Last Updated: August 17, 2020

Before discussing and doing the water softener vs water conditioner comparison let’s look at what they are individually.

What is a Water Softener?

A water softener works through the elimination of water hardness by eliminating minerals (mainly magnesium and calcium) in water through a process called ion exchange.Optimh2o Reverse Osmosis + Claryum

Salt-based water softeners contain a resin bed that filters water through them and exchanges these minerals for hardness against sodium particles.

When the resin bed reaches a saturation point, the cleaning (or regeneration) cycle begins in which a series of back washes flush out the trapped minerals and expel them out of the system. The sodium particles are also replenished and the system continues to soften.

The result of this is soft water that will not create limescale or cause problems (like corrosion) for your home appliances.

What is a Water Conditioner?

A salt-free water conditioner does not soften water. It simply makes its minerals loose so that they lose their ability to stick to your pipes and plumbing. Some water softeners with no salt or saltless conditioners work better than others.

Types of Water Conditioners

  • Carbon Filtration.
  • Electromagnetic or magnetic water conditioners.
  • Salt-free Water Softener

Carbon Filtration

GAC (granular activated carbon) or carbon filters remove harmful bacteria. As well as contaminants by absorbing (or trapping) these compounds (e.g. organic compounds) that are attracted to carbon.Aquasana SimplySoft Results

The main use of carbon filters is that they remove unpleasant odors or weird tastes from the water. For instance, sulfur in well water or chlorine in city water.

These systems are simple water purifiers for consumption and not water softeners. They do not soften the water by eliminating the hardness caused by minerals. Carbon Filtration is most commonly found in water filter jugs that are sold in supermarkets and in the water dispenser of your refrigerator.

Electromagnetic or magnetic water conditioners

Magnetic or electromagnetic water conditioners use magnets to create a molecular motion in the water.

This molecular agitation causes the minerals to displace, thereby reducing the concentration of calcium and magnesium ions.

The result of this is that you are left with water that is effectively soft water in the sense that it’s less likely to make limescale.

Although not expensive, the performance of these devices are not completely guaranteed.

Also, the magnetic field is only present in the immediate area of where it sits on the device. This means that it can not treat large volumes of water at the same time and the water can only stay in the “soft” state for about 48 hours after the treatment.

Salt-free Water Softener

Optimh2o Reverse Osmosis + ClaryumCatalytic media conditioners, also known as salt free water softeners, don’t use ion exchange to eliminate minerals of hardness like their traditional salt-based counterparts.

Instead, water is treated through a catalytic medium that uses a physical process that is known as TAC (Template Assisted Crystallization).

This makes the shape of the minerals change into hard crystals that do not stick to the surfaces. However, the important thing to note is that these systems do not “soften” water, but simply condition it.

Water Softener Vs Water Conditioner?

A water softener is a specific type of water conditioner that reduces water hardness. Hard water is formed when dissolved calcium or magnesium ions are present in the tap water of a house.

Getting a water softener means that it will remove all the “hard minerals” from your water at source.

On the other hand, a water conditioner is just a generic term for any sort of water system that is able to alter the quality of your water to improve it in some way.

Different types of water treatment units have different abilities.

Especially when it comes to water filtration in the ability to remove things like water chlorine. The main purpose is to remove all impurities and improve the taste of water – not just soften.

Water Softener Vs Water Conditioner Table

 Traditional Salt Water SoftenerSalt-Free Water Descaler / Conditioner
Does it require salt?YES
It is a salt based water softener
NO
Scale prevention efficiency?99+% efficient.41-98.9% effective
Depends on which method you use.
Whiter whites, brighter clothes?YES
Whites don't yellow and colors look vivid.
YES
Depending on which model you use.
Slick slippery feel of water?YESNO
Impact on skin?Eliminates calcium and magnesium which is bad for dry skin.Calcium and magnesium remain in the water.
Environmental impactDoes not create any waste water.Doesn't create any waste water.
ExamplePelican Softener with FiltersAquasana Whole House Filter
Price range?$$$-$$$$$-$$$$
Exactly how much does it cost?Check Price Button Check Price Button

Water Softener Vs Water Conditioner?

The short answer is that it depends on your needs.

Mr Water Geek ThinkingIf you want to soften water at home or at your business premise, but are looking for alternatives to getting a regular water softener then you need a water softener alternative.

However, the hardness levels below are a good rule of thumb to know which one is best. In order to get your GPG level you should get a water hardness test kit.

Optimh2o Reverse Osmosis + ClaryumA water SOFTENER  is best for = hardness levels OVER 25-50 GPG

This is very hard water. Meaning lots of limescale problems and white stains around your pipes and plumbing.

A water CONDITIONER is best for = hardness levels UP TO 25-50 GPG

This is low to medium hard water. Good if you just want something to protect your pipes and plumbing from future hard water.

The Aquasana SCM SimplySoft Salt-Free Technology is the bases of their SimplySoft machine and can also be an upgrade for you when you buy the Aquasana Rhino Gallon or OptimH20.

Get up to 50% OFF select Aquasana products using coupon code AQGEEK50

Aquasana SimplySoft Water Conditioner and 10-Year, 1,000,000 Gallon Whole House FilterAquasana SimplySoft Conditioner and OptimH20 Whole House Filter
Aquasana Whole House Features ListAquasana SimplySoft
Softens and filters
SimplySoft is a salt free"softener" only.
But you can choose OptimH2O + Salt Free Softener
- 97% chlorine.
- Cysts.
- UV upgrade removes 99% bacteria, e.coli, giardia and cryptosporidium
- Over 90% chlorine and chloramines.
- 99% of lead and cysts.
- 99% of lead.
- 98% of PFOA/PFOS
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- 10 year warranty.
- 90 day guarantee.
- 6 year warranty.
- 90 day guarantee.
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50% discount and FREE shipping using the Aquasana coupon code: AQGEEK50
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50% discount and FREE shipping using the Aquasana coupon code: AQGEEK50

I'm a health author, science enthusiast and 100% certified geek. My passion is to help you take control of your health and well-being by understanding the true importance of good quality water and healthy hydration.

16 COMMENTS

  1. I have well water & was tested at 86 gpg. My home is new and appliances arent here yet so was wanting to get some soft water system ideas. I am looking at kenetico, US Water Systems, and Water Right. All are expensive and all companies say I need a big system to handle such hard water.
    Can you recommend a good reliable system?? Its hard to find any good reviews.

    • Hi Art
      Yes, 86 GPG is on the high side so the companies are right, you should be looking for high capacity machines but they tend to over-charge for this and I don’t have the best opinion of Kinetico (read my review here).

      My recommendation is to get a water softener with exceptionally good reviews, customer experiences and then get the highest capacity model that they offer.

      I usually like to recommend that people buy through Amazon because of their reliable customer service in case anything goes wrong and you can also get a qualified plumber to install it for you (direct through Amazon).

      Check out models like the most popular and best selling water softener Fleck with the 80,000 Grains TwinTank Model.
      OR
      The Fleck WS 96,000 Grain Model.

      Hope this helps,
      Luke

  2. I like how you differentiated water softeners and water conditioners. My wife and I have just bought our own separate tumblers and we are considering to buy a water filter as well. We are both leaning towards water softeners. If ever, I would like an expert on drinking water systems to handle the installation process in case we want to buy our own unit.

  3. Is there one system or can you use both a water conditioner and a water softener together to have soft water and not have the scale build up in your pipes?

    • Hi Shirley,
      Getting a water softener does both. It will provide you with soft water AND soft water means NO scale build up in your pipes.
      However, a water conditioner is for people that don’t want a softener. This device doesn’t use salt/sodium so can not guarantee soft water but will gently condition your water to prevent/reduce scale build up.
      Let me know if you need more help,
      Luke

    • Hi Linda

      You need both because a softener system only treats hard water. It will *not* treat or filter any harmful contaminants.

      So if you want to drink your water and make it safe for cooking etc then you will also need to filter the water after softening.

      The good thing is that most softener manufacturers are aware of this and typically do a softener / filter combination machine.

      Stay hydrated,
      Luke

  4. We bought a Halo 5 conditioner. But we have noticed that it causes dry skin. Now we’re thinking of either changing to a salt based softener or running one in tandem with the Halo 5. Can we run them both together? Any disadvantage? Thinking they may cancel each other out.

    • Hi Kevin

      Hmm I doubt they would cancel each other out because they do different things that are not in conflict.

      The conditioner only “re-structures” the water but doesn’t remove anything. Meanwhile the softener will actually soften by removing certain minerals.

      I think the output will be soft water if you use both together.

      The only disadvantage I can see is just all the inconvenience and hassle of having 2 machines when you only really need 1 (the softener) to get the results that you want.

      Stay hydrated,
      Luke

  5. I have a Wayde King whole house water filtration and salt free conditioning system. My plumber is telling me I need a water softner because of the calcium build up and it is showing on pipes and such. I thought the who house system would do everything but I guess they don’t remove the calcium. Do I need both systems

    • Hi Mary Kay

      Salt free conditioning systems can only handle hard water minerals (e.g. calcium) up to a certain level before becoming ineffective. For instance, salt free Aquasana machines can only effectively treat hard water up to 25ppm.

      If you’re still experiencing calcium build up then it means your water is extremely hard and you will most likely need a salt based water softener.

      You can get a basic standalone softener (e.g. like this) if you’re happy with your existing whole house filter OR you can get a new combination whole house softener & filter (like this).

      Stay hydrated,
      Luke

  6. Hi Luke,
    Thanks for all the great information you’ve posted here. I recently had Culligan out to test my water and they have recommended a water softener and their water filtration system. I have a few thoughts/questions for you based on the water test he provided on my city water:
    TDS – 380
    Hardness – 10 GPG
    Iron – 1
    Sulfate – 1
    PH – 1

    based on the information you provided above I should be able to get some good results with the Aquasana Salt-Free whole house water filter on my hard water as the GPG lower than the range of 25-50 GPG is that correct? Also, are the saltwater softeners the only ones that provide benefits to my appliances, or do the salt-free conditioners offer the same? Lastly, If salt-free is the best option for me, In order to get the benefits of soft water in the shower, are there any water softener Showerheads you would recommend?

    • Hi Julian

      I would suggest you go for a salt-based softener.

      This is because Aquasana conditioners are good for hard water below 25PPM (parts per million), so I calculate your 10GPG (grains per gallon) to be something like 171 PPM (parts per million).

      Pelican would treat your level of water hardness and it also includes a multistage filter that would deal with the other contaminations in your water.

      I don’t think you will need an extra showerhead if you have a whole house softener / filter combination machine because that device will treat all the water that goes into your home.

      Stay hydrated,
      Luke

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