Salt Or No Salt: Choosing A Water Softener

There are two types of water softeners: ones that use salt and ones that don’t.

But which type is better and more effective? And how many sacks of salt will you have to drag around if you opt for the salty one? Sinky Drinky has the scoop.

First, the salt-based softeners

You spilled a bit of salt, mate.

You spilled a bit of salt, mate.

Salt-based systems work by replacing minerals like calcium and magnesium with sodium.

When the salt comes into contact with hard water, the sodium molecules jump over and shove the hard minerals into their previous place. It’s a simple process known as ion exchange.

Does that mean your water will taste like you’re swigging the Pacific? No. Is it unhealthy? Generally, no, but this will depend on the level of water softness you are looking for and the amount of salt that is required.

In most cases, the amount of salt is miniscule.

For example, in an Environmental Protection Agency survey, the majority of water systems tested had less than 50 mg of sodium per liter. As such, 250ml (about an 8-ounce glass) of water would contain less than 12.5 mg of sodium. If you don’t have your electronic scales, that’s really really insignificant.

A salt based water softener is often favored over salt-free alternatives because it is considered more effective. They literally “soften” your water, leaving it feeling slippery soft and more sudsy, making bath time more bubbly and your skin feeling cleaner and less dry.

However, that’s not to say there are no downsides to salt based water softeners.

In addition to requiring salt top ups, traditional water softeners often need extra love and attention. They normally have more bits-and-bobs than their salt-free counterparts, and as such there is more equipment that could malfunction. Filter screens can get clogged up, the motor could stop working etc.

The salt-free variety

If I was salt I'd feel discriminated.

If I was salt I’d feel discriminated.

On the other hand, you can also find completely salt-free water softeners, or “conditioners” as some call them. Put simply, these systems do not remove hard minerals, they simply neutralises them, slowing down scale buildup.

Rather than  swapping hard minerals with sodium, a salt-free system changes the form of the minerals to stop them from clinging to the insides of your pipes, shower heads,  dishwashers and washing machines.

While there are many different types, they generally work by changing the structure of limescale from a long, threadlike crystalline structure to tiny, smooth, pebble-like crystals that can flow through most household pipes and appliances without getting caught up. This effect lasts for up to 3 hours after water passes through the conditioner.

The main selling point of these systems is that the systems themselves cost less, there’s less water wastage and they’re low maintenance. That means you don’t have to jump off your couch and race down to Tesco or Walmart whenever your sodium chloride is on the low side. Some of them do require filters to be replaced every now and again, but its less of a hassle than having to keep an eye on your salt supply.

The downside of this system is that it does not actually reduce the amount of hard minerals in your water. At Sinky Drinky we measured the amount of dissolved hard water minerals in the water, before and after installing a salt-free system, and the results were completely the same.

As a result, your water may still feel “hard”. Some actually prefer this as they dislike the slicker, oily feeling of water softened with salt.

You might consider salt free technology if your sole aim is to reduce the buildup of scale and want a cheaper low-maintenance option. However, salt based systems will outperform salt-free for overall water softening.