Soft water systems come in a lot of different shapes and sizes, and operate through a variety of technologies. Some use sodium or potassium in an ion exchange process that strips the hard water minerals out of your water. Others leave the minerals in place, but prevent them from forming scale on your pipes by treating the water with electronic pulses, magnets, or various filter media.
However, one thing all soft water systems have in common is that they are designed to solve the problems caused by hard water.
The Problem: Hard Water
If you think you have hard water, you’re probably right. Over 85% percent of the United States is in a “hard water zone.” That means the water in these areas contains high levels of calcium, magnesium or other minerals. These minerals aren’t in rain water – if you’ve ever enjoyed the feeling of summer rain, you know the water is soft. However, rain seeps into the ground, where it picks up these extra minerals and becomes the hard water that eventually makes its way into your home.
If you have hard water, you may have noticed soap scum, spots on your dishes, or scaling on your faucets. But even if you haven’t found any of these telltale signs, hard water could still be affecting your home. Hard water minerals gradually form scale inside your plumbing, lowering water pressure and potentially raising utility bills. Scaling can also happen inside appliances like dishwashers and washing machines, which puts extra stress on them and reduces their lifespan.
You can confirm whether you have hard water with a test, either through a do-it-yourself kit or through a professional service. If you do have hard water, a water softener is a necessity. The only question is, what type do you need?
Salt-Based Water Softeners
For very hard water, you should get salt-based ion exchange water softener. These water softeners work by filtering the water through resin beads packed with sodium. The sodium swaps places with hard water ions, making the water soft (and a bit salty to taste). Every so often – at a rate depending on how you set your water softener – you have to regenerate the resin beads. That’s why conventional water softeners have a large tank that must be stocked with water softener salt.
This type of water softener has been around for a long time, which is why most experts recommend it for really hard water. The downside is that dealing with water softener salt is a real hassle. These types of water softeners also produce waste water that is bad for the environment. The large amount of waste water they produce each year taxes sewage treatment plants. For this reason, some cities and even states have banned the use of conventional, salt-using water softeners.
Salt-Free Water Softeners
The term salt-free water softener encompasses a lot of different water treatment methods, some of which are frankly of dubious value. The term salt-free (or saltless) water softener itself is controversial, as these systems don’t technically soften the water. Because they don’t strip out hard water minerals, the water still registers the same on a water hardness test after the system has been installed. Therefore, some people argue that the use of the word softener is misleading.
Salt-free systems don’t have as much of a track record, which is why people with serious hard water problems are advised to steer clear of them. Still, because of the advantages they offer over traditional softeners, plenty of people still choose to buy them. And of course, in areas where conventional water softeners are banned, a salt-free option is the only choice.
Finding the Right Soft Water System
Deciding between salt-using and salt-free systems is matter of assessing your needs and values. If you have very hard water, you should consider a conventional salt-based system. Otherwise, a salt-free system offers many advantages, provided you’re willing to accept the risk of adopting a (relatively) new technology.
Regardless of which type of soft water system you choose, you should look for a reputable brand with a good warranty and, ideally, unbiased third-party testimonials. For salt-free systems, one good place to start is our saltless water softener reviews page.