Water Softener vs Water Conditioner: Which One is Better For You?

Water stains are a sign of a problem with hard water. 

Hard water means that your water source contains a high concentration of minerals like calcium and magnesium. It usually contains about 121-180 ppm of various minerals. 

Hard water may cause rough and dry skin, weak and brittle hair, water stains, residue build-up in pipes, and weakens clothing fabric. 

It also influences faster wearing out of appliances that use water, damage faucets, and showerheads, and causes some cleaning materials ineffective in removing dirt. 

How to Know If It’s Hard Water: 

Here are some signs that you are dealing with hard water:

  • It tastes different and smells funny.
  • You always get stubborn water stains.
  • You always find yourself scrubbing that white spot on your mirror (calcium residues).
  • Your pipes get constantly clogged.
  • Scale deposits in kitchen and laundry appliances, and pipes.
  • Your clothes don’t look and smell clean.
  • You and your family gets unexplained skin irritation.

If you observe these signs in your household, you might want to consider getting a water softener or water conditioner system in your home. 

These two systems are often interchanged but they have some distinct differences from one another. 

Knowing those differences will empower you in choosing the right and beneficial system for you to treat water hardness. 

Read on to know more about their specific benefits and advantages.

Water Softener vs. Water Conditioner 

What is a water softener?

A water softener “softens” water (soft water has 0-60 ppm as opposed to 

hard water with 121-180 ppm) by the ion exchange process. 

Since the magnesium and calcium in the water carry a positive charge, they will be attracted to a negatively charged ion. 

A resin bed is placed within the filtration system. It contains negatively charged resin beads. 

Sodium ions, with a weak positive charge, is then added to the system wherein they immediately cling to the negatively charged resin bed. 

The water then goes through the system and attaches to the resin bed in turn kicking out the weak positively charged salt. 

This process results in soft water that will not ruin your household. This system is guaranteed reliable, available and effective in eliminating hard water.

This water system guarantees:

  • No chalk stains
  • Less detergent use (hard water makes cleaning agent inefficient and ineffective)
  • Healthier skin and hair
  • Softer clothes
  • Longer shelf life for your kitchen and laundry appliances

While softeners have great benefits, it also has their disadvantages. 

Here are some things that you need to consider before installing a water softener in your home:

  • Unable to filter contaminants: It doesn’t filter out possible harmful contaminants and you may need a different system for that. 

Water has many contaminants like iron, chlorine, fluoride, metals, and other toxins, and toxic chemicals and water softener will not filter them out.

  • Unpleasant taste: Water may have an unpleasant taste and you may not like it, though some reported preferring the taste of water out of this system.
  • Not suitable for all diets: Water will not be beneficial for those with a low sodium diet. 
  • Expensive: It is a bit costly to install with prices $2000.00 up and is not suited for those renting as it can alter your house and surroundings significantly.
  • Maintenance: It will require extensive maintenance. Resin beds have to be routinely changed as well as the monthly refilling of bags of salt. 

It takes a little more TLC as you have to watch for the recrystallization of salt and the forming of salt bridges in the brine tank or resin tank.

  • Water consumption: Regeneration cycles will consume a large amount of water at approximately 50 gallons each cycle.

If you find that a water softener is not suited to your needs and requirements, then you might want to consider a water conditioner.

  1. What is a water conditioner?

Water conditioner is sometimes called “salt-free water” softener though they don’t actually soften water. 

What it does is manipulate how minerals behave in water to avoid scaling due to mineral deposits. 

As opposed to traditional water softeners, a water conditioner doesn’t eliminate calcium ions and magnesium ions which are beneficial to the health of a person. 

It just makes sure that they don’t build up on pipes and drainage causing havoc in your household.

There are different types of salt-free water softeners or water conditioners that you can choose from.

Types of Salt-free Water Softeners or Water Conditioners

Carbon Filtration Water Conditioner

Carbon filtration uses activated carbon to absorb chemicals such as sulfur if you have well water and chlorine from city waters. 

It can also filter some toxins, pesticides and herbicides, and most organic compounds and elements. 

Most carbon sources used in infiltration come from bituminous coal, peat, and coconut shells. 

EPA’s only recommendation for water with a higher than normal concentration of contaminants is to use activated carbon as a water filter. 

Carbon filtration is a highly effective water treatment system. 

Good carbon filters have a short life span because they filter so much as opposed to those promising a life span of three to five years. 

If your carbon filters have a long life span, they may not be doing their work properly.


Electrolysis is best suited for highly acidic water supply sources (low pH water) with a high concentration of sulfates. 

This uses metal electrodes where positive zinc ions are released. When the zinc dissolves, you will get soft water. 

One of the benefits of using electrolysis is a higher pH in water that will be suitable for most domestic use. 

It can also separate heavy metals from your water.

Electromagnetic Water Conditioner

Wires and magnets are used to agitate the water causing magnesium and calcium ions to break apart. 

An electrical pulse or magnetic field is used to cause displacement of hardness minerals. 

It doesn’t soften the water but scaling and deposit build-up will then be reduced. 

An electromagnetic water conditioner is primarily used as a descaler. 

Electrical energy is passed through the water conditioner and the minerals in hard water take on crystal forms that precipitate and flow with water.

Catalytic Media Water Conditioner using Template-Assisted Crystallization (TAC)

TAC is mostly known as a salt-free softener and is one of the popular choices for preferred water conditioner systems. 

Resin beads are used as catalytic nucleation sites where hard mineral ions are stabilized into a crystalline form so they will not cling to any surface. 

Since these crystals are microscopic, they simply flow with the water by adhering to pipes and surfaces.

Electrical Induction

This causes the precipitation of hard minerals that then becomes an electrode. 

This electrode must be cleaned frequently though cleaning it is easy with fast-flowing water.

There are many benefits to using a water conditioning system. 

Benefits of Using a Water Conditioning System: 

  • Water with less to no odor.
  • Minerals contribute to taste in water and since water conditioner doesn’t eliminate helpful minerals, which means that water that underwent water conditioner tends to taste better and improves water quality.
  • Longer lifespan for your plumbing system, drainage system, and appliances.
  • Softens skin and hair.
  • A water conditioner system is a far economical choice than other water treatment systems. 

However, using a salt-free system or water conditioner has its disadvantages as well.

Disadvantages of Using a Water Conditioning System: 

  • Depending on the system you opted to use, the efficiency in descaling ranges from 41% – 98.9%.
  • If you want to eliminate magnesium and calcium in your water, using this water treatment option may not be the best for you.

Knowing the advantages and disadvantages of the water softener and water conditioner treatment systems is important. 

Here is a quick comparison of the main differences and similarities between the two systems to help you decide which water treatment option to use:

Salt-free ConditionerTraditional Salt-Based Water Softener
SaltNot RequiredRequired
Water TasteImprovedMay be unpleasant
Water OdorEliminatedEliminated
Slippery FeelNoYes
Calcium and Magnesium EliminationNoYes
Chlorine and Organic Compound RemovalYesNo
Price RangeMore EconomicalSlightly Costly
Length of ProcessShorterLonger
Efficiency Against Scale Buildup41-98.9%98%++
ElectricityEfficientNot as Efficient
Drainage LineNot RequiredRequired
Water WasteNoYes

What are Things to Consider?

Whichever you opt for a water treatment system, after knowing its benefits and disadvantages, here are some key factors that you should consider before installation:

  1. Size of water softener or conditioner you need by your available space.
  1. Cost-effectiveness depends on what you need. Installing a water softening system when you have negligible calcium and magnesium content is just wasteful.  

If your water source is possibly loaded with contaminants, it would be the best option to use a water conditioner to eliminate harmful contents of water. 

You have to know the condition of your water fixtures first to determine what system you need. 

At the end of your assessment, it may come to you that you won’t need any of the two.

  1. Price range and your budget.
  1. Consider the maintenance requirements of both systems and assess if you can do them. 

Purchase something that you know how to maintain and can do.

Can’t decide between the two?

You may opt to use a reverse osmosis system or water distillation. 

In reverse osmosis, feed water or the water with possible contaminants is pressure forced through a semi-permeable membrane. 

This produces permeate, clean water suitable for drinking and leaving the brine containing the contaminants. 

In water distillation, a heat source or heating element is used to vaporize water and separate it from possible contaminants. Vaporized water is funneled into a condenser into a receiving vessel resulting in clean water. 

Like all water systems, these two have their advantages and disadvantages and you must do thorough research to see if they are suitable for your needs.


  1. How can I determine the hardness levels of my water supply?

If you are getting your water from a public water supply, you can simply get their water quality report to check on the water hardness. 

You can also avail of water test kits widely available in the market.

  1. Can’t I just use the two systems?

It is not advisable to use them at the same time because it may render one of the two systems ineffective, usually the salt-based system.

  1. Can water conditioner “soften” tap water

    Also of Interest: How to drain tank on brine water softener?

As mentioned before, a water conditioner or salt-free water softener doesn’t actually soften water as the minerals are still present. 

It only conditions water to avoid build-up. Salt-free water “softener” is just a misnomer.

  1. Which is the better system to use?

This is a bit more tricky to answer. 

It depends on a lot of factors but the most important thing to know is what is the condition and composition of your current water supply or whole house filter and how it affects your household and go from there. 


Also of Interest: 5 Best Whole House Water Filter to Remove Fluoride and Chlorine

If you want to remove calcium and magnesium, you should definitely use a salt-based water softener. 

But if you are more concerned about other contaminants, you may opt to use carbon filtration, a type of salt-free water conditioner system.

In summary

Hard water is the presence of hard water minerals like calcium and magnesium in your water supply. 

Their presence presents several problems and issues, not just in our household, but also in our overall health. 

Installing an appropriate water treatment system is the best solution to deal with hard water problems. The market offers different water treatment systems. 

The salt-based water softener or simply, water softener, eliminates calcium and magnesium ions that make the water hard. 

This is one of the best ways to soften water. 

However, if you prefer not to add salt to your water system, you can opt to go for the water conditioner, AKA salt-free water softener. 

This doesn’t eliminate the hardness minerals in your water, instead, it changes its composition to transform them into crystals that would not adhere to your pipes and cause plumbing problems. 

It is also the best system to treat water off contaminants such as chlorine, algae, bacteria, and other harmful organic compounds. 

Whichever you choose, assess properly for your specific needs—your water supply quality, your household issues with water, budget, and maintenance factors.

If you have hard water problems, choosing the right water treatment system will reap huge benefits for you and your household.

D. Hahn

DIY guru, dad, husband, blogger. When I'm not creating life hacks I'm teaching my kids how to fix stuff after their dad breaks it.

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