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Water Conditioner vs Water Softener

By: Craig Smith
Last Updated:
water-conditioner-vs-water-softener

If you have a hard water problem at your home and want to try and solve it, you have probably come across the fact that water softeners and water conditioners are a good way to go about doing this.

The problem is knowing which one of these two water hardness controlling devices will work best for you.

That’s exactly why I am writing this article.

I will use my vast experience with swimming pool water chemistry (which included dealing with hard water issues) to give you the information that you need when it comes to deciding to go with a water conditioner vs water softener.

Included in this information is how each of these devices softens water, some performance comparisons, and under what conditions each one would be a good water softening choice for you.

Water Softener vs Conditioner Comparison Table

Here is a quick comparison of the two to get you started:

 Water SoftenerWater Conditioner
TechnologyIon ExchangeTemplate Assisted Crystallization
Mineral RemovalYes, removes hardness causing minerals through ion exchangeNo, changes the structure of minerals so they don’t form scale
SetupLarger Size Ones Require a Big Space for SetupCompact Units
Produces WastewaterYes - SignificantNo
Requires ElectricityYesNo
Maintenance RequirementBi-Monthly Salt Replenishment is RequiredNo maintenance
Price Range$150 to $1200$400 to $1500

Is a Water Conditioner The Same as a Softener?

You will come to find that most people refer to any type of device that lessens the hardness of their water as a water softener.

But technologically speaking, water conditioners and water softeners are two very different ways of controlling hard water problems in your home.

So no, a water conditioner is not the same as a water softener because they use different types of technology to “soften water” and minimize scale.

Water conditioners are also known as salt-free or non-salt water softeners. Conditioners or salt-free softeners do not actually remove minerals but they change the structure of the minerals so they don’t form scale on your appliances.

In contrast, a traditional water softener uses a process called ion exchange where hardness causing minerals in your water are exchanged for sodium ions which removes the hardness causing minerals.

What Is a Salt-Based Water Softener?

Water Softeners

These are also sometimes referred to as ‘traditional water softeners’. That makes sense since they have been used for treating hard water conditions much longer than their salt-free counterparts.

All traditional water softeners need two tanks to work (modern salt-based water softeners may have both tanks encapsulated by a single outer shell).

One tank holds the resin beads which play an important role in the water softening process and the other tank is where the salt is added to make a strong brine solution.

Salt-based water softeners work by using a process that’s known as Ion Exchange. Over the years there have been many misconceptions as to the role that the salt in these systems plays.

Although salt plays an important part in the ion exchange process, it’s the resin beads at the bottom of the resin tank that are the key to controlling the hardness in your household water.

To help you understand a little deeper how a salt-based water softener works, I will go over the basics of ion exchange with you.

Ion Exchange Process

ionexchange

The whole process starts when the hard water that flows into your home comes into the water softener resin tank.

At the bottom of the resin tank are negatively charged resin beads. These are coated in positively charged sodium ions from the heavy salt mixture in the brine tank.

As the incoming hard water flows over the resin beads, its more positively charged calcium, magnesium, and other hard water causing ions to attract and stick to the resin beads. This displaces the weaker positively charged sodium ions.

The now softened water along with the sodium ions then continues to the sinks and spigots in your home.

To learn more specifics about how salt-based water softeners work, here is a good read from the reputable water softener manufacturer Whirlpool.

Drawbacks with salt-based water softeners include possible poor water taste, the removal of many healthy minerals, their negative environmental impact, and increased sodium content in your drinking water.

What Is a Water Conditioner?

water conditioner

These are known by several different names. In addition to water conditioners, that includes salt-free water softeners, ‘non-salt’ water softeners, and ‘water descalers’.

The most common ones work by what is known as ‘template-assisted crystallization’. This is a process that is meant to help control limescale which is caused by the calcium and magnesium particles found in hard water. If you have hard water you will easily recognize limescale’s white buildup on your kitchen and bathroom fixtures.

When the incoming hard water comes into contact with the special media that’s found inside a template-assisted crystallization water conditioner, the structure of the calcium and magnesium is changed.

Even though these particles remain in the water, they no longer have the ability to stick and cause scale on kitchen and bathroom fixtures.

Water conditioners can also be found as part of a whole house water filtration system.

As was mentioned, their biggest drawback is that they do not actually remove hard water-causing compounds from tap water.

Performance Comparison: Water Conditioner vs Softener

When it comes to performance, water softeners are definitely better. This becomes even more apparent as your tap water hardness level increases.

This is because water softeners actually remove calcium, magnesium, and other hard water causing contaminants from tap water and water conditioners don’t. Their effective ion exchange process eliminates all hard water issues.

Water conditioners are only designed to inhibit limescale buildup. No other hard water-related problems are resolved by using them.

Price Comparison

If price is your main concern when shopping for a hard water treatment system, then either type of system is going to be fine. There are decent model water conditioning and softening systems that are available for purchase for as little as $200-$500.

Higher end water conditioners and softeners cost around $1200. They have very similar price points.

One thing to consider is that if you factor set up costs into the equation, cost favors water conditioners.

That’s because they do not have as many components to install, require a drain line to be hooked up or require an initial salt purchase as water softeners do.

Overall, water conditioners are the better option on price due to the setup and maintenance costs of traditional water softeners but both of them have a similar upfront cost price.

Maintenance Comparison

Maintenance is an area where water conditioners offer a clear advantage. That’s because they require virtually no maintenance once they have been installed.

While I don’t feel the effort that goes into maintaining a water softener is substantial, there still is some periodic maintenance that needs to be performed on them.

Among the required maintenance steps for water softeners is periodically adding salt to the brine tank. This is a task that needs to be done every 6 to 8 weeks on average.

Brine tanks should also be cleaned on a yearly basis. This is done to remove large clumps of salt from the brine mixture and to get rid of any salt accumulation on the sides of the tank.

Water softeners also need their salt levels monitored on a weekly basis and to have their drain lines periodically checked to make sure they have not become plugged up.

Overall, water conditioners require much less maintenance compared to softeners.

Which is Better: A Softener or Conditioner?

Now that you have lots of information on both water softeners and water conditioners, it’s time to pick which one is right for you.

When to Go with a Traditional Water Softener

After reading through this article, you may be thinking that it’s a no-brainer decision to choose a water softener over a water conditioner. In a lot of cases, you would be right.

But, there are some factors to consider.

Water softeners totally remove all hard water causing particles and, in turn, also eliminate all of the issues that go along with having hard water.

Water conditioners on the other hand only address limescale buildup concerns which leaves many other hard water-related problems unresolved.

This makes a strong argument for choosing a water softener over a water conditioner when you have hard to very hard water that needs the most effective mineral removing treatment.

Keep in mind water softeners also require much more maintenance and ongoing costs than water conditioners though.

When a Water Conditioner Purchase is Preferred

There are some situations where having a water conditioner is preferred to having a water softener. Here are some examples:

You have limited space to install a hard water treatment device

A quick look at the photos above in this article should make one thing perfectly clear. That’s that traditional water softeners take up much more space than water conditioners. So much so, that having limited setup space may leave you with no choice but to install a water conditioner.

You or another family member is salt-sensitive

If you have high blood pressure or other cardiovascular-related health problems, the additional salt intake caused by salt-based water softener systems may adversely impact your health. So, you would want to think long and hard before purchasing a water softener that uses salt in this scenario.

This situation almost always necessitates the use of water conditioners unless your doctor gives the go-ahead on a traditional water softener purchase.

You have a septic system

It was mentioned that periodically your water softener will go through a regeneration cycle to rid itself of the calcium and magnesium it has taken out of your tap water. A large amount of water is necessary to perform this operation.

Even worse is the fact that this rinse water will be flushed out of your water softening system and into a drain. That wastewater eventually winds up in your septic tank and will cause it to need to be pumped out more often.

The cost of the additional septic pumping due your water softener’s wastewater can add up to several hundred dollars over the course of a year.

You are on a limited budget

You already know that in most cases water softeners cost more than water conditioners. And this is before considering other factors that water softeners need that water conditioners don’t.

This includes the additional cost of installing an electric outlet near the water softener, hooking up a plumbing line for it to a floor drain, and the periodic salt replenishment purchases that are required for salt-based water softeners.

The savings from going with a water conditioner when on a limited budget can be substantial.

You have a conservationist mindset

Once again, this one has to do with the amount of wastewater that is associated with traditional water softeners. All of the water that is flushed out of the water softener has to go someplace and that’s into a floor drain and then back into the environment.

So if you are someone that likes to lead a greener lifestyle, you may not be comfortable with wasting all of that water and putting brackish water back into the environment.

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AUTHOR
Craig Smith
Craig got his start in water working in the swimming pool and spa industry. He didn’t realize at the time that water treatment would grow into his main career but he ended up working in the pool industry for over 26 years where much of his time was spent balancing the water in customers swimming pools and installing water filtration equipment. Craig offers an abundance of water treatment knowledge after helping homeowners get pure water for 26 years and he’s excited to share his wisdom to help other homeowners select the right water filtration devices.