The Hard Truth About Salt-Free Water Softeners

For about the last ten years salt-free water softeners have become the dream of many marketing companies.   It’s not like they haven’t always been out there – I’ve been in the water treatment business for 42 years and I have seen plenty of these types of companies come and go – but they are now here en mass.

I have often wondered why it seems that there are so many of these companies that have popped up lately.  It seems to me that it started with Easy Water, who at one time called their system a saltfree softener but later had the conscience to change the name to a salt free conditioner.  However, today if you Google Salt Free Softeners, you will come up with the following:

There are also many other companies selling what are purported to be “salt-free water softeners” but these are the ones that consumers ask us about the most.  To be clear, the problem I have with these companies that they call their products “Salt-Free Water Softeners” when the definition of “Soft Water” is this:

  • Hard water is water that has high mineral content (in contrast with “soft water”). – Wikipedia

  • Water that does not contain high levels of dissolved solids such as minerals that make it hard to lather. Soft water lathers easily. – Black’s Law Dictionary

  • Water containing little or no dissolved salts of calcium or magnesium, especially water containing less than about 85 parts per million of calcium carbonate.  – Your Dictionary

  • Water that is free of magnesium or calcium salts. – Engineering Dictionary

  • Water that is not hard (does not contain salts that interfere with the formation of lather with soap).  – Webster’s Dictionary

  • Water lacking those ions, such as Mg2+ and Ca2+, that form insoluble salts with fatty acids, so that ordinary soap will lather easily in it. – MediLexicon 

  • Softened water is “any water which has been processed in some manner to reduce the total hardness to 17.1 milligrams per liter (mg/L) or parts per million (ppm) (1.0 grain per gallon) or less expressed as calcium carbonate equivalent.” – Water Quality Association

So, it is widely established by multiple sources that “soft water” is water that is low on dissolved minerals.  Yet, none of the above-mentioned companies remove the minerals.  Let’s read what they say about the minerals:

  • Pelican –  “Leaves in beneficial minerals”
  • Aquasana – “prevents minerals from binding and forming scale”
  • EvoClear – “Hard water (calcium and magnesium) is transformed into microscopic nano crystals that are suspended in the process.  When the calcium and magnesium become suspended, the hard water is unable to form scale or lime scale deposits while it travels through your home.”
  • Futura –   “When water comes into contact with the catalytic surface of the media, hard water agents calcium (CaCO3) and magnesium become attached to the ceramic granules and are instantly converted into a scale resistant crystalline form.”
  • NuvoH2O – “Our CitraCharge formula stops the mineral ions from causing hard water problems by making the typically troublesome minerals stay apart in the water, so instead of attaching to the metal in the pipes the water passes through. Since they’re bound, those minerals also freely wash away from your body, hair, dishes, pipes, fixtures, and appliances.

It is surprising to me that they call it softened water but then admit they don’t take out the calcium and magnesium?  How can it be softened water when the minerals are not removed?  Some companies call it “Naturally softened water” which is pure unadulterated sales hyperbole which has no basis in fact.  Naturally softened water falls from the sky and is called RAIN!  Try a soap test with any of them and compare it to soft water – you will see the suds form and stay in soft water but not in the salt-free systems.

We get dozens of calls everyday asking us about this.  We also have a salt-free system, called the LimeBlaster,  but we call it a conditioner, not a softener because it does not soften water.  It does condition it, but most of the benefits that you get with softened water are not benefits you will get with a salt-free system.  Things like spot-free glasses and dishes, whiter, brighter and softer clothes, and reduced soap usage are not benefits you receive with salt-free systems.  The main benefit is the reduction of scale.  W also have a full line of salt-free system that use no energy and waster no water while removing dramatic amounts of contaminants, called Pulsar Water Systems.

So the question is, why do these companies persist in calling these “salt-free water softeners?”  Let me attempt to answer this.  The “baby boomers” are getting up in years and don’t like carrying salt, and it has become en vogue to ban softeners in some areas.  This is America – the land of opportunity and marketers see an opportunity to sell a salt-free softener, but if they called it a conditioner, would it be as easy to sell?  I doubt it!  In my opinion, the use of the word softener instead of conditioner is an attempt to deceive the consumer.  At the very least, it confuses them.

Earlier, I mentioned that these companies are “Marketing Companies.”  Do they have any Certified Water Specialists on staff?  Usually not.  Their focus is on salt-free systems.  Whatever you problem, a salt-free softener is your solution.  On the other hand, US Water System is a Water Treatment Company – we have nearly 10,000 products because no one product is the solution to everything.  If it filters, we call it a filter.  If it produces ozone, we call it an ozonator.  If it softens, we call it a softener and if it conditions, we call it a conditioner.  We don’t call a squirrel an elephant.  We call them what they are.

We are not a marketing company – we are a full service water treatment company with a dozen Certified Water Specialists on staff, the least of whom has at least seven years experience.  We have sales and tech support seven days a week and we are all about finding the right solution for your water, whether it be salt-free or not.  The fact is, a salt-free conditioner may or may not be right for you, but we can help you decide.  However, a salt-free softener is never right for you… because it doesn’t exist!

Personally, I think it’s time for the US Justice Department and State Attorneys General to investigate these claims and put a stop to them if they are deemed deceptive!  I had someone ask me last week “What company are you so worried about?”  I’m not worried about any company in particular.  I am worried about the consumers being mislead!


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This article has 150 Comments

  1. Mark
    I have been researching systems till I am ready to slit my throat. So many inconsistencies on the web.
    I live in Temecula, ca Our water is 184 mg per liter / 10.7 per gallon.
    The water flow in our house (10 years old) is terrible. I am ready to replace the hot water heater and all of the shower valves. Before I do I know I need a system. We have a 5 bed/5 bath house but only 3 people live in it. I want a slightly oversized system just so I have some peace of mind. Can you suggest a system?
    Also…will your system do anything for the buildup that ghas already occurred? Is there anything I can do to repair the current buildup other than replace everything?

  2. Hi Mark:

    I live in San Jose, CA. The water report in my area says it has 63 ppm Calcium and 57 ppm Magnesium. I currently have a RO system under the sink for drinking water. I had a Culligan salt water softener but it broke down 5 years ago. Can you recommend a whole house saltless water conditioner system for me? Also do I need professional installation for the system? I already have a drainage line built in where the water softener was placed. thank you in advance.

  3. I have a softener system & my boys love it. However, the salt is destroying my skin & hair. I don’t know what to do at this point. If I am in the city & wash my hair, it’s amazing. As soon as I go home & have to wash it at my own home, it’s horrible. We have a water person that comes out every month and he’s tested the levels, all is good. Do you have any suggestions?

  4. Elaborate more about your problems.

    How is salt destroying your skin and hair?

    By the way, it’s not salt that is in the water. It’s sodium bicarbonate. There’s a big difference…

  5. Hello Mark,

    I am researching this stuff because my wife told me to. Probably like every other guy. I had her discuss what she really wants and it turns out to easier and cheaper (maybe) than I thought it would be. I talked to her about soft vs hard water because our water lathers just fine. It turns out that she hates the taste of our town water and will settle for an under sink unit that can fix the taste of the water out of the kitchen sink. Of course, that could mean something for both hot and cold lines.
    What kind of unit do you think will do this for us? We moved from a property that had a very deep well for household use, the water was terrific. Our current neighborhood will not allow anyone to put in a well for this type of use. Only shallow wells for watering the lawn.
    Thanks for any help you can give me.

  6. Would there be any benefit to adding a chelating conditioner on your cold distribution if you already have a softener on your hot, or would the calcium and magnesium fall out of solution and cause scale when the two mix?

  7. I am building a house in Troy, Missouri. The house will be on well water. What type of a water filtration system and water softening system would work best.

  8. We are building a house outside Portland Oregon in the farm area.
    We will be using a Septic. The water tastes wonderful but leaves a scale that
    can be chiseled. I am not looking forward to chisel cleaning. Any ideas?

  9. I live in IL and we get municipal treated water from Lake Michigan, looks like the water in my home is around 7 grains/125 ppm hardness, TSD is around 201 PPM

    Im looking at getting a conditioner system VS a salt based system for my older home built in 1969, all copper piping. I dont really have any major issues so far (knock on wood) except some light spotting on glass wear but want to be proactive to keep my copper piping and appliances clean as a new home owner. Any suggestions would be great! I noticed the limeblaster but looks like I cant just use this as a stand alone system correct? thanks again!

  10. Hello Mark, I am Master Plumber of 35 years. The last 10 years I have been installing tankless water heaters, I am a certified Navien service specialist. Navien accepts up to 10 grains hardness without equipment but require a annual acid cleaning of the exchanger. They now will allow up to 75 Grains of hardness if you install their peak flow anti scale filter before the unit, this unit is not a phosphate injector. The unit specs can be viewed here What is in it and how does it work/ Navien will honor their 15 year exchanger warranty with this installed on water up to 75 gpg. Navien is not some fly by night manufacturer, obviously this thing works or they wouldn’t sell it.

  11. This is not a new product. I know exactly what is in that cartridge. It is made by Watts and called nextScaleStop TAC Media. We sold it at one time and the results were not very good. There is no scientific way to prove it works!

    You said “obviously this thing works or they wouldn’t sell it.” I have seen scale PACKED inside a tankless and tank water heater on this media many times. Obviously, you believe it, so all I can say is “watch and learn.”

    I would be glad to go into more detail if needed.

  12. I am on a tight budget. I would like a saltless softener or conditioner which ever is best. I don’t want to be spending a lot of money on filters. I did have a water softener that used said a few years ago. Got tired of carrying bags of salt down the stairs .What is best, I do have city hard water. Thank you.

  13. We are primarily concerned about mineral build up on pipes, water heater, appliances, etc.
    Will a salt less water filtering system like following address this”LimeBlaster”, “Aquasna”, “Pelican”, etc.
    Unfortunately, we prefer not to install a salt waters oftener.

  14. A saltless system utilizing the right technology can prevent scale build up. Not all are created equal. We used to use the technology Pelican and Aquasana now use, and were not satisfied with the results. The Limeblaster is less expensive and works WAY better!

  15. Maybe they call it a softener because it’s easier for consumers to understand. Just like an aerobic water treatment system is often called an “aerobic septic tank.” Because most consumers don’t care to split hairs, as long as the end result is what they are looking for. I would be in this group. You can call it Lucy, or Daisy, or a whatsit. As long as it keeps my pipes from clogging up, who cares?

  16. We are on a well with the following analysis. Probably, a worst case scenario. HAH. Older Culligan water softener that’s now inoperable.
    Results in mg/L
    Ca – 111; Iron – 1.50; Sulfate – 117; Mg – 45.9; Na – 14.6; K – 1.57; F – 0.32; Cl – 6.74; NO3/N – <0.07; Al – 34; As – 1.70; Be – <0.55; Ba – 139; B – 138; Cr – <5.8; Cu – 0.91; Mn – 46; Ni – 21; Zn – 7.3; Alkalinity CaCO3 – 385 (7.70 meq/L); Silica – 22; Hardness (as CaCO3) – 466; Total Dissolved Solids – 558.

  17. While your water may seem awful, as problem water specialists, it is easy for us to fix. There are several ways to do this. I will have one of our water specialists reach out to you after I consult with them.

  18. An aerobic water treatment system in not an aerobic septic tank, but under your reasoning, it’s OK to call it that? People that do are ignorant of what it really does, but I can see them making that mistake. However, what if a septic tank manufacturer called their septic tank an aerobic septic tank? That would be deceptive. Would you like to use paper towels as toilet paper? A paper towel is closer to toilet paper than a water softener is to a salt free conditioner. A conditioner can keep pipes from plugging up, but a softener cuts soap usage by 50%, makes clothes whiter and brighter and eliminates spotting on dishes. A conditioner does none of that. Thank you for making my case with the aerobic septic tank. I appreciate it!

  19. Mark, we are planning on installing a whole-house water filter and a water softener, what is the ideal sequence-of-devices? Here’s my best guess:
    1-water flows through a “pre-filter”
    2-water flows through a water softener
    3-water flows through a whole-house water filter (sediment + carbon)
    4-water flows to hot and cold house lines and throughout house

    Thanks for taking the time to read my question. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  20. Hi Mark,

    Thank you for this informative article. I came across this product from Cascadian. The product claims to solve all the usual problems that come from hard water (we’re also looking to remove or reduce the sulfur smell from our water which is why we’re looking at this combo system).

    Any thoughts you could share would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

  21. It says it is a saltless water softener. If it softens the water I will buy it for you. That is simply untrue.

    It might remove sulfur smell for a few days. My opinion? Run!

  22. ANSWER:

    Sorry for the delay – I have been on vacation. Depending upon your water analysis, I would likely put the sediment and carbon ahead of the softener.

    We would just need to know more about what is in your water – well or city?

  23. If you don’t have soft water, you use a lot more soaps, chemicals and cleaners. That is hard on a septic tank. The new softeners are extremely salt efficient and use very little water and it is very likley that soft water actually helps a septic tank.

  24. Mark let me say that you are a godsend. Over the years I have contemplated soft water systems and did ample research though never installed one for various reasons. My only concern is scale buildup and the environment/conservation. I want to install a tankless water heater or a couple point of use water heaters. Water hardness as you know is an issue for this equipment. I live in San Diego, California and the water report states a hardness of about 16 GPG for 2018. After stumbling onto your blog I’m convinced I will use the Limeblaster. However I’m not sure what size to purchase and how often to change the filter. I plan to harvest rain and possibly use grey water for watering plants which reduces my daily water use to about 50 gallons per day for 1.5 people. Any landscape irrigation using city supplied water would be upstream of the Limeblaster. So I can’t imagine ever exceeding the 12 GPM flow rate of the smaller unit even would I add a Granny Flat on my property. However my main water line will need to be upsized from 3/4″ to 1 1/4″ to accommodate the number of fixture units as stated in the code. So should I get the higher flow rate unit. Also the filter life is about 100,000 gallons but at what GPG? With 16 GPG at even 100 gallons per day I would only have 36,500 gallons flow through the Limeblaster. How long would the filter last at this rate?

  25. Hi,
    I have 2 water problems. I live in South Florida and our water is hard. I would like to soften the water to prevent scale build up and have cleaner clothes and feel clean when I take a shower, not like I have dust on my face…..
    Problem no. 2
    We have a condo in Canada. Water is hard. We hardly harvest room to install a salt tank. The water is HARD, please help us save money while taking care of our problems in an efficient manner. You seem like the only company who seems genuinely interested in properly informing people and guiding them to something that will work.

  26. Mark,
    My 3 bedroom 2 bath house is on a septic tank, and I need to do something about the hard water. Looking into a traditional salt softener, I have read that the backwash of brine into the septic tank will damage the septic system. What can I use to treat the water without damaging my septic tank?
    (The house is connected to city water and not a well.)

  27. Hi Mark, I recently moved into a new house which has an existing Culligan Medallist Series water softener controller and tank, but it does not have a salt tank of any kind. The water flows from the well pump through the Medallist tank, then through a UV lamp. There is half a bag of “Fine Calcite Neutralizer” media I was told to use to top off the tank when I change the UV lamp each year. What is this system doing for my water?

  28. We are primarily concerned about mineral build up on pipes, water heater, appliances, etc.
    We live in Las Vegas and Colorado River water is full of minerals. We have been disappointed with the hassles of water softeners, including hauling salt. You say the Limeblaster does not require professional installation. How is it installed and does it condition both hot and cold water?

  29. Hi Mark,
    I recently moved to a house with a well that has a softener system. The color in my hair fades within 2 weeks. To combat color loss, I shampoo less frequently but this isn’t helping. The sodium levels in our softened water tested at 190 mg/L. I’m wondering if the sodium is the reason for the loss of color. Do you know if switching to potassium chloride might help? Everything on the web says how great softened water is for your hair. No one talks about the effects of sodium chloride on color. I suspect it is because everyone who is writing articles wants to sell you a softener. Thanks!

  30. It always puzzles me why everyone is so quick to blame sodium for something when there could be any number of contaminants that would cause that. It is extremely doubtful it is sodium. My wife colors her hair (don’t tell anyone), and it lasts for 8-10 weeks.

    If you are on city water, it could be chlorine or chloramine or other contaminants.

    Potassium will not help. Tell me more about your water.

  31. The Limeblaster will indeed stop and prevent mineral buildup on pipes, the water heater and appliances.

    It is installed on the main water line and treats all the water in the house.

    Simple in and out!

  32. Hi Mark-
    Thank you for this opportunity. We have a small 3 bedroom 2 bath home, and last year installed both a high end water filtration (carbon based) and water softener system, along with an RO unit under our sink (our daughter was diagnosed with a skin disease and we felt the city water may have contributed to the problem due to a toxic plume in our ground water supply….that’s w hole other post though!)
    With our water softening system, we used sodium chloride the first 6 months and could noticeably taste the salt in th water. We switched to potassium and it’s been a bit better, but when I fill the container full with the potassium rocks, we immediately get the salty taste back. I noticed when the container is only about 1/3 full of potassium rocks that we don’t get a bad taste. I’m thinking about keeping the container only 1/3 full. What do you think? We must get rid of that salty taste!

  33. I have a home where the water is hard (11 grains) and want to put in a salt free water softener because I live in the country and have a septic system. I am looking at the Pelican and Rainbolt water softener. What is your opinion on these systems?

  34. First of all, not only does water softener brine not hurt a septic tank, but it can also improve the performance of the septic tank… just to be clear!

    OK, here’s the deal I will make with you: If the Pelican or the Rainbolt soften the water, I will pay for it. How’s that? See, they are not telling the truth if they say they will soften the water. Our tests show that you could wrap a cardboard box around the pipe and do as well in softening the water as either of those products.

    No way, no how do they soften the water. When someone says that they have a salt-free water softener, but it does not actually soften the water, well they lose all credibility with me. I don’t know many people who like to be lied to, but that is what they are doing. You asked – I answered! This is really a pet peeve of mine. These guys give our whole industry a black eye.

  35. If you are drinking RO water, you should not get any taste of sodium or potassium. I would only drink RO water. Do not “starve” your water softener. Keep salt in it. However full the tank is has no effect on taste. If it were me, I would not use potassium, but I would drink RO water.

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