Hardness minerals like calcium and magnesium aren’t bad for your health, just for your pipes. How you deal with them comes down to whether you use a water softener or a water conditioner.
So, when should you use which?
Here is the TL;DR answer:
For very hard water (above 10 GPG), you gotta go for a water softener unless softeners are illegal where you live, or your well is low yield or you live in a drone-prone area. Then in that case, a water softener is simply not a viable option. Being on a sodium-restrictive diet is also a very important consideration.
Other considerations might be a matter of preference. Keep on reading to learn more about other points to consider such as when you’re only concerned about scale buildup, additional contaminants in your water, or maybe you just prefer the taste of your hard water.
What does a water softener do?
A water softener is a type of filtration system that removes calcium and magnesium ions which, when in high concentration, water is referred to as “hard water”. This hard water in turn causes scale formation in appliances and fixtures around the house.
If left untreated, hard water is not only a nuisance (dry and frizzy hair, cloudy dishes, stiff clothes, etc.) but can also affect the lifespan of your appliances (washing machine, heater, dishwasher, etc.) due to scale buildup.
Through the process of ion exchange, magnesium (Mg2+) and calcium (Ca2+) ions attach to the resin beads inside the negatively charged resin tank, displacing the weaker sodium (Na+) and potassium (K+).
Caption: A picture of raisin beads that are usually found in water softeners. These beads are negatively charged and attract positively charged ions.
The water that then comes out of the softener now has little to no magnesium or calcium ions but plenty of sodium or potassium ions. This is what is commonly referred to as “soft water”.
Once that’s done, then you can confidently say that your water softener is working as it should, that is, removing hard water-causing minerals and replacing them with soft water-causing minerals like sodium and potassium.
Like with anything, there are always some pros and cons. Here are some for the water softener:
Water softeners are effective in removing hardness. Once it’s removed, you can enjoy some of these benefits:
- No scale deposits or buildup in your appliances and fixtures
- Better hair days and happier wife and daughter
- Better-tasting coffee, and maybe food
- No more dull and starchy laundry
- Your dishes come out cleaner and shinier
- Increased sodium in your water, is not good for folks on a sodium-restricted diet
- Lots of wastewater can be as high as 100 per regen cycle (1 – 2 per week)
- Not good if you’re in a low-yield well or live in a drought area
- Ongoing maintenance costs and lots of salt trips
- Soft water can feel slippery and not good for plants
What does a water conditioner do?
Unlike a water softener, a water conditioner does not remove the magnesium and calcium ions in your water.
But, rather crystallizes them, in other words, it temporarily changes the chemistry of hardness minerals as they pass through a specialized bead media called template-assisted crystallization (TAC).
Caption: Picture of a TAC media. When water passes through this media, it gets crystallized and forms seed crystals that remain suspended in water.
If you wanna learn more about this TAC technology you can read here.
Due to this destabilization, the hard water minerals aren’t able to stick to your appliances to form scale deposits. But they are still present in your water.
Because these magnesium and calcium ions are still present in your water, you’ll still have hard water but without its baggage, the biggest being the scale buildup in your pipes and fixtures.
Here are some pros and cons of using a water conditioner rather than a water softener:
- Saves water. No water is wasted as no regeneration is required
- Preserves essential minerals
- No sodium is added to water. Good for folks on a sodium-restricted diet
- Every few years the media needs changing, not regular maintenance
- They’re a little more expensive than water softeners
- You can’t actually measure whether it’s being effective or not
- Not ideal for very hard water
- The media is sensitive to other contaminants like iron and manganese
Differences between water softeners and water conditioners
Ion exchange technology
Template Assisted Crystalization (TAC)
$800 - $2,000
$800 - $2,500
Lots of water
No water wastage
No salt usage
For removing hardness, water softeners use a chemical process called ion exchange.
Caption: During the ion exchange process, magnesium and calcium ions attach to the resin, replacing the sodium ions already there. That’s water softening. The reverse is what happens when the system regenerates.
As water passes through a filter media made of millions of tiny resin beads, hardness minerals, usually calcium and magnesium ions, are attracted to the media due to electrostatic forces. This exchange results in the removal of the hardness minerals from the water.
Conditioners, on the other hand, also use tiny beads media with specialized surfaces that cause calcium and magnesium ions to crystallize and change form. Once they are formed, though still present but in different forms, they remain in the water but are rendered ineffective to cause scale buildup.
When it comes to costs, water conditioners are just a little more expensive. You can expect to pay in the range of $800 – $2,000 for water softeners while water conditioners can cost up to $2,500 a pop. This does not include installation costs should you choose to use a water softener company or even a plumber to help with installation.
This is only the initial costs. For ongoing costs, softeners use a salt brine which you’ll have to refill with 2 – 3 bags of salt every couple of months. You can get a 40 lb bag of salt for as little as $10 on Amazon.
Both water softeners and conditioners reduce the effects of hardness in your appliances, fixtures, clothes, food, and even hair and skin.
How they go about this is different, however.
Water softeners remove hardness by trapping the hardness-causing minerals like magnesium and calcium in your filter. This is done through a process called ion exchange.
Conditioners on the other hand deal with hardness by slightly changing the chemical composition of hardness minerals so they don’t stick to your pipes and fixtures therefore rendering them ineffective. The big difference here is that your water will still have the hardness minerals in it, just in a little different form.
Conditioners are easy on maintenance. It’s a “set and forget” kind of system. Softeners you’d need to refill the salt every 1 – 3 months and make a few trips to the store to get the salt.
But other than that, both these systems are easy to maintain and don’t require a lot of involvement.
Water softeners use a lot of water during regeneration. The water discharged contains a high concentration of brine in it. If discharged irresponsibly, it can be harmful to the environment.
Water conditioners do not produce brine during operation, eliminating one of the most significant environmental concerns associated with softeners.
When should I use a water conditioner?
At times, there might be more than one reason to consider when choosing whether to use a softener or a conditioner.
Oftentimes, however, the choice is straightforward.
Below we’re when you should you a water conditioner rather than a water softener.
1. If you live in a drought area or low-yield well
During regeneration, most softeners use between 30 to 60 gallons of water per single regeneration. It seems small but can add up really quickly.
Some wells with very low yield can do little less than 1 GPM and most softeners regenerate at a flow rate above 1 GPM. In such a situation, it’s simply not viable to use a water softener.
2. You have moderately hard water
At 10 GPG or 170 ppm, the water is just barely hard. You’ll probably notice it through test results rather than by its effects.
However, even at this hardness you still have increased wear on your water-using appliances like dishwasher, heater, coffee machine, and others. This means you will probably replace your dishwasher every 7 years rather than every 10 years.
Using a water conditioner can help get rid of scale build and therefore extend the lifespan of your appliances while retaining the hardness in your water.
3. If softeners are illegal where you live
Do you live in LA? If so, then you know that water softeners are banned. This is not a state-wide ban but something that can be determined by local districts in the state.
Other states like Texas, Connecticut, and Massachusetts have some laws in place to regulate how you discharge brine wastewater.
If you’re unsure if your state or local government has such a law in place, it’s always best to contact your nearest county extension office for answers.
4. You want absolutely low maintenance
Water conditioner is a “set it and forget it” kind of system where you only have to service or replace the media every five years or so.
Though softeners are generally low maintenance, you’d still have to make a few trips every few months to the store to buy the salt. You’ll also have to regularly go down to your basement or crawlspace or wherever you placed it, to check the salt level and refill every 2 to 3 months.
5. You like the taste of hard water
Remember, conditioners don’t remove hardness – they just remove its effects.
So with conditioners, you can still get to keep your mineral-infused water taste.
Most people can’t tell apart the taste of hard water from soft water. As such, this is probably not gonna be a prominent dividing factor for most folks.
6. You’re on a sodium-restricted diet
One of the common misconceptions is that water softeners add a bucket load of salt to your water. Not true.
Yes during the regeneration cycle, salt brine is used to recharge the resin beads, but the majority of this salt gets released through a drain. And yes it does leave some residuals in very tiny amounts, but for a person on a normal diet, this shouldn’t be the slightest issue.
For those on a low-sodium diet due to certain health conditions like kidney disease and heart conditions, it’s always best to check with your doctor.
Do be mindful of this, however.
The hard water’s taste can affect how your food or drinks like coffee taste. That’s because softened water does not contain taste-giving minerals like calcium which is why soft water can improve the taste of your coffee or even your food in general.
I know what you’re thinking: “But I love my water… and coffee, can’t I get the best of both?” You can bypass the softener, allowing you to have a dedicated water line for the garden (soft water is not good for plants). That way you can still drink your hard water and make coffee and prepare food with soft water, lots of benefits.
7. When scale formation is your only concern
When you’re only concerned about scale formation due to hard water, and you like the existing taste of your hard water, then there is no reason to buy a water softener – a water conditioner will do.
Now and then you’ll get some white residue on dishes when they come out of the dishwasher but this is nowhere near as bad as the scale buildup with untreated hard water.
When should I use a water softener?
If you don’t have some of the pressing issues above like the softener being illegal where you live or living on a low-yield well, then it becomes a whole lot easier to choose which to use – often it is a water softener over a water conditioner.
Here are some reasons why you’d have to go for a softener:
1. You have very hard water
Both water conditioners and water softeners provide protection against scaling in plumbing, but water softeners are more effective at dealing with hardness.
For any water with hardness above 10 GPG, you’ll find that water conditioners have a hard time but water softeners can handle it with ease.
Unless you live in an area where water softeners are illegal or you have bare minimum well yield or you’re on a strict sodium-restrictive diet, then there is probably no reason compelling enough to choose a conditioner over a softener.
2. Concerned about dry hair and skin
The soft water feels unbelievable, washed clothes feel better, dishes are cleaner, and appliances like the dishwasher, water heater, and coffee maker all last longer.
But your wife or daughter will probably tell you nothing beats soft water on their hair.
4. You have other contaminants like iron and manganese
Water softener media like TAC are very sensitive to contaminants like iron, manganese, copper, and hydrogen sulfide.
So if you’re on a private well you wanna make sure these contaminants are pre-filtered out as they can foul the media and render your conditioner ineffective or reduce its lifespan.
5. You like both
Sometimes the best choice is choosing between the two, there is a way to keep both. You can do this through a bypass line to the kitchen (if you like drinking hard water), and also to the garden (soft water is not good for plants). With this kind of bypass, you can soften your water to the rest of the house (heater, shower, etc.) while also having the option to use some hard water for your garden and/or drinking or cooking.
Where to go from here
Before you make a choice between the two, always make sure you know what’s exactly in your water – if you haven’t already, you might need a lab-grade test to find out all the contaminants in your water.
This is so that you make the right choice when choosing between a softener or a conditioner. For example, let’s say you choose a conditioner not knowing that you also have an iron and/or manganese problem which conditioners are insensitive to, then you’ll foul the media and probably reduce the lifespan.
Once you’ve tested, you can then confidently make the right choice whether to go for the best water softener or maybe consider a water conditioner.
But the choice is often not so straightforward.
For example, if you have a low-yield well and very hard water, which do you go for? If you go for a conditioner to save water you might struggle to remove the hardness. Likewise, if you go for a softener, then you might risk drying your well.
Nine out of ten times, the choice won’t be as hard. Consider the conditions we’ve discussed above and make your choice.