Water Softener vs Water Filter: Which Do I Need?

In recent years, more and more of us have woken up to the problems faced when using and drinking the water supplied to our homes.

Whether you have a private well or you’re hooked up to a municipal supply, your water likely contains a wide range of trace amounts of impurities that can affect its taste and odor – and even impact your health.

Luckily, it’s easier than ever to act on these problems and enjoy clean, pure drinking water.

Two common water treatment systems for homes are whole house water filters and water softeners. While these can both provide benefits for the water you drink and use, they’re very different in the results they produce. In this guide, I’ll outline everything you need to know about water softeners and water filters, and explain why you might need a water softener, water filter or both for your home.

What is the Difference Between Softening and Filtering Water?

Comparing the water softener vs water filter process, there’s not much that unites the two at all. While both produce higher-quality water for your home, they each have different purposes.

While water softeners are designed to remove calcium and magnesium hardness-causing minerals from water, water filters focus more broadly on contaminant reduction. Water softening systems have a main goal of producing soft water. Whole-home water filters, on the other hand, remove a variety of contaminants with the aim of producing clean, not necessarily soft, water.

How Do Water Softeners Work?

There are two common types of water softeners available: salt-based water softeners and salt-free water softeners.

Salt-based softeners use ion exchange resins to physically remove calcium and magnesium hardness minerals, replacing them with sodium ions.

This ion exchange water treatment process can remove almost every magnesium and calcium mineral from your water, helping to protect your home from hard water problems like scale buildup. When the resin beads are saturated with hard water ions, the softener system’s resin bed is flushed and replenished in regeneration.

Salt-free softener systems use a special media to perform template-assisted crystallization (TAC), a scale control media technology in which hardness minerals are crystallized, preventing them from sticking to surfaces in the form of scale.

While a salt-free water conditioner still prevents scale buildup, it won’t actually result in a different water quality. This is because water is still technically classed as hard after it has been treated in this kind of system, because the hardness minerals are still present, though unable to cause scale. Many people prefer salt-free softener systems because they don’t use sodium to soften water. You might need this type of softener if you’re on a low-sodium diet.

👉 Read more about salt-based vs salt-free systems

water softening process

What Issues do Water Softeners Address?

Water Heater efficiency

A water softening system can improve the efficiency of your hot water heater by preventing scale build-up, one of the most common hard water problems, on the inside of the heater. Scale acts as a layer of insulation and causes a heater to take longer to heat up.

Cleaning chores

Hardness stains on sinks, around faucets and in bathtubs can be a nightmare to clean. With a water softener, you can cut down on the rigorous cleaning duties because you’ll no longer have scale and soap scum to scrub off your appliances. Some water softener systems are also capable of removing iron & sulfur, which can stain your faucets and plumbing too.

Unpleasant water taste

On the subject of iron and sulfur, if you purchase a softener that can remove these impurities, you’ll greatly improve the taste of your water. Sulfur has a distinctive taste and smell that many people liken to rotten egg, while iron has the taste and smell of rust.

Appliance longevity

Common home appliances like coffee makers, dishwashers and washing machines can all be affected by long-term exposure to limescale. Using a water softener will ensure your home’s appliances have longer lifespans and operate more efficiently.

Skin and hair conditions

Water softeners use nothing but salt (or, in the case of saltless softeners, nothing at all), to soften your water. At the same time, they’re removing the hard water ions that could stick to your skin and hair and cause itchiness and dryness issues.

Laundry quality

Washing your laundry in hard water can result in your fabrics taking on a starchy, rough texture and an unpleasant grayish color. A water softening system can eliminate this issue – and you’ll be able to use less detergent per wash.

👉 See the best water softener systems of 2022 reviewed side by side

How Do Whole House Water Filtration Systems Work?

Whole house water filter systems consist of a series of filter cartridges, which remove everything from chlorine and lead to arsenic and chromium – and even, in some cases, fluoride.

Adsorption filters, made from activated carbon or carbon block, are commonly featured in whole house water filter systems. You can usually also find a pre-filter and post-filter, and in whole home reverse osmosis filters, you’ll also find a reverse osmosis membrane.

A reverse osmosis membrane offers the highest level of TDS (total dissolved solids) removal vs water filters that simply use a series of filters. RO is a great option for anyone who is in need of the most thorough filtration treatment. However, reverse osmosis systems come at a higher cost than standard whole home filter systems.

Related: Water softening vs reverse osmosis: Key differences explained.

A whole house water filtration system is installed at your home’s point of entry, which enables it to provide the whole house with filtered water. Water first travels through one of several pre-filters, known also as sediment filters, before passing through a multi-water filtration stage, and finally passing through a second sediment water filter that removes any lingering contaminants.

whole house water filter cartridges

What Issues Does a Whole House Filtration System Address?

Poor water taste

A number of contaminants found in drinking water, namely chemicals like chlorine, fluoride, heavy metals, iron and hydrogen sulfate, can give tap water an unpleasant taste or smell. A whole house filter system is the best way to remove the contaminants responsible for poor taste or odor, leaving much tastier, more appealing tap water.

Plumbing and appliance damage

It isn’t only hard water minerals that can cause damage to appliances and plumbing. High sediment contamination, such as well water, can line the surfaces of your pipes and plumbing over time and decrease their efficiency. A water filtration system removes a high level of sediment, helping to greatly reduce this issue.

Unhealthy or unsafe water

The majority of impurities found in our drinking water is bad for us. Some well sources even contain dangerous contaminants, like bacteria and viruses, which could seriously harm your family’ s health. Water filtration systems can remove unhealthy minerals from our drinking water, and whole-home well water and reverse osmosis filters can remove harmful pathogens from water.

Poor-quality bath or shower water

Municipal water sources are especially known for being high in chlorine. When we shower in water with a high chlorine content, we inhale it into our lungs, which then transfers it into our bloodstream. Chlorine can also bond with the proteins in our skin and hair, causing dryness. Whole home water filtration systems use carbon filters to remove the majority of chlorine from water, making it safer and healthier to bathe and shower in.

👉 See the best whole house water filtration systems of 2022 reviewed side by side

Water Softener vs Whole House Filter: Do I Need Both?

It’s obvious that both water softeners and water filters have their benefits. Instead of trying to decide between water softening systems vs water filters, you might need both water treatment solutions if you have hard water that contains a high level of contaminants.

To determine the quality of your water, you can either request a water quality report by your local authority (if you use city water) or use a testing kit. You can buy testing kits online, and they can indicate all sorts of contamination issues in water, from chemicals like chlorine to lead to iron and bacteria. Most water testing kits also test for water hardness.

If you find out that your water is high in both hardness and contaminants, you may want to invest in both a water softener and whole home water filtration system.

By installing a filter upstream (or before) your water softener, you will be protecting the water softener from potential damage and extend the lifespan of the resin by removing damaging contaminants like chlorine.

While investing in both a water filter system and water softener might cost more initially, the money-saving benefits of being able to eliminate bottled water use and having longer-lasting and more efficient appliances are worth it in the long run.

Something to keep in mind is that if you have high water hardness and choose to only buy a water filtration system to filter water, you may find that your filter lifespan is much lower.

Filtration systems can’t handle high levels of hardness – magnesium and calcium minerals can damage filter media and leave scale deposits that block it up – so you may need to use a water softener before you filter water if you don’t want to have to replace your filters all the time.