Water Softeners vs. Salt Free Water Softeners: What’s the Difference?

Hudson NH Water Softener Installation

Homeowners in New Hampshire have seen everything when it comes to water quality. But, some Granite Staters have experienced more worrisome problems in their homes due to their location in hard water zones. Hard water contains calcium and magnesium, which pose problems for daily household chores and essential appliances that rely on water to function. Installing a water softener can combat these inconveniences and improve the quality of life for your entire family. This guide will walk you through the differences between salt-free and salt-based water softeners to help point you in the best direction for your family’s needs.

Choosing a water softener

Hard Water Issues

Hard water is often a nuisance when it comes to a fully functioning home. People living in areas with hard water have experienced costly damage to water heaters, washing machines, and dishwashers in the form of water scaling. In short, scaling means that there is a heavier concentration of minerals (in this case, magnesium and calcium) which eventually leads to the plugging of pipes that help these machines to function. Not only does hard water harm expensive appliances, but it also creates small inconveniences throughout the day. Hard water can leave grimy scum in sanitary places like kitchens and even bathrooms. Hard water can also minimize the strength of cleaning soaps used in household appliances, adding more laundry loads and unscrubbed dishes to your long list of daily activities.

Step #1 The Water Test

After a long period of enduring the challenges of hard water, you may find yourself shopping for water softeners online or in appliance stores. However, before you start browsing, NH Tap recommends a water test to specify the type of water softener you need and how much it will cost. Once you know what you are looking for, you will find selecting and installing your system much easier before more problems arise in your home.

Step #2 Deciding Water Softeners vs. Salt-Free Water Softeners

While searching for the right water softener, you will find two different kinds of water softeners. The key difference between the two is salt usage in the water-softening process. However, both the water softeners and the salt-free softening systems have the same goal: reducing the amount of calcium and magnesium in the water.

Traditional Water Softeners (with salt)

Salt Water softeners use complex scientific principles to filter the hard water minerals from the water. Before we begin, it is important to know how the process starts. After the water enters the water softener tank, the hard water flows through the resin media and encounters the resin, which contains a layer of sandlike resin beads.

Ion Exchange in the Resin

What is important to note is that the resin beads are charged with a sodium ion. This activity makes the resin beads’ charge negative. Calcium and magnesium are the targeted minerals during the water-softening process.  Since these minerals are positively charged, they are attracted to the negatively charged resin beads.

Therefore, when the hard water passes through the resin, the calcium and magnesium particles stay behind with the resin, and the rest of the water flows through. When the resin beads capture the minerals, sodium ions are released, hence the term “ion exchange.”  The sodium ions then follow the new soft water out of the system, ready for your household to use.

Regeneration in the Brine Tank

Even though this process fulfills the task of creating soft water, it cannot continue to do so if it undergoes the process of regeneration. In simple terms, regeneration is how the resin beads are reset for another round of the water-softening process. Because of its occasional purpose, the control valve is only active when needed, saving time and resources.

When the control valve finds that the resin beads are spent and unusable, it initiates the regeneration process by referring to the shorter brine tank next to the water softener. The brine tank is full of salt. During regeneration, the salt is pulled from the brine tank and sent through the water softener tank, which restores the resin beads’ positive charge. This process also sweeps away the calcium and magnesium particles that were caught by the resin so that the water softener can run as though it is brand new.

Co-current versus counter-current regeneration

If your water test points toward the water softener path, you may be faced with even more choices. While some water softeners use co-current regeneration, others may use counter-current. The main difference between these regeneration methods is simply the direction in which the salt enters the water softener tank. As the names imply, co-current describes the salt riding along in the same direction of the water, while counter-current defines the opposite.  While considering your options, note that counter-current regeneration uses less than half the amount of salt and water in a normal cycle compared to co-current regeneration.

Salt-Free Water Softeners

Otherwise known as water conditioners, salt-free softeners are less expensive than regular water softeners. Instead of ion exchange, water conditioners change hard water minerals into crystalline substances that cannot cause any scaling. For those concerned with extra sodium in their diets, salt-free water softening systems may be a more appealing option due to the absence of ion exchanges between the hard water minerals and the sodium ions in the water softener’s resin. But there are some drawbacks to this form of water softening.

Deciding Which Water Softener Is Better

While both types of water softeners reduce the amount of scaling in your home, the more well-rounded choice lies in the regular water softener. This is because it is the only one that produces actual soft water. Salt-free water softeners only reform the hard water minerals; the water still has calcium and magnesium in its composition. Because water softeners cast away these clogging minerals, they completely eradicate all the problems found in hard water homes. Not only will the scaling issues be resolved, but your washed clothes and dishes will be efficiently cleaned with undiluted detergent. Scum will no longer build up and cause extra cleaning. Water softeners can also relieve itchy skin, but the same cannot be said for the salt-free alternative. Most important, however, is the efficiency of knowing when to replace your water softener. Our water softener systems let us know when the salt needs to be replaced, and you can get on a salt delivery schedule, making your water maintenance completely worry-free.


Water softeners are helpful systems that cast away financially grueling problems that affect families statewide. From water softeners to water filtration systems, NH Tap is dedicated to providing everything you need to keep your house running smoothly and efficiently for years.  Contact us today to discuss your water softener needs or get a water test!

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