Water Softener vs Water Conditioner

You may be looking for a home and notice a water softener or a water conditioner listed as one of the appliances that will stay with the house.

You may have moved from one city to another and noticed that it’s harder to rinse out all the shampoo, or notice that your skin feels slippery instead of clean when you get out of the shower.

The hardness or softness of the water in your home can have an impact on the life of your appliances, the condition of your clothing, and the health of your hair and skin.

Water Softener vs Water Conditioner

What is Hard Water?

If the water piped into your home or business comes from the ground, you’re at risk of having hard water. Water is an effective solvent for some minerals, specifically magnesium and calcium.

Over time, these minerals will latch onto your plumbing fixtures, clothing, skin, and hair. You may notice that it takes more detergent to clean your dishes and clothing, or that white laundry tends to turn grey quickly.

If you’ve ever cleaned your coffee pot with a vinegar mixture, you’ve been fighting hard water. The minerals calcium and magnesium are basic, and a mild acid like vinegar will eat away build-up.

It should be noted that, while these minerals can be hard on your plumbing and your coffee pot, they can be beneficial to people and pets.

When considering adding a water softener or conditioner to your home, getting your water tested by an independent facility is a good start.

tap water testing

Your results will help you choose the best option for your needs. The ratings are ranked by parts per million.

  • Soft water: 0-60 ppm. You don’t need a water softener or conditioner.
  • Slightly hard water: 61-120 ppm. Unless you are seeing a lot of scale damage, the long-term risks are not severe.
  • Hard water: 121-180 ppm. Your plumbing and appliances could be in trouble.

The damage done by hard water is often invisible until it’s expensive. The water pipes under your home may work fine, until they’re so clogged that you’re only getting a trickle. The other concern with clogged in-flow pipes is that the pressure inside the pipe goes up as the diameter fills with minerals.

hard water deposits on tap

How a Water Conditioner Works

Depending on the water conditioner you’re considering, the function is based on the fact that water is polarized. The polarization of water molecules accounts for nifty science facts, such as

  • steam takes more space than hot water, so it can be used as a mechanical power source
  • ice takes more space than liquid water, so icebergs float
  • water has surface tension
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A water conditioner can be as simple as running the water that moves through your home through a magnetized field to agitate the water molecules. When water molecules are agitated, the minerals suspended in them get bounced around and don’t land on pipes and other surfaces, reducing build-up.

You can also get a water conditioner that will chemically change the calcium and magnesium into crystals. Crystallized minerals are encapsulated; they cannot create scale and build-up.

This method is quite popular and requires a template of resin beads to treat the water before it enters your home. Water conditioners can also be constructed to reduce the growth of biological contaminants.

Bacteria and algae can be prevented from building up with similar and additional treatments as water passes through the home.

A water conditioner keeps calcium and magnesium, the minerals that cause hardness, from sticking to your pipes and appliances.

However, these minerals are still available to the people and pets who drink from the water. If you love to grow house plants and are considering a water softener or a water conditioner, be aware that the added salt in softened water may be hard on your plants.

Conditioned water will allow you to gain all the benefits of these minerals.

A water conditioner will move water into your home more quickly, especially if you use a magnetized system. However, your conditioning system will need more maintenance and may need replacing more often over time.

If you use a resin bead and filter system which crystallizes the minerals, make sure you have a schedule in place to change the filter and that you keep a spare filter in the house. The filter will need to be changed out every other month. The beads should last for approximately 6 years.

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How a Water Softener Works

While a water conditioner reduces the impact of calcium and magnesium on your plumbing and appliances while leaving the minerals in the water, a water softener extracts the calcium and magnesium, replacing these minerals with sodium or potassium.

This ion exchange may be the best option if your water source runs directly through calcium beds, such as layered limestone.

Salt-based water softeners use an ion exchange system. Water passes through the resin tank, which includes a sodium-laden resin bed. In this tank, calcium and magnesium are extracted from the water, and sodium is released before the water flows through the house.

salt cubes for water softener

Within the resin tank you can add additional filtration, such as an iron capturing tool. Be aware that your water softener will need to regenerate periodically and purge to flush out the captured minerals.

If you live in a region in which water is scarce, this purging may waste more water than you are comfortable with. A higher-capacity water softener may reduce this waste; depending on the population of your household, a larger softener may be critical.

In regions where the water is especially hard and rich in minerals, a water softener is probably a better choice. These systems are a bit slower, but are more thorough than a water conditioner.

If you choose a water softener, make sure you have a schedule set up to remind you to remove the sediment that the softener extracts. Keeping it out of your plumbing and appliances make a softener a good investment, but if you don’t keep the sediment filters cleaned, you can destroy a water softener pretty quickly.

Hard water isn’t dangerous, but it can cause costly damage to your appliances and plumbing. A water conditioner or a water softener can both work to change up the makeup of the water used in your home.

Make sure you understand your system and can handle the maintenance before you install the components.

home water softener system

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