Compare Salt Water Softeners and Salt-free Water Softeners Before You Buy
If your water contains high concentrations of calcium, magnesium and other “hard” minerals, you can be sure it’s leaving rigid, crusty deposits called scale on the inside of your pipes and appliances. If left untreated, this scale will eventually:
- Clog your pipes and reduce water pressure
- Reduce the life of your dishwasher, hot water tank and washing machine
In addition, hard water decreases cleaning efficiency because it lessens soap lather, forms scum, and leaves noticeable rings in bathtubs, showers, and sinks. It also requires the use of additional cleaning agents and chemical water softening products.
Salt Water Softeners
Water treatment specifically for “softer,” water has existed for more than 100 years. The first water softener, unveiled in 1903, introduced the concept of ion exchange, which involves replacing hard-water minerals with sodium ions. Still widely used today, ion exchange or salt water softeners operate by binding negatively charged sodium, potassium or hydrogen resin to positively charged metal ions, drawing the hard minerals out of the water. Salt water softeners still remain the most affordable means to treat all the water in your home.
To continue optimal performance, salt water systems require regular regeneration with brine (salt). The frequency of regeneration largely depends on how many people use the water in your home and how hard your water is. Regeneration can be conveniently scheduled by meter, timer, and manual start.
Salt-free Water Softeners or Descalers
Over the years, other water treatment options have been developed, including a number of so called salt-free systems. These systems sound appealing because they claim to:
- Eliminate the need for salt
- Save you money
- Minimize concerns you may have about the sodium levels in your water
Electromagnetic and catalytic water softeners are two common types of salt-free systems, with catalytic being the more recent design. However, neither one actually removes hard-water minerals from your water. The catalytic type, in theory, uses a process known as epitaxial crystallization to change calcium from a form that deposits scale (calcite) to a form that does not (aragonite). With electronic or magnetic systems, water’s calcium and magnesium ions are purportedly altered by passing through a magnetic field. Manufacturers of these types of water treatment systems offer anecdotal evidence of their effectiveness; however, traditional water tests cannot support their claims.
Stephen Lower, Ph.D., a retired professor of physical chemistry from Canada’s Simon Fraser University, notes that neither magnetic nor catalytic salt-free systems have been proven to work scientifically.
“There is a fairly extensive scientific literature on [epitaxial crystallization], mostly relating to self-assembling structures that have nothing to do with water treatment. With regard to water treatment, theory and practice seem to widely depart; I am not aware of any reports in the reputable literature that this scheme has been shown to be effective in preventing scale formation.”
Lower further explains that catalytic systems only work when water is supersaturated in calcium or magnesium, reducing the mineral content to simply the saturation level. They cannot prevent scale deposits on surfaces at higher temperatures or eliminate scum and evaporation rings.
Importance of Water Testing
In order to make an informed decision about which type of system is best for your home, it’s important to get your water tested to determine its hardness – or levels of calcium, magnesium and other substances. Clearwater Systems offers a free water analysis. This information will help you determine the most efficient and reasonable way to protect your pipes and appliances from scale formation and provide all the benefits of soft water.