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.