A high concentration of calcium and magnesium in water makes it hard. There are two types of softeners used to remove hardness from water; salt-based or without salt. A salt-based water softener is generally termed a “water softener,” and a without-salt softener is called a “water conditioner.”
In this article, we will discuss and compare water softeners and water conditioners. We will also highlight which is the better option in which conditions.
Water Softeners vs. Water Conditioners – Which is The Better Option?
A water softener works on the principle of ion exchange. The ion-exchange process is simply a movement of ions from a higher concentration to a lower concentration.
Hard water is rich in calcium and magnesium. The salt (sodium chloride or potassium chloride) in the softener has a high concentration of sodium or potassium ions. The softener removes calcium and magnesium and replaces them with sodium or potassium. This process changes the chemical nature of water. Hence, the water softened using a salt-based water softener doesn’t get hard again like a water conditioner.
A water softener is managed by a control head that backwashes the system when the resin bed reaches its saturation point. Soft water is not available during the regeneration cycle. Hence many people set the regeneration time during hours of inactivity. Some latest softeners come with a metered control head that regenerates only when the resin bead is saturated instead of a fixed regeneration routine.
Salt-based water softeners need regular maintenance in the form of salt replacement. You can switch between sodium-based and potassium-based water softeners. Potassium-based salt is preferred for people following a sodium-free diet.
A salt-free water softener is known as a water conditioner. Unlike their salt-based counterparts, these systems don’t remove or add anything to the water. They change the way water interacts with different surfaces.
Water conditioners use magnetic rays to crystallize sodium and magnesium in water. Please note that the crystallization process may vary from one conditioner to another. Since water conditioners don’t use softening salts, they don’t require a brine tank or periodic salt replacement. These systems don’t regenerate and don’t need a water draining system.
Which is the Better Option?
Let’s check different parameters to evaluate which is the better option for your home.
Water Hardness Level: Salt-based water softeners are best for homes with moderately hard water, hard water, or very hard water. A water conditioner can remove hardness from slightly hard water. A good one may work for moderately hard water, but it is not worth testing.
The hardness scale is given below to help you understand the values of a water hardness test.
- Soft water: less than 17 parts per million
- Slightly hard water: 17 to 60 parts per million
- Moderately hard water: 60 to 120 parts per million
- Hard water: 120 to 180 parts per million
- Very hard water: greater than 180 parts per million
The best way to figure out if you need a salt-based or slat-free softener is to get your well water tested for hardness.
Whole House or Appliance Installation: Some people prefer to install a water softener for their appliances, like water heaters for slightly hard water. A water conditioner is a wiser choice for targeted water softening. On the flip side, a salt-based water softener is suggested for whole-house water softening.
Water Taste: Salt-based softeners slightly change the taste of water because they replace calcium and magnesium with sodium or potassium.
On the contrary, water conditioners don’t change the taste as they don’t remove or add anything to the water.
The taste debate boils down to preferences. Some people like hard water because of its mineral presence. Water from a salt-based water softener may taste different initially, but your taste buds will soon get accustomed to it.
Many health experts suggest against drinking water from a water softener if your water is extremely hard with hardness above 400 PPM. They recommend installing a water filter or drinking bottled water.
Aesthetic Problems: Hard water is more of a concern due to the damages and aesthetic problems. The scale on your faucets, appliances such as kettles, dishwashers, washing machines, toilets, laundry, and dishes is basically a mineral deposit.
Salt-free water softeners reduce the scale but don’t eliminate them. Salt-based water softeners are recommended for 100% scale and deposit prevention.
Another common aesthetic issue due to hard water is a lack of lather when showering, dishwashing, or using detergent in dishwashers and washing machines. Again, the level of hardness is critical here. Water conditioners will not work when water is extremely hard.
Cost: Water conditioners take a clear lead when it comes to cost. They have a lower initial cost and don’t require maintenance and ongoing salt replacement. However, user experience reveals that conditioners have a shorter life compared to salt-based softeners. Water conditioners are delicate and cannot withstand rough use. Moreover, they must be protected from sunlight and rain at all costs.
Salt-based water softeners are costly to buy and have an ongoing cost in the form of salt replacement. They also increase water bills if you are using city water. But salt-based softeners are durable and last up to 10-15 years. So, they are economical in the long run but add a fixed periodic expense.
Installation: Water conditioners are easy to install compared to salt-based water softeners. You just have to hook up the conditioner to the water pipes. A salt-based water softener is big. You have to manage a drain pipe, water connections, and its location with respect to other filters in your water treatment setup.
Maintenance: Water conditioners require little maintenance. You just have to randomly check them for working. Salt-based softeners need regular maintenance. You have to add salt and set a regeneration time. Some older models require manual regeneration.
Restrictions on Use: Another important thing to consider before buying a salt-based or salt-free water softener is legality. Some states in the US like Texas, California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Michigan, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Minnesota have banned salt-based water softeners due to their environmental impact. Hence, a water conditioner is recommended for people living in these states. Make sure you check local laws before buying a water treatment unit.
Environmental Impact: Many people avoid a salt-based water softener due to its environmental impact. Salt-based water softeners produce chloride and discharge it into a septic or sewage system. The chloride from salt seeps into groundwater and contaminates it. Hence, a salt-free water conditioner is a much better option for environmental conservation.
Moreover, water softeners waste water when they backwash and regenerate. On the contrary, a water conditioner doesn’t waste water.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Can a salt-based water softener remove iron from well water?
Not all, but some salt-based water softeners are designed to remove iron, sulfur, and manganese from water. These 2-in-1 systems are costly compared to simple salt-based water softeners, but they are a good fit for hard well water with iron.
2. Can a water conditioner filter water?
Some whole-house water treatment systems include a water conditioner (salt-free water softener) that can remove various contaminants from the water like chlorine, VOCs, heavy metals, and sediment.
3. How long does a salt-based water softener last?
The average life of a salt-based water softener is 10-15 years. However, they usually last for 20 years if you maintain the system.
4. How long does a water conditioner last?
A water conditioner’s average life is 7-10 years. Since most water conditioners are electric, they can go bad anytime.
5. Can you use a water conditioner on softened water?
Yes, you can. But it is pointless and futile to install a water conditioner when you already have a water softener working at your property.
Final Words: The Better Option?
We have listed all the factors that can help you make your decision. The most critical factor of all is legality. If you live in a state that has banned the use of salt-based water softeners, you’ll have to use a water conditioner regardless of how hard your well water is.