California’s Ban on Salt-Based Water Softeners, Explained

Posted on the 07 April 2020 by Whole House Water Filters

If you’re looking to purchase a salt-based water softener in some parts of California today, you are out of luck. But if you somehow manage to cop one, you risk spending some quality time behind bars. Well, that’s if the authorities catch up with you and you cannot pay the fine.

For years, many Californians, including homeowners and business owners, have relied on conventional salt-based water softeners to help combat the devastating effects of hard water. As the term “salt-based” suggests, this specific type of water softener uses salt to “soften” hard water.

In most cases, these conventional water softeners got the job done. But statewide, they discharged hundreds of thousands of pounds of salt into the community water systems every year, poisoning lands fit for agriculture, and the environment at large. For this and other reasons, some localities in California and other states imposed an outright ban on salt-discharging water softeners.

Of course, we don’t want to spill all the details so early. So, let’s take a step back and start from the ground up. We’ll begin by discussing the possible reasons behind the California ban, then examine the various dangers associated with salt-using water softeners. After that, we’ll bless you with a practical solution that you can use to tackle potential hard water problems in your home.

The California Ban on Salt-Based Water Softeners – A Brief Run-Down

In 2005, the state of California introduced Assembly Bill 1366 (also known as AB 1366). This bill intended to control the salinity caused by standard water softeners in California. Once approved, the authorities expected it to:

  • Help to keep salt levels down
  • Improve water quality
  • Preserve wastewater systems and the environment
  • Slash the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on desalination
  • Among others

The bill authorized local regulators in several California cities to require water softeners to meet strict efficiency standards. It would also give authorities the power to make it mandatory that all water softeners are connected to hot water supplies. Besides, the bill would also enable the officials to command the removal of previously installed systems and to incentivize homeowners to give up their softeners and choose alternative water systems.

After the governing bodies approved the bill in January 2014, many local districts in California hopped onboard. As of August 2014, over 25 communities in the state banned or restricted the use of residential self-regenerating water softeners. Some of the bill’s backers included Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Orange, Tulare, San Marco, Santa Barbara, and others.

But was this ban necessary in the first place? If so, why?

7 Possible Reasons for the Ban on Salt-Based Water Softeners in California

There’s no doubt that self-regenerating water softeners can be effective at treating hard water. However, it’s the way that they operate that triggered the waves of fiery criticisms they received from residents and authorities alike.

Here are seven possible reasons why California decided to ban saltwater softeners completely:

1.   High levels of sodium expelled into wastewater systems and in the environment

Salt-based water softeners use a process called ion exchange to soften water. When the water enters the softener, it passes through a layer of resin beads. The salt (sodium) in the resin replaces the hardness ions (primarily calcium and magnesium) that make your water hard and wreak havoc inside the household. The softener removes these hardness minerals by swapping them with the salt, thus making the water soft.

The primary issue was that every week, conventional water softeners flushed hundreds of gallons of wastewater containing chloride and sodium from the tank when it regenerates. The salt brines discharged from the system had a significant impact on groundwater basins, sewage, and recycled water.

2.   Adverse effects on human health

Softened water from salt-based water softeners isn’t always safe to drink. When ion-exchange systems soften water, some salt particles may remain and make their way into drinking water. For people with diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular diseases, consuming water with salt can lead to unwanted salt buildup in the body over time. This risk also applies to people on diets that require low to no levels of sodium.

For salt-sensitive adults, consuming salt every day can lead to hypertension. People with a history of type 2 diabetes, kidney problems, obesity, and others, must also refrain from drinking softened water from salt-using water softeners.

Furthermore, high levels of sodium in water can also dissolve potentially toxic metals, such as lead and cadmium from pipes, and introduce them into drinking water. Exposure to these chemicals can be toxic to human health and can even cause death. Moreover, the water softener can eliminate vital minerals from the water. Without these minerals, the body’s internal physical and chemical conditions may become unbalanced, leading to increased urination, decrease in red blood cells, and even an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

3.   Negative impacts on aquatic life, and industrial and agricultural processes

When the saline wastewater enters septic or sewage systems, it can poison precious waters that would otherwise be sanitized and used for irrigation, groundwater recharge, and even drinking (if the sewage is clean enough). The lack of treated water for irrigation also affected some parts of the west San Joaquin Valley, forcing farmers to abandon lands that would be used for production.

On top of that, the excess salt in septic or sewage systems makes it almost impossible for people to reuse water from salt-polluted wastewater systems for industrial and agricultural applications. It also made it more challenging for wastewater treatment agencies to comply with the state discharge standards for Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), which comprise of many dissolved minerals in the water, with chloride being just one of them.

4.   A drought on plants, and interference with aquatic life

Plants cannot thrive in saline environments. Therefore, the sodium will most likely throw off their acidic levels and cause them to wither and die. Worse, the salt can accumulate in the soil and make the soil infertile.

Salt acts like a drought on plants, preventing their roots from performing vital activities such as absorbing and transporting water from the soil to other areas of the plant structure where it’s needed to help the plant grow. High salt levels also interfere with the germination of seeds and can lead to stunted plant growth, smaller-than-usual leaves, marginal necrosis of leaves, or fruit distortions. Fewer plants can equate to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, less oxygen to sustain humans and animals, and little or no food for herbivores.

The high-sodium wastewater also poses a dangerous threat to delicate ecosystems that protect endangered aquatic species.

5.   Exorbitant expenses on desalination and other treatment methods

The only way to deal with the excess salt in wastewater stream on a city-wide level was to desalinate it, or in simpler terms, remove the salt from the water. Even though it sounds simple, it costs up to $400 million for a city to build a desalination plant. Not to mention the costs for the additional microfiltration and reverse osmosis processes that could help to remove more sodium chloride from polluted wastewater.

When you consider that only about 18% of the population used water softeners, it seems very unfair to ask everyone else to help cover the costs of such an expensive solution.

6.   Substantial waste

Although salt-based water softeners can effectively eliminate hard water, they are far from efficient. On average, these units waste about 150 gallons of water every week, amounting to upwards of 7,800 gallons every year. This wastage significantly increases the monthly water expenses and puts a significant burden on community water systems, which have been relatively low in some cities throughout California.

7.   California’s Pre-Existing Water Crisis

Today, nearly half of California is facing drought. Even between 2011 and 2014, the state experienced the driest season in California history since record-keeping began. In response, some of California’s districts made a sustained effort to recycle the sewage waters that they used to dump, to discover new uses for them. Once sanitized, the water could at least solve some of the state’s irrigation issues, toilet systems recharge, groundwater recharge, and so forth. However, the high amounts of salt that were being released into wastewater systems from salt-based water softeners shattered those dreams.

Treating the saltwater is costly. Plus, the excessive salinity adds to the existing water crisis. Because of this, many Californian communities had a tough decision to make. It’s either they would start paying higher sewer rates to build new water treatment facilities or ban saltwater softeners altogether. Of course, those chose the latter.

After all, chloride was the most significant pollutant affecting water supplies across the nation and the world. For some, it seemed overemphasized, but some leaders decided to take strict, strategic action.

California is widely known for its many experiences with droughts, so they had to do everything in their power to find good sources of water for agriculture and water recycling.

25 Communities in California Ended Up Banning Salt-Based Water Softeners. But How?

Unsuccessful Buy-Back Incentive Programs

Before the outright ban on salt-using water softeners, many cities in California implemented water softener buy-back programs as incentives for people to ditch their salt-based softeners for better alternatives. Some of the cities that implemented these programs were Santa Paula, Santa Clarita, and Filmore.

The programs were successful to a minimal extent. As such, the cities decided that the most effective solution to eliminate the brine discharge problem from water softeners was to ban or limit the use of the devices altogether.

Civil Action Taken by Residents

Thousands of concerned residents in some California communities sparked civil actions against the governing bodies to express their frustration about the life-changing effects of the high salt content from salt-using water softeners.

Some communities complained about the high fines that they incurred for not meeting discharge standards. Farmers also protested about the sodium discharge was constantly damaging their crops.

Did Any Other State Follow in California’s Footsteps?

Absolutely. California’s no-nonsense approach to the use of salt-using water softeners influenced other states to follow with their specific bans and regulations concerning the use of water softeners. Some of these states include:


Texas prohibited the use of most saltwater softeners to reduce the excess sodium entering septic systems through the water with high sodium concentrations. You still could install a water softener in Texas, though. However, you’d have to prove that the softener conserves water and does not release salt into the environment.


The Hamburg Township banned salt-using water softeners in 2010 to protect aquifers against elevated levels of sodium. Besides, Michigan, Washington, Ohio, and Massachusetts also banned dishwashing detergent that contains phosphate. The substance acts as a liquid water softener that could endanger the wastewater entering rivers and streams, thus polluting wildlife and their habitats.


Connecticut also got involved as they banned saltwater softeners under the CT Public Health Code. Other states like Massachusetts and Arizona also imposed bans, restrictions, and regulations regarding salt-based water softeners and their disruptive salt discharge into the environment. The debates are still ongoing and are getting more intense every day, so it’s most likely that we’ll see more communities in different states start giving up self-regenerating water softeners on a mass scale.

What’s the Top Solution or Alternative to Salt-Based Water Softeners?

With the strict bans on salt-based water softeners in full swing, residents need viable alternatives to remove hardness minerals from their water supplies. After all, hard water can ruin pipes, plumbing, fixtures, delicate surfaces, water-using appliances such as water heaters, and even damage the skin and hair. Therefore, residents must have access to other solutions that can help protect them and their homes from the harmful effects of hard water.

Fortunately, there are various legal alternatives they can use to combat its effects without damaging the environment or their health. However, today we’ll only be discussing the top option: salt-free water conditioning systems.

Salt-Free Water Conditioning Systems: What are They and How Do They Work?

Salt-based water softeners and non-salt softeners both serve the same purpose, but they differ in various ways. What gives salt-free softeners the edge over their salt-based counterpart is that the non-salt systems don’t use salt to treat hard water. Instead, they use a process known as Template Assisted Crystallization or TAC for short.

This process does not remove the hardness minerals from the water but converts them to small calcite crystals that don’t stick to any surface in your home. Once the crystals are no longer dissolved, they become suspended, and their chemical structures change. That means the minerals won’t stick to your faucets, fixtures, kitchen and bathroom surfaces, heating elements, pipes, on so on.

Now, you may be wondering how salt-free water softeners are any better than ion-exchange water softeners. Well, for one, the high amounts of salt discharged from ion-exchange water softeners can cause a host of problems for the environment and human health – as we mentioned above. Another problem is their frequent regeneration and backwashing cycles, which use more water than regular consumption.

With a salt-free softener in your home, you will enjoy all the remarkable benefits of softened water – without the salt. Your water heaters will operate much better, your appliances will serve longer, and your kitchenware and fixtures will present fewer limescale spots. Even your hair and skin will feel the difference! You’ll also notice that your laundry feels softer and cleaner, and your washing machine and dishwasher work better. The most significant advantage is probably the fact that you will ingest less salt. That means you don’t have to worry about experiencing hypertension or cardiovascular diseases or mess up your low-sodium diet.

Please note, however, that if you want to purify your water to remove contaminants like heavy metals, viruses, bacteria, chemicals, etc., a water softener won’t provide full protection. A quality whole house filtration system, however, will be sufficiency. You can also look into reverse osmosis filters, but just like saltwater softeners, they discharge contaminated water that can end up in the environment.

What’s the Best Salt-Free Water Softener that I Can Purchase?

We’re happy that you asked! So, there is a long list of salt-free water softeners on the market. We’re talking hundreds, maybe thousands. As you probably can tell, they all offer different levels of water softening capacity and come with various features and technologies to “enhance” their performance. Because of this, finding a high-quality unit that won’t burden your pockets can be a tough task. It’s not that you won’t find one, but it’s the amount of research and time required that causes stress and frustration.

Luckily for you, though, our Salt-Free FutureSoft FS1 Water Softener is among the top water softeners money can buy today. This 35,000-grain model prevents 99.9% of limescale without using salt or any chemicals. It removes up to three parts per million of free chlorine in water, as well as the regular calcium and magnesium hard water minerals. What’s even more impressive is that it has a 12-gallon-per-minute flow rate that allows the system to supply up to three bathrooms without causing any drop in water pressure.

Design-wise, the FS1 looks super-clean, neat, modern. To add to that, it doesn’t use any electricity or requires no replacement. Plus, it doesn’t waste any water – unlike salt-based water softeners. Wow!

In terms of the warranty, this unit is covered by a lifetime warranty as well as a six-month money-back guarantee. And when you think it couldn’t get any better, Springwell allows you to pay for the system in easy monthly payments, if you cannot afford the full cost at once.

Final Thoughts

If you live in a state or community where salt-based water softeners aren’t banned, don’t get too comfortable. We’re not trying to scare you, but the way things are going, lawmakers may very well ban self-regenerating water softeners throughout the country soon. Considering that, it’s better to be proactive and switch to a salt-based water softener now, so you’ll be prepared when the authorities come knocking. Even if you live in an area where salt-using softeners are banned, please make sure that you have already switched to a more viable alternative. If not, check out our environmentally-friendly and health-safe salt-free water softener: the FutureSoft FS1.

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