Trying to understand the confusing lingo presented by manufacturers is part of the process when it comes to finding the best water treatment solution for your home. Not all water softeners are the same, and you may have read certain phrases here and there: “salt-free”, “ion exchange”, “water conditioner” – and wondered exactly what they’re all about.
In this simple guide, I’ll explain exactly what all of these terms mean, and highlight the two most popular soft treatment options to address calcium and magnesium-related scale problems in the whole home: salt-based water softeners and water conditioners.
Table of Contents
💡 Quick Comparison Table
|Water Softener||Water Conditioner|
|Technology||Ion Exchange||Template Assisted Crystalization (TAC)|
|Completely Removes Minerals||✔️||❌|
|Average Price||$800 - $1,500||$1,200 - $2,500|
|Maintenance Requirement||Every 6 - 8 weeks||Every 6 - 12 years|
🤔 Is a Water Conditioner the Same as a Water Softener?
Sometimes you read of water softeners, sometimes you read of water conditioners, and sometimes, confusingly, the term is used interchangeably to describe the same product.
When you just want to remove scale-causing minerals from your water, it can be frustrating to be bombarded with many terms relating to the same water treatment system. What exactly do these terms mean? And how different from one another are they?
What is a Salt-based Water Softener?
A salt-based softener, otherwise known simply as a water softener, uses the ion exchange process to soften water. In this traditional water softening process, water passes into a mineral tank, which contains a resin that holds sodium (salt) ions. This is where salt-based softeners get their name – they use salt as part of the softening process.
Once water has passed into this mineral tank, the calcium and magnesium hard water minerals will become attracted to the resin bed, and will stick to it. Then, the sodium ions are released, and the water flows out of the system and into a home’s plumbing, now containing a small number of sodium ions instead of calcium and magnesium minerals.
You can buy a salt-based softener for treating a well water supply or municipal/ city water. Some well water salt-based softeners also remove iron.
Related Content: Our iron filter vs water softener showdown: Do you need both?
To know for certain that you’re looking to get a salt-based softener, look for keywords such as “brine tank”, “ion exchange” and “system regeneration”, none of which relate directly to a water conditioner.
What is a Water Conditioner?
Water conditioners don’t actually soften water – they use a process called template-assisted crystallization (TAC) to condition it. This type of treatment is the main difference between salt-based systems and water conditioners.
In this case, water conditioners use a single media tank most commonly utilizing modified ceramic beads. You can use them for both well water and municipal water sources.
When water flows into this media tank, in the TAC process, the calcium and magnesium minerals stick to the resin, growing in size and turning into crystals. The friction of the water against the minerals causes them to detach from the resin beads in their new crystallized form. They’re then carried through a home’s plumbing and appliances in this crystallized form, which makes them unable to stick to surfaces and cause scale.
Confusingly, water conditioners can sometimes be referred to as salt-free water softeners, and there’s a bit of an online debate about this, as many people feel manufacturers shouldn’t be able to “deceive” their customers with a term that isn’t technically the truth.
Conditioners don’t actually remove calcium and magnesium minerals – they just turn them into crystals that can’t stick to surfaces.
That’s why it’s important to read product information carefully if you’re keen to buy a salt-based water softener instead. If you like the sound of a water conditioner, the words “salt-free” will always tell you what system you’re looking at.
Check out our reviews of the best salt-free water conditioning systems.
⚖️ Performance Comparison: Water Conditioner vs Water Softener
When it comes to performance, there are several variants that set water conditioners and salt-based water softeners apart.
First off, speed-wise, salt-free water softeners tend to be quicker. That’s because water only has to flow through a single tank at a constant rate for the TAC process to take place. The difference between conditioners and salt-based water softeners is that salt-based softeners use a more thorough softening process that takes slightly longer. You should still get immediate access to your water either way, though, providing you’ve bought the right sized system for your home’s water use.
The more thorough softening process offered by salt water softeners is one of its most obvious bonuses. Because these water treatment systems completely remove water hardness minerals, they guarantee the reduction of scale buildup and other hardness problems around the home.
Salt-free water softeners, on the other hand, don’t actually remove water hardness minerals – they just change their makeup. This makes it hard to test whether these types of water softeners work, because tests for hard water would still detect these minerals.
While traditional softeners work more effectively than salt-free water softeners, there are several reasons why they’re not as efficient.
One of the best things about water conditioners is that they don’t waste water while in operation, and they usually don’t require electricity, either. This means you can save money in the long run when using a salt-free water softener in your home. Salt water softeners need to regenerate to remove the saturated resin, and regeneration uses (a small amount of) electricity and wastes water.
You can usually buy both types of softeners in sizes ranging from approximately 30,000 grains to 65,000 grains in size, so unless you’re looking for something really specific, you’re not limited in size with either system.
Finally, the actual softening stage of each system may be seen as a positive or negative by different users. Some people may prefer using sodium in their water for a more effective way to treat hard water problems around the home. Others may not want to add salt to their water, no matter how little it may be. Note that if you’re not a fan of adding salt to your water, you can use potassium chloride in most salt-based systems instead.
💰 Price Comparison
|System||Upfront Cost||Yearly Cost|
|Ion Exchange Systems||$800 – $1,500||$200 – $500|
|Salt-Free Conditioners||$1,200 – $2,500||<$100|
The cost of a water conditioner vs water softener isn’t actually so different. Salt-free water softeners are usually priced between $1,200 and $2,500, while salt-based softeners are a little less expensive at $800 – $1,500.
But that’s not to say you might not find a high-quality salt-free softener for less than $1,200, or a popular salt-based water softener priced over $1,500. Just make sure you’re absolutely certain that you’re getting a good value for money before making a purchase, which you can do by checking out customer reviews.
It’s possible to buy salt-based and salt-free softeners as part of a larger water filtration system, which removes hard minerals and common contaminants from water.
Another aspect of price that’s easy to forget about is cost of installation. Most softeners, whether they’re salt-free water systems or they require salt to operate, need to be installed at your main water supply line (point of entry) before your water heater, enabling the system to provide soft water to your whole house.
Installation can prove quite difficult, and many people choose to pay for a plumber or a professional handyman to do the job. This costs $200-$300 depending on the complexity of the install – so it’s likely that a salt-based softener, which has multiple tanks, will cost slightly more to install than a water conditioner.
🛠 Maintenance Considerations
Aside from installation costs, you’ll also need to factor in the costs of maintenance.
A water conditioning system works much more efficiently than a salt-based softener, as I mentioned above. This provides some huge maintenance benefits, as there’s virtually no work you’ll have to do to keep the system working as it should.
The most frequent job you’ll have with a water conditioner is to replace the water filter that sits before the unit. This water filter is an essential component if you’re looking to benefit from softened water for as long as possible. It removes sediment like sand, dust and rust, ensuring your home’s water quality is acceptable enough to pass into the water conditioning unit. This filter requires changing every 6 months or so.
The only other job associated with a whole house hard water conditioner is changing the ceramic beads. Depending on the system you buy, you may need to do this once every 6 years to 12 years, or even longer. It’s safe to say that this isn’t a maintenance job that you’ll have to dedicate time to regularly.
As for whole-house salt-based softeners, they require sodium ions in a brine tank to eliminate hard minerals from water. This type of water softener needs a greater level of maintenance because of its use of salt in the water treatment stage. Depending on the water softening system you have, you’ll need to top up your salt in the brine tank every 6 to 8 weeks.
Salt-based softeners use water filter, too, which helps to keep the ion exchange treatment system in its best form for producing high-quality softened water. You should replace the filter as recommended in the filter user manual, and, like with water conditioners, you’ll need to get a new resin in the mineral unit every 10 years or so.
❔ So Which is Better, a Water Softener or Water Conditioner?
While each uses a different method to either remove calcium and magnesium or prevent them from sticking to surfaces, ultimately, there is no “best” option between these two hardness treating appliances.
There are benefits to using both conditioning and salt-based technology as a water treatment solution in your home. Both greatly reduce hard water scale buildup in fixtures and appliances. If your end goal is to eliminate a hardness-related scaling problem in your home, you can rest assured that both systems make a big difference to scale buildup.
Provided you buy a high-quality system to treat the problem, you should benefit from reduced scaling on the surfaces of your plumbing and fixtures, or no scaling at all. The only real difference is that conditioners treat water without actually removing the hardness-causing magnesium and calcium ions in water, turning them into crystals instead, while salt-based softeners eliminate hardness ions altogether.
While salt-based softeners are most effective at eliminating hard water issues, they’re more expensive in the long run, as they waste water when they regenerate and require regular salt top-ups. It’s up to you which hard water solution you think best suits your home.
Of course, you don’t have to go with any of these softener options either. Reverse osmosis systems and water distillers can both effectively remove hard water minerals. Just be sure that, whatever option you go for, you spend plenty of time beforehand doing your research.
Related Article: Water softeners vs water filters: What’s the difference?