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Water Softener Vs Filters: What’s The Difference?

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Tim Rhodes

Water softener or water filter – why should everyone know the difference?

Why would anyone bother to learn it? – Is it important for our health or should we leave it to the “professionals” to decide what’s best for us? 

Why should anyone stop in their tracks and read the following article?

The price of a water filter or water softener can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

It all depends on its functions and range of water it can treat. 

That’s why everyone should be familiar with the basics and understand the general mechanics behind it.

This article will present the problems that require the use of either device, explain their structure, but most importantly evaluate the difference between a water softener and a water filter. 


Behind The Name

First and foremost, it’s important to explain things as simple as possible.

The easiest to notice and the most distinguishable difference between the two devices hides within their names. 

A water filter cleans water and removes different types of contaminants that pollute it and lower its quality.

Numerous different bacteria, viruses, cysts, heavy metals (e.g. lead), pesticides, etc. represent a threat to our health and cause a plethora of diseases. 

On the contrary, a water softener is only one type of a water filter and has a specific task – it removes excess minerals such as Ca2+ and Mg2+ ions from the solution and replaces them with salt.

Other water filters include backwashing carbon filters, iron, and sulfur removal filters, sediment filters, and fluoride adsorption filters.

All the latter possess various purification techniques that remove pollutants with either absorption, ion-exchange, micron-filtration, catalytic conversion, or oxidation.

This versatility enables them to treat numerous microscopic particles – from natural and man-made to heavy metals.

The size of water filters varies from smaller devices that can fit under the sink, to larger and bulkier whole-house filter systems that are suitable to treat water for the entire household. 

The size, type, and the number of functions a specific device includes all play a major role in its price.

Often the longevity and durability of the filters increase it as well. 

Water Contamination Under The Microscope

Hidden Dangers

Hard water produces scale and possess a danger to our pipes.

It has two specific characteristics –a higher than average amount of TDS, total dissolved solids, and a high concentration of multivalent cations.

Both of those mostly refer to high amounts of Ca2+ and Mg2+ cations.

Nevertheless, this is more of an inconvenience than an actual threat to our health.

Higher amounts of Ca2+ and Mg2+ are beneficial for us. 

On the other hand, some concerns include devastating effects on plumbing, water heaters, dishwashers, washing machines, and many other household appliances.

The effects of hard water include but are not limited to the reduced lifespan of certain appliances, plumbing systems.

Moreover, hard water increases rusting reduces the effectiveness of cleaning agents and causes scale buildup in our pipes and everywhere else it goes. 

It should be noted that scale accumulation can also result in higher usage of energy and increase the cost of electricity.

This means that we spend more money in the long run. 

Effects Of Chlorine

However, a few other larger problems are high amounts of chlorine, heavy metals, and various microorganisms that are prone to infect water sources at any time.

High concentrations of chlorine are great disinfectants and can be beneficial for public health.

On the contrary, prolonged exposure can be harmful.

A study in the 70s discovered that chlorine combined with water and some organic matter like algae forms trihalomethane a by-product.

Another study at the end of the 20th century made on the same subject confirmed the suspicion and proved that people who are exposed to chlorinated water more often are 35% more prone to develop certain types of cancer.

Moreover, people who not only showered but also consumed chlorinated water were 93% more likely to suffer from cancer than those who didn’t. 

As technology evolves and studies continue to analyze the data this area still represents a major part of several discussions amongst scientists.

Nevertheless, they all agree on one thing – chlorinated water does possess the ability to harm our health to some extent and has to be studied in detail to assess them. 

However, most of the United States water sources are considered hard, and consequently a vast majority of households either already possess or are about to install some type of a water filter soon.

When To Install a Filter And How To Choose

The more important question is when should we start thinking about the installation of a water filter and when a water softener will suffice?

For instance, all problems related to excess chlorine, chemical odors, or rotten egg smell, require a whole house water filter that properly treats the problem.

Especially because these can cause dry skin, brittle hair, and some larger health issues like asthma, allergies, or eczema. 

On the other hand, salt-free water softeners suffice for mild scale buildup and some hard water deposits.

Some heavier scale buildup would require a basic salt-based water softener.

As soon as microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, or microbes infect our water supply we need to include UV light sterilizers. 

Iron-hydrogen sulfide removal systems are necessary when we deal with iron red stains or rust particles combined with the rotten egg odor. 

Whenever we deal with fluoridation in public or natural water supplies, we have to include a fluoride removal system.

On the contrary, sediment and turbidity that cause cloudy and impure water require sediment and turbidity removal system.

Behind The Curtain – Inside The Filter

Once hard water or contamination becomes a problem it is essential to understand the basics because different problems require different solutions.

Basic knowledge can save us hundreds or even thousands of dollars and prevent us from buying unnecessary additional functions that significantly raise the cost.

One of the essential parts that all filters have in common is the matrix.

This first traps the contaminants that are later removed in the process of backwashing cleaning cycles.

After this, UV lamps sterilize water that contains microbes.

They attract microbial DNA and the light destroys bacteria, viruses, and cysts. 

This membrane enables the device to remove pollutants of different micron ranges. 

Water Softeners In Detail

Without a doubt, there are various ways to treat contamination and remove impurities from the water solution.

A few of the most common methods for pollutant removal include activated carbon, reverse osmosis, and sediment filtration. 

All smaller water filters are usually installed under the sink and connected to the kitchen tap.

On the contrary, water softeners are directly connected to the “stop cock” under your kitchen or bathroom sink.

From there, softened water travels through the pipes all-around your house. 

In comparison to water softeners, the water filters catch contaminants and send them through the system of cleansing or capture them in a cartridge membrane. 

However, in both cases, this eventually needs some care.

In water softeners, sodium runs out and needs replacing all water filters that require cleaning.

The membrane clogs up and must be replaced with a new one. 

The Chemistry Behind It

Sometimes pollution does not represent our major concern.

Ugly white rings that everyone saw in their bathtub or around the sink and a nuisance that all of us crave to get rid of.

However, the main actors in this chapter are calcium and magnesium which reduce the effectiveness of cleaning agents.

Therefore, scale buildup can easily continue and spread until it eventually destroys our pipes or clogs our faucet, whichever comes first.

To stop this from happening we can install a variety of water softeners.

Those all have one thing in common – they work as chemical magnets to remove excess calcium and magnesium from the solution and replace them with salt.

Most commonly, it’s sodium ions that replace Ca2+ and Mg2+, soften the water, make it taste better, but also protect our pipe system. 

In a water softener, the solution is forced through a bed filled with beads that are covered with sodium ions.

The ions then exchange and calcium and magnesium remain trapped in the beads.

The released salt doesn’t cause bathtub rings or bad tasting water.

Moreover, the effect is easy to notice because soap lathers more in soft than in hard water. 

Salt-Free Water Softeners

On another hand, when we want to avoid introducing new salts or chemicals to the water we can choose salt-free water softeners.

These use advanced ceramic media that attracts and neutralizes the ions without introducing sodium to the solution. 

These exclude the need for regeneration, backwashing, or electricity and are completely salt-free.

This makes them an eco-friendly alternative that doesn’t introduce any salt waste to the environment.

Water softeners replace calcium and magnesium with salts because these don’t reduce the effectiveness of detergents and soaps.

The result is softer water that doesn’t create scale within our water supply system, in the tanks, or heating vessels. 

Common characteristics 

All water filters have one thing in common, the matrix.

Besides that, they differentiate based on their purpose of water treatment and specialize in different areas.

Water softeners are only one type of water filter and have a specific, distinct goal – to replace some of water’s minerals and consequently make it softer.

They achieve it by removing minerals that cause scale.

Special salt and ion-exchange resins coated with a sodium solution, remove calcium and magnesium hardness from water. 

More accurately, as soon as hard water reaches the resin beads calcium and magnesium ions migrate out of the solution and towards the active site of the resin.

Simultaneously, sodium enters the solution and replaces it. 

Other Characteristics

Despite the cost, water softeners are very efficient and simple to use.

The resins that represent the most integral part of the device are self-cleaning which means that we don’t have to replace them like the filters. 

After installment, our only concern is to refill the salt cabinet – an easy and fast process that is very straightforward. 

Besides, water softeners don’t take up much space and can be installed in the smallest cabinets to fulfill their task. 

Indeed, the most recent devices are highly efficient and use up-flow bring to maximize the effect and clean water as efficiently as possible. 

Also, the digital display and contemporary technology enable us to monitor the sodium concentration and know exactly when we need to refill the chamber with a salt solution.

Most devices also include a flow meter that shows water usage and begins the regeneration process, if applicable.

Advantages And Disadvantages

When we are deciding whether we will buy a water softener or filter we have to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of having one.

First and foremost, water softeners save money and effectively treat our hard water problems.

They prevent clogging and reduce the need for repairs. 

Subsequently, we spend less money on detergents and soap, protect our appliances, and extend their lifespan.

Soft water is beneficial for our hair and skin, prolongs the longevity of our clothes, and make them softer. 

Nonetheless, there are a few drawbacks.

If we buy a softener we cannot avoid high operating costs.

The device uses salt and water which can become expensive the longer we use it. 

Another disadvantage is the impact on the environment.

Wastewater accumulates at high levels and possesses a threat to animals and plants.

Moreover, soft water cannot be recycled because that requires resources, and it cannot be used for drinking because of high amounts of sodium. 

Lastly, we cannot avoid mentioning the high installation costs that need to be included in our budget before we buy the system.

Water Filters Are More Effective

Unlike water softeners, water filters use a combination of various techniques to remove man-made and naturally occurring pollutants.

Moreover, they are potentially able to improve the taste and smell as well and they are highly cost-efficient.

Additionally, water filters have several other advantages.

They can effectively remove all water contaminants and save us a lot of money on bottled water.

They are environmentally friendly because we lower the amount of plastic waste and eliminate hard minerals.

However, the drawbacks include slow water output that reduces with the filter’s age.

That’s why constant maintenance is essential which is expensive.

There are some limits to filtration and we cannot guarantee that the water is 100% pollutant-free.

Lastly, the initial installation cost is just as high as with water softener.

Making Decisions

Of course, each problem requires specific solutions but most often households decide to combine water softeners and water filters when they encounter a combination of several different water problems. 

Whenever people decide to include both the first thing they install is the filter.

Later in the system, it’s followed by the water softener which enables the most effective water treatment.

However, the filter needs to be replaced every 10 to 15 years because the holes in its block, reduce its effectiveness, and consequently slowing down the water flow.

The water softener needs filling with the salt solution.

This means that whether we pick one, or both, we will have to spend some extra money in the future.

However, as long as we only treat the problems that we have and don’t spend extra money on mechanisms we don’t need the end justifies the means. 

It all depends on the problems you have.

Whenever your main concern is limescale a water softener is the only thing your house needs.

These enable your pipes and appliances to stay scale-free and extend their lifespan.

However, if you do have other more significant problems then your home needs a water filter.

For instance, if you experience bad taste or smell due to excess chlorine or when you are in danger of contamination with chemicals, pesticides, heavy metals, or whenever your water source is exposed to viruses and different types of bacteria.

In this way, you protect your tap water from significantly endangering your health and improve its quality. 

Alternative Solutions

Nonetheless, there are other ways to treat hard water and improve our tap without installing filters or softeners. 

Not everyone can spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on expensive water treatment systems that would solve something that just recently became a problem.

Sometimes, it’s even better to explore the alternatives and dig a little deeper into the “archives”.

Extra knowledge never hurt anyone, plus it can be beneficial for our wallet.

In some cases, water problems can be solved with as little as a change in our water supply.

However, that may not always be an option.

That is why we can resort to other solutions. 


One of the possible solutions for everyone who wishes to avoid spending too much money on expensive water treatment devices is vinegar.

Probably anyone who ever read its characteristics and used it while preparing food can agree that vinegar can be effectively used as a cleaning agent.

Calcium is a major component of all hard water solutions is highly reactive with acids. 

As soon as it’s applied it will start working and reduce scale buildup even if we use a distilled version.

However, if we are looking to kill mold, bacteria, germs, and clean our dishes, we need regular wash cycles.

It’s also useful when we try to reduce soap scum.


One of the major contributors to hard water and scale buildup is high temperature.

For instance, every time we use a water heater increased temperature damages it and leaves stains of minerals on its surface.

The accumulation process can be delayed if we lower the temperature which results in slower scale buildup. 

Moreover, we must flush the heater as often as possible and prevent the sediments to clog up the fixture. 

In some cases, we can use lemon juice and fill up the heater with a water solution, boil it and add lemon juice to remove the already accumulated minerals.

Rinse Aid

Whenever you encounter problems with hard water you will also notice how much more detergent you need to clean the usual stains.

This is because the negatively charged part of detergent molecules works to keep oil particles suspended in water.

However, an increased number of ions in water work against the molecule and form a bond with no charge.

This prevents the detergent molecule to dissolve in water and have any effect whatsoever. 

Anyone can avoid this if they use specific products created to maximize the detergent’s effect and clean the limescale stains.

These products withstand the positive charge of Ca2+ ions and allow the soap to do its job.

Appliance Cleaner

Especially, because we use water in several different kitchen appliances and throughout our plumbing system it’s important to understand how we can clean them without needing a filter or water softener to treat water. 

Subsequently, the longer we wait the harder it is to remove hard water stains.

This means that regular cleaning can help us lessen the effect of minerals and increase the longevity of pipes and kitchen appliances. 

For instance, various acidic, abrasive, and chlorine-based cleaners work efficiently on limescale buildup.

These can be found in regular stores and they aren’t too expensive.

However, compared to the very low cost of vinegar they are a minor investment.

Final Thoughts

Whatever our problem with water is it’s important to understand how different pollutants affect our tap and alter it.

As soon as we assess the problem we can effectively find the perfect solution that is both low-cost and efficient. 

However big or small our problems might seem, regular cleaning and checking can drastically reduce them.

Nevertheless, at some point, we have to resort to more competent and long-lasting solutions.

In addition to this, we have to decide if we only need softer, scale-free water that will extend the lifespan of our plumbing system and appliances, or if the problems run deeper.

In this case, we will have to spend some more money and invest in a water filter preferably one that will treat our water supply throughout the whole household. 

No matter how impossible the problem might seem, the market always meets the demands, and as long as we know the difference between a water softener and a water filter we’ll know what we need. 


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