Understanding no-salt systems
From Volume 33, Issue 7 - July 2010
 Technical Pages
 Misconception clouds this market’s green message.
 by: Rich DiPaolo, Editorial Director

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Water softening is one of the hottest topics in the water treatment industry today. There are several reasons why customer and industry interest have increased, including local bans and health concerns. The culprit: Salt. However, there are other factors that are clouding the water softening and water conditioning product categories.


Misunderstanding, false claims and marketing hype are confusing dealers and, as a result, their customers. Today, people want soft water, while minimizing salt and being “green.” But, customers need to know the distinctions of newer and traditional product technologies.

While most may feel that this is a localized debate, mainly occurring in California, news media and the Internet are helping to spread the word about alternatives to salt-based systems. We recently reached out to two experts in the field to discuss the differences, the trends in this market and other information dealers and suppliers can use to educate customers.

Understanding hard water and softening

Generally, water is considered “hard” when too much calcium or magnesium is dissolved in it. Homeowners and light commercial customers who have hard water complain of scale buildup in pipes, water heaters and appliances and, when hard water reacts with soap, it can form a sticky residue on surfaces. Traditional solutions include installing a whole house RO system, distilling the water or incorporating a water softening unit.

Before looking at green alternatives to water softening, dealers and suppliers should first have a firm grasp on how traditional water softening systems work. Traditional water softening systems replace hard water’s calcium and magnesium ions with sodium ions.

Ion exchange occurs when hard water passes through a bed of plastic beads or zeolite, which is a chemical mixture. The result is softer water with increased sodium (salt) levels.

Softening is not the same as green

Sometimes you cannot convince people the difference between water softening and water conditioning,” says Susan White, who is the vice president of sales and marketing for Blue Gold for Life Inc. “A lot of times people want soft water but they do not understand the science of water.” 

First, notes White, it is important to inform customers that no-salt systems do not work the same as a traditional water softener. As opposed to water softening’s ion exchange process, a common no-salt system works on a nano-molecular level.

Working through the nano-molecular technology, it takes the mineral, which under a microscope [appears] as a crystal, and transforms it into a nano-particle,” notes White. And, when minerals are in a nano-particle format it dissolves in the water, similar to limescale, and stays in the water. Unlike ion exchange, this greener offering maintains the water’s minerals, such as calcium, after conditioning. Furthermore, regeneration is not required.

Nothing in the system requires any regeneration because it works with an up-flow configuration,” adds White. “In an up-flow configuration, the water travels down and up through the media and during that time the media is constantly being turned around in the water so the water travels up and it is fluidized by the media. The longer the contact time, the better fluidization and the better transformation of the minerals takes place.”

There is one area where no-salt alternatives to traditional water softening are gaining traction. Customers who are looking for a scale protector may need to look no further than green alternatives. What is the difference between a descaler and a water softener?

“There is a huge difference,” adds Pam McDowell, office/sales manager at Scalewatcher North America Inc. “Traditional salt systems replace calcium with salt ions. Descalers do not use chemicals [or] salt to condition the water.”

According to McDowell, descalers treat the water by inducing magnetic and electric fields with a continuous changing frequency. “This forces the free dissolved minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, to crystallize in the bulk of the water before the mineral ions, which are the cause of hard scale, settle [on] the walls of piping, bathroom [fixtures] or heating elements of dishwashers and washing machines,” says McDowell.

Salt-free systems are not for every customer and there are some minimal concerns. Some no-salt systems may result in minor spotting on surfaces, which can be safely wiped and removed with a clean cloth. However, for customers such as restaurant owners and car wash operators, these spots might be a good enough reason to use traditional softening systems instead. And for homeowners, especially green-minded people and residents affected by local bans on softeners, these products are ideal.