Citric Acid Water Softeners: Everything You Need to Know

Citric Acid Water Softeners: Everything You Need to Know

Considering a water softener for your home?

Citric acid water softeners are an option you may not have considered. These softeners work by adding citric acid to the water, which binds with the “hardness” (calcium and magnesium) to  prevent scaling and other problems associated with hard water. This process isn’t softening, but it provides the same benefits.

This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know about citric acid water softeners – how they work, the benefits and drawbacks. Continue reading to learn whether or not a citric acid water softener is the right choice for your home.

A Brief Overview of Hard Water

Hardness is simply the concentration of calcium and magnesium in your water. The US Geologic Survey estimates that 85% of the homes in the United States have hard water.

Hardness is not harmful to your health, but it can make it difficult to get soap suds to form when you are washing your hands or taking a shower. It can also cause your dishes to come out of the dishwasher with spots on them.

What is hard water

Hard water is defined by the US Geological Survey as water with more than 60 milligrams of calcium carbonate per liter. The minerals associated with hardness – calcium and magnesium – can come from a variety of sources, including natural deposits in the earth and runoff from agricultural operations.

Water hardness is classified into four categories:

  • Soft water: 0-60 mg/L (0-3.5 GPG)
  • Moderately hard water: 61-120 mg/L (3.5-7 GPG)
  • Hard water: 121 to 180 mg/L (7-10.5 GPG)
  • Very hard water: greater than 180 mg/L (>10.5 GPG)

Problems with hard water

While hard water is not necessarily harmful to your health, it can cause problems in your home. These problems include:

  • Limescale buildup on fixtures and appliances
  • Staining of laundry and dishes
  • Reduced efficiency of heating systems
  • Poor lather when using soap

Not sure if you have hard water? Read my article on Testing Your Water for Hardness.

Water softenersDual tank water softener

Conventional water softeners use a technology known as ion exchange to remove hardness. In this process, the resin in the softener exchanges the calcium and magnesium ions in the water – the “hardness” – with sodium ions from the salt.

The remaining chloride ions from the salt go out in the discharge from the water softener regeneration cycle, along with the calcium and magnesium ions.

This process removes the hardness from your water. There is no calcium and magnesium in your water to cause problems associated with hardness.

Read my Ultimate Guide to Water Softeners to learn more about this process.

Citric Acid Water SoftenersNuvoH20 Citric Acid Water Softener

Citric acid water softeners are a relatively new method of treating hard water. They don’t technically soften your water – this would require removing the hardness ions.

Instead, this system “conditions” your water by metering in citric acid that binds with the calcium and magnesium ions. This process prevents the formation of scale and the other problems associated with hard water.

How do citric acid water softeners work?

Citric acid water softeners use a process known as chelation to treat hard water. Chelation works by binding citric acid (the chelating agent) to the hardness ions (calcium and magnesium).

This is similar to ion exchange where magnesium and calcium bind to a negatively charged resin. The difference is that with chelation, the citric acid and hardness ions form a complex that stays in solution rather than being removed from the water (this is what a conventional water softener does).

This type of water softener works by slowly metering citric acid into your water. The hardness ions bind with the citric acid to form a complex. These complexes stay in solution and can’t form deposits on your pipes or appliances. The treated water can produce lather when you wash your hands and clean your clothes with normal detergent.

I wrote a comprehensive article on Salt-Free Water Softeners that provide more information.

Water softener installation – equipment requirements?

Whole House Citric Acid Water Softener
This whole house citric acid water softener includes the cartridge and a particle filter.

Citric acid water conditioners are very simple. What is involved with water softener installation?

They include a citric acid cartridge that is installed in your water line. These units are small in size which allows them to be installed virtually anywhere in your home.

Cartridges replacement for a citric water softener is very simple. You simply close a blocking valve and remove the cartridge with one full turn. No tools are needed.

All of NuvoH20’s water conditions are NSF certified. They currently have three models, all of which are certified to NSF Standard 169 for general purpose scale control.

Are salt free water softeners effective?

The jury is still out on how well citric acid water softeners work.

Water chemistry is very complicated. The notion that you can bind up the hardness in your water and prevent it from causing problems is overly optimistic.

The problem is that we don’t really know how well an acid water softener will work over the long term. The companies that make them say they are effective, but there is not a lot of independent data to support this claim. Penn State indicates that citric acid water softeners do not work very well.

If you are considering a citric acid water softener, do your homework. Look for independent data that shows how well they work – we haven’t found any. Talk to people who have them to see what their experiences have been.

In my experience, chelation with citric acid will likely improve the quality of your water, but it won’t be able to eliminate all of the problems hard water causes. This might be enough for you, but each situation is different. Homeowners will have to decide for themselves if a citric acid water softener is right for them.

How much citric acid do they use?Citric Acid Cartridge

The NuvoH20 systems use a cartridge to deliver citric acid to your water. The cartridge meters the chemical based on the volume of water that flows through it.

They recommend replacing the citric acid cartridge every 20,000 gallons or 6 months, whichever comes first. Replacements are available online and in retail stores.

Softener maintenance requirements

Citric water softeners are very simple devices. Water flows through the citric acid cartridge where it picks up a small amount of the chemical.

That’s it. There are no moving parts to wear out and no electricity required. As long as you keep the cartridge replaced, there is very little maintenance required.

Benefits of Using a Citric Acid Water Softener

NuvoH2O, the manufacturer of citric acid water softeners, claims that their product has many advantages compared with conventional water softeners. They point out that their system doesn’t remove beneficial minerals.

Instead, their citrus-based formula, called CitraCharge, binds with calcium and magnesium hard minerals to prevent scale formation. Because these minerals aren’t removed, there is no change in your water’s taste.

The benefits of using an acid water softener include:

  • Prevents hard water scale formation
  • Removes existing scale from pipes and plumbing
  • No slick feeling associated with softened water
  • Leaves minerals in the water
  • Does not add sodium to water (salt free)
  • Simple water softener installation (ideal for DIY projects)
  • Simple to operate
  • Requires no water softener salt
  • Does not require electricity
  • Small size – can fit virtually anywhere

This clean water citric acid system is a whole-house water filter, so you’ll enjoy the benefits throughout your home.

No water softener salt

A key benefit of

Disadvantages of Using a Citric Acid Water Softener

Acid water softeners have some potential disadvantages that you should be aware of before you decide to purchase one.

  1. Cost: Citric acid softeners are significantly more expensive than conventional water softeners. A NuvoH20 system costs around $1,000 – nearly twice as much as a conventional water softener.
  2. Cartridges are expensive: The cost of replacement citric acid cartridges is high. On a per-gallon basis, the cost for citric acid cartridges is two to three times as much as salt for a conventional water softener.
  3. Unproven performance: We don’t really know how well citric water softener systems work over the long term. The companies that make them say they are effective, but there is not much independent data to support this claim.
  4. Quality issues: Many of the product reviews from customers are 1 and 2 stars. There have been reports of the salt-free water softener not working as advertised and customer service issues.
  5. Dosing: Dosing is the ratio of citric acid to water. It is based on the volume of water you use and the concentration of calcium and magnesium in your water. If you use too little citric acid, you’ll only partially reduce the hardness of your water. If you use too much citric acid, it will react with your soap and detergent.
  6. Iron and manganese deplete citric acid: Iron and manganese – two very common metals – bind with citric acid. This uses up the available citric acid and reduces the effectiveness of this process.


Is citric acid bad for my pipes and plumbing fixtures?

Citric acid is a very mild acid that does not corrode or damage metal or plastic pipes. It is actually beneficial to your pipes because it removes limescale deposits that may be present. A hard water citric acid system is almost always beneficial for your home’s plumbing system.

How does citric acid soften water?

Citric acid works by binding with calcium and magnesium – the two minerals that make water hard. This prevents these minerals from precipitating out of solution and forming scale on your pipes and fixtures. Many people refer to a citric acid system as a water softener system. Technically, this isn’t softening, but it has a similar effect.

Is citric acid safe to use?

Yes, citric acid is safe. All home treatment products use food grade chemicals. Whether you have a whole house water filter or something else, you’ll see benefits from using a citrus-based softener.

Does citric acid affect the taste of my water?

Taste is a very subjective thing, but most people say that their water tastes the same after using a citric acid water softener. Many people complain about the taste of softened water because the calcium and magnesium are removed. This isn’t an issue with citric acid systems.

Final Take on Citric Acid Water Softeners

If you have hard water, a citric acid water softener may be a good option for you. These systems are more expensive than conventional water softeners, but they have some potential advantages. The cost of replacement citric acid cartridges is high, but these systems do not require electricity and are small in size.

Citric acid water softeners are an interesting new technology that shows promise, but more independent data is needed to confirm their effectiveness. If you’re considering purchasing one, do your homework and talk to people who have experience with them. In my experience, they can be effective, but they are also more expensive than traditional water softeners.

If you have any questions about citric acid water softeners, please leave them in the comments below and I will be happy to answer them.

The Filter Guy

Scott Birch is a water filtration installer and designer. He has worked in the industry for many years and is very familiar with and knowledgeable about residential water treatment equipment. Scott enjoys helping people get the most out of their water filtration systems and ensuring that their homes are getting the best possible quality of water.

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