Water Softener vs. Water Conditioner

If you’re having problems with your tap water’s hardness, taste, odors, or possible contaminants, you’re likely wondering what type of water filtration system you should get. There are dozens of different water filtration, softening, and conditioning systems on the market.

It can get confusing when you consider how broad and overlapping some of these terms are or how many systems utilize multiple filtering and conditioning methods at once.

Two common terms you’re likely to see are water softener and water conditioner. What are those exactly, and what’s the difference between the two? Let’s find out.

What is a water softener?

A water softener is the more straight-forward of the two terms even if there’s a bit of ambiguity there as well. In short, a water softener is any water filtration system that makes hard water softer.

We talked about hard water and how to make it soft in this article but in short, hard water is any water that contains too many minerals such as calcium and magnesium. It’s usually harmless for our health – although it can affect that too in certain cases – but it’s mostly harmful to our home’s water pipes and appliances as the minerals can build up over time and cause malfunctions.

Water softeners fix that problem by filtering the water through a resin bed where the water is stripped from its hard minerals via ionic exchange. During the process, the hardness minerals are replaced with sodium or potassium ions, i.e. salt.

The end result is a softer water that doesn’t have any of the characteristics and drawbacks associated with hard water but has its own pros and cons instead.

Ion exchange water softeners all work on this principle but can vary from one another based on what type of salt ions they are using or what the exact mechanisms of the system are. Some work on a Demand Initiated Regeneration method where the softened water is filtered based on your expected consumption. Other softeners work on a more manual principle.

Reverse Osmosis systems can also be used to soften your water. However, that’s not their primary function and you’ll have to make sure you want all their other functions as well if you choose that.

What is a water conditioner?

Water conditioners are where things get a bit more complicated. To put it simply, a water conditioner is any system that changes the quality or condition of the water. This means that it can refer to a wide variety of systems, including water softeners.

Under Sink Water Filter System Closeup
A filtration system is a water conditioner

Most commonly, water conditioners are filtration systems that address the water hardness issue without actually lowering the water’s mineral contents or introducing salt ions in it. There are several different types of water conditioners that do this with all essentially working to prevent the calcium and magnesium ions from building up in your pipes and appliances instead of removing them altogether.

This may sound like a bandaid solution but it’s more than that – a lot of people don’t like water softeners because adding too much sodium or potassium ions to your water can have health-related drawbacks for people with kidney problems, cardiovascular issues or who take certain medications that interfere with potassium absorption.

Most water conditioners skip that problem by not tinkering with the contents of your tap water but simply limiting the mineral buildup problem. Different types of water conditioners do this in different ways:

  • Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC) and Nucleation Assisted Crystallization (NAC) Systems crystalize the minerals in your water which prevents them from sticking to the surfaces in your home’s pipes and appliances.
  • Chelation systems add chelation agents to your water such as nitriloacetic acid. Their purpose is to adhere to the calcium and magnesium ions and prevent them from building up in your pipes and appliances that way.
  • Magnetic and electronic water conditioners produce electromagnetic fields that affect the mineral contents in your water and prevent buildup by forcing the minerals to be “repelled” by surfaces.

All three of these methods leave the water as safe for drinking as it was otherwise and simply reduce the mineral buildup in your pipes and appliances.

Something else people mean when they talk about water conditioners is the many different water filter devices out there. Both carbon filters and entire reverse osmosis filtration systems can be called water conditioners by consumers and professionals alike as they do condition your water. Plus, many filtration systems such as RO systems utilize several different methods at once, including carbon filters, softening filters, conditioners, and/or others.

Water softener vs. water conditioner – how do they compare?

The simplest way to put it is that a water softener is a type of water conditioner. Instead of asking which is the better option, it’s better to ask what you want to have done on your water.

  • If you don’t only want to reduce mineral buildup from your water but you want to remove the minerals altogether, go for an ion exchange water softener or a RO system.
  • If you want to reduce mineral buildup but you don’t want to add sodium or potassium ions in your water for health-related reasons, pick whichever type of water conditioner fits your preferences and circumstances best, like a demineralizer.
  • If you need to treat your water for certain types of contaminants or bad taste/odor, a carbon filter, a reverse osmosis system, or another water filtration method that targets your water’s particular contaminants should be your first choice.

The Bottom Line

Water conditioners and water softeners are similar in that all water softeners are water conditioners BUT NOT ALL water conditioners are water softeners. That’s a very simple way to understand the differences between these two systems. However, there are differences in how these systems operate. The most important factor is to diagnose the issues with your water by testing your water, and then choose the best solution to these issues. This will determine the type of water conditioner that you require.

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