Water Softeners Vs Water Conditioners

If you’re looking for a solution to hard water issues, you’ve probably come across salt-based water softeners and salt-free water conditioners.

These two products are the most popular ways to fix the major downsides of living with hard mineral water.

  • But what’s the difference between water softeners and water conditioners—and which type of system is best for your needs?

Let’s take a quick look at how softeners and conditioners work, and then review the major reasons why you might choose one over the other.

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Softener vs conditioner: Quick look

Looking for some quick recommendations? Here’s when you should consider a water softener versus a water conditioner:

Water softeners are generally more effective for:

  • Improving water feel
  • Treating moderate to extreme water hardness

  • Treating hard well water

  • Lower initial purchase costs

Water conditioners are generally more effective for:

  • Removing future and pre-existing scale

  • Retaining mineral water taste

  • Treating low to moderate water hardness

  • Lower long-term running costs

How does a water softener work?

Water softeners are the traditional hard water treatment devices that most people have in mind when they talk about “Water softening.”

These products use a highly pure salt (usually sodium or potassium) to induce a scientific process called ion exchange.

Due to the natural charge of the hard mineral ions in the water supply and the salt inside the softener, each substance is attracted towards each other and exchange position.

As a result, the hard mineral ions become trapped inside the water softener, while the soft salt ions dissolve into the water supply.

How does a water conditioner work?

Water conditioners don’t use salt or ion exchange. Because of this, they don’t actually remove hard minerals from the water supply.

Instead, conditioners contain resin beads with active sites that encourage hard mineral ions to crystalize, forming micro-crystals that remain in the water supply. In their crystallized state, however, it’s much more difficult for hard minerals to bind with surfaces and form scale.

As a result, water conditioners fix the issue of mineral scale, without stripping mineral water of its pleasing taste or minor health benefits.

For a more detailed look at how these two types of water treatment products work, here’s our full article: How does a water softener work?

Should I buy a water softener or water conditioner?

There are pros and cons to using either type of water softener. Here are a couple of things you might want to consider when trying to decide between salt-based and salt-free units:

For water taste: Water conditioner (depending upon preference)

Many people enjoy the taste of water with high mineral content, and some studies even show that mineral water confers minor health benefits. Because water softeners strip minerals from the water supply, they also affect how water tastes.

Depending upon your preference, this can be a good or a bad thing. But as most people tend to prefer the taste of harder water, we recommend water conditioners for retaining optimum flavor.

For water feel: Water softener (depending upon preference)

For the same reason that water softeners affect water taste, they also affect the way that water feels on skin and hair.

The minerals in hard water can break down the oil barrier in skin and hair, leading to itchiness or dryness—so when softeners remove the majority of calcium and magnesium from water, they create a water supply with a soft, slippery, oily feel.

Many people prefer this softer texture for showering and bathing, thanks to its moisturizing effect (in comparison to hard water). If that includes you, we recommend a water softener over a conditioner.

For removing scale: Water conditioner

Water conditioners are designed for a single purpose: to reduce mineral scale build-up in your pipes and appliances. A correctly functioning water conditioner will prevent water from adding scale to your home, and should also be able to descale your system, removing pre-existing deposits.

While most conditioners are unlikely to completely remove annoying chalky stains (especially if water is very hard), they will make those stains much easier to wipe away.

Water softeners will also have a descaling effect, but this benefit comes alongside a bunch of effects to water taste, feel, and profile that consumers may or may not be interested in.

If your main reason for buying a water treatment device is to reduce scale, and you don’t have extremely hard water, we recommend a water conditioner.

For very hard water: Water softener

If you’re on well water or live in a part of the country where tap water contains extremely high levels of hard minerals, nothing beats a well-made traditional water softener.

While water conditioners can still function with very hard water, they do have maximum capacities at which they max-out, and will have no further effect on scale formation.

Likewise, water softeners may not be able to remove all of the hard minerals from very hard water, but they will have a much more noticeable effect.

Because they operate using manual refills of salt, it’s possible for a water softener handle higher quantities of hard minerals by using up the salt supply more quickly and refilling it on a more regular schedule.

For value for money: Tie

Most water softeners are less expensive to buy than water conditioners. This is especially the case for basic water softeners that operate on a simple timer, rather than more modern models containing microprocessors and digital screens.

Unlike water conditioners, however, water softeners need to be refilled periodically with a new supply of salt.

These salt bags only cost between $10 and $20, but that repeated maintenance cost can mount over months and years, removing any savings made during the initial purchase.

Key points

  • Both water softeners and water conditioners help to remove mineral scale caused by hard water.
  • Unlike a softener, however, a conditioner won’t affect the taste or feel of hard water.
  • This is because conditioners alter the format of hard minerals, while softeners remove the minerals altogether.