Whether on well water or city water, many households struggle with hard water—which can cause scaling and clogged water lines. Traditional salt-based water-softening systems are an effective means of removing contaminants but can be costly to purchase and maintain. They’re also not an ideal fit for those who must restrict their daily salt intake.
Salt-free water softeners offer an alternative to salt-based water softeners. These softeners use electromagnetic waves or filters to remove contaminants or reshape them so they no longer pose a threat to plumbing. Saltless water softeners, as the name suggests, don’t require a constant flow of salt, making them easier to maintain and cost-efficient.
In this guide, we explain how saltless water softeners work, give tips on how to decide which water softener is the best one for your home, and offer a list of product options to choose from.
- BEST OVERALL: YARNA Capacitive Electronic Water Descaler System
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: iSpring ED2000 Whole House Water Descaler
- UPGRADE PICK: Aquasana Whole House Water Filter System
- BEST WHOLE HOUSE: AO Smith Whole House Salt Free Water Descaler
- BEST ELECTRIC: Eddy Electronic Water Descaler
Before You Buy a Salt-Free Water Softener
There are significant differences between salt-free and salt-based water systems. A salt-based water softener uses salt as the vehicle for removing impurities that harden water, preventing the scaling these particles can cause on plumbing while making soap sudsier for bathing, washing dishes, and cleaning clothes.
This type of softener must be refilled with salt on a regular basis, roughly 40 to 80 pounds of salt per month, for the softener to work. These softeners also require an electrical connection to power the ionization process that removes impurities from water.
Salt-free water softeners do not use salt or electricity. Unlike salt systems, salt-free systems do not remove particles that cause water to become hard. Instead, they condition the water so these particles cannot build up on faucets and showerheads. While the minerals remain in the water, the conditioning process makes them better for ingesting. For homes with very hard water or more serious issues, such as lead in water, a salt-free system likely isn’t enough to adequately soften the water.
With these factors in mind, the first step before deciding to go with a salt-free water softener is to determine the home’s water quality. This can be conducted with a simple water hardness test kit, which consists of a vial, dropper, and liquid soap.
The test involves filling the vial to a designated line with water, adding drops of soap, and shaking the vial to produce suds. The more drops of soap it takes to produce suds, the harder the water is. Water with 7 to 10.5 grains per gallon is considered moderately hard, while water with more than 10.5 grains per gallon is considered very hard.
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Salt-Free Water Softener
Understanding how the different types of salt-free water softeners work, as well as how much water they can treat on a daily basis, is integral to purchasing the right unit. Below, learn more about the important features of salt-free water softeners.
- Polyphosphates: The use of phosphates to soften water is a practice that dates back nearly 200 years. Instead of removing impurities from the water, this process conditions the water so impurities cannot create scaling on plumbing or faucets using a filtration cartridge. This type of system is used primarily in restaurants and other commercial settings to protect appliances from scaling.
- Electromagnetic and magnet: Similar to other salt-free water softeners, electric magnetic softeners do not remove particles that cause hardness in water but rather conditions them. They soften water by magnetizing the grains, which prevents them from clinging to surfaces and causing scaling. These systems plug into a standard outlet and don’t need to be plumbed into a home, making them an attractive low-maintenance option for softening water. Magnetic models perform the same task but don’t need electricity and require little to no maintenance. However, they are not as powerful and are only suitable for small homes.
- Full filtration: Full filtration systems not only soften water, but they also remove other contaminants in drinking water. This type of salt-free water softener functions by passing the water through a filter that crystallizes minerals, preventing them from sticking to one another and creating the scaling that can damage pipes and appliances. They also remove other contaminants, including herbicides, bacteria, viruses, pesticides, and chlorine. Filters on these water softeners can be pricey and typically last 6 months to 1 year.
Size and Water Usage
Salt-free water softeners come in different sizes to meet the needs of different households. Determining which size a household needs depends on usage and hardness.
The average person uses 75 gallons of water per day. Therefore, determining water usage is as simple as multiplying the number of people in a household by gallons per day. For example, a family of three will use an average of 225 gallons of water per day.
Use water hardness, expressed in grains per gallon, and water usage to determine what size water softener is needed. Multiply the water hardness by the water usage in the home. For example, a home that uses 225 gallons of water per day with a water hardness of 10 grains per gallon requires a water softener with a capacity of 2,250 grains per day.
A salt-free water-conditioning system functions between the main water line that enters a home and all of the water receptacles in a home, treating the water as it flows into the home’s plumbing. Salt-free systems that use filtration can affect the flow of water, potentially slowing it. Electromagnetic water treatment systems aren’t plumbed into a home’s water system, so they don’t affect a home’s flow rate. With that in mind, the water softeners with filtration systems must have a flow rate that meets the demands of the household to prevent drops in water pressure.
The average household, homes with one to three bathrooms, requires a filtration system with a flow rate of between 8 and 12 gallons per minute. Larger households require around 15 gallons per minute.
One of the main advantages of a salt-free water softener is that they’re much easier to install than saltwater softener systems. While the latter typically requires professional installation, a salt-free system is typically an easy DIY job. Electromagnetic salt-free water softeners don’t require any plumbing and typically take about 15 minutes to install. This type of water softener has wires that wrap around the water supply pipe with a power source that sends electromagnetic waves through the wire.
Full filtration systems and whole-house systems are more involved as they need to be attached to the incoming water supply pipe but are still relatively quick and easy to install.
Our Top Picks
These products were filtered down to one list of top picks. Here are the best salt-free options for softening water—these water softeners are effective and easy to install.
An effective design and easy installation process (no plumbing skills required!) make this innovative electronic water descaler from YARNA one of the best options for salt-free water softening. This model features copper bands that wrap around the main water line entering a home.
As the water passes through the wrapped section of pipe, the water softener treats it with electrical impulses that convert particles in the water to crystals. These crystals won’t stick to one another, preventing them from creating the scaling that can build up on pipes and appliances, causing clogs. Installation of their water takes as little as 15 minutes—no tools needed. It does require access to 10 inches of pipe space and will only work with pipes that are a maximum of 1 inch in diameter. This descaler plugs into a standard 115-volt outlet.
- Uses electrical pulses to descale the pipes
- Attaches to exterior of pipes
- Only one unit needed for a house
- Softens while leaving needed calcium and magnesium
- Doesn’t remove toxins or chemicals
- Not a conventional softener
A simple design that requires no maintenance makes this affordable descaler an attractive option for protecting plumbing and appliances from harmful scaling. It works by sending electromagnetic impulses through the water as it passes through a supply pipe, rendering the particles incapable of joining together to create the scaling that can clog pipes, ruin appliances, and damage skin and hair.
This system requires no plumbing. Simply wrap the wires around a section of water line entering the home to create a coil that serves as a conduit for the electromagnetic impulses that treat the water, then plug the unit into a standard 115-volt outlet. This system works with homes with hard water up to 19 grains per gallon.
- Descales pipes using electrical pulses
- Easy to install on exterior of pipes
- Good for under 25 grains of water hardness
- Doesn’t remove toxins or chemicals
- Not as effective as expected
While this water softener is a significant investment, it removes many more impurities than the average solution. It uses carbon and KDF filters to remove calcium, lime, iron, and other minerals that harden water. In addition to softening water, it removes other harmful contaminants such as mercury, chlorine, lead, herbicides, and pesticides, making a home’s water supply softer and healthier.
With a flow rate of 7 to 8 gallons per minute, this water filtration system is well suited to families of four or fewer. It uses two main filters for softening the water to remove contaminants, both of which last about 3 months before needing to be replaced. Installation requires plumbing the system into the main water line that enters the home.
- Removes chlorine and contaminants while softening
- No need to drain or backflush
- Provides better-tasting water
- Doesn’t reduce Total Dissolved Solids
- Requires a lot of space
Buying replacement filters every few months to maintain soft water in a home can be a pain. This whole-house water softener is one of the lowest-maintenance options on the market. It installs easily into existing plumbing and requires no electricity or filter changes. It installs on the main water supply of the house and descales the water through a series of filters as it flows through, preventing buildup on faucet, sinks, showers, and appliances.
This descaler lasts for 600,000 gallons, which equates to about 6 years for a family of four.
- Reduces scale buildup
- Easy-to-install system
- Works for well and city water
- Must be installed in front of main water line
With a design that’s low maintenance yet effective, the electronic water descaler from Eddy is a good solution for those dealing with deposits clogging faucets, pipes, and appliances. This descaler consists of two wires that wrap around the main supply line entering the home. The wires create an electromagnetic field that changes the composition of deposits that cause scaling, rendering them incapable of sticking to one another or surfaces.
Unlike other water-softener types, this descaler won’t affect the flow rate of water into a home. It can treat up to 20 gallons of water per minute, which is above the 15 GPM maximum flow rate of most homes. This descaler works with pipes up to 1.5 inches in diameter. It’s easy to install, with no plumbing required, and plugs into a standard 115-volt outlet.
- Can be installed on plastic or metal pipes
- Descales mineral buildup with electrical current
- Easy to install
- May take several weeks for significant improvement
Salt-free water softeners have proven effective at reducing scale buildup, and the YARNA Electronic Water Descaler is our top choice since it’s powerful, reliable, and effective.
How We Chose the Best Salt-Free Water Softeners
Our recommendations include several options of salt-free water softeners for people who are looking to reduce the scale buildup in their pipes. We narrowed our research to include a range of prices, styles, and installation options. A popular design is the electrical current, which is easier to install and takes up little space. Other conventional water softeners include full filtration systems that also pull out toxins from the water. Both styles are included so shoppers can choose which they prefer.
Our favorite options feature the electrical current method which focuses on targeted descaling measures for most hard-water homes. They are also easy to install and require little to no maintenance. However, many homeowners prefer the 2-for-1 style of removing chemicals and softening water. Those systems require some occasional maintenance that’s easily done by the homeowner.
The Advantages of Using a Salt-Free Water Softener
Salt-free water softeners offer an alternative and many advantages over traditional salt water softeners. Below, learn more about how salt-free water softeners can benefit the water in your home.
- They’re healthier: Unlike traditional water softeners, salt-free water softeners do not use any sodium chloride. This means they won’t add any salt to drinking water. This can be a significant benefit if members of the household must limit their salt intake due to high blood pressure or other health issues.
- They’re low maintenance: Unlike traditional water softeners, which must be refilled with 40 pounds or more of salt each month and periodically cleaned, salt-free water softeners require very little maintenance. While some units have filters that must be replaced every 3 to 6 months, electromagnetic models require little to no maintenance at all.
- They have low operating costs: Since salt water softeners require a steady stream of salt to work and use electricity to create the ionization process that softens water, they have an ongoing cost after the initial investment to purchase the system. Salt-free systems do not use salt or electricity, which helps to save money.
- They protect plumbing and appliances: Like salt-base water softeners, salt-free water softeners remove or alter the impurities in water, eliminating scaling that can clog pipes while optimizing the performance of washing machines, hot water heaters, and dishwashers.
FAQs About Your New Salt-Free Water Softeners
If you still have questions about how salt-free water softeners work or are wondering if your new water softener is working properly, then read on for answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about these appliances.
Q. How does the water softener system work?
How a water softener works varies depending on the type. All water softeners work by treating the water as it enters the home. Some softeners filter out minerals that cause water to be hard, while others reshape these minerals so they cannot accumulate to create scaling on water fixtures.
Q. Do salt-free water softeners remove iron?
Salt-free water softeners remove small amounts of iron from water; however, they’re not equipped to deal with high levels of iron. In these cases, it’s best to go with a traditional water softener.
Q. How do I know my water softener is working?
A water softener should prevent deposits from building up on faucets and in sinks and toilets. It should also take less soap and shampoo to create suds when bathing. For a more scientific approach to determining how effective a water softener is, use a simple water hardness test kit.
Q. How do I clean my salt-free water softener?
Most salt-free water softeners require no cleaning at all. Filter-based water softeners are enclosed and require no cleaning. Simply replace the filter when it expires. Electromagnetic water softeners with coils that fit around pipes are fairly maintenance-free. Occasionally check the unit to make sure dust and dirt are not accumulating around the coils. If so, vacuum away any dirt.
Q. How long will my salt-free water softener last?
This depends on the type of salt-free water softener. An electromagnetic water softener can last up to 40 years or more, while an enclosed filter-based water softener may last up to 6 years before needing replacement.
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Tony Carrick is a freelance writer specializing in home improvement, landscaping, and design. A recipient of a degree in journalism and a Master of Arts in English, he spent ten years writing for a variety of local newspapers and business publications before becoming an English teacher. Mr. Carrick now works as a freelance writer from his home in North Carolina. When he isn’t furiously typing away on his laptop or working on his latest home improvement project, he enjoys spending time with his family and cycling through the beautiful North Carolina countryside.