to work and is easy to use. Just add a precise amount of salt to the top for your softener — one full twenty-six-ounce box of non-iodized or iodized salt for the standard model. You can add the salt directly into the system or mix the salt with warm water and pour the solution into the softener.

The softener uses low-pressure drops for high flow rates. You’ve got a shut-off control valve, which does a good job of improving the capacity and water quality.

Pros

  • Portable and space-saving
  • Hose connection doesn’t require any tools
  • Large-mouth opening makes adding salt easy
  • Regenerates in less than fifteen minutes
  • Back-flush adapter allows for reverse connection

Cons

  • May fail to connect to any standard hose
  • Some models may come with faulty threads

Verdict

For quick and easy regeneration, this is a great model from On The Go. Its compact size allows you to take it anywhere.

Overall Rating: 4.7

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2. GE Appliances GXSH40V Water Softener

GE Appliances GXSH40V Water Softener

Are you looking for a heavy-duty softener that will solve all your hard water problems? Look no further than this model from GE.

Key Features

  • Electronic controls
  • 40,000-grain capacity
  • GE salt saver
  • Up to 1.25-inch plumbing connections
  • Custom select blending valve

GE Appliances is the first brand to provide a custom select blending valve for the best performance. This is an impressive feature that allows you to customize your water by simply adjusting the hardness level. The feature is strategically located at the back of the softener for ease of use. All you have to do is turn the knob to your preferred setting.

Unlike conventional models out there, this GE model has plumbing connections of up to 1.25 inches. It also uses up to thirty-four percent less salt, making it very economical.

Pros

  • Has one of the largest grain capacity
  • Saves a lot on salt consumption
  • Compatible with most plumbing connections
  • Easy to customize the regeneration process
  • Ergonomic controls are easy to use

Cons

  • Quality control issues with some models
  • Some parts may break during shipment

Verdict

Now, thanks to a water softener from GE Appliances, your favorite glassware can be sparkling clean all year round.

Overall Rating: 4.4

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3. Watts Water Technologies M7002 Water Softener

Watts Water Technologies M7002 Water Softener

Have you been looking for a compact, portable, and user-friendly softener for your home or RV? The M7002 from Watts Water Technologies is a good choice.

Key Features

  • Compact and portable
  • 10,000-grain capacity
  • Full custom base
  • Custom designed flow valve
  • Inbuilt drain line flow restrictor

The compact and portable design makes this model a great choice for RV owners. It is also extremely easy to reposition and install at home. You’ve got a full cradle base, which is good because it ensures the system is well-secured.

We truly appreciate the custom-designed flow valves, considering that they allow for superior regeneration without the need to connect or disconnect the system. The system’s low-pressure drop allows for high flow rates.

Pros

  • The compact design is easy to carry
  • It works perfectly fine with common salt
  • The flow valve is custom-designed for superior performance
  • The flow restrictor maintains superior pressure
  • Uses about two pounds of salt every month

Cons

  • Some models may come with cracks and leaks
  • The customer service isn’t the most reliable

Verdict

This is a great softener for anyone looking for a compact and portable design. Not to mention that it needs only two pounds of salt every month.

Overall Rating: 4.2

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Top 3 Salt-Free Water Softeners

1. Tier1 Salt-Free Water Softener — Best Overall

Tier1 Salt-Free Water Softener

Do you want a system that provides great-tasting, cleaner water without scale damage? This salt-free water softener from Tier1 can provide a solution.

Key Features

  • Ultraviolet purification
  • Ten-year filter system
  • Salt-free softening
  • Carbon and KDF filtration
  • Easy to install and maintain

This unique system uses carbon and KDF filtration, which is great because they are inorganic materials that are one hundred percent recyclable. They help prolong the life of the system for up to six years. Carbon and KDF do a good job of reducing microorganisms, heavy metals, chlorine, and scale.

We appreciate the ultraviolet filter, considering that it is a chemical-free and powerful way to remove bacteria and viruses from your water.

But the thing is, the installation process is kinda long and tedious and may require you to go through the manual a few times.

Pros

  • Does not flush salt into your drain
  • No electricity or control valve is required
  • No expensive chemical or salt regenerates needed
  • Powerful and chemical-free filtration
  • The design reduces wasteful backwash cycle

Cons

  • Installation is not completely easy
  • Not a great choice for a tight budget

Verdict

This high-performing salt-free water softener is designed and tested for maximum performance for up to ten years.

Overall Rating: 4.7

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2. NuvoH2O Salt-Free Water Softener

NuvoH2O Salt-Free Water Softener

Have you been looking for a water softener that uses revolutionary water softening technology without salt? NuvoH2O Salt-Free Water Softener fits the description.

Key Features

  • Softener cartridge
  • 10-micron carbon filter
  • 100 psi max pressure
  • In-line system
  • Built-in pressure release valve

This is a high-performing no salt water softener. As water runs through the system, it enters the nouveau chamber where it flows across the cartridge. The organic citric charge attaches to particles of scale and lime. It grabs and binds to them, preventing the particles from sticking to faucets, pipes, dishes, or laundry.

The ten-micron carbon filter improves water quality and taste by getting rid of chemicals and sediments.

What we don’t like about this product, however, is the fact that you need to change the filter every six months.

Pros

  • Does not use salt or electricity
  • It leaves behind all the important minerals
  • Ten-micron carbon filter improves water quality and taste
  • The citrus-based system is environmentally friendly
  • Extends the life of your plumbing and fixtures

Cons

  • You may need to change the filter every six months
  • It is a little bit costly

Verdict

Effectively restore the good condition of your plumbing, fixtures, water heater, and appliances with this amazing salt-free water softener.

Overall Rating: 4.3

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3. iSpring ED2000 Salt-Free Water Descaler System

iSpring ED2000 Salt-Free Water Descaler System

This is an innovative, computerized water descaling system that does a good job of removing hard water problems without salt or chemicals.

Key Features

  • Descales hard water
  • No plumbing modifications
  • Compatible with any pipe
  • Reduced energy consumption
  • Maintenance-free

This electronic water descaler does not soften your water. Instead, it uses a computerized chip to release an electromagnetic wave that matches your water molecules’ wave frequency. This causes the water molecules to break down into smaller molecules that have superior bonding capabilities with hard minerals.

The water molecules in the new state pick up and carry the hard mineral ions, reducing the chance that they will adhere to pipes. The system allows scales to break down and the scale deposits will never return.

But the thing is, the iSpring ED2000 doesn’t remove calcium and magnesium from the water.

Pros

  • Completely salt-free water system
  • A convenient option for people on a low-sodium diet
  • It works with any type of pipes
  • Reduces scale buildup in plumbing fixtures
  • No maintenance is necessary

Cons

  • It does not remove calcium and magnesium
  • The water is likely to leave soap scum on the laundry

Verdict

This computerized water conditioner is a must-have option for people who are strictly on a low-sodium diet.

Overall Rating: 4.1

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Salt Free Vs Salt Water Softener: How Do You Know Which One to Get?

Here are the key factors to consider before you buy a water softener:

Technology Behind Salt and Salt-Free Water Softeners

Salt-Based Technology

A salt-based water softener removes hard minerals, iron, and hardness by a process called ion exchange. It achieves this through the use of electrostatically sensitive plastic beads that are popularly referred to as resin. As the hard minerals come into contact with the resin, the minerals are captured and ions of sodium or potassium are released or exchanged. This process leaves the water soft as well as clean. When all the resin beads are saturated with hard minerals, they are regenerated with a brine solution.

Pros

  • You can use potassium or sodium
  • Removes hard minerals like calcium, iron, and magnesium
  • Produces soft, clean, and good-tasting water
  • Reduces scale buildup in plumbing fixtures
  • Makes clothes softer and cleaner

Cons

  • Sodium water softeners may not be ideal for people on a low-sodium diet
  • Some salt-based systems may be costly to maintain

Salt-Free Technology

A no-salt water softening unit uses a special media that works by attracting and converting hard minerals into harmless and inactive crystal particles. These particles stay suspended in the water and pass through your plumbing fixtures instead of sticking to them.

Pros

  • There are no recurring costs of salt
  • Does not waste water through backwashing
  • Salt-free systems are usually space-saving
  • They require less or little maintenance

Cons

  • They don’t get rid of the hard minerals, so the water is not truly soft
  • Replacement filters may be difficult to find

Electronic Water Descaler

Hard water contains dissolved magnesium and calcium ions, which usually form deposits or scale buildups on your plumbing fixtures. Unlike conventional water softening technologies that use ion exchange and template-assisted crystallization, an electronic water descaler induces an electromagnetic field into the water. The electromagnetic field reshapes the properties of magnesium and calcium, allowing them to be dissolved. This prevents the minerals from sticking onto plumbing fixtures.

Pros

  • There is no complicated installation
  • It doesn’t remove healthy minerals from the water
  • Requires little maintenance
  • Prevent scale buildup to improve the durability of pipes
  • Electronic water descalers are fairly cheap compared to other systems

Cons

  • Needs a permanent power supply
  • Doesn’t remove hard minerals from the water
  • The water may leave soap scum on the laundry

Choose the Correct Water Softener Size

To properly size your water softener, you will need to know your daily household water usage by looking at your water bill (for city water) or water meter (for well water). You need an accurate measurement of your water hardness (grains per gallon or GPG). You can determine the water hardness level by using a water kit. You also need to determine the level of iron in your water (parts per million or PPM).

Let’s assume your daily water usage is 200 gallons, water hardness is 20 grains per gallon, and iron level is one parts-per-million. Then you can compute your daily grains of hardness that need to be removed by multiplying the number of gallons per day by the total hardness. For the total hardness, you will need to multiply 5 GPG/PPM by the 1 PPM and then add 20 GPG. So, the daily grains of hardness that need removal will be 200 by 25, which is 5,000 grains per day.

In our example, the water softener will be getting rid of 5,000 grains per day. A softener is normally sized to regenerate once every week. This means you need a system that will remove 5000*7 = 35,000 grains efficiently. Most systems are 65-percent efficient. As far as this example is concerned, you will need a 52,000-grain water softener.

Consider Maintenance Costs

Some salt-free water softeners require regular filter changes to function properly. The cost of replacing a filter can range from twenty to four hundred dollars. Salt-based water softeners, on the other hand, need salt added frequently, which can cost you three hundred to eight hundred dollars per year.

Final Thoughts

Salt-based water softeners have been around forever. What they do is take the minerals out of your water and replace them with potassium or sodium. On the other hand, salt-free water softeners change the chemical structure of the water by crystallizing calcium ions to prevent them from sticking to your pipes and faucets. Regardless of the system you choose, make sure it is the correct size and you can manage the maintenance cost.

The On The Go Portable Water Softener is the overall best salt-based system for reducing the concentration of magnesium, calcium, and other cations in hard water.

Among salt-free systems, Tier1 Salt-Free Water Softener is the best overall and has been tested for maximum performance.

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