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What’s the Difference Between Water Softening and Water Conditioning?

Ever wondered what the difference was between water conditioning vs water softening? Have you heard of “hard water” and “soft water”?

It can be confusing. Hard water refers to water that contains a lot of salts and minerals; while soft water refers water with a miniscule amount of minerals and salts.

Using hard water in daily life might actually be too hard for many people to drink and bathe in, and it may even damage your pipes and heating elements – which can lead to repair issues down the line! However, we’re here to tell you that there are ways of softening it, and avoid plumbing problems in the future.

Homeowners and building owners may want to install a water conditioning treatment system due to plumbing issues, and because hard water tastes awful and can cause lengthy skin irritation for those with sensitive skin.

Install a Water Conditioner - Expert Plumbing - Santa Cruz

What is a Water Softener?

A water softener is able to do its softening through a process called ion exchange. A quick science lesson review will tell you that minerals in water are, in fact, ionic – meaning they are electrically charged. When ions of opposite charges (positive and negative) come close, they attach like magnets.

Remember the calcium and magnesium minerals that are said to be in the water? Well, they have a positive charge. For water softeners to capture these minerals, then bring in sodium, or simply, salt – a positively charged mineral with a weaker charge.

For ion exchange to take place, a negative charge is needed. This negative charge comes in the form of a resin bed consisting of numerous negatively-charged beads.

The sodium is added to the water softener, and instantly, it clings onto these negatively-charged beads. When the calcium and magnesium-rich water flows through, the magnesium and calcium minerals get attracted to the negatively-charged resin.

Because of their weaker charge, the sodium ions are kicked out of the resin bed – exchanging places with the calcium and magnesium ions. The result is now considered “soft water.”

With this process, you won’t need to worry about hard water ruining everything in your home. However, to keep it up, you must continuously add bags of salt to the water softener to recharge the beads. This is so that the ion exchange process can continue to work.

Water softeners, while very useful, needs a lot of water to flush out excess minerals. You’ll also face the daily maintenance of having to regenerate the resin bed, which means the entire process is costly.

On the bright side, utilizing a water softener assures you that you won’t see any chalky stains on your sink, bathtub, or kitchen utensils. You’ll notice your detergent working up a better lather. Showering will be a much more pleasant experience, and you won’t have to worry about your clothes fading out after every wash.

What Is a Water Conditioner?

Although some would say that a water conditioner doesn’t soften water, it still makes a difference. It is by far the best solution for your home because it improves your drinking water at a low-cost and is easy to maintain.

A water conditioner applies an inventive method where it manipulates how the minerals in the water behave. Calcium, magnesium, and silica are healthy minerals to humans, so the water conditioner keeps them in the water. But it makes sure they don’t build up on surfaces and cause problems to pipes and other containers.

There are different kinds of water conditioners. A carbon filtration water conditioner contains activated carbon that absorbs chemicals like sulfur and chlorine in the water.

An electromagnetic water conditioner uses wires or magnets to create molecular agitation in water, causing particles to blend and break – resulting in reduced calcium and magnesium ions in the water. It doesn’t actually soften the water, but at least it will eliminate scaling.

Electrolysis uses metal electrodes immersed in the water. These release positive zinc ions that also release electrons that move through a wire. The process stops when the zinc dissolves, and you may not even notice it has stopped working until it’s too late.

Lastly, a catalytic media water conditioner uses template-assisted crystallization (TAC) to change the mineral crystals’ hardness in the water. Just like the previous conditioners, this doesn’t actually soften the water. Instead, it makes sure they don’t stick and cause scaling onto surfaces.

Conveniently, a water conditioner takes care of other water issues, such as biological contaminants, bacteria, and algae. When these build up on surfaces, they’re referred to as biofilm. A water softener can’t get rid of biofilm, but it can help prevent it from building up.

If you need help with your water conditioning, be sure to let us know and we can help!

More Differences Between the Two Water Treatment Systems

How Do Water Conditioners and Water Softeners Work?

Water Softeners remove calcium, magnesium and silica and replace it with salt. There are some quantities of elements available, so water maintains what is called “temporary hardness.” Water conditioners change the minerals so they remain but they do not build up on surfaces or cause other hard water problems. This allows the water to maintain the nutritional advantages of these minerals.


Water softeners only address the minerals. As mentioned above, they replace the ions of the minerals with salt through a process called ion exchange. They do not have any effects against biological elements like bacteria and algae. Water conditioners can address bacteria and algae, which can result in a biofilm that also causes plumbing damage and contamination. If biofilm is an issue at your home or business, you likely need a water conditioner rather than a softener.

Water Usage

Water softeners flush out water with the minerals they remove. These systems use more water, and any water that is flushed out can be dangerous to humans and pets. You will need to monitor it to ensure water drains safely and that the storage tank does not leak. Since water conditioning does not remove the minerals, but only neutralizes them, there is no need for a water flushing system.

What's the Difference Between Water Conditioning and Water Softening?

Should I Condition or Soften My Water?

No mandate tells you that you should soften or condition your water. However, if you’ve been bothered by the mineral spots in your glassware and your shower clogging up, perhaps you should reconsider.

Hard water is rich in calcium, magnesium, and silica minerals. Although not harmful to drink, these minerals can clog pipes and shorten the lifespan of your household appliances.

Minerals in the water can cause problems for pipes and water fixtures. Over time, they’ll be clogged by limescale buildup – a chalky deposit that mainly consists of calcium carbonate.

Water falls into any one of these categories: soft, moderately hard, hard, and very hard. The concentration is measured in ppm (Parts Per Million) using a TDS meter (Total Dissolved Solids).

  • Soft water is measured at 0-60 ppm.
  • Slightly hard water is between 61-120 ppm.
  • Hard water is between 121-180 ppm.

Water conditioners and water softeners are used to soften the hardness of the water. Their main difference is that a conditioner will alter hard water minerals and not remove them. In contrast, a water softener will use ion exchange – where salt replaces the minerals in the water.

What About Maintaining My Water Conditioning or Softening Treatment System?

If you have a water softener system, you need to keep it stocked up with salt. You purchase bags of salt made specifically for water softeners and add it to the unit. This recharges the beads used to soften water so the ion exchange process continues to work. Conditioner systems do not require salt, and merely involve a mechanical process to reduce the effects of water minerals. While you may need to monitor the system to be sure it continues conditioning the water, you do not have to stay on top of adding salt or other frequent maintenance.

Our professional plumbers are highly experienced in a wide range of specific plumbing-related tasks, including specialty projects!

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