Traditionally, the best way to treat hard water has always been with a water softener. But there’s now an alternative to salt-based softeners that’s rapidly growing in popularity: the water conditioner.
In this water softener vs descaler guide, we’ve shared everything you need to know about the key differences between these two hard water treatment methods.
📌 Key Takeaways:
- A water softener is a two-tank system that uses the ion exchange process to physically remove calcium and magnesium minerals from water.
- A water descaler/conditioner is a single-tank or tank-free system that “conditions” hardness minerals, preventing scale deposits.
- Water softeners require more maintenance and take up more room than descalers, but descalers typically cost more money upfront and don’t always work on very hard water.
Table of Contents
🆚 Water Softener Vs Water Descaler: Key Differences
Just looking to quickly learn the key differences between water softeners and water descalers?
Both water softeners and descalers are used to address hard water. However…
- Water softeners use a process called ion exchange to soften water with salt. They conventionally have two tanks and need a lot of space. Softeners physically remove hard water minerals. Their main maintenance requirement is salt top-ups.
- Water descalers use a descaling process (either template-assisted crystallization or electromagnetic descaling) to alter the adhesion properties of water hardness minerals, preventing scale. They use one tank or are tankless and don’t need much space. Descalers retain hardness minerals in water and require minimal maintenance.
🚰 What is a Water Softener?
A water softener is a two-tank system that softens water by exchanging calcium and magnesium hardness minerals with sodium ions.
A conventional softener has a resin tank, where the ion exchange process takes place, and a brine tank, which stores the salt that’s needed for softening. The system is controlled by a control head on top of the resin tank, and most softeners are protected by a sediment pre-filter.
How Does a Water Softener Work?
A conventional salt-based water softener uses the process of ion exchange to soften water.
First, water passes through a sediment filter that removes large contaminants that could damage the resin.
This water then passes into the resin tank, containing a negatively charged resin bed that’s loaded with positively charged sodium ions.
When water flows through the resin, hard water minerals (which are also positively charged) are attracted to the resin’s opposite charge. The minerals stick to the resin, and at the same time, sodium ions are released to balance the water’s charge, effectively softening the water.
When the resin becomes saturated with hard water particles, the system regenerates, flushing the calcium and magnesium ions out of the resin and replenishing the sodium ions. Most water softeners regenerate about once a week.
🚿 What is a Water Descaler?
A water descaler is a water treatment unit that uses a scale prevention technique that retains hard minerals but prevents them from sticking to surfaces.
Water descalers don’t use salt, and they typically only have one tank (or no tank – see the below section). Like water softeners, they’re installed at a home’s point of entry for water and prevent scale in your entire plumbing system and appliances.
How Does A Water Descaler Work?
There are two common descalers available today: TAC (template-assisted crystallization) descalers and magnetic descalers.
A TAC descaler features a sediment water filter to remove large contaminants, followed by a special type of media that attracts hard water minerals. When hard minerals stick to the media’s surface, they go through a chemical change, growing in size and crystallizing. These crystallized minerals are then released back into the water, now unable to adhere to surfaces.
TAC descalers don’t affect water quality because they don’t physically remove hard minerals, but the chemical process of template-assisted crystallization is still very effective at preventing scale formation.
TAC descalers are the most preferred option of the two because there’s more research to suggest that their conditioning method works. They’re considered the most promising alternative to salt-based softener systems and can reduce scale by up to 90%.
Click here to see our TAC water conditioner review guide.
Magnetic descalers are a more affordable, easy-install, and low-maintenance alternative to TAC descalers.
A magnetic descaler, also called an electromagnetic descaler, is entirely tankless – it just has a magnetic coil that wraps around the main water pipe. As water flows through the pipe, the coil produces an electromagnetic field, which reduces the adhesive abilities of hard minerals and prevents scale deposits.
This system is easy to install because it doesn’t need to be plumbed in, and it’s completely maintenance-free – no filter changes or salt top-ups needed. However, this descaling method is considered less reliable and studies on the effectiveness of electronic descaling are limited and inconclusive.
Read about the best electronic descalers for hard water in this article.
📊 7 Differences Between Water Softeners & Water Descalers
Now we know what they are and how they work, let’s take a look at the biggest differences between water softeners and water descalers.
Conventional (or traditional) water softeners have a two-tank design. Some space-saving softener types combine a resin and brine tank in a single cabinet.
Water descalers have one of two designs. TAC conditioners have a single-tank build containing conditioning media. Water flows through this tank and is conditioned at a constant rate. Electromagnetic descalers use magnets or a coil of wire placed around the existing main water line.
⚖️ Verdict: Water softeners and descalers have very different designs.
A water softener uses ion exchange to swap water hardness ions with sodium ions. The system regenerates occasionally to replenish the resin beads.
A water descaler uses a conditioning media or an electromagnetic field to alter the formation of hard water minerals, preventing them from forming scale.
⚖️ Verdict: Water softeners soften water, while descalers condition water.
A water softener produces soft water (with all the hardness minerals removed). Water has a “slippery” texture and a mildly salty taste.
A water descaler produces conditioned water (water that still contains hard minerals but can no longer leave scale deposits). Water is not altered in taste or feel. It still won’t lather well with soap.
⚖️ Verdict: Water softeners produce the most desirable end result, but water descalers are good for people who don’t want to add salt to their water.
Quality of Water Treatment
A water softener provides the highest quality of water treatment. Hard water minerals are completely eliminated.
A water descaler provides a varying treatment quality, depending on the brand, type, and model. TAC descalers provide the highest-quality treatment, although they don’t completely eliminate hard water problems.
⚖️ Verdict: You get the highest-quality treatment from a water softener.
A TAC water descaler costs about $1,200-$2,500, depending on the manufacturer, the conditioner size, and more. An electronic descaler costs just $300-$600 on average.
A water softener costs around $800-$2,200, depending on the same factors as above.
⚖️ Verdict: TAC water descalers are often $200-$300 more expensive than comparably-sized water softeners because of their no-salt, no-maintenance perks. Electronic descalers are the cheapest option.
A water descaler doesn’t take up much room. Salt-free water conditioners have a vertical tank that stores the TAC media, and electronic descalers are tankless.
A water softener needs plenty of install space. It has two tanks: one long vertical tank containing the resin bed and a smaller, wider salt tank.
⚖️ Verdict: Water softeners need much more room on your incoming water line than water descalers.
A water softener has several maintenance requirements. Salt top-ups once a month are essential. The brine tank and resin beads will also need occasional cleaning to remove excess minerals and debris.
A water descaler needs minimal, or no, maintenance. TAC conditioners usually have a sediment pre-filter that should be changed. Electronic descalers require no maintenance at all.
⚖️ Verdict: Water softeners need more maintenance than water descalers.
📋 Pros & Cons of Water Softeners
So, you know how they differ from water descalers – but what are the pros and cons of water softeners?
- Highly effective hard water treatment – Water softeners eliminate hardness minerals in your water supply, so they have no opportunity to leave mineral deposits in your pipes and appliances.
- Water “feels” softer – You get the complete conventional softening experience with a water softener. Your water will feel softer, your hair and skin should hold moisture better, and soap will lather better.
- No spotting and scale – Using a water softener will eliminate white spots on dishes, gray stains on laundry, and mineral buildup on your bathroom fixtures. You’ll be able to reduce your cleaning duties and use less soap to wash your clothes and dishes.
- Proven technique – One of the biggest water softener advantages is that the system uses a proven technique of water softening, and you can test your water to determine whether or not the process has worked.
- Needs regular salt top-ups – Salt-based water softeners can only effectively soften water if there’s salt in the brine tank. You’ll need to remember to top up the salt about once a month, and this will incur a cost. Plus, not everyone is comfortable adding salt to their tap water.
- More difficult installation & frequent maintenance – Filling your brine tank with salt is an unavoidable water softener maintenance task. You also need to replace the sediment water filtration system every 4-6 months. You may need to call a plumber to help you with the installation of your water softener if you feel daunted by the task.
📋 Pros & Cons of Water Descalers
Now let’s look at the pros and cons of water descalers.
- Salt-free process – The biggest advantage of a water descaler is that it doesn’t need salt to soften water, so it’s great for folks who would rather not add salt to their drinking water and people on low-sodium diets.
- Requires less maintenance – Both types of water descalers need minimal maintenance. TAC descalers have a media that needs replacing roughly every 6-8+ years and a sediment filter that should be replaced every 4-6 months. Magnetic descalers don’t need any form of maintenance at all.
- Cheaper to run – Because of their lack of maintenance and easier installation process, water descaler systems are cheaper to run than water softener systems.
- Retains water’s healthy minerals – Water conditioners don’t remove anything from water. They retain healthy hard minerals that give water an appealing alkaline taste.
- Doesn’t actually soften water – A water descaler is not the most effective water softening solution, and if you have hard or very hard water, you’re best buying a conventional salt-based water softener.
- Difficult to prove water softening method – A salt-free water conditioner doesn’t remove water hardness ions from water, so you can’t simply do a water test to confirm that you have soft water. You can only go off the results-based evidence, such as decreased scale build-up on your fixtures and fewer spots on your glasses.
🤔 Water Softener vs. Water Descaler: Which Should I Choose?
There is no “best” option between a descaler vs water softener – it all depends on personal preference.
If you just want to reduce scale buildup, you have moderately hard water, and you’d rather not add salt to your water, a water descaler is a good choice.
But if you’re looking for the most effective solution for tackling hard water, you should opt for a water softener.
No matter what type of system you decide on, make sure to do your research before buying anything online. I’ve written reviews on the current most popular water softeners to help you make an informed decision. You can also get super useful (and often telling) information from customer reviews.