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Difference Between a Water Conditioner vs Water Softener


*Reviewed by Ken Christopher, Senior Vice President at Rayne Dealership Corporation

If you are searching for the best water treatment systems for your home you have probably come across water softening systems and water conditioning systems. Though both types of systems are used for water treatment, they produce different results which are worth understanding.

When weighing the choice between water softeners vs water conditioners, it is important to understand that these two types of systems function in different ways and remove different types of contaminants. Water softeners and water conditioners are also configured differently, which can have an impact on the installation process. Let’s take a closer look at how a water softener vs water conditioner works, and what the advantages and disadvantages of each type of system are.

Why Choose to Soften or Condition Your Water Supply?

You may have heard of hard water, but aren’t sure exactly what it is. Water is considered hard if it contains a high level of dissolved minerals. These hard water minerals, in the form of ions, usually consist of calcium and magnesium ions that your water has picked up over time as it percolates through the ground.

Water hardness can have a big impact on your home, body, or business. The most common impact of hard water is the mineral deposits left behind on surfaces that have come into contact with hard water. These mineral deposits are known as scaling. If you have hard water in your home, take a look at the fixtures in your bathroom or surfaces such as your shower doors. You’ll most likely find scale buildup, which is a stubborn mineral buildup that looks whitish in color.

Surfaces in your bathroom and kitchen aren’t the only place where scale builds up. Scale builds up on the inside walls of plumbing over time. Scale can also have a big impact on appliances that heat water, such as your dishwasher or water heater. Scale buildup will reduce the efficiency of these appliances and shorten their lifespan.

Some people choose to soften their tap water because they don’t like the effects of hard water on their bodies. The mineral deposits left behind by hard water can also be found on your hair and skin. These mineral deposits will rob hair of its natural shine and volume, while also causing it to become more brittle. At the same time, mineral deposits left behind on your skin can dry it out.

The most effective way to deal with these problems is to use a house water softener. While water softeners are used to remove hard minerals from water, water conditioners are typically used to remove chemicals and substances that give your water an unpleasant taste or smell. In addition, some water conditioners offer some soft water benefits, while hybrid systems combine both treatment processes into the same system.

But how do you choose between a water conditioner vs water softener? Both of these systems are usually installed where your water line comes into your house so that they provide softened or conditioned water for your whole house.Let’s take a look at how each water filtration system works so that you can better understand whether a water softener vs conditioner is right for you.

Water Softeners

Water softening systems are the most common method to deal with hard water in both a residential and commercial setting. Water softeners use a process known as ion exchange, or reverse osmosis, to soften water. At a functional level, ion exchange systems remove dissolved mineral ions from hard water and replace them with sodium ions.

Most water softening systems consist of two tanks. The primary tank contains special resin beads that have been coated with sodium ions. A second tank contains a salty brine solution which is used to regenerate the resin in the primary tank.

As water moves through the soil it picks up mineral ions. These mineral ions become bound to the water molecule. To break this bond, ion-exchange units attract these mineral ions away from the water molecule. As the water supply enters the primary tank in the water softening system, the mineral ions are attracted to the resin beads. As they attach to the resin beads they displace the sodium ions. The sodium ions bond to the water molecules, allowing them to maintain a balanced charge.

Over time the resin beads will collect so many dissolved minerals the system can’t continue removing more. Because of this, the system must occasionally be regenerated. To regenerate the system, salty water from the brine tank is used to fill the resin tank. This water displaces the mineral ions on the resin beads, replacing them once again with sodium ions. Afterward, any remaining water in the tank is flushed out of the system through a drain line.

Softening water through ion exchange is a time-tested method for eliminating hard water. They are great for providing large amounts of consistent, softened water. Like most filtration systems, ion exchange systems do require a degree of maintenance. The regeneration process must occur regularly, and the owner must add salt to replenish the brine tank periodically. 

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Water Conditioners

Water conditioners and water softeners work in different ways and produce different results. Most water conditioners are salt-free systems that are used to remove unwanted substances that alter the taste or smell of your water. These substances include chlorine, chloramines, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and organic gasses. Water conditioners are also used to remove lead from water.

How does a water conditioner work? It depends on what type of water conditioner you have. Some water conditioners filter out unwanted substances from water as it passes through, giving your water a better smell. Other water conditioners offer some soft water benefits by actually altering the structure of minerals in the water. These systems rely on a specialized material known as template-assisted crystallization (TAC) media to provide the benefits of soft water around your home.

 As hardened water passes over the TAC media, small amounts of hard minerals react with the TAC media and combine to form into crystals about the size of a nanometer. This process is known as nucleation. The crystals formed during this process are sometimes referred to as “seed crystals”. 

Once these nanometer-sized crystals have formed on the TAC media they rejoin the stream of water. Not all of the hard mineral ions in the water have formed into crystals. However, these seed crystals are sufficient to eliminate scaling. This is because the remaining hardness ions contained in the water will prefer to bind to the seed crystals over other surfaces such as the lining of your plumbing or your bathroom fixtures.

Water conditioners using TAC media are highly effective at reducing scaling from hard water. Research conducted by the WaterReuse Research Foundation found TAC media reduced scaling by up to 88%. At the same time, water conditioners like our Spartan series that use TAC media don’t require external power to operate. This results in lower utility costs when compared to other hard water treatment options.

The Best Water Conditioner for you will depend on how you want to treat your water. If you are concerned about exposure to chlorine or lead, a water conditioner like the Rayne Executive Series is probably right for you. However, if you also want the benefits of softened water you may want to consider a water conditioner that uses TAC media or a hybrid system that combines both water softening and conditioning.

 Curious about how long does water conditioner take to work? Water conditioning occurs quickly, so you don’t have to worry about the flow rate being affected or having to wait for conditioned water.

If you are wondering about an electronic water conditioner and if they work, there hasn’t been conclusive evidence one way or the other that electronic or magnetic conditioners are as effective at removing scaling. The available studies have conflicting views on their effectiveness, making them a relatively untested technology.

Which System is Right For You?

If you are weighing your options between a water softener vs water conditioner, it’s helpful to assess the unique features of each system and see how those apply to your life. Both systems are highly effective at reducing the impacts of hard water, yet each system has a unique operation that should be kept in mind.

Water Softeners

  • Remove hard minerals from water;
  • Softened water has a small amount of sodium;
  • The unit requires electricity and a drainage line;
  • Salt must be periodically added to the system.

Water Conditioners

  • Removes chlorine, chloramines, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and other undesired contaminants altering the smell and taste of your water;
  • Energy-efficient and doesn’t require a drain line;
  • No brine or salt required;
  • Some water conditioners alter hard minerals so they don’t attach to surfaces and cause scaling.

One thing to note about deciding between a water softener and water conditioner is some cities and regions have laws limiting the use of water softeners. These restrictions, sometimes referred to as brine restrictions, do not allow water treatment systems that flush excess brine down a drain line. This is because many wastewater treatment facilities don’t treat for salt, so excessive levels of salt in the wastewater can limit how that water is reused. So, if you live in an area with brine restrictions contact Rayne so that we can help you determine your most effective treatment system.


Closing Thoughts

Both water conditioners and water softeners are highly effective water treatment systems that produce different results. Water softeners address scaling by removing hard minerals from water through a process known as ion exchange. In this process, hard minerals are removed from the water and replaced with sodium ions.

In contrast, most water conditioners remove harmful substances from your water like lead, chlorine, chloramines, and VOCs. Some water conditioners also provide soft water benefits. They do this through a special material that has been imprinted with nucleation sites. As hard minerals pass over the material they form into very tiny crystals. These crystals then attract the other hard minerals in the water, creating a structure that doesn’t form deposits or scale. Don’t worry though, the small crystals formed in conditioned water are too small to taste, feel, or see! 

Both water conditioners and water softeners are great water treatment solutions. We even carry a whole house water filter and softener combo which performs both functions. The underlying process that drives these two soft water systems is fundamentally different, and each has different requirements. Installation for water conditioners tends to be more flexible because they don’t require a drain line.

If you aren’t sure what type of system might be right for you, speak to one of our knowledgeable staff at Rayne Water today! Our water quality experts can assess your water treatment needs and provide you with targeted recommendations. If you aren’t sure about whether a water conditioner or water softener is right for you and are tired of dealing with the effects of hard tap water or water that has an unpleasant smell, don’t hesitate to get in contact with us today!

We have a variety of products from residential and commercial water treatment systems including residential RO system, commercial water softeners, bottleless coolers, salt-free water systems and more. Connect with us for further questions!

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  5. Vastyan, John. 2010. “Template-Assisted Crystallization.” Heating/Piping/Air Conditioning Engineering 82 (11): 34–37.

Expert Reviewer – Ken Christopher