What’s a Water Conditioner?

It might sound like a special type of machine, but a water conditioner is simpler than that. It simply refers to any system or device that can change the quality of water. Under this definition, a water conditioner can be any of the following:

  • Water softener – these systems use ion exchange to remove minerals from water, like calcium and magnesium, replacing them with sodium ions. This removes the hardness in water, giving it a flat taste and slick feel.
  • Activated carbon filter – these filters work to adsorb contaminants from water. It’s a popular filtration method and is ideal at removing chlorine in the water.
  • Reverse osmosis – this system pushes water through a semi-permeable membrane, which forces the contaminants to be stripped from the water. The clean water continues on through the pipes, while the contaminants are removed with wastewater.
  • Distillation – this system changes water to vapor then collects the condensation. It results in extremely pure water, free of almost all impurities. The resulting water is flat and flavorless, with nothing in it.
  • Demineralizerthese systems remove the minerals in water much like a water softener, but don’t replace them with sodium ions. The result is sodium-free demineralized water.
  • Chemical treatments – water is often treated with chemicals like chlorine, iodine or fluoride for one reason or another. These treatments change the water quality, with some giving distinct smells and tastes to the water.
  • Water disinfectants – a water disinfectant can be a chemical, like chlorine, or more complex like UV light. The result is water free of biological contaminants.
  • Filter – there are many filtration methods, some of which have already been listed here. These include filters targeting the removal of sediment, iron and a range of other contaminants.
Man installing whole house water filter

The list mentioned here relate to more standard water conditioning treatments. However, anything can work as a water conditioner if it affects the water quality in some way. For example, a DIY water filter is an excellent example of a water conditioner as it affects the condition of the water. To put it another way, let’s imagine you have some dirty water on hand and want to clean it. What would you do? If you run it through a cloth to strain it and filter out the dirt, you’ve conditioned the water with a piece of cloth.

What Conditioners Do to Water

There are several issues related to water that conditioners address. These include the following:

  • Water hardness – this refers to excessive levels of minerals in water. Taking out these minerals would result in soft water, reducing scale build up, scum and spotting.
  • Taste and smell – when there are various chemicals or metals in water, like chlorine, heavy metals or sulfide, the water can smell and taste off.
  • Turbidity – this occurs when there’s a lot of physical contaminants and TDS in water, resulting in cloudy or milky looking water.
  • Health related contaminants – these refer to the main contaminants that are regulated by the EPA. These include lead, arsenic and biological contaminants like viruses, bacteria, cysts, hormones and spores.
Types of water conditioning mediums

Categorizing Water Conditioners

We’ve already listed the main types of conditioners but let’s take a look at the general category into which each of these conditioners fall. In other words, what are the ways that water can be conditioned.

  • Adsorption – this is when contaminants in water are attracted and stick to some form of medium. This results in the contaminant getting out of the water stream. Activated Carbon is the best example for an adsorption medium.
  • Ion Exchange – this system is where certain unwanted ions in the water are removed and exchanged for harmless ions. This isn’t a chemical reaction and is done by a physical medium.
  • Separation – this refer to systems where contaminants are separated from the water, typically through filtration like reverse osmosis or micro-filtration.
  • Disinfection – this kills microorganisms in water and is typically done through chemical or UV lighting.
  • Processes – this refers to systems where a certain process changes the quality of water. Distillation, aeration and settling are examples of this category.
  • Chemical – this category refers to various chemicals used in water to attain a certain state. Examples include coagulants, acids, chlorine and bases.  

The Bottom Line

By now it’s clear that a water conditioner doesn’t refer to a single type of equipment but is a much more general term. All water filtration solutions and treatment systems are water conditioners, with various functions and purposes.

To learn about water softeners systems, read our detailed article here.

To learn about whole house filtration systems, go here

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