If you've ever searched on the Internet for a water softener, you've seen all the sites and probably have a lot of questions. Does the salt free softener work ? Will my water be salty with a traditional water softener ? What about magnetic water softeners ? There are a lot of different technologies out there with just as many claims on how each one of them work. Hopefully this blog can answer your questions and help you make up your mind on what to buy and most importantly, which will work best for your household.
Salt Free or "no salt" softeners
These have become extremely popular in the last 2-3 years. They don't use salt. No electricity and no regeneration is necessary--seem great so far huh ? I am not going to get into the chemistry of this technology, but these no salt units work by taking the hardness in the water (calcium, magnesium) and converting them into harmless nano crystals that do not build up in your pipes or water using appliances. The water flow through these units is in an upflow pattern, opposite of the way a traditional water softener works. When the water flows up through the media in the tank, the media expands with the water flow and then works it's magic. But herein lies the problem. When there is not a high enough flow of water through these no salt units, they do not work well. For example...It's 9:30 at night. Dinner is done, everyone has showered and the dishwasher has to be ran before bedtime. You go over and turn on the dishwasher and proceed to go watch some TV before bed. The dishwasher is the only thing using water in the house right now and when a dishwasher fills, it's only at about .75 to 1.0 gallons per minute. This is NOT enough flow through a no salt softener to properly lift the media and make it work. It's the expansion of the media through higher water flow that makes it work. This has been the biggest complaint with these no salt softeners, spotty dishes. If you have a flow restricter in the shower head (most of them come factory installed at 1.5 gallons per minute) and are the only one in the house taking a shower, that is barely enough flow to make the bed expand and work properly--causing spots in the shower. Due to this flow problem with the no salt, sizing is extremely important. A typical no salt with a 8" x 35" tall tank can handle 8-10 gallons per minute. This is plenty for just about 90 % of most households. Bigger is not better with a no salt system, unless you have very high flow rates. When you test your water hardness through a no salt softener it will test the same coming out as it did coming in. The water will not feel soft either, as with a traditional salt using softener. Also keep in mind that these systems do not like chlorine, and the chlorine can break down the resin beads. Your water must be clean and iron free--no salt softeners will not work on water containing any more that 0.3 ppm of iron and can plug up prematurely if you have any sediment in the water. Most of them come with a prefilter to install ahead of the unit to keep the sediment out, but the iron will pass right through any filter. Use your best judgement here before buying. I've had a salt softener in my home for 25+ years and would never switch to a no salt softener. But that's only my opinion.
Traditional Salt using Water Softeners
I think the two biggest fallacies about traditional salt softeners are that they put to much sodium in the water and the water feels slimy or slippery. Let's explain the slippery thing. When you have a salt using softener, the calcium and magnesium in the water is "replaced" with sodium, therefore there is nothing to react with the soap in the water and the soap rinses away completely--leaving a slippery feeling because the soap is not depositing on your skin, hair or clothes. The sticky feeling is because the soap is NOT being washed away completely.
Now for the sodium content in the water. It's true. If you have a salt using water softener you will have sodium in the water, that's how they work, by the process of ion exchange. When the calcium and magnesium go through the tank of resin in a downflow manner, the calcium and magnesium are attracted to the resin beads and sodium is put back into the water in its place--ion exchange in a nutshell. How much sodium depends on how much hardness you have in the water. The higher the hardness, the higher exchange of sodium takes place. The amount of sodium added is dependent upon the hardness of the water being softened. For example, if the water hardness is 20 grains per gallon, the softener will add 150 milligrams of sodium to each quart of water. 150 milligrams of sodium is equal to eating one slice of white bread. Consider that a normal sized hot dog can contain between 300 - 750 milligrams of sodium. Most people don't drink water from the tap anyway. Simply install a reverse osmosis system and it will remove 90-98% of the sodium from your water. You can avoid having sodium in the water at all by using potassium chloride salt instead of the traditional sodium chloride salt. Potassium chloride salt can be expensive though, sometimes more than double the price of regular salt.
So which should you buy ? No salt or traditional salt using water softener ? Consider this. Most salt using softeners should last 10-20 years or longer with proper maintenance. All of the no salt softeners have a media life expectancy of 5 years. And when you have to replace the media and see the cost of it, ($500 - $1000 dollars) you just might wish you had bought a traditional salt using softener. By no means has the jury come back with a verdict on the no salt units, they haven't been on the market long enough to really see life expectancies, but that five year media life expectancy has been put on it by the manufacturer.