Water Conditioner vs Softener – What are the Differences?

A hard water problem can wreak havoc on your pipes and fixtures. Not only can it clog and damage your plumbing system, but the poor water quality can also dry out your skin and hair when you take a shower. Contaminated drinking water can also be a major concern for many homeowners. It can smell and taste bad and potentially lead to serious long-term health concerns for you and your family.

If you want to effectively treat the water that flows through the pipes in your home, we are here to help. To do so, we explain the differences between a water conditioner and a water softener and why so many homeowners choose to install these systems in their homes!

What is a Water Softener?

As the name suggests, a water softener is a water filtration system that deals with hard water. When water contains a high concentration of calcium, magnesium, and other minerals, it is known as hard water. As mentioned, this mineral-rich water can clog pipes and fixtures and dry out human skin and hair.

After the water is filtered and treated by an effective water softener, it has a much lower concentration of minerals, so it does not leave a scale inside your pipes, showerheads, and taps. It also feels much better when you use the water to bathe and wash your hands. On top of that, some people find softened water tastes better. If the water is too high in hard minerals, it can even be somewhat unhealthy to drink, which is another reason why some homeowners choose to install a water softening system.

How Do Water Softeners Work?

Traditional water softeners use a process known as ion exchange or reverse osmosis. In simple terms, reverse osmosis softens the water by removing dissolved mineral ions and replacing them with soluble sodium or potassium ions.

A typical salt-based water softener consists of two main tanks – a primary reservoir tank with resin beads coated with sodium ions and a brine tank that contains salt to regenerate the resin in the primary reservoir tank.

When hard water flows through your water supply, it happens because mineral ions have bound to water molecules. To break this bond and soften your water, a water softener pulls these mineral ions away from your water. The mineral ions in the water are attracted to the negatively charged resin beads inside the primary reservoir tank of the water softener. When they attach to these resin beads, sodium ions replace them, giving the water a balanced charge.

The science is somewhat confusing, but the main takeaway is that a water softener removes the harmful minerals within your water, so softer water flows throughout your home. Softening water through the process of ion exchange is an extremely effective method for solving hard water issues.

Related: Water Softeners – Top Picks for Your Home

What is a Water Conditioner?

A water conditioner operates differently from a water softener and delivers different results.

Essentially, a water conditioner is a salt-free water treatment system that removes unwanted substances from the tap water in your home. If the water in your taps has an unpleasant taste or smell, there is a good chance that installing an effective water conditioner will help you resolve the problem.

Water softeners replace mineral ions from your water, but water conditioners remove all contaminants from the water, including unwanted chemicals, like chlorine, organic compounds, gasses that could be contributing to the foul odor your water emits, and even some mineral and metal deposits, like lead and calcium.

How Does a Water Conditioner Work?

There are several types of water conditioning systems to choose from, and they operate in different ways. With that said, all water conditioners perform the same task: removing unwanted substances from your water.

A basic water conditioner operates almost like a complex filtration system. The water simply runs through a series of high-quality filters, which filter out any unwanted odors, particles, and chemicals before the water reaches your faucets.

Some of the more sophisticated water conditioners offer the same benefits as a water softener and alter the ionic balance of the water at the same time while they filter out any impurities and contaminants. This type of water conditioner relies on a specialized system called Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC), which helps offer water conditioning and softening benefits simultaneously.

Water Conditioner vs Water Softener – Which Should You Choose?

As mentioned, the type of water treatment system you install depends on your needs and preferences.

While both systems can address hard water issues in your home, a traditional water softener removes the calcium, magnesium, and silica ions in the water. You will not have to deal with your pipes and faucets becoming scaled with mineral deposits. Note that a water softener will only remove and replace the mineral ions, which could be an issue if your water contains contaminants other than mineral deposits.

A water conditioner is far more sophisticated. It leaves mineral deposits in the water but alters how those minerals behave within your water so that they will not build up on surfaces and cause scaling. This treatment might not cause you a problem if you run your water through a secondary filter before you drink it or if the mineral levels are safe for human consumption.

One of the main benefits of using a water conditioner is that it tackles issues beyond water hardness. They remove potentially harmful biological contaminants, including bacteria. Not only can this make your water safer for drinking, but it can also prevent the buildup of biofilm in your pipes.

Pros and Cons of Either Water Treatment System

Water Softener Pros:

  • Removes hard mineral deposits from your water
  • Prevents the buildup of mineral scaling in your faucets and pipes, so you are less likely to experience reduced water pressure
  • Salt for most water softeners is not very expensive

Water Conditioner Pros:

  • Removes chlorine, chloramines, organic matter, and other contaminants from your water
  • Can eliminate unpleasant smells and tastes from your water
  • Very energy efficient, so they will not increase your electricity bill by a noticeable amount
  • Require little maintenance
  • Some of the two-in-one systems also alter the way mineral deposits in your water react to the interior surfaces of your pipes and faucets, so you don’t have the same degree of scaling issues

Water Softener Cons:

  • In most cases, water softeners require more power than water conditioners so you may notice an increase in your monthly electricity bills
  • Most water softeners require the installation of a drainage line, which can require professional installation
  • In some cases, your tap water will have a slightly salty taste that is not harmful but can be somewhat unpleasant
  • You need to replace and refill the salt on a fairly regular basis, and while salt is not expensive, you will have to add this task to your monthly home maintenance routine

Water Conditioner Cons:

  • Water conditioners do not remove mineral deposits from your water, so it might still contain high concentrations of calcium, magnesium, and silica, even if the water is not behaving like typical hard water
  • Depending on the model you have, water conditioners can be very expensive 

Final Words

As you can see, both systems have their pros and cons, so it is difficult to determine a clear winner. The best option is to choose the water treatment system that fits your budget and needs. If you are still unsure what your home needs, contact a qualified professional. In many cases, they will test a sample of your water to see what contaminants are present. From there, they will recommend a system that can help correct the issue.

Whether you choose a water softener or a water conditioner, read the instruction manual and follow basic maintenance procedures. Doing so greatly increases the overall lifespan of your water treatment system and protects your investment.

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