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How Does a Water Conditioner Work?

Saltless water conditioners are often suggested as a viable alternative to water softening systems, but what is a water conditioner and how does it work? Both water softeners and water conditioners were developed to help residential and commercial customers reduce unwanted contaminants in tap water. But, these two types of water filtration systems function in fundamentally different ways and produce different results.

If you are on the fence about whether a water conditioner is right for you, gaining a better understanding of exactly how water conditioners work can help you make an informed decision about which type of system is right for you and your soft water needs. While water softeners are excellent at dealing with hard water minerals, in some circumstances a water conditioner may be preferable. To learn why let’s take a look at how water conditioners work and whether they are a viable water softener alternative.

What’s in Your Water?

Conditioners are an alternative to water softening systems, but these systems are used to remove different types of contaminants from your water. The type of system you choose for water treatment is usually determined by what contaminants you want to remove from your water.

Tap water can contain many contaminants. Some of these contaminants are minerals, which can be left as deposits known as scaling. Water is considered hard if it contains relatively high levels of dissolved minerals. Often these minerals are calcium carbonate and magnesium, which are picked up by water as it percolates through stone and soil.

Other common contaminants are disinfectants, such as chlorine, disinfection byproducts, chloramines, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These chemicals and compounds alter how your water tastes and smells. 

There are effective treatment options for both categories of contaminants in your water. If your primary concern are the impacts of hard water around your home, you’ll probably want to choose a water treatment system that can remove hard minerals or reduce their impact. These include water softening systems, or certain types of water conditioners. 

On the other hand, if you are concerned about the taste and smell of your water or prefer a salt-free system, a water conditioner may be right for you. 

What’s the Problem With Hard Water?

Hard water isn’t harmful to your health, and if you lack a nutrient-rich diet the minerals contained in hard water can actually be beneficial. Though there are a few negative impacts on the human body from water hardness, including brittle or dry hair and dry skin, most of the undesirable hard water effects can be found around your home.

When hard water passes over or evaporates on a surface it leaves behind the dissolved minerals it contains. This is known as scaling. Scaling can occur on any surface hard water comes into contact with. It is most frequently seen on the inside of plumbing over long periods of time and on surfaces and fixtures in your kitchen or bathroom. The mineral deposits from hard tap water will make your clothes more brittle and dull. When your dishes come out of the dishwasher they will have small white spots on them, which are minerals left behind when hard water has dried.

Your appliances are affected by hard water as well. When hard water is heated it leaves behind scale. This means appliances like your water heater, teapot, or coffee pot will have a reduced lifespan as scale builds up inside them. In a commercial setting, scaling can reduce the lifespan of boilers and heaters, as well as the plumbing which delivers water to systems.

The impacts of hard water don’t end at your home or business. Industrial agriculture requires water to be softened, usually through the use of a reverse osmosis system, to give growers greater control over the PH of the water they are using on their crops. Manufacturers in certain industries, such as the pharmaceutical industry, also remove dissolved minerals from water to achieve higher purity and consistency in their products through an ion exchange process.

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Water Softening vs. Water Conditioning

If you’re like most people, you are probably wondering about the difference between a water conditioner vs water softener. Let’s break down the differences between these two terms.

  • Water Softening – Water softening occurs through a process known as “ion exchange”. In a water softening system, the dissolved mineral ions in hard water are removed from the water supply and replaced with sodium ions. Replacing the mineral ions with sodium ions allows your water to maintain a balanced electrical charge. Don’t worry, your softened water won’t taste salty! For most people, the level of sodium in softened water isn’t noticeable at all. Here’s to fresh drinking water!
  • Water Conditioning – Unlike water softener systems that remove and replace dissolved minerals in hard water, a water conditioner system treats the water to remove different types of unwanted contaminants. Most water conditioners remove contaminants that alter the smell of your water, such as chlorine, chloramines, VOCs, and organic gases. Some water conditioners also provide some benefits of softened water, but don’t actually remove any hard minerals from the water. These water conditioners do this through a process that alters the chemical structure of the dissolved minerals in hard water, allowing those minerals to remain in the water but removing their negative effects.

How Does a Water Conditioner Work?

So exactly what is water conditioner? Water conditioners are used to condition water, but this term has multiple meanings in the industry. Most water conditioners remove contaminants that give your water an unpleasant smell or taste. Contaminants like chlorine, which is used as a disinfection agent in tap water, can be absorbed through the skin and gives water an unpleasant smell and taste. Likewise, VOCs can also cause your water to smell or taste unpleasant. Most water conditioners remove these substances, but don’t actually remove the calcium and magnesium in your water that cause scaling around your home. 

Some water conditioners also provide many of the benefits of softened water, but don’t actually remove the hard minerals from your water in the way that a water softener does. The goal of these saltless water conditioners is to alter the hardness of water so scaling doesn’t occur. The Best Water Conditioner does this through the use of a specialized material known as TAC media. 

Template-assisted crystallization (TAC) media contains nucleation sites that attract the dissolved mineral ions in hard water. These dissolved mineral ions come together and form very tiny crystals. Sometimes these crystals are known as “seed crystals”. Once these seed crystals have formed, the other hard minerals in the water bond to them preferentially.

Let’s break down this water filtration process. In a water conditioning system like the Rayne Spartan Series that uses TAC media, hard water enters the water conditioner and flows over the TAC media. As the water is flowing over the TAC media, dissolved mineral ions in the hard water are briefly attracted to the media and come together to form very tiny crystals. These crystals then continue on with the water. Any other dissolved mineral ions remaining in the water preferentially attach to the crystals in the water, rather than to other surfaces the water comes into contact with.

Keep in mind that many water conditioners provide a fundamentally different function than water softeners. While most water conditioners will remove contaminants such as chlorine and organic gases from your water, they won’t alter or remove water hardness. This makes them a great water treatment alternative for individuals who are concerned with contaminants in their water, but don’t necessarily need the benefits of softened water. 

Let’s take a look at some of the most common questions people have about water conditioners as a water softener alternative. 

Will I be able to taste or feel the crystals that form in conditioned drinking water?

For water conditioners that provide some soft water benefits you won’t be able to notice the crystals which have formed in the conditioned water. These crystals are very small. You can’t see or feel them. However, if you prefer the taste of water with some mineral content, you’ll still be able to have water that tastes the same.

How much water can be conditioned?

Like water softeners, most water conditioners are considered a whole-house solution for hard water problems. This means these systems are installed shortly after your main water line enters your home. This allows the system to condition all of the water flowing through your home. 

Will I still get scaling with conditioned water?

It depends! Water conditioners don’t remove hard minerals from water. Many water conditioners remove other contaminants like chlorine and chloramines, but don’t alter water hardness. Certain types of water conditioners can provide many of the benefits of softened water, such as eliminating scaling, but even these water conditioners don’t actually soften water. Instead, water conditioners that provide the benefits of soft water alter the structure of the hard minerals in your water so that they don’t cause scaling. While conditioned water still contains minerals, those minerals are in a different form which doesn’t bond to surfaces and fixtures in your home.

What about an electronic water conditioner, do they work?

Electronic water conditioners have not been independently evaluated to eliminate problems associated with hard water, including scaling. These systems involve a series of magnets or coils wrapped around the water line coming into your home to disrupt or agitate hard water in order to alter the chemical structure of the hard minerals. Rather than trust unproven technology, it is far better to use a system known to work such as a water softener.

How long does the water conditioner take to work?

One of the most frequently asked questions is “how long does water conditioner take to work?” Water conditioners work immediately. There is no delay between when water flows through a water conditioner and when it is conditioned. Water conditioners are capable of providing large amounts of conditioned water as-needed, so you don’t have to worry about whether you’re going to run out of the water if you do an extra load of dishes or take two showers. You are sure to have gallons of water on tap. 

Do water conditioners require the use of brine?

Water conditioners don’t require anything to be added to the water, including salt! This makes them an excellent choice for areas with brine solution restrictions in place which limit the use of water softener systems. An added advantage of not using a brine tank is water conditioners also don’t need access to a drainage line. This may make installation easier in some homes.

Are water conditioners energy efficient?

Water conditioners are very energy efficient. These are passive systems, meaning as water flows through the system it is conditioned. This makes them economically and environmentally friendly and reduces ongoing costs associated with the system.

Closing Thoughts

There are different types of water conditioners that provide different benefits. Understanding which is right for you will depend on what result you desire out of your water treatment system.

Most water conditioners are used to eliminate bad odors and tastes from water. These types of water conditioners reduce levels of lead, chlorine, chloramine, and VOCs. This type of treatment will give you water that tastes crisp and has no unpleasant smells.

Don’t worry if you are concerned about the impact of hard water around your home, there are some great treatment options available! The most common treatment option for hard water is a water softener, which removes hard minerals from water. Certain types of water conditioners, such as the Rayne Spartan Series conditioners, also provide many of the benefits of soft water but don’t require the use of salt and don’t remove hard minerals from water. 

If you are still undecided about whether a water softener or water conditioner is right for you, please contact Rayne Water today. Our helpful staff can help assess your water treatment needs and outline the advantages and disadvantages of these systems for you. If you need a water treatment system for commercial use, we have bottleless coolers, commercial water softeners and reverse osmosis systems. Contact us today!

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