Water Softeners vs Water Filters: Which Do You Need?

Researched & Written by Craig

Everyone knows that water softeners and water filters are both for your drinking supply. But what do they do exactly, and which would suit your home better?

I was stuck on this myself, so I’ve dove into some research. This article is the result! I’ve compared in detail the difference between the two, and which you should need.

In short, a water softener only takes out calcium and magnesium. This ‘softens’ hard water which helps make your water systems more efficient. Compared to a softener, a water filter removes lots of contaminants which solves bad odors, taste, and dry skin.

That’s just the summary though. Want to really understand water softeners vs water filters? Then let’s dive in!

What Is ‘Hard’ Water?

Firstly, I want to quickly cover what hard water is. Understanding this will explain the difference between water softeners and water filters.

Basically, hard water is water with a high amount of minerals in it. This is usually from calcium and magnesium. This can come out as cloudy when first poured – but not always.

Hard water is fine for humans. We can drink it and process it without a hitch. The problem is that hard water can leave residue behind – the inside of an old kettle is usually a good example.

Though this is an EXTREME case of build-up!

This can affect the taste of water, but that’s not the real issue.

The real issue is that this kind of buildup can clog your pipes. Which affects all of your water systems, especially the efficiency of your hot water (and the size of energy bill you pay). It can also make it difficult for soap to dissolve into it, which can affect dishwashers / washing machines.

How Does A Water Softener Work?

Since hard water is ‘hard’ because of minerals like calcium and magnesium… can you guess what water softeners do?

Exactly!

They massage the minerals to make them soft…

Just kidding.

Water softeners remove these minerals – normally by passing them through lots of tiny beads in a honeycomb. The water is passed over these, and the hardness sticks to the beads as residue.

Hey, presto – the water coming out is much ‘softer’.

The beads are then later cleaned by a salty brine, which is often kept in a separate tank next to the actual softener tank. A modern system will flag up the amount of clean beads that are probably left, so you can know when to “regenerate” them.

This is either done manually, semi-automatically, or automatically – depending on the system.

The salt ready to help create the brine.

How do Water Filters Work?

On the other hand, water filters clean out much more than just calcium and magnesium.

A water filter is there to remove just about anything that you don’t want from your water. They come in tons of different types – typically each are better at one type of filtering.

Water Filter Types

  • Activated alumina: using aluminum oxide to remove fluoride, arsenic, selenium. The water passes through a honeycomb style filter made of aluminum.
  • Activated carbon: activated meaning processed to make them super porous. The water is passed through and particles are snagged by the pores. Very popular method because it’s cheap and needs no electricity. Excellent for taste and smell of water.
  • Ceramics: often used in pitches/water coolers. Basically a ceramic filter has tons of tiny holes, which are so small only the water can pass through them. This is where you fill the water into the filter, and it slowly drips into another container which you can then drink from.
  • Reverse osmosis: water is forced through a membrane with tiny pores. Great at removing pollutants and metals, often used in bulky locations like under the sink or whole-house filters. Often need to be combined with other filters.
  • Ultraviolet: water gets zapped as it passed through a chamber with UV light. This kills anything living (tiny bugs and bacteria). But it’s expensive and needs electricity.
  • Water distillation: the oldschool method. Boil water, catch the evaporated steam and guide into a separate container. Hey presto – completely filtered water. This is the most effective but also incredibly slow. Not often used in residential filters.

The type of water filter you use should be based on a bunch of factors. Mainly the properties of your water, but also the water pressure, material of your pipe, your budget, etc.

Want to learn about the different types, and what would be best for you? 

Not only are there a big range of water filter types, but there’s a big range of where you can use them, too.

Water Filter Locations

  • In a pitcher
  • In your faucet
  • In your shower
  • As a countertop water source
  • Under your sink
  • Inline (i.e. for a refrigerator)
  • A whole house system

The main point with filters is that they remove contaminants. These are particles which ruin the quality of your water in one way or another.

Contaminants can include dirt, sediment, fluoride, chlorine, limescale… just about everything!

Water filters are mainly used to improve the taste of water, removing any bad odors, making it clear not cloudy, removing any toxins/compounds, and making the water easier on your skin to shower with.

Water Softeners vs Water Filters

Hopefully you’re beginning to get the picture by now. But for clarity’s sake, let’s compare these two.

Water softeners are made to specifically remove hardening minerals from water. This is like a filter, but used mainly to prevent hard water from clogging your pipes. It makes sure that your hot water system keeps running efficiently, as well as your cleaning systems.

On the other hand, water filters are more for you and your family. They remove bad smells, bad tastes, skin irritants, and generally any other troublesome compounds from your water supply. These are available in a massive range of types, sizes, and installation locations.

When comparing water softeners vs water filters, think of filters as treating the water for human use. It helps with taste, smell, looks, and your skin. Water softeners are more for your pipes and heating systems / cleaning appliances. A softener will help your energy bill, a filter will help you.

Can Water Filters Act As Water Softeners?

Water filters cover a massive range of particles.

Some are only there to take out large particles like dirt or sediment, while others will remove everything down to the last invisible flake of mineral in your water.

If you have a water filter that can take out hard water minerals (30-50 microns), then you don’t need a water softener. The water filter will do all the ‘hard’ work for you. However, it’s worth double checking the ability of your system, and also figuring out how often it’ll need replaced – as water softeners are made to handle a lot of water.

What Does YOUR Water Need?

Thanks to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) this is a very easy question to answer. At least for those living the USA – I’m sure other countries have equivalent tools.

They EPA produce what’s called a “Consumer Confidence Report”. This shows you the type of minerals in your local water supply, and what kind of water treatment systems you should consider.

Check yours out by putting in your zip code here. It can really help with buyer’s confidence to know whether the EPA is recommending a system to you or not.

Conclusion

For those not in the know, water softeners and water filters almost sound like the exact same thing.

I hope this article has helped separate the difference for you.

Again, I’d recommend getting a water filter for problems related to you and your family (bad taste, smell, looks, skin issues). A water softener, on the other hand, should be considered for your systems. For better hot water efficiency, appliance efficiency, and lower energy bills!

If this content has helped you, please consider checking out our related posts below.

Thanks for reading, have a great day!