Hard water creates all sorts of problems in homes, from dry skin and hair to ruined appliances and fixtures. To combat these issues, many homeowners turn to water softening or conditioning systems. But what exactly is the difference between a water softener and a water conditioner?
This comprehensive guide examines the pros, cons, costs and functionality of both systems. Read on to learn which is best for your home.
What is Hard Water?
Hard water contains high levels of calcium and magnesium, which are picked up as water moves through soil and rock. These dissolved mineral ions prevent soap from lathering properly and leave behind scale deposits on plumbing fixtures, appliances, and more.
Some key signs your home has hard water include:
- Dry, itchy skin
- Brittle, dull hair
- Scale buildup on faucets and showerheads
- White “soap scum” residue in sinks and tubs
- Stiff laundry and spotty dishes
- Shortened lifespan of water-using appliances
Testing your water’s hardness will reveal how much calcium and magnesium is present. Most experts recommend treating water that’s over 7 grains per gallon.
How Do Water Softeners Work?
Water softeners use a process called ion exchange to remove the calcium and magnesium ions that cause hard water.
During this process, hard water passes through a resin bed loaded with sodium ions. The calcium and magnesium ions are attracted to the resin, where they swap places with sodium ions. This turns the hard minerals into soft, harmless sodium salts that are flushed away.
Softened water flows from the resin tank ready for use in your home. Over time, the resin bed becomes saturated with calcium and magnesium and needs to be recharged.
Recharging the resin bed with salt dissolves the built-up mineral deposits and replaces the missing sodium ions. This regeneration process restores the resin’s ability to exchange ions.
Benefits of Using a Water Softener
Installing a water softener provides these advantages:
- Fewer repairs: Soft water is less damaging to plumbing and appliances.
- Cleaner dishes: Dishes come out of the dishwasher spot-free.
- Better tasting coffee and tea: Removes mineral tastes and odors.
- Shinier hair: Mineral deposits won’t dull and dry out hair.
- Softer skin: With less soap scum buildup, skin feels cleaner and smoother.
- Brighter laundry: Clothes rinse cleaner without hardness minerals. Whites stay whiter.
- Longer appliance life: Prevents scale buildup inside pipes, water heaters and on heating elements.
- Easier housekeeping: Less scrubbing needed to remove soap scum and mineral deposits.
For households with very hard water, a softener can even lead to lower soap and detergent costs since less is required for cleaning when minerals are reduced.
Drawbacks of Water Softeners
Despite their benefits, water softeners also come with some downsides:
- Installation and equipment costs can run from $500 to $3,000 depending on home size and features.
- Increased sodium intake: People on low-sodium diets should consult a doctor before installing a softener.
- More frequent appliance maintenance: The resin bed needs periodic recharging with salt pellets or potassium chloride.
- Possible corrosion issues: Softened water can be more corrosive to metal pipes. Consult a water treatment professional about adding corrosion inhibitors if needed.
- Environmental effects of salt use: Increased sodium discharge into the environment via wastewater. Using potassium chloride salt pellets reduces this impact.
How Do Water Conditioners Work?
While softeners only remove hardness minerals, water conditioners treat a broader range of water quality issues.
Conditioners use filtration media like activated carbon to reduce contaminants that affect taste, odor, and health:
- Chloramine disinfectants
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
- Heavy metals like lead and mercury
- Foul odors and tastes
- Cloudiness and particulates
Other conditioners utilize technologies like ultraviolet light, ozone, or reverse osmosis to disinfect bacteria and microorganisms in untreated well water.
Unlike water softeners, conditioners do not eliminate hardness minerals. The water continues to contain calcium and magnesium ions.
Benefits of Using a Water Conditioner
Water conditioners offer several advantages:
- Better tasting water: Removes chlorine and VOC impurities for improved flavor.
- Fewer contaminants: Lowers health risks by reducing lead, mercury, bacteria and other pollutants.
- Helps appliances last: Removes sediment and chlorine that can damage appliances over time.
- No increase to sodium levels: Unlike softeners, conditioners do not add any sodium to drinking water.
- Lower costs: Conditioners tend to have lower equipment, installation and maintenance costs compared to softeners.
- Environmentally friendly: Conditioners use filtration media that doesn’t require ongoing salt or potassium pellets for regeneration.
Drawbacks of Water Conditioners
On the downside, water conditioners have a few limitations:
- They do not soften water: Conditioners allow calcium and magnesium hardness minerals to remain.
- More frequent filter changes: Filtration media needs regular replacement, from every 3-6 months.
- Not effective for some contaminants: Certain heavy metals and microorganisms may require additional treatment systems.
- Higher wattage: Ozone and UV disinfection conditioners use more electricity.
- Added maintenance: Sediment filters need cleaning when clogged to maintain effectiveness.
Water Softener Vs. Conditioner Comparison
To help decide which system best fits your home’s needs, here’s a quick comparison of key factors:
|Factor||Water Softener||Water Conditioner|
|Ongoing Costs||Salt pellets, annual maintenance||Filter replacements every 3-6 months|
|Installation||Plumbed into water supply lines||Plumbed in or connected to faucets|
|Removes Hardness Minerals||Yes||No|
|Protects Pipes and Appliances||Yes||Maybe|
Choosing the Right System
When deciding between a water softener and conditioner, consider these factors:
- Water hardness level – Softeners are more critical for very hard water above 10-15 grains per gallon. Milder hardness may do fine with just a conditioner.
- House size – Softeners are better for larger homes with more sinks, showers and appliances using water.
- Sodium intake – People on low-sodium diets may need to avoid softeners. Consult your doctor.
- Well water treatment – Conditioners with UV or ozone disinfection work well to make untreated well water potable and safe.
- Appliance protection – For maximum appliance lifespan, softeners provide the most mineral scale prevention.
- Budget – Conditioners generally have lower equipment and maintenance costs.
Choosing a combination system with both softening and conditioning capabilities provides optimal water treatment for many homes. Professional installers can help you select the right system. They’ll take into account considerations like your water quality, household size, appliance types, and more.
Maintaining Water Treatment Systems
Softeners and conditioners require some occasional maintenance to keep providing clean water:
- Periodically check the salt level and refill the brine tank as needed. Don’t let it empty completely.
- Test water hardness monthly and recharge the resin more frequently if hardness creeps up.
- Change any pre-filters that remove sediment as recommended.
- Clean the brine tank annually to prevent salt bridge buildup.
- Have a professional inspect, adjust settings, and service the softener annually.
- Replace any disposable filter cartridges per the manufacturer’s schedule.
- Clean the outside housing as needed to keep the system hygienic.
- Properly dispose of used filters.
- Test water periodically to ensure the conditioner is working effectively.
- Inspect carbon filters and reverse osmosis membranes annually and replace if needed.
Buying a Water Treatment System
Quality water softeners and conditioners are available from many retailers:
- Plumbing supply stores – Carry major brands of treatment systems and parts. Staff are knowledgeable.
- Home improvement stores – Offer a range of home water filtration and softening products. Limited expertise.
- Online retailers – Provide convenience and quick shipping direct to your home. Chat with sales reps for assistance choosing products.
- Manufacturer websites – Companies like Fleck, Culligan, Kinetico and Aquios sell systems directly to consumers.
Look for reputable brands certified by NSF International or the Water Quality Association. Be sure any company you hire for installation is licensed, bonded and insured.
Dealing with the unwanted effects of hard water can quickly become a chore. The right water softening or conditioning system makes everyday cleaning and bathing a breeze while also protecting plumbing and appliances.
Consider your home’s unique water quality situation and household needs to decide between a softener or conditioner. With regular maintenance, your chosen water treatment system will provide healthier, cleaner water for years to come.
What is the main difference between a water softener and a water conditioner?
The key difference is that water softeners remove hardness minerals like calcium and magnesium using an ion exchange process. Water conditioners do not soften water but rather remove other contaminants like chlorine, lead, bacteria, and foul tastes and odors using filtration media.
How can I tell if I need a water softener or just a conditioner?
Test your water’s hardness level first. If hardness is above 7-10 grains per gallon, a softener is recommended. For lower hardness levels, just a conditioner may suffice. Also consider house size, sodium intake issues, well water treatment needs, and budget.
What ongoing maintenance is required for water softeners?
Water softeners need occasional recharging with salt pellets when the resin bed becomes saturated with hardness minerals. Test water hardness monthly. Annual tasks include inspecting the brine tank, checking settings, and having a professional service the softener.
How often do water conditioner filters need to be changed?
Most water conditioners require replacing disposable filter cartridges every 3-6 months. Specific schedules depend on water usage and the manufacturer’s recommendations. Some filters and media may last longer between changes.
Can I install a water softener or conditioner myself?
Most softeners and conditioners require professional installation due to the plumbing modifications needed. Hiring a certified installer ensures proper permitting, codes compliance, and manufacturer warranty coverage. Complex treatment systems especially require expertise.