Water Conditioner vs Water Softener

Water Conditioner vs Water Softener: Do You Know The Difference?

If you have been looking for the softener, then you have definitely come across the term conditioner, salt-free softener or descaler.

The truth is that although both are designed to address the same aspect of hard water, they are very different. Further down, I will explain the difference between water conditioner and softener and dot the i’s and cross all the t’s, so you know everything you need.

In short, water conditioners change the structure of the hard minerals, which prevents them from creating the limescale buildup. Water softeners exchange hard minerals ions for sodium ions so hard minerals are not present in water at all.

To truly understand the difference, let’s explain the types of conditioners and how they work.

What is Water Conditioner

The best way to understand conditioners is to understand the content of hard water first.

What we usually refer to as hard is water is nothing else than water rich in magnesium and calcium. These minerals cause its hardness, but no worries, they are not dangerous by itself. In fact, they are even required by your body.

The hard water that is cold won’t cause too much trouble in your plumbing and won’t build the limescale.

However, hard water, in general, makes it difficult to lather the soap and can irritate sensitive skin. Still, the main issue with hard water is when you heat it.

Here is the thing.

When you start heating hard water, the mineral content within starts to crystallize and form what we know as limescale. These crystals adhere to each other and, over time, form bigger and bigger limescale buildup.

You get the idea. It’s just like a snowball effect.

Now, here is how conditioners fit into this.

There are two most common types of conditioners.

  • Chemical
  • Electromagnetic

Although both types work differently, they aim to protect your home from limescale and all the negative effects of hard water. So let’s have a look at chemical conditioners.

Chemical Conditioners


This conditioner utilizes the additive called polyphosphate. This chemical is often used in food industry as stabilizers and emulators.

What polyphosphate does is that it reacts with magnesium and calcium. The reaction “disables” these minerals, and they are no longer able to create limescale.

Though, you have to be careful with the amount used, so you don’t have any issues with water quality. But if you are getting the chemical conditioner, manufacturers should take of that for you to match the safety standards.

Electromagnetic Conditioners


On the other hand, electromagnetic descalers change the structure of the crystal.

The way it works is that the conditioner is installed on the inlet water supply pipe in your basement.

There are two coils placed around the pipe with the controller’s head.

As water passes through the area where the conditioner is installed, it generates electromagnetic waves. Generated magnetic field alters the structure of the mineral crystals.

Minerals with the new structure are unable to adhere to a surface anymore.

Difference Between Water Softener and Conditioner

As you can see, I hadn’t mentioned the salt at all when I was talking about conditioners. The reason is, they don’t use it.

This is why you can often read or hear someone say salt-free softener. Although this is not precisely the correct term, I will get back to it later.

Salt-based softeners work completely opposite. I talk a lot about them on this blog, so I won’t go into many details, but here is a brief overview.

Softeners have a brine tank with salt and ion exchange resin. The resin is charged with ions of sodium. As water passes through the softener resin exchanges ions of magnesium and calcium and replaces them with sodium ions.

This is why they require the salt, because of sodium = salt.

When the resin has exhausted all the sodium ions, it needs to be flushed and recharged. This is called regeneration process.

The bottom line is:

Unlike conditioners, both chemical or electromagnetic, salt-based softeners do actually remove magnesium and calcium out of water.

Meanwhile, conditioners leave the mineral content in water. They only prevent minerals from building the limescale, almost like “disable” them.

Do Conditioners Soften Water?

I guess you know the answer to that question after everything said earlier. However, let me elaborate on that anyway.

The water is considered soft only if there is low or no mineral content at all. In other cases, water is still hard.

Even though you disable those minerals, they are still in the water.

So the answer is, no conditioners do not “truly” soften water.

Only the salt-based softeners can genuinely soften the water.

You can even tell the difference between conditioned water and softened water, the second one feels silky, and detergents are really easy to lather.

In fact, sometimes they lather too much, so you have to be careful with the amount you use.

With conditioned water, you won’t notice any difference, and it will still be difficult to lather.

This is the reason why the statement salt-free softener is incorrect and misleading.

But now you know what is hidden behind those words when you see them next time.

Now when you have all this information, I think you are ready to discuss the efficiency of conditioners, and when you should and shouldn’t use them.

Are Conditioners Worth It?

Let me tell you straight away, conditioners are not as efficient as softeners.

The biggest difference in performance you will spot with very hard water. The thing is, conditioners are not designed to work with it.

The polyphosphate material has its limits in terms of the volume that can convert. Often when your water is harder, not all of the minerals get converted and can still adhere to appliances.

So what are the limits in terms of hardness?

There is not a set limit, and it varies by different manufacturers.

However, from my observation, the hardness limit is reported to be maximum in a range of 75 ppm or roughly 4.4 grains per gallon.

Now, on a grand scale, this is the category of low to medium. In fact, 4.4 gpg falls into the category of moderately hard water. So if your water hardness is above that number, you are better off with the proper softener.

Anything below that number conditioners should be able to handle. To save yourself a hassle with the later return, confirm the limits with the manufacturer.

By now, you know that conditioners have their limits when they perform well. However, the softeners perform better anyway, which leads to the next question.

Why should you still consider getting a conditioner over the softener?

Benefits of Using Conditioners

Remember when I said that conditioners don’t eliminate minerals?

Well, this is exactly the reason why you might want to give it a preference over the softener.

Of course, only in case you have moderately hard water.

The thing is, hardness minerals are responsible for the taste of water.

This is why when you taste reverse osmosis water it has this flat taste. It lacks minerals.

Why is that important?

If you are like my uncle, who absolutely loves his tea collections and loves to drink tea, you want to maintain a certain level of hardness to improve the experience.

The same applies to coffee lovers.

As you have probably guessed, all these beverages require some hardness to enhance the flavor of the drink.

This is why I wouldn’t recommend using RO water for coffee at all.

So if you are fussy about your drinks, then the conditioner is not a bad shout at all.

Other than that, conditioners don’t require any salt. They work similarly as a filter and contain the cartridge.

Electronic descalers need electricity.

Final Words

Despite being designed to resolve the same problem, these two products have a different approach.

There is no right or wrong choice in this case, and first of all, you need to focus on what you want to get out of the product.

Now it’s up to you to share your thoughts.

  • Do you prefer softener or conditioner? Why?
  • What is your experience with both?
  • Do you think conditioners are useful?

Answer in the comments below.

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