Water softening and water conditioning are two terms that are thrown around a lot the water treatment industry. However, many people do not understand the difference between the two.
It is very important you fully understand the difference between a water softener and a water conditioner before you get one installed. Without the proper knowledge, you may end up with a water treatment system that doesn’t fit your home or business’ needs.
Water Softener vs Water Conditioner
First, let’s cover what a water softener and a water conditioner will do for your water.
A water softener will:
- Remove calcium and magnesium (hardness particles) from your water supply
- Reduce or eliminate scale build-up in appliances and pipes
- Reduce soap and detergent usage
- Reduce dry skin after washing
A water conditioner will:
- Change the chemistry of hardness particles for a certain amount of time
- Reduce scale build up in plumbing for a certain amount of time
- Removes additional chemicals, like chlorine, from water
- Waste less water than a water softener
Now that we have a better idea of what each of these will do. Let’s cover what they won’t do.
A water softener won’t:
- Remove additional harmful chemicals like chlorine, herbicides, and pesticides
- Remove viruses or bacteria from water
- Make tap water healthier to drink
A water conditioner won’t:
- Remove hardness particles from the water
- Keep scale build-up from your appliances, dishes, shower, and bathtub
- Lower TDS (total dissolved solids) in your water
How does a water softener work?
A water softener works by actually removing the hardness particles (like calcium and magnesium) from your water supply. This is done through a process called ion-exchange.
In the water softener tank, there is a bed full of resin. Resin are tiny little plastic beads that hold sodium ions. As hard water flows through the resin, hard water particles stick to the resin beads and are replaced with sodium.
Sodium is a soft mineral that won’t cluster or scale in plumbing, appliances, dishes or your skin. There is a myth that soft water is unhealthy to drink because it contains a lot of sodium. However, in reality, the amount of sodium that is added is less than a slice of bread.
Once the resin is full of hard water particles they must be backwashed (or regenerated). The regeneration process takes salt water from the brine tank and washes it over the resin. This washes the hard water particles off the resin and replaces it with sodium again. Regeneration typically happens every 2-10 days depending on the size of the water softener.
How does a water conditioner work?
Unlike a water softener, a water conditioner does not remove hardness particles from your water supply. It “conditions” water and changes the chemistry of the particles for a certain amount of time to keep it from building up.
“Water conditioner” is a broad term for a wide variety of products and technologies. Here are the most common types of water conditioners.
- Electrically induced precipitation uses a direct electrical current to precipitate water hardness and other compounds. The hardness precipitate forms on an electrode that must be cleaned periodically. Some studies have shown that precipitate forms a soft sludge on surfaces, such as a heating element, that is easily removable by fast-flowing water near the surface.
- Electrochemical water treatment systems induce the removal of dissolved hardness minerals and other contaminants using electricity. The technology goes by several names: continuous electrolytic deionization, capacitive deionization or electrically regenerated ion exchange. The introduction of a negatively charged electrode, or cathode, into the water will cause positively charged cations to move towards it.
- Template-assisted crystallization uses surface-treated resin beads to convert (not remove) dissolved hardness ions to microscopic scale-resistant crystals. The polymeric beads are fluidized creating agitation that releases the microscopic crystals and allows for further formation of crystals. Once these crystals are formed and released from the beads, they are insoluble particles that will not form scale on surfaces.
- Magnetic water treatment, or the use of magnets and electromagnetic devices for water treatment, is a controversial method. The approach is to pass the hard water through a magnetic field in order to form microscopic precipitates that do not form scale on water heaters, pipes, and other plumbing fixtures. There is no scientific consensus as to the effectiveness of magnetic water treatment and as to its removal mechanisms. Thus magnetic water treatment, unlike the other technologies described above, should be regarded as an unproven technology.
How effective is a water conditioner?
Water conditioners range greatly in their effectiveness. Some claim they are over 90% effective in stopping clustering or build up in plumbing.
However, there are multiple reports and reviews that the products don’t live up to consumers’ expectations. It is recommended that consumers should carefully investigate product claims prior to making a purchase of a specific device.
What about “salt-free” water softeners?
A technology that has been thrown around the internet that has a lot of people curious is a “salt-free water softener”.
The truth is, there is no such thing as a salt-free water softener. What they are actually mistakingly referring to is a water conditioner.
Without sodium, you cannot soften water. That is a scientific fact. So, while a salt-free water conditioner can change particles for a certain amount of time, the water is still hard and will revert back to hard water at some point.
Should I get a water softener or water conditioner?
There are pros and cons to both water treatment systems. However, we always recommend a water softener over a water conditioner because it will actually remove the hardness particles from your water and is also far more effective. It also has added benefits of keeping hardness particles off your appliances, your clothes, your skin, and will reduce soap and detergent usage.
If you are concerned about other contaminants or sodium in your drinking water you can always add a filter or reverse osmosis system. Installing these systems after your water softener will remove things like sodium, iron, chlorine, and more from your drinking water.
One thing you should not consider is using both systems. Using a water conditioner before a water softener will change the hardness particles making the ion-exchange in a water softener ineffective. Conversely, using a water softener before a water conditioner will remove the hardness particles leaving the water conditioner mostly useless.
Contact us today to learn more about getting the right water treatment system for your home or business.
Weber, Aaron “The Differences Between Water Softening and Water Conditioning” Hill Water Conditioning, Jan. 21, 2020, https://www.hillwater.com/blog/p-8-water-softener-vs-water-conditioner.aspx