Softeners and Conditioners

SOFTENERS & CONDITIONERS

Softeners & Conditioner
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Find information on hard water, the differences between water softeners and conditioners, and other information to help you make the best purchasing decision for your home’s specific needs.

What is Hard Water?

Hard water refers to water that has a high concentration of calcium, magnesium, barium, and other “hard” minerals. In water, these minerals clump together and stick to most surfaces they come in contact with including your plumbing, appliances, dishes, clothing, bathtub, skin and hair. Hard mineral buildup, known as scale, can cause pipe corrosion, reduce water pressure, stain dishes and clothing, and ultimately damage your appliances and plumbing. In addition, showering and bathing in hard water can cause soap and shampoo to not lather properly, leaving skin and hair feeling dry.

What Problems Can Hard Water Cause?

Hard water can potentially wreak havoc on your family’s home and health. Here are a few specific ways how:

Damage to Plumbing and Appliances

Over time, hard water can cause mineral deposits to accumulate in your home’s plumbing which can lead to reduced water flow, leaks, and broken pipes. This is because two of the most common hard water minerals, calcium and magnesium, have corrosive properties that cause them to react with the metal in pipes and cause damage.

Beyond plumbing, hard water can also damage appliances such as hot water heaters, washing machines, and dishwashers. Water heaters are especially vulnerable to this as water sits in them for longer periods of time leading to quicker mineral buildup. Even if mineral buildup doesn’t occur, hard water makes appliances work harder which reduces their effectiveness in the short term and cuts their lifespan long-term.

Reduced Water Pressure

As noted, mineral deposits can adversely affect water pressure as the rate of water flow is diminished as pipes become more clogged.

Dry Hair and Skin

When hard water makes direct contact with your skin, it dries on the skin’s surface and leaves deposits of calcium bicarbonate. Calcium on the skin can upset your skin’s natural oil levels, which causes your skin to dry out. The same also applies to your hair, and over time you’ll notice that your hair is more dull and prone to breakage.

Stains and Spots on Dishes

As the hardness level of water increases the likelihood of noticeable, unsightly stains on dishes and even faucets increases. You may notice that even after washing by hand or a trip through the dishwasher, there will still be white streaks or residue which are from the combination of soap and mineral deposits.

More Detergent and Soap Needed

Dish detergent and soaps dissolve best in softer water. If your home has harder water, you’ll end up using more laundry detergent to get the same effectiveness, which is a hidden household cost that can add up over time. 

Damage to Clothing and Fabrics

The reaction between the minerals in hard water and laundry detergent actually accelerates color fading and can leave stains just as you see on dishes. After a trip through the washer, you may notice clothes appear lighter and have chalky mineral deposits which can cause the fabric to tear resulting in holes. If all this wasn’t enough to raise a concern, you should also know that the residue from hard water traps oils in the body so your clothes won’t actually be as clean and they’ll feel stiff after washing. 

What are the Signs You Have Hard Water

There are several indicators that your home has hard water. Here are a few:

  • Decreased water pressure
  • An unpleasant smell in your water 
  • Dry skin, or a subtle layer of white residue on your skin post-shower
  • Hair that looks duller, feels dry, and is prone to breakage
  • Mineral residue including stains and streaks on dishes
  • Clothes that fade quickly, have white spots, holes, and feel stiff

If you recognize a few of these signs, it’s possible you have hard water. To confirm your concern, you should examine your local water quality report provided by your city and consider having the tap water in your home tested.

While there are several DIY options to help with hard water including vinegar, lowering water temperature, and cleaning solutions formulated to help ⁠— the best option will be to install either a water softener or salt-free water conditioner. Unlike the DIY options above which are a one-time quick fix, these systems continuously work to address hard water.

How Water Softeners and Conditioners Address Hard Water

Water softeners cleanse the water of minerals and other materials using a chemical process known as an ion exchange. Softeners use salt, but they don’t actually add salt to the water. The high concentration of sodium ions in the salty water displaces the calcium and magnesium ions in a resin. The salty rinse water, calcium, and magnesium ions are flushed down a drain, and softer water is the result of the process. Water conditioners, unlike softeners, don’t actually remove the mineral compounds from the water – they neutralize the compounds so they are unable to bind and remain soluble within the water.

What is a Water Softener?

A water softener is a system that removes minerals like limescale from your home’s water. They are typically larger appliances that can require installation from a professional. Water softeners use sodium from salt to remove the minerals from the water supply through the aforementioned ion exchange process.

Water softeners introduce sodium into the water most typically through large salt pellets. The large salt pellets create a brine solution which then rinses over plastic beads. The brine charges every plastic bead individually with a sodium ion which exchanges the mineral ion as it flows through, which removes the mineral compounds from the water.

What is a Water Conditioner?

Water conditioners, on the other hand, are usually smaller units that are salt-free and can be added to an existing water system fairly easily. Water conditioners reduce the amount of limescale and other clogging material by neutralizing the scaling effects of the water. 
Water conditioners neutralize the compounds in hard water that cause limescale through template assisted crystallization (TAC). TAC utilizes scale control media with nucleation sites that attract the dissolved mineral ions so that they may be removed. The dissolved ions coalesce and form very tiny crystals known as “seed crystals” Once the crystals have formed the minerals will bond to the crystals preferentially instead of passing through to your home’s water supply. These crystals are harmless for your health and won’t cause any of the issues associated with hard water.

Differences Between a Water Softener and Conditioner

While we discussed water softeners and conditioners above, here’s a quick bullet list of how each type of system differs in a few key areas:

Method to Address Hard Water

  • Softener: Ion exchange, which uses salt to exchange mineral ions and effectively remove hard water minerals from the water supply
  • Conditioner: Scale Control Media, which attracts mineral ions and neutralizes them by forming small harmless crystals

Maintenance

  • Softener: High maintenance, as it requires frequent salt replacements and system cleaning to work effectively
  • Conditioner: Low maintenance, as it does not require salt replacements or regular cleaning

Environmental Impact

  • Softener: Generates wastewater and requires electricity, so is considered less eco-friendly
  • Conditioner: Does not generate waste water or require electricity, so is considered better for the environment

Good for Plants and Aquariums

  • Softener: Higher sodium levels from the added salt can harm plants and fish in aquariums. The excess salt in softened water interferes with the water balance within plants and affects the pH balance within aquariums 
  • Conditioner: No negative effects on plants or fish in an aquarium

Price

  • Softener: Water softeners typically have a lower base price compared to water conditioners. However, it would be best if you also considered that you may need to hire a professional plumber for installation and will have higher maintenance costs from the frequent salt replacements and electricity needed for the system to operate.
  • Conditioner: Conditioners usually have a higher base price, but are more affordable in the long-term due to less maintenance costs.
A clean wine glass post-wash in dishwasher.

Buyer’s Guide for Water Softeners and Salt-Free Water Conditioners

Here you’ll find everything you need to make an informed buying decision regarding water softeners and salt-free water conditioners. We will break down what hard water is, the problems hard water presents, an overview of water softeners and conditioners, plus a lot of other helpful information to assist you in the purchasing process. 

Should You Choose a Water Softener or Salt-Free Water Conditioner?

Depending on your living situation you’ll need to make a purchase decision first starting with if you should purchase a water softener or a salt-free water conditioner. While you can skim above to see a list of comparable features, our general recommendation leans in favor of salt-free water conditioners.

In many categories, salt-free water conditioners have an advantage over traditional water softeners. However, under specific circumstances (like an especially high concentration of minerals, ie. especially hard water) you may need a water softener.

Learn More About Softeners & Conditioners

water scale buildup on kitchen sink

Softeners

Learn more about these salt-based systems that can help solve serious hard water issues.

water scale buildup on shower faucet

Conditioners

Find out how conditioners can help with minimally hard water — without the use of salt.

How to Choose the Best Water Softener or Salt-Free Water Conditioner for Your Home

Once you’ve narrowed down your selection between a water softener or a water conditioner, there are still factors to consider when choosing a specific model. Here are the things you should look for, regardless of whether you opted for a water softener or conditioner:

Capacity

Water softeners are designed to hold varying amounts of water before their systems need to be replenished with salt beads. Depending on the hardness of your water and the water demands of your home, your mileage may vary. Generally, however, small homes or apartments will be fine with a softener that has a grain capacity of 32,000, while larger homes will need softeners ranging from 40,000 to 64,000. 

Conditioners are designed to last for a specific amount of time rather than being dependent on grain capacity. A quality water conditioner should be designed to last at least 5 years.

Size

Size, of course, matters. As mentioned above, water softeners are typically larger appliances than a salt-free water conditioner. You’ll need to measure the dimensions of the proposed location for your system and plan accordingly. When doing so, you may discover that you only have room for a salt-free water conditioner.

Flow Rate

One of the issues water softener systems address when installed is the loss of water pressure. However, once installed you’ll want to make sure that your system is capable of maintaining a rate of water flow that is adequate for your home’s needs. Usually, for a home with 1-3 bedrooms a flow rate of 7 gpm is sufficient. For a larger home, you’ll want to target a softener system that has a faster flow rate. 

Regeneration Method

While salt-based water softeners will need to regenerate and often the various softener models will use different methods to do so. The regeneration methods we’ll cover are as follows: metered, timed, and manual regeneration.

  • Metered Regeneration: Metered regeneration is often considered the most efficient regeneration option, as it is regularly triggered by water usage levels. Meter regeneration systems will require the user to input water hardness levels and the size of the home upon installation. From there, the system will calculate how much water can be softened prior to regeneration.
  • Timed Regeneration: Timed regeneration uses timed intervals to schedule a weekly regeneration period. Usually, timed regeneration is scheduled during low-hours when water is not needed, for example in the middle of the night at 2am. The advantage here is that the end user will, in theory, never be without softened water. It must be noted that due to the regular regeneration – oftentimes the system will proactively regenerate before it is absolutely needed so this will lead to higher levels of water and salt waste.
  • Manual Regeneration: Manual regeneration enables you to program your own, specific regeneration intervals. This provides the user convenience to plan out a schedule that is optimal for their family’s water needs. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s suggested recommendations on this matter.

Price

Although you’ll be avoiding costly plumbing expenses from mineral damage, you’ll still need to pay for the system, regular maintenance, and possibly installation depending on the system you choose. Typically, a water softener designed for residential use can cost between $350 to $2500. Higher-grain softeners tend to cost more than lower-grain models. 

For salt-based systems, you’ll want to calculate an extra monthly charge ranging from $5-10 for the average 40lbs of softening salt. A hidden cost to consider is the cost of wastewater – a byproduct of the salination of the water. Check with your manufacturer’s label for wastewater amounts during backwashes. As mentioned above, a good rule of thumb is that salt-based softening systems are usually a little more expensive than conditioners. 

Local Regulations

Before purchasing a water softener or water conditioner, find out if your state has regulations and plumbing codes for these systems. For reference, the following states have banned water softeners specifically:

  • California
  • Texas
  • Connecticut
  • Massachusetts
  • Arizona
  • Minnesota
  • Michigan
  • Wisconsin

Reasons for the water softener bans vary, but most have done so because of the environmental damage that comes from disposing of the drain water. Not all legislation is this straightforward though, water softeners may be allowed but come with regulations on where you can drain the water. For example, some communities may require you to drain it in a washing machine, sink, or floor drain. If the restrictions in your area prohibit you from using a water softener (or if doing so would be inconvenient), you may be limited to choosing a water conditioner.

Water Softener and Conditioner Installation 

The salt-based water softeners will sometimes require professional installation. This will require hiring a plumber and can cost a few hundred dollars. For example, here are a few steps a plumber will take to install a whole-house salt-based water softener:

  • Step 1. Shut off the water at the main line and drain the faucets, then disconnect the water heater.
  • Step 2. Attach the bypass valve to the water softener.
  • Step 3. Place the water softener in the intended position where it will be safe from harsh weather, such as flooding or freezing.
  • Step 4. Install 2 elbow fittings to the inlet and outlet ports of the bypass valve, then cut into the main pipe and connect the pipe to the ports. Be sure to connect the incoming water to the inlet and the outgoing water to the outlet port.
  • Step 5. Connect the drain tube to the drain valve fitting on the unit.
  • Step 6. Install the brine tube on the overflow valve on the brine tank. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions as to where to drain the brine – an air gap may sometimes be necessary.
  • Step 7. Put the distributor tube into the brine tank and pour salt to about ⅔ the capacity of the tank.
  • Step 8. Set the water softener to the bypass mode, then slowly turn on the water. Wait until you see a steady flow at the drain line to open it completely, then reconnect and turn the water heater on.
  • Step 9. Slowly open the bypass valve and wait another couple of minutes for the air to push through the system, then open the valve completely and run a backwash cycle.
  • Step 10. Configure the water softener following the manufacturer’s instructions.

For salt-free water softeners, the installation can be a lot simpler. If you’re handy with typical plumbing tools, you can hook up any water conditioning system provided you have enough time and patience. Be sure to consult your owner’s manual and any additional online resources. More and more frequently manufacturers are releasing videos explaining how to install water conditioners.

The inside of a clean, shiny washing machine.

Final Considerations

Product reviews are always a fantastic place to start when considering a major purchasing decision. In addition to reviews, we’ve provided all of the other purchasing decision factors. We’ve covered what a water softener is and how it differs from a water conditioner. We’ve touched on how to decide whether a water softener or water conditioner is best for your family and what to consider when purchasing a system.

Additionally, we’ve answered a few common questions that seem to pop up during the purchasing process. From here, you’re ready to make an informed purchasing decision. We’re excited for your family to experience the benefits of addressing hard water, which is an often overlooked problem!

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*Product performance claims and prices were taken from publicly available information on Amazon, are accurate as of 1/3/2024, and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on Amazon at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product. Cost per gallon is calculated as replacement filter price/capacity. Not all contaminants will be listed in charts. If you find information that is inaccurate, please send the correct info with supporting documentation to info@waterfiltercomparisons.com, and we will address any errors. As an Amazon Associate, Water Filter Comparisons receives a commission on purchases made through our Amazon links.