The terms “water conditioner” and “water softener” are often used interchangeably, but they are two very distinct methods of water treatment. While both can be used to prevent limescale buildup and hard water damage to plumbing and appliances, water softeners offer additional benefits beyond scale prevention. Some homes may be more suited to a water conditioner than a water softener, and others may need to reap the benefits a water softener provides. Below you can find information about the differences between water conditioners and water softeners, the advantages each possess over the other, and which applications best suit each treatment solution.
What does a water conditioner do?
A water conditioner is a system that prevents the buildup of limescale in plumbing by changing the chemical makeup of the water. It doesn't actually soften water, yet it is often referred to as a "salt-free water softener". The system uses a template-assisted crystallization (TAC) media to catch minerals like magnesium and calcium. These minerals build up until they break off into the output water. This makes the water still hard, but it can't stick to pipes and appliances.
Learn more: The truth about salt-free water softeners
How does a water conditioner differ from a water softener?
The most obvious difference between a water conditioner and a water softener is the absence of salt in a water conditioner, but the differences do not stop there. These two systems differ in the amount of water they use, the contaminants they remove, the contaminants they add, their effectiveness against limescale, and their cost.
Water softeners contain resin beads that exchange their sodium ions for hardening ions in water as it passes through the system. Once the resin beads lose their ability to exchange ions, a salt solution backwashes through the beads to rejuvenate the resin. This process flushes about 20 to 25 gallons of salt solution into the wastewater line. While this may seem like a significant volume of water, limescale caused by hard water can cause appliances to become less efficient, using more water than their limescale-free counterparts. In the long term, a home with a water softener can use less water than a home without any water hardness treatment.
Learn more: What is a water softener and how does it work?
In contrast to water softeners, water conditioners do not produce wastewater. Rather, they cause calcium and magnesium crystals to form in nucleation sites within the TAC media. This process does not require flushing at any point, wasting no water in the treatment process. Water conditioners are not as effective at preventing limescale buildup as water softeners, so water can be wasted if limescale forces appliances to work harder than normal. However, a water conditioner offers a significant improvement over no treatment system at all.
Water softeners physically remove hardening minerals from water, but water conditioners simply change the chemistry of these minerals. In addition to crystallizing calcium and magnesium, water conditioners can remove chlorine, a chemical found in city-treated water that causes a foul taste and odor.
While water softeners remove calcium and magnesium from hard water, they replace these minerals with sodium. A true water softener must use salt to exchange ions within the water. Water conditioners do not exchange any ions, and, as a result, do not use salt to treat water. These systems do not add any outside elements to water. Instead, they change the structure of the minerals already found in the water.
Effectiveness against limescale
One of the main purposes of water hardness treatment is the reduction of limescale buildup in the plumbing of a home. Both water conditioners and water softeners provide protection against scaling in plumbing, but water softeners are slightly more effective. Because conditioned water is not soft, the calcium and magnesium remain in the form of crystals. Given enough time, the calcium and magnesium will revert to the same chemical structure they were in before conditioning. This leaves plumbing susceptible to limescale buildup. Soft water does not contain the minerals needed to form limescale, so the risk of buildup is eliminated with a water softener.
Water conditioners and water softeners share similar upfront costs, but water softeners require more maintenance costs than conditioners. For example, a Neo-Pure whole-home water softener for 3-4 bathrooms costs $1381. A Neo-Pure salt-free conditioner for a house of the same size costs $1177. You can expect to spend $200 to $500 on a water softener each year. A water conditioner, on the other hand, typically requires less than $100 of maintenance per year.
When should I use a water conditioner instead of a water softener?
Because they do not truly soften water, water conditioners cannot compete with water softeners if soft water is your primary objective. However, water conditioners do provide advantages that make them preferable to water softeners in certain situations.
1. In locations where water softeners are illegal
Water softeners use a salt-water solution to recharge the resin beads within the system. The byproduct of this process is a brine that flushes into the city wastewater lines. In some states and cities, water softeners are banned because the wastewater produced is difficult to treat. California, Texas, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts all have bans or restrictions on water softeners. Individual municipalities also possess their own regulations on these systems. Water conditioners, unlike water softeners, do not produce wastewater that is difficult to treat. In locations where water softeners are banned or heavily regulated, a water conditioner is a viable anti-scaling alternative to a water softener.
2. In environmentally friendly applications
Because water conditioners do not produce extremely salty wastewater, they are more environmentally friendly than water softeners. The chlorides water softeners inject into wastewater are difficult for treatment plants to remove. It takes as little as one teaspoon of sodium chloride to substantially pollute five gallons of water. As water softeners continue to recharge over time, more salt is added to city water, increasing the treatment difficulty each recharge.
Water conditioners, on the other hand, do not release chlorides into wastewater. In fact, they do not produce wastewater at all. This means water conditioners not only prevent harmful salts from flowing into city water, but they also use less water than water softeners.
3. When scaling is the only concern
Water conditioners do not soften water. Instead, they cause the magnesium and calcium in hard water to crystallize. These minerals are still present in conditioned water, but they are not able to coat pipes or appliances. Conditioned water’s taste, feel, and effects on the body remains unchanged. If scaling is the only concern with your hard water, a water conditioner may be the right choice for you.
Learn more: How to prevent limescale buildup in your home
4. If you are on a low-sodium diet
Low-sodium diets are a common method to treating elevated blood pressure. Water softeners exchange sodium ions for hardening ions when water passes through, ultimately adding sodium content to the softened water. If a water softener is the only treatment method used in your home and you are on a low-sodium diet, the sodium content in water produced by a softener can cause adverse effects.
If you are only concerned with scaling in your home and do not mind the presence of calcium and magnesium in your water, you can use a water conditioner in place of a water softener. This will ensure that only naturally occurring sodium will be present in your water. If you want to guarantee your water contains as little sodium as possible, a reverse osmosis system implemented after your water softener or conditioner can reduce levels of sodium, iron, lead, and most other contaminants in water.
Learn more: What is a reverse osmosis system?
5. If you do not need a point-of-entry system
Water softeners are point-of-entry systems, meaning they treat all water that enters a home. Water conditioners, on the other hand, can be either point-of-entry or point-of-use systems. A point-of-use system is an application-specific water treatment solution that can be installed for faucets or individual appliances. One common location for point-of-use water conditioners is pre-treatment for a hot water heater. Water heaters are more susceptible to limescale buildup than other appliances because they deal with hot water. Vaporized water leaves behind calcium and magnesium, causing limescale buildup to proceed faster than in room-temperature water. If your water heater struggles with limescale, but you do not notice scaling elsewhere in your home, a point-of-use water conditioner may be right for you.
When should I use a water softener instead of a water conditioner?
Water softeners are the only true water-softening systems available because salt must be used to remove hardness minerals. Consequently, they are preferable to applications where soft water is needed.
1. When you need truly soft water
Water softeners, unlike water conditioners, produce water that is free from hardening minerals. Soft water prevents the many effects hard water can have around your home, such as limescale buildup, itchy skin, flat hair, spots on dishes, faded color in clothing, and soap scum buildup. Water conditioners are designed to prevent limescale buildup by crystallizing calcium and magnesium, but they do not remove these minerals, meaning their effects outside of plumbing preservation remain. Only using a water softener provides the benefits that soft water can provide.
2. When you use well water
Well water is oftentimes very high in hardness, but a water conditioner cannot be used on well water. Iron and manganese are prevalent in wells, and these minerals are tough on the interiors of water conditioners. These minerals block the TAC media in water conditioners, preventing the calcium and magnesium from crystallizing. When left untouched, the calcium and magnesium coat plumbing inside the home, causing the limescale issues the conditioner was intended to prevent.
Water softeners can remove small amounts of ferrous iron from water, but they cannot remove ferric iron. High levels of iron in water can clog the resin beads inside a water softener, shortening the system’s lifespan. To prevent the effects of iron on a water softener, a chemical solution must be backwashed through the resin beads to cleanse them from the iron content. An effective filtration method for removing iron from well water is reverse osmosis, a system commonly used in conjunction with water softeners.
Learn more: How to remove iron from well water
If you have any additional questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.