a colored map of the United States that shows what regions have hard water and which regions don't.

Water Softener vs Water Conditioner: What is the Difference?

a copper water pipe that is 50% full of calcium deposits.

Water is an absolute necessity. 71% of the entire surface of the Earth is covered in water. That’s over two-thirds of the entire planet! Even your own body is composed of 60% water. It’s funny how we never really think about water until it becomes a problem. Why else would you be here reading this article about a subject you probably have never thought about before in your life?

In this article, I will get to the heart of the great debate: Water softeners vs water conditioners. Okay, jokes aside, if you have any questions that are not answered in this article or have some information that you believe we should add to this page, please leave it in the comments at the bottom. Thanks a lot for reading and I hope you find this content helpful.

In order to compare these two pieces of water equipment, let’s clarify exactly what water softeners and conditioners do. Then, it will be obvious what the difference is and which one you want to know more about.

What is a Water Softener and What is it Used for?

A water softener is a piece of equipment you can have installed in your home or office that softens hard water. But wait, what is hard water?

If you took geology in college as I did, then you know that hardness is a term scientists use to describe how hard minerals are. A diamond is one of the hardest minerals while calcium is softer. If you have hard water, it means that your water contains too much calcium and magnesium. A sure sign that your water is hard and contains too much calcium and magnesium is if you wash your hands and you feel like you can’t wipe off the slimy feeling. This is caused by the soap reacting to the calcium in the water and creating “soap scum”. It’s the same stuff that builds up all over your dishwasher.

Another indication of hard water is when you find water spots all over your clear glasses every time you wash dishes. The spots you’re seeing are minerals left behind when the water evaporates during the dry cycle.

What’s Wrong With Having Hard Water in Your Home?

The main issue with hard water is the build-up of mineral scale deposits all over your fixtures and equipment. This build-up greatly reduces the lifespan of fixtures and equipment. The picture at the beginning of this article shows you how this build-up can literally fill up your plumbing pipes. Low water pressure in an old home? Your pipes might be full of minerals!

I know what you’re thinking. “Humans need minerals to survive so hard water might not be so bad.” That is actually true, but the benefits of having extra calcium and magnesium in your water are outweighed by the inconveniences mentioned above. Unless you have a magnesium deficiency, you should look into a water softener if you’re finding scale everywhere or can’t seem to rinse that soap off!

a colored map of the United States that shows what regions have hard water and which regions don't.How Does a Water Softener Work?

A water softener is a water filtration system that runs your groundwater over a resin bed that is saturated in sodium ions. The water is run over the resin bed and the calcium and magnesium ions are traded for the sodium ions. When the resin bed gets saturated with the new minerals that were removed from the water, it will flush the resin with saltwater and replenish the sodium before continuing to soften your water.

Every once in a while you will have to add salt to the system as it is used up. One resin bed will soften roughly 3000 gallons of water, so you only have to replace those once in a while. Salt will need to be added to the system more often to keep it working properly.

Summary: What Does a Water Softener Do?

In a nutshell, a water softener exchanges the calcium and magnesium in your water for sodium. This is an action called “softening” the water which makes your soaps and detergents more useful. It also diminishes the mineral scale build-up that occurs from too much calcium in the water.

A water softener solves one particular problem. A water conditioner might solve one or more problems including hard water. I’ll explain more about this next.

What is a Water Conditioner?

A water conditioner is not a specific piece of equipment but rather a term used to describe any system that improves the quality of water. A water conditioning system can include the following:

  • Water Softener or Ion Exchange System: Remedy for hard water thus diminishing scale build-up and improving the efficacy of soap and detergent.
  • Water Filtration: Charcoal filters are the most common water filters while Garnet filters are some of the best. These filters remove tiny particles and even chemicals such as chlorine from your water improving the quality and the taste.
  • Bacteria Treatment Systems: sterilize the water and kill bacteria that could cause illness.
  • Reverse Osmosis Filters: remove fine particles and sediments from water.

Conclusion: Water Softener vs Water Conditioner

A water softener is a piece of equipment that trades excess calcium and magnesium in your water for sodium.

A water conditioner is a piece or collection of equipment that improves the overall quality of your groundwater.