A water softener is essential for keeping your home’s water supply free from hard minerals. However, water softeners come with a few disadvantages that homeowners may overlook or be unaware of.
Due to these drawbacks, you might need to look into water softener alternatives. Luckily, if you decide that a water softener isn’t for you, don’t worry. You have plenty of options!
Keep reading to learn all about the alternatives to conventional salt-based water softeners and why you may want to consider them.
What Is a Water Softener?
A water softener is a salt-based filtration system that uses ion exchange or cation exchange to remove magnesium and calcium minerals that cause water hardness. This regeneration process “conditions” or “softens” hard water by replacing hard minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, and iron, with sodium chloride (salt).
Hard water can harm modern home appliances and plumbing fixtures. It causes scale buildup in your pipes, clogging them and reducing water pressure. Such scale also significantly reduces the longevity of appliances like dishwashers, coffee makers, water heaters, and ice makers.
The minerals in hard water can change your skin’s pH balance, making it less effective at keeping bacteria and infections out. Those with eczema may be particularly at risk. It can also make your hair dry and dull and prevent clothes from getting properly clean.
Downsides of Water Softeners
If you are grappling with water hardness at home, one simple and effective solution is to purchase a water softener. However, before you make up your mind to buy one, there are a couple of variables you ought to consider:
- Water softeners are rather costly, with a price range of around $600 to $3,000. This can be out of budget for homeowners looking to save money.
- Residential water-softening systems waste water and drain potassium chloride (from salts) into aquatic environments, where it can threaten the lives of fish and other aquatic wildlife.
- Water softeners require periodic and costly maintenance to run smoothly.
- Users must endure the trouble of purchasing heavy bags of salt on a regular basis.
- The requisite sodium ions increase the salt content in drinking water.
Due to all these issues, some homeowners choose to consider water softener alternatives.
Common Water Softener Alternatives
Alternatives to water softeners, often called water conditioners, prevent hard water problems with a few different types of technology. Here are some common alternatives to look into if you’ve decided that a traditional water softener isn’t for you.
Reverse-osmosis systems ($150–$20,000)
Reverse-osmosis systems, or RO systems, are some of the most well-known water softener alternatives on the market. Essentially a water-filtration system rather than a softener or conditioner, an RO system is a salt-free process that removes pollutants, water-hardening compounds, most metals, and even pathogens from water.
RO filtering systems use a prefilter to remove sediment and chlorine from water before forcing it through a semipermeable membrane to remove dissolved solids. After leaving the RO membrane, the water travels through a postfilter to polish it before exiting through a dedicated faucet.
An RO filtering system is so efficient that it can remove up to 99% of the dissolved minerals that have accumulated in the water. Because of this thorough filtering process, filtered water from an RO system is also extremely safe for use as drinking water.
Reverse-osmosis filtration systems are classified into two types: whole-house and point-of-use.
A whole-house system is much more expensive than a point-of-use system. On the low end, you could spend as little as $500 for the system, plus another $500 for installation. Larger commercial systems may exceed $20,000, although they are often reserved for restaurants and processing plants.
The most cost-effective approach to acquiring RO softened water in your house is through point-of-use systems. A system on a single-sink faucet might cost little more than $100. As these systems are relatively simple to install, you may be able to do it yourself, saving you the cost of hiring an expert. However, not every point-of-use RO system is that cheap. Even with a single-faucet system, a top-of-the-line model might cost more than $1,000.
Advantages of a reverse-osmosis system:
When it comes to eliminating contaminants from water in an efficient and cost-effective way, RO water filtering has proven to be unparalleled. Here are some benefits of RO systems:
- Capable of removing up to 99% of lead, asbestos, and myriad other pollutants and hardness minerals, including calcium and magnesium
- A safer and more environmentally responsible solution than single-use plastic bottles
- Good for fish and/or coral in home aquariums that need only the cleanest water, devoid of human toxins and additional minerals
- Often tastes better than ordinary tap water
- Cheaper and more convenient than buying bottled water or having filtered water delivered
- Doesn’t use electricity
Disadvantages of a reverse-osmosis system:
While few would dispute that RO filtration is one of the safest and most efficient water-filtering methods today, it does have a number of drawbacks:
- Expensive to purchase, especially for water already declared safe by EPA standards
- Removes healthy minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, fluoride, and bicarbonates
- Complicated and expensive installation in some models
- Expensive repairs
- Wastes water
Template-assisted crystallization ($700–$3,000)
Water conditioners that use template-assisted crystallization (TAC), also known as nucleation-assisted crystallization, are a great alternative to installing a whole-house water softener.
In order to break down minerals in hard water, a TAC system employs ceramic polymer beads. When polymer beads come into contact with calcium and magnesium, they transform into crystals. The calcium and magnesium eventually dissolve.
Advantages of template-assisted crystallization:
Here are the advantages of a TAC system over traditional water softeners:
- Doesn’t require electricity, salt, or any kind of maintenance to work
- No expensive electronic control valves to purchase, monitor, or replace
- No backwash or brine discharge, so no need to connect it to drainage
- Uses less water
- Fewer repairs
- Doesn’t alter the taste or odor of water
- Doesn’t remove essential minerals like calcium and magnesium
- No toxic chemicals or additives
Disadvantages of template-assisted crystallization:
Even though TAC systems have a lot of advantages over traditional water softeners, there are a few problems with them:
- May require a prefilter to prevent chlorine and iron from damaging the unit
- Doesn’t really remove hardness minerals, just changes them to prevent limescale buildup
- A relatively new application for water conditioning whose efficacy has not been completely proven
Electronic descaler ($70–$500)
An electronic descaler is an innovative water softener alternative that uses nanoparticles rather than a brine tank to treat water.
In the supply pipe, a water descaling device generates a frequency-modulated electromagnetic field. This field induces the ions of calcium and magnesium bicarbonate in the hard water to crystallize into carbonate particles. These ions collect and grow in a snowball-like manner, flowing as suspended particles in the water. Thus, the water descaler affects their form and size, which are now different from those in untreated hard water.
The magnesium and calcium ions stay in suspension until they reach the drain after the descaling procedure. Their new structure prevents them from adhering to the walls of pipes, heating elements, or appliance parts.
Using an electronic descaler is a great way of preventing high salinity in your water without worrying about your pipes clogging due to limescale buildup, especially in states such as New York, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Oregon, where the concentration of hardness as calcium carbonate in a milligram per liter of water is below 60.
Advantages of an electronic descaler:
Homeowners who’ve installed an electronic water descaler enjoy many benefits.
- Doesn’t need salt or chemicals
- Doesn’t use up a lot of space in your home
- Thrifty way to ensure the durability of expensive water-based appliances like your dishwasher, water heater, and washing machines
- Maintenance-free system
- Easy to install by yourself
Disadvantages of an electronic descaler:
As a water softener alternative, an electronic descaler also has its fair share of shortcomings:
- Potentially ineffective at preventing scale deposits from large quantities of calcium and magnesium
- Doesn’t actually soften water, so no benefits of softened water for hair and clothes
- Won’t improve the taste of extremely hard water
- Not a water filter
Chelation or citric-acid water conditioner ($600–$1000)
Chelation is a chemical process used by citric-acid water conditioners to neutralize the negative effects of hardening agents. Chelating chemicals attach to and neutralize the metal ions in hard water. This chemical process prevents magnesium and calcium from adhering to surfaces and forming scale in pipes and appliances.
Advantages of citric-acid water conditioners:
Here are some benefits of a citric-acid water conditioner:
- Can reduce limescale buildup on your pipes and plumbing fixtures
- Helps prolong the life-span of your appliances
- Requires less maintenance compared to salt-based ion-exchange water softeners
- Retains a high flow rate and does not generate any wastewater
- Simple to install
- Lower utility bills and water bills than other alternatives
Disadvantages of citric-acid water conditioners:
This ion-exchange water softener alternative has a number of significant disadvantages.
- Not as successful as salt-based systems for treating highly contaminated water
- Potentially dangerous—chelating agents can bond with heavy metals like lead and mercury, preventing them from bonding with calcium and magnesium ions
- Little independent data to prove efficacy
- Complications from inexact amounts of citric acid
Electromagnetic water treatment ($200–$700)
An electromagnetic water treatment unit is a smart and ideal alternative to the traditional water softener. If you are in need of a constant and steady source of clean water, then this is definitely it.
When you install an electromagnetic water treatment system, it instantly starts polarizing your water to eliminate existing scale deposits. Additionally, this treatment process prevents hard-water minerals from adhering to equipment, appliances, and piping.
The amazing thing about water conditioners that use electromagnetic technology is that the water is treated without the addition of potentially dangerous additives or other elements. It is a simple but ingenious method of reducing the effects of hard water.
Advantages of electromagnetic water treatment:
While not a very common water softener alternative, electromagnetic water conditioners have the following claimed benefits:
- Salt free, making it safe for low-sodium diets and watering plants
- Little maintenance
- Eco-friendly—no chemicals or waste
- Uses minimal electricity
Disadvantages of electromagnetic water treatment:
There is no such thing as a perfect water softener alternative, and electromagnetic water treatment is no exception. Sure, it’s effective at reducing the amount of scale buildup in your pipes, but like the previous systems, there are some disadvantages. Here they are:
- Debatable efficacy
- Only works on water that has come in contact with the magnetic area within 48 hours of use
- Can affect nearby electrical appliances
- Not a water filter and doesn’t remove minerals, sediment, or other contaminants from water
Water Softener Alternatives: The Bottom Line
As you can see, there are a wide variety of alternative water softeners, some of which are more effective than other water softener alternatives.
On the plus side, most of the aforementioned salt-free systems for water-softening alternatives are low maintenance and eco-friendly since they don’t release as much salt or wastewater into the environment. However, the reverse-osmosis filtration system is the way to go if you want the best water quality.
A reverse-osmosis system eliminates 99.9% of contaminants from water, leaving it clean and safe to consume. With this method, you will spend less on bottled water, enjoy better tasting meals, and save hundreds of dollars on energy bills since RO systems do not need gas or electricity. This is the only system that actually removes hardness minerals (though not 100%), whereas the rest, considered water conditioners rather than filters or softeners, only deactivate them.
However, bear in mind that if you want genuinely soft water, you will need to use a conventional salt-based water softener. To find out which brand is best for you, read my review of the best water softeners for residential use.