Residential Water Softener Alternatives

There are several viable nonsalt-based alternatives you can recommend to homeowners

Water softening is the term generally used for removing calcium and magnesium by ion exchange using salt. Ion exchange is by far the most common and most accepted process for scale control and for the reduction of residual compounds left after cleaning and bathing. While ion exchange media and the softener control systems are greatly improved, there are viable nonsalt-based alternatives available on the market.

Softening alternatives include several options that fall under the larger category of water conditioning. Some soften the water (remove the calcium and magnesium), and others do not but may inhibit scale formation by suspending the calcium and magnesium in the water. Reverse osmosis is a well-proven technology, but most of the other options are not as proven. Carefully examine product claims before purchasing a device, and check the reputation of the seller with the Better Business Bureau or similar resources.

Reverse Osmosis

RO technology uses a membrane and additional filters to remove dissolved solids and other contaminants from water. Whole house systems or small systems for drinking water are available.

  • Cost: $$$-$$$$ installed whole house system
  • Water treatment: Filter system, provides continuous soft water, removes contaminants
  • Maintenance: Regular filter change/less frequent membrane change
  • Water use: High — uses up to 4-plus gallons of water per gallon of filtered water

Capacitive Deionization

Capacitive deionization, or CDI, uses current to attract ions to the anode and cathode. No salt is used. This method reduces concentrations of all ions to minimize scale formation and remove almost all hardness.

  • Cost: $$$
  • Water treatment: Provides continuous, mostly soft water, except during backwash
  • Maintenance: Backwash, citric acid cleaning
  • Water use: Backwash has 25 percent reject water

Electrically Induced Precipitation

Electrically induced precipitation is a conditioning technology that uses an applied current to induce the formation of "soft" scale on an electrode, reducing scale by approximately 50 percent.

  • Cost: $$-$$$
  • Water treatment: Descaler, reduces hard scale that builds up on fixtures and appliances
  • Maintenance: Requires backwash to clean the electrode
  • Water use: Soft scale must be periodically backwashed, increasing water use

Nucleation Assisted Crystallization/Template Assisted Crystallization

This technology uses resin beads to force hard ions in water to crystalize on the resin. When the crystals become large enough, they are released as a fine dust in the water, preventing scale formation on surfaces. Template assisted crystallization, or TAC, systems generally require relatively clean input water. A filter may be needed to remove iron, manganese and sediment.

  • Cost: $
  • Water treatment: Descaler prevents up to 90 percent scale buildup
  • Maintenance: Requires replacement media every three years
  • Water use: Uses no extra water


Chelation is a conditioning technology that uses a chelating agent (such as citric acid or EDTA) to tie up hardness ions, making them unable to form scale on fixtures and appliances. This technology may prevent scale buildup by up to 99 percent and may also remove existing scale. Chelation has not been well-proven, especially for higher hardness levels (greater than 8-10 gpg), or if iron, dissolved oxygen or dissolved silica are present.

  • Cost: $
  • Water treatment: Descaler
  • Maintenance: Filter changes every six to 12 months
  • Water use: Uses no extra water


Magnetic water treatment is a controversial conditioning technology. It uses powerful magnets or electromagnetic devices wrapped around a pipe to create a magnetic field. As hard water passes through the magnetic field created by the device, it may precipitate out hard ions into a soft scale, which prevents scale formation on fixtures and in appliances. Studies show mixed results on the effectiveness of this technology.

  • Cost: $
  • Water treatment: Descaler, may reduce scale formation up to 50 percent
  • Maintenance: None
  • Water use: Uses no extra water

Radio waves

Technologies using radio waves to remove and prevent scale are relatively new. The unit is installed on the outside of a pipe. The conditioner sends an electrical signal from a ring of ferrites to the water inside the pipe, causing the ions to suspend in the water as clusters and thus preventing them from attaching to surfaces.

  • Cost: $
  • Water treatment: Descaler
  • Maintenance: None
  • Water use: Uses no extra water

Protect public health

Whether your customers are connected to a public water system or are on a private well, their health and the health of others is dependent on their water and their plumbing. Serious disease outbreaks occur every year in the U.S. from plumbing mistakes or cross-contamination of plumbing systems. Licensed installers play an important role in safeguarding homeowners' plumbing.

Key to Costs:  $ = less than $1,500    

                         $$ = $1,500 to $2,500    

                         $$$ = $2,500 to $5,000    

                         $$$$ = greater than $5,000

About the author: Sara Heger, Ph.D., is an engineer, researcher and instructor in the Onsite Sewage Treatment Program in the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota. She presents at many local and national training events regarding the design, installation, and management of septic systems and related research. Heger is education chair of the Minnesota Onsite Wastewater Association and the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association, and she serves on the NSF International Committee on Wastewater Treatment Systems. Ask Heger questions about septic system maintenance and operation by sending an email to

This article is a follow-up to Reducing Chloride From Home Water Softeners.


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