What Is the Difference Between a Water Softener and a Water Conditioner?

Updated on:
March 7, 2024

You have undoubtedly come across water softeners and water conditioners in your hunt for the best water treatment systems for your home. While both are used to improve water quality, there are important distinctions between them that you should know. 

When choosing between a water softener and a water conditioner, it’s crucial to keep in mind that they both serve a distinct purpose. Let’s compare and contrast water softeners and water conditioners to see which is better for your home and why.

What Is a Water Softener? 

A water softener is a device that removes minerals that cause water hardness, especially calcium and magnesium, from water. This water treatment system uses potassium or sodium chloride to completely remove hard water mineral ions. 

Because potassium chloride and sodium chloride are both salts, a water softener is often referred to as a salt-based water softener. These terms are synonymous. Essentially, all water softeners are salt-based water softeners..

To soften water, this water treatment system relies on a process called ion exchange. During the ion-exchange process, hard water passes through a resin bed filled with plastic beads coated with sodium ions. The calcium and magnesium ions in the water attach to the resin beads and are exchanged for the sodium ions. 

Once the resin bed is saturated with calcium and magnesium ions, the water softener enters a regeneration cycle. During this process, a saltwater/brine solution flushes the resin bed, which displaces the calcium and magnesium ions and replaces them with sodium ions.

The mineral-filled wastewater is then flushed out of the softener unit and down the drain.
For a more detailed description of how a water softener works, check out this article.

Advantages of a Water Softener

Water softeners are the best solution to having mineral-free soft water at home. Here’s a list of advantages you’ll enjoy when you install a water-softening system at home:

  • Reduced scaling: A water softener can effectively remove the minerals that cause hardness in water, such as calcium and magnesium, which can lead to scaling on appliances and plumbing fixtures.
  • Increased lifespan of appliances: By reducing the buildup of mineral deposits, water softeners can extend the lifespan of appliances such as dishwashers, washing machines, and water heaters.
  • Better performance of soaps and detergents: Soft water allows soap and detergents to lather more easily, which can lead to better cleaning performance and less soap consumption.
  • Softer skin and hair: Soft water is gentler on the skin and hair, leading to reduced irritation and dryness.
  • Better food and drinking water: A water softener purifies your cooking and drinking water, avoiding the buildup of iron, sulfur, and magnesium, which cause acidic tastes.
  • Cleaner kitchenware: Hard water leaves stains and spots on kitchenware. When you wash your cutlery in hard water, it can appear cloudy instead of shiny. Water softeners remove hardness ions from your tap water, leaving your kitchenware clean and shiny.

This article on the benefits of a water softener sheds more light on the value of having a water softener at home.

Disadvantages of a Water Softener

Like every other home appliance, water softeners have their fair share of disadvantages:

  • Increased sodium content: Water softeners typically use sodium or potassium ions to replace the hardness minerals in water during the ion-exchange process. This can result in an increase in sodium levels in the water, which may be a concern for those on a low-sodium diet.
  • Higher operating costs: Water softeners require salt or potassium pellets to regenerate the ion-exchange resin, which can result in higher operating costs.
  • Effects on the environment: The discharge from water softeners may contain high levels of salt, which can harm plants and aquatic life if not properly managed. They also use a large amount of water.
  • Maintenance: Water softeners require periodic maintenance, including refilling the salt or potassium pellets and cleaning the brine tank. This article describes the process of cleaning a water softener. 

There are numerous brands of water softeners available on the market. To find out which is best for your home, read my review of the best water softeners. Some water treatment dealerships also provide an option for renting a water softener. To find out the cost implications of renting vs buying, read this article.

What Is a Water Conditioner?

A water conditioner is often labeled, albeit incorrectly, as a salt-free water softener. In fact, there is no such thing as a salt-free water softener. A water conditioner is more of a “descaler” or “scale reducer” that neutralizes hard-water minerals as opposed to eliminating excess hard minerals.

Certain hard minerals are beneficial to the human body. Hence, water conditioners strive to resolve the irritating difficulties produced by scale buildup without compromising the water’s nutritional value. 

With a water conditioner in place, the days of endlessly scraping away at the buildup surrounding the bathtub are over.

It’s important to note that there are different types of water conditioners on the market, so it’s good to consult with a water treatment specialist to determine the best solution for your specific water-quality concerns.

Types of Water Conditioners

The following is a list of popular water-conditioning technologies available on the market:

Template assisted crystallization (TAC)

During template assisted crystallization, water passes through a tank containing a catalytic medium. This medium is made up of small polymer beads covered with craters known as “nucleation sites.” These nucleation sites serve as templates for the formation of hardness micro-crystals.

As hard water comes into contact with the medium, the magnesium and calcium ions are captured by the nucleation sites. Little microcrystals form when more calcium and magnesium ions accumulate inside the sites. As the crystals reach a specific size, they break free from the medium and fall into the water.

These micro-crystals are stable and will preserve their crystalline form as they pass through your plumbing, ensuring that scale does not build up in the pipes.

Magnetic water treatment

Magnetic water conditioners use magnets to change the molecular structure of hard-water minerals, making them less likely to stick to surfaces and form scale. However, there is limited scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of magnetic water conditioners.

Electromagnetic water conditioning (electrolysis)

Electromagnetic water conditioners use electrical currents to alter the charge of hard water minerals, preventing them from sticking to surfaces and forming scale. However, like magnetic water conditioners, there is limited scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of electromagnetic water conditioning.


Chelation is a process that uses chemicals to bind with hard-water minerals and prevent them from forming scale. However, chelation can be expensive and may introduce additional chemicals into the water.

You can read my article on water softener alternatives to find out more about these water treatment methods.

Advantages of Water Conditioners

Water conditioners are particularly effective in neutralizing the effects of hard minerals from the water supply in your house. 

Here’s a list of advantages that you’ll enjoy with a water conditioner at home:

  • Longer-lasting pipes: Water conditioners increase the efficiency and lifespan of your pipework, lowering maintenance costs.
  • Improved health: The ion-exchange process can remove important minerals from your water supply (such as aragonite) that are beneficial to your health. A water conditioner ensures these healthy minerals remain intact while still protecting your appliances from scale buildup.
  • Less maintenance: Since they do not require periodic regeneration with salt, a water conditioner typically requires less maintenance than traditional water softeners.
  • Environmentally friendly: Unlike water softeners, water conditioners do not produce waste brine water

Disadvantages of Water Conditioners

Water conditioners, just like water softeners, have disadvantages that you need to have in mind before making a purchase decision:

  • Water hardness: Water conditioners DO NOT remove hardness minerals that cause water hardness. This means that your water is not entirely soft and you might need to install an additional whole-house softening system.
  • High price: Modern multifunctional water conditioners can have built-in water filtration technologies that increase their purchase cost.
  • Untested: Technologies like magnetic water treatment and electrolysis have not been scientifically proven to actually solve the issue of water hardness.

Water Conditioner vs Water Softener: Which Is Better?

Whether a water softener or a water conditioner is better for you depends on your specific needs and the quality of your water. If your main concern is hard water, then a water softener is the better option. It will effectively remove the minerals that cause hardness and improve your hair and skin and help prevent scaling on your fixtures and appliances.

However, if your water has low levels of hardness and you would like to retain some healthy minerals in your water supply, a water conditioner is the way to go. They are also great for people on a low-sodium diet.

The cost of a water softener or a water conditioner can vary widely depending on several factors, such as the brand, the size, and the type of technology used. However, in general, water softeners tend to be more expensive than water conditioners.

It’s important to consider not only the upfront costs but also the long-term operating costs, such as maintenance, replacements, and electricity usage. A water quality specialist can test your home’s water supply and provide guidance on the most cost-effective solution for your specific needs.

If you’re interested in comparing various water filtration options further, there are several crucial factors worth exploring. Take a look at our pages that showcase the top-rated well water filters for more detailed information.

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