Water Descaler vs Water Softener: What’s the Difference?

Hard water can cause a range of issues in your home. High levels of calcium and magnesium minerals can leave scale deposits on your plumbing and appliances, decreasing the efficiency and lifespan of the equipment that you rely on every day.

Luckily, it’s easier than ever to effectively banish these hard water problems so widely faced today. There are two popular water treatment solutions for eliminating the effects of hard water: descalers and softeners.

In this guide, I’ll debunk what you may have already read about water softeners vs water descalers with simple explanations of how both systems work, their advantages and disadvantages, and which is best for your requirements.

What is a Water Descaler?

A water descaler gets its name because it prevents water from being able to leave scale deposits on surfaces – but it doesn’t actually soften water. Water descalers don’t use salt, and they typically only have one tank (if any). They’re installed at a home’s point of entry for water, and can prevent scale build-up throughout an entire home.

electronic water descaler installation

How it Works

There are two common whole house water descalers: TAC (template-assisted crystallization) water descalers and magnetic descalers.

TAC Descalers

TAC descalers are the most preferred option of the two because they use a more easy-to-prove method of water descaling. 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 these 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 water.

While TAC descalers don’t affect water quality, as the water hardness is still high, they can eliminate the effects of hard water in your home by preventing minerals like calcium and magnesium from being able to stick to surfaces.

Click here to see our TAC water conditioner review guide.

Magnetic Descalers

The second most common salt-free water descaler is the electronic magnetic descaler. This works by using a magnetic coil that sits around an incoming home water line, which sends out an ever-changing electromagnetic wave that changes the composition of calcium and magnesium ions. Again, this prevents water from being able to stick to surfaces.

The reason why magnetic descalers are a less popular option is that there’s no way to prove that the magnetic coil is capable of changing the composition of hardness minerals. As a water hardness test would still show that these minerals were present in water, the only proof you’d have is reduced scale build-up over time.

Read about the best electronic descalers for hard water in this article.


Uses no salt

The biggest advantage of a water descaler is that it doesn’t need salt to soften water. This makes a salt-free water conditioner the best option for people who would rather not add more salt to their diet in their drinking water.

Requires less maintenance

Because salt-free conditioners don’t need sodium top-ups, there’s very little you’ll need to do in the form of maintenance throughout a system’s lifespan. TAC water descalers only require that you change the media roughly every 6-8 years or more, and you’ll just need to replace the sediment filter every 6 months or so. Magnetic descalers don’t need any form of maintenance at all.

Less costly

Salt-free water conditioners typically cost around $200 to $300 less than water softeners. Being easier to install than the average water softener, you won’t usually need to call a plumber to install a water conditioner for you, and with less maintenance, you’ll have less to spend because you won’t need to pay for big bags of salt.

Retain water’s healthy minerals

Most minerals in water are important for our health. While we get many of our magnesium and calcium from foods, it’s useful to get it from our home’s drinking water, too. Because water conditioners don’t remove the minerals from water, it makes them the best solution in terms of water health – and many people think mineral content gives water a more appealing alkaline taste, too.


Don’t actually soften water

If you’re looking for the most effective water softening solution, salt-free water conditioners might not be the answer. That’s because a descaler doesn’t actually soften water, so the hardness ions are still present, and may produce some scale build-up. Though descaler systems can be highly effective, they’re not quite as effective as water softeners.

Difficult to prove water softening method

Because a salt-free water conditioner doesn’t remove water hardness ions from water, you can’t simply do a hard water test to be sure that your whole house now benefits from soft water. You can only go off the results-based evidence – decreased scale build-up in your pipes and appliances and fewer spots on your glasses – to know that your water conditioner is reducing hardness problems in your home.

What is a Water Softener?

Water softeners, like conditioners, are installed at a home’s point of entry to provide your whole house with soft water. They typically consist of two tanks – a brine tank and a resin tank – and a sediment water filtration system, which is installed just before the softener. They use resin to soften water, and are highly effective in providing soft water that won’t damage your pipes or appliances.

springwell salt-based water softener system

How it Works

A traditional salt-based water softener uses the process of ion exchange to soften water. First, though, water traditionally passes through a sediment filter that removes large contaminants. These contaminants could damage the system, so it’s important that they’re removed before the softening process begins.

This water then passes into the resin tank, where ion exchange takes place. The resin contains sodium minerals, and when water flows past the resin, the sodium particles are released. At the same time, positively-charged hard water particles are attracted to, and stick to, the resin, effectively swapping out the hardness particles for sodium, which won’t cause soap scum or leave mineral deposits on your pipes and appliances.

When the resin becomes saturated with hard water particles, the system will regenerate, flushing the ions out of the resin and adding new sodium to take its place. This cycle usually repeats on a weekly basis, or more often if you use a higher volume of water or have a high level of water hardness.


Most effective softening treatment

A whole home water softener provides the best water treatment solution for removing hardness. This system doesn’t just change the structure of hard water ions – it completely removes them from your water, so you can guarantee that your pipes and plumbing will no longer be affected by mineral buildup in the future.

Water will “feel” softer

With no hard water minerals, water will feel softer on your skin, and soap will lather better when you’re using water that has been softened with a salt-based softener. Your skin and hair health will benefit more from this improved quality of water, which won’t be so harsh on your body.

Reduced scale and spotting on dishes

Using a salt-based water softener, you’ll see a big improvement in your cleaning efforts. You’ll be able to use less soap to wash your dishes, and your glassware, dishes and cutlery won’t be left with spotting after you’ve washed them.

Proven technique

One of the biggest benefits of salt-based water softeners is that they use a proven technique to eliminate the problem of scale buildup in your pipes and other parts of your house. This softening process has been scientifically proven to work, and you never have to guess at whether your water softener is working like you expected it to do – you’ll know for sure, as you can see the results from carrying out a soft water test.


Requires salt to operate

Salt-based softeners may be the more effective option, but all those bags of salt will cost more money to run the system in the long-term. You may not like adding salt into your water to treat your home’s water, either – in which case, a descaler might be the better option for you.

More maintenance required

Filling your brine tank with salt is an unavoidable water softener maintenance task. This extra work is more of a minor inconvenience than a major chore, but you’ll need to make sure you keep up with it if you want your system to work properly. Additionally, you can’t forget about the sediment filter, which needs replacing roughly every 6 months. You may also need to call a plumber to help you with installation of your water softener if you feel daunted by the task.

Water Softener vs. Water Descaler: Which Should I Choose?

There is no “best” option between one system and the next when it comes to choosing between softener and descaling systems. Instead, you should look at the problem you’re trying to address , and how you would personally prefer to reduce or remove it.

If you just want to reduce scale buildup, and you’d rather not add salt to your water, descaling systems should do the job just fine. You usually won’t have to call a plumber to help you with installation and maintenance, and these systems are designed to treat thousands of grains of hardness before their media needs replacing. As an added bonus, they’re cheaper than the average water softener to buy upfront.

If you’re looking for the most effective solution for tackling hard water, however, you should opt for a water softener. Yes, this type of soft water solution costs a little more, but it has some pretty impressive benefits – like producing water that’s kinder to your skin and hair – because of its high-quality performance. A water softener can also treat thousands of grains of hardness in its lifetime, and provided you keep up with the salt top-ups, it should last you for years.

No matter what type of system you decide to select, make sure to do your research before buying a product online. I’ve written reviews on the current most popular water softeners to help you better make a decision. You can also get information from customer reviews which are very helpful in describing how a system works for the average homeowner.

Related: Reverse Osmosis vs Water Softeners: Should I Use Both?