Dear Angie: Do salt-free water softeners work better than the salt type water softeners? Would you recommend a salt-free water softener? — P.T. Portales, N.M.
Answer: Angie's List focuses on services rather than products, but we reached out to some highly rated service professionals to get their take on the different types of water softeners on the market.
As you might expect, there are advantages and disadvantages to both types of systems. I'll outline our findings and rely on you to make the right choice for your home, but I'd also recommend you talk with a local company that has good reputation and experience with water quality in New Mexico, where you live, which has known hard water issues in several areas.
First, salt-free systems are not true water softeners. These systems are often called "water conditioners" or "descalers." Salt-free systems can help reduce the buildup of limescale, the chalky substance you see in dried hard water spots, as well as other chemicals. The systems work by altering the chemical structure of water minerals through the descaling process, which prevents solids from depositing in pipes and water-using fixtures.
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Water softener salt removes minerals such as calcium and magnesium — which cause hard water — through a process called ionic exchange and replaces them with soft minerals potassium and sodium.
One concern with salt-free systems is they're not as effective in places where water sits, like in your water heater. Those areas still can get a buildup of scale. Some nice things about salt-free systems are that they don't waste water the way water softeners do. They cost less to operate and don't require much maintenance.
Conditioned water also doesn't have the "slippery" feel you get from a water softener, which can be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on your preference. The operation of water conditioners also can be affected by the types of contaminates you have in your water, which can vary by region. Some salt-free conditioners work really well and others don't live up to their claims, so it's important to do your research if you're considering one.
The advantage of water softeners is they can extend the life of your water-using appliances, your plumbing and even your clothes. One study showed that water heaters using hard water lost half their efficiency over a 15-year lifetime, whereas those using softened water retained their original efficiency rating. Showerheads using hard water lost 75 percent of their flow rate in less than 18 months, while those on softened water maintained a full flow.
With a water softener, you also don't need to use as much soap when doing dishes, laundry or bathing, as you do if you have hard water. Water softeners have become more efficient and some use up to 75 percent less salt.
Before you buy a water conditioner or softener, do your due diligence and investigate the product and company supplying it. Avoid companies that try unsolicited to sell you a system or use high-pressure sales tactics. Be sure to deal with a reputable company that offers a money-back guarantee. Look for a company with installers certified by the Water Quality Association.