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Two of the most effective means of tackling hard water are reverse osmosis systems and water softeners. While both produce near enough the same outcome, they’re each unique in their own right, and each have their own positives and negatives to consider.
If you’re considering buying a water treatment system for softening your home’s water supply, I’ll be sharing the information you need to know about reverse osmosis and water softener systems, helping you to reach the best decision for your requirements.
What’s the Difference Between Reverse Osmosis vs Water Softener Systems?
The biggest difference between water softeners vs reverse osmosis systems is in their performance. While water softeners simply soften water with one of several processes, RO systems use multiple filtration stages to do a whole lot more. Let’s take a closer look at each system in turn.
What do Water Softeners Do?
A water softening system softens water. This means that it removes the hard water minerals – calcium and magnesium – from drinking water, or it crystallizes these minerals and prevents them from sticking to surfaces. I’ll explain each of these processes below.
First, salt-based water softeners.
This type of water softener uses the ion exchange process to remove calcium and magnesium minerals from water. In this water treatment process, the calcium and magnesium are attracted to a media bed containing sodium ions. When the hardness ions stick to the media, the sodium ions are released into water, thus swapping the calcium and magnesium for sodium.
👉 Read this post to learn more about how ion exchange water softeners work
Another popular water softener is the salt-free softener, otherwise known as a water conditioner.
This type of water softening system is more environmentally-friendly and much better suited for long-term use because it doesn’t require salt or waste water during regeneration. Instead of removing magnesium and calcium from water, it crystallizes them in a process called Template-Assisted Crystallization (or TAC for short), which prevents them from sticking to surfaces in the form of scale.
Both water softeners are designed to prevent a buildup of scale in your plumbing, pipes and appliances. They can also improve the efficiency of your appliances by getting rid of existing scale and preventing new scale from forming. Appliances like washing machines and dishwashers can work more efficiently after a softening system has been used to soften water.
Water softeners come in a variety of sizes, and size affects capacity – the larger the capacity, the greater levels of water hardness that can be removed.
People with 1-3 bathrooms in their homes should opt for a system with a 32,000-40,000 grain softener, while people with 3-5 bathrooms should opt for a 40,000-80,000 grain softener. You should also look at your water’s hardness levels when deciding on a water softener size. If you’re not sure what size system is for you, it’s wise to reach out to the manufacturer.
👉 Still curious? Read more about the difference between softeners and conditioners
Benefits of Water Softeners
Installing a water softener at the point of entry in your water line will benefit your home in a variety of different ways. These benefits include:
Not as much maintenance required
Compared to reverse osmosis systems, water softeners require less upkeep once you’ve installed them. If you opt for a salt-based water softener, you’ll need to keep the system well stocked up with sodium ions by topping up the salt. If you choose a salt-free softener, you’ll have virtually no maintenance to do at all – just changing the pre-filter once every 6 months or so.
Provides specific soft water benefits
If you choose to buy a water softener for your whole house, you can guarantee that that’s exactly what you’ll get – a water treatment solution that prevents high levels of scale formation in your home. While a softener may remove or alter hard water ions depending on the type of system you get, both are designed specifically to soften water and reduce scale in your plumbing and appliances.
When comparing a water softener vs reverse osmosis system, water softeners are far more efficient. While reverse osmosis systems waste water at a constant rate, salt-based water softeners only waste a much smaller amount of water when the system regenerates, which happens roughly every 24 hours or so.
What do Reverse Osmosis Systems Do?
Reverse osmosis removes contaminants and minerals from water in several stages of filtration. When you buy a reverse osmosis water filter, it’ll usually consist of several filtration stages, each of which is designed for a different purpose. Also included in a reverse osmosis water treatment system is the semi-permeable RO membrane, which is what makes reverse osmosis so much more capable than other filtration types.
In the reverse osmosis process, water passes through several filtration stages, which remove contaminants that are commonly found in drinking water, before being forced through the semi-permeable membrane at a high pressure. This membrane contains pores so tiny that even the smallest of contaminants are able to pass through with the water – and this includes the minerals that cause hard water.
While water is being forced against the membrane at a constant rate, the RO system is also constantly draining out the water containing contaminants, ensuring your whole house can benefit from soft water that’s also free of contaminants.
This means there’s some waste water involved in reverse osmosis; typically at a ratio of about 4 gallons wasted to 1 gallon purified. However, manufacturers are continuing to develop smarter and smarter systems that are designed to waste less water per gallon of clean water produced.
In total, reverse osmosis can remove more than 99.9% of contaminants from water, some of which can cause water to take on an unpleasant taste, and others that aren’t best for our health. People who are looking to cut down on single-use bottled water purchases will benefit most from a reverse osmosis system.
You can usually buy an RO system in three sizes: 50 gallons, 80 gallons, and 100 gallons. For small households, a 50 gallon system should be fine. If you have a large household and use a lot of water, or your water contains a high level of contaminants, a bigger RO system will be better suited to you.
Benefits of Reverse Osmosis Water Filtration
Better tasting water
RO systems don’t only remove magnesium and calcium minerals – they also remove contaminants like chlorine, lead and bacteria. This produces better tasting water for drinking and cooking, improving water quality all around.
Protects against pathogens
If you’re looking at using a filter or softener for well water, reverse osmosis is an ideal choice. Because reverse osmosis removes pathogens like bacteria and viruses, it can make your drinking water safe to consume. As well water may contain a whole host of pathogens that can’t be seen by the human eye, using a reverse osmosis system to soften and greatly reduce contaminants is a huge bonus.
Most thorough filtration method
When you buy an RO system, you can feel safe in the knowledge that you’re using the best solution to improve your water quality in your own house. Not only does reverse osmosis focus on eliminating the dissolved minerals that make water hard, but it’s also one of the best filter systems for removing up to 99.9% of all impurities from drinking water.
Can I Use a Water Softener and RO System Together?
For the most thorough filtration and water softening benefits, you can use a water softener and a reverse osmosis system together. This will provide your pipes, faucets, showers and water-based appliances with soft water that has an improved taste.
In the long run, both these systems together can help you to save money in a number of ways. First off, you’ll no longer have to buy bottled water if you’re after clean water with a better taste, because a reverse osmosis system can take care of that.
But the biggest way you’ll save is by increasing the lifespan of your appliances. With a water softener, you won’t have to worry about what your water may be doing to your pipes, helping you to get the most out of your home’s plumbing and appliances with no maintenance required.
If you need help installing your RO system and water softening system together, there are plenty of video guides you can watch online.
Do I Need a Water Softener and Reverse Osmosis System?
If you have high levels of hard water in your home, it may help you the most to buy a water softener and an RO system.
You might be thinking: “But surely if I want my water to be free of impurities and soft, I should just go with the reverse osmosis filter?” While this does make for a good point, a reverse osmosis unit alone might not be what you need if you have particularly high hardness levels that need to be removed.
Hard water causes damage to all appliances in your home – and that includes your reverse osmosis filter. While this system removes hard water ions from water, high hardness levels can cause the RO membrane to deteriorate at a faster rate. This means you’ll need to change the membrane more frequently – and that comes at a cost.
If you’re looking to save money with a whole home water treatment system, you would likely actually benefit from buying a water softener and a reverse osmosis system, installing the water softener before the RO system to protect it from hard water ions.
So while you don’t need these systems together, if you’re looking to save money with contaminant-free soft water, you would be wise to consider buying both systems.