Water Conditioner vs. Water Softener: What’s the Difference?

What Sets Hard Water Scale Solutions Apart

October 11th, 2023

4 minutes

Water Treatment

By Tee Mariga

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Water Conditioner vs. Water Softener: What’s the Difference?

Hard water can have a big impact on your business, leading to scale deposits and increasing the costs of equipment maintenance and repair. Two anti-scaling solutions are often used to prevent scale buildups: water conditioners and water softeners.

It’s not unusual to see the terms “water conditioner” and “water softener” used interchangeably. However, these terms actually refer to two unique approaches to water treatment. Both can be effective as hard water scale inhibitors, but they work in different ways. Here’s a closer look at the differences in chemistry, functions, and applications to help you decide which solution best suits your needs.

Chemistry Comparison: Water Conditioner vs. Water Softener

The clearest difference between water conditioners and water softeners is that conditioners do not use salt, whereas salt is key to the chemistry that makes a true water softener work. The two systems can also differ widely in the types of contaminants they remove or add, how effective they are at inhibiting scale deposition, and their impact on wastewater.

Water Conditioner

While they are sometimes — misleadingly — called “salt-free water softeners,” a water conditioner does not truly remove minerals and produce soft water. However, it can temporarily alter the chemistry of hardness particles in a way that inhibits their ability to deposit as scale in pipes and equipment. A variety of technologies can be used to create a water conditioning effect, such as:

  • Electrochemical: It’s possible to use an electrical current to precipitate the compounds that create water hardness, forming them into a soft sludge on an electrode (and removing them from the water). This electrode will occasionally need to be cleaned off.
  • Electromagnetic: With this method, a pair of strong magnets or electromagnetic coils surround the water line and produce an electromagnetic field that converts calcium from calcite to aragonite, which lowers its scale-forming abilities. This can reduce scale deposits, but it is not capable of complete scale prevention.
  • Template-Assisted Crystallization (TAC): Surface-treated resin beads (template-assisted crystallization media or TAC) can be used to catch minerals like magnesium and calcium, converting them into microscopic scale-resistant crystals. While this does not remove hardness, the crystals can’t stick to pipes and equipment as scale. This is generally seen as a superior water conditioner option for scale inhibition.

Water Softener

A water softening system removes hard minerals like calcium and magnesium from water but leaves a small amount of sodium behind in their place. As hard water moves through a bed of resins, the hardness particles are attracted to the resin via ion exchange and stick to it. The dissolved mineral ions are effectively removed from the water and replaced with sodium ions.

A softening system also requires a drainage line, creates wastewater (during flushing cycles), and uses electricity to function. There are generally two tanks involved in the system — one with the resin beads and another with a salty brine solution that’s used periodically to wash and regenerate the resin so it can collect more mineral ions. You will need to periodically add salt to the system.

Choosing Between Water Softener and Water Conditioner

Most water conditioning technologies are less effective at scale inhibition than water softeners. However, water conditioner systems can still significantly reduce scale and are both more energy efficient and tend to cost less than full-scale softening systems. Water conditioners can also be used in targeted applications to remove other contaminants such as chlorine, VOCs, and other undesired particles that alter the water.

Anti-Scalants: An Alternative Hard Water Solution

This is another path to take to prevent scale buildups. Antiscalants are water treatment additives that act to bind to and trap hardness particles in a process called chelation. By grabbing these targeted particles, an antiscalant such as Soltellus™ can carry them with it through the water system without allowing them to deposit on pipes and equipment. 

Soltellus™ uses polyaspartate — a polymer that is an effective biodegradable and eco-friendly replacement for water softeners — to help soften water, but it is not a water softener. The minerals are still in the water; they’re just unable to deposit as scale in pipes. Research has shown its ability to inhibit scale build-up and corrosion in high salinity water by as much as 90% in reverse osmosis membranes, cooling towers, heat exchangers, and oilfield production.

Because it will eventually biodegrade into simple amino acids and release the minerals, Soltellus™ is a harmless solution that poses no threat to the environment should the water eventually enter our waterways or the ground. This approach offers streamlined simplicity compared to a more involved water softening system. Just add it to your water process, and it prevents scale, corrosion, and other issues.

Connect with the team at Lygos for more information about Soltellus™ and how it can mitigate the effects of hard water in your process.


Improve Water Treatment Operations with Soltellus™ Polymer

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