Water Softener vs. Water Filter | Comparison Guide to Tell the Difference

What Is Hard Water?

Hard water is a problem that affects most households in the United States and is due to the chemicals composition of many of the reservoirs and waterways in the country.

Hard water contains high levels of magnesium and calcium, which will cause significant damage and annoyance. If you've ever had the experience of not being able to get soap to create suds, you've experienced the difficulty of living with hard water.

Hard water is more than just a nuisance; it can be actively detrimental to your home. Excess calcium and magnesium will often solidify, leaving a residue in your pipes, on your appliances and glassware, and even in your body. If left unattended, these crystals can damage your pipes and shorten the lifespan of your appliances.

Most water softening systems attach to your mains, allowing the water softener to remove the chemicals before the water reaches your home. 

There are hundreds of different chemicals and compounds that can affect water quality. Some areas have issues with contamination, while other areas have problems with hard water. Many people have moved away from using tap water entirely due to low-quality issues, but this doesn't necessarily have to be the case in your home. 

Technological advances can improve water quality through water filtration. If you want to get great tasting water from the tap, or need softer water for better cleaning, installing a whole-house system is a viable option that will give excellent results. 

While it's possible to install a whole house water filter or water softening system, it can be challenging to determine what type of system is right for you. If you're not sure if you need a whole house water filter or a softening system, or you don't understand the difference between a softener and filter, our guide is here to help you understand the difference. 

Filtration Mechanisms

Filtration is any process that removes solids, liquids, or gases from another liquid. There are several types of filtration, each of which works slightly differently:

Mechanical filtration

This type of filtration removes particles by physically blocking them. The primary use of mechanical filtration is to remove undissolved solids from a particular liquid.

Chemical filtration

This type of filtration removes dissolved particles and compounds from the liquid, leaving behind pure water.

Biological filtration 

Biological contamination involves bacteria, fungi, and viruses present in the water. There are several ways to remove these pathogens, and some of these methods rely on germ characteristics. 

In many cases, one filtration system can use several filtration methods to achieve a pure and clean result. Some water filters will remove large particles and dissolved chemicals but can't effectively remove germs or biological waste. Others, like water softeners, use chemical reactions to purify your home water. 

Typically, water filtration systems will start by removing solid particles and then moving onto unwanted chemicals such as calcium, magnesium, and nitrogen before getting rid of germs. Each step in the process requires a different filter, all of which combine into an effective system. 

How Do Water Filters Work?

Most whole house water filtration systems rely primarily on mechanical filtration. These systems remove large particles through physical filtering. Some of the most common mechanical filters include sediment filters that can remove fine grit, dust, and particulate matter from your water. 

An upgrade on traditional sediment filters is micron-filtration, where water passes through a very fine filter. The water can flow through easily, while all the water solids get trapped in the filter. This type of whole house water filter is excellent for removing particles as well as bacteria and viruses. 

Some higher-end water filtration systems can also remove dissolved compounds from the water. Carbon filtration is excellent at removing volatile compounds, foul odors, and chlorine. It works by taking advantage of the fact that many chemicals bind to activated carbon. The carbon filter sucks up these nasty chemicals while the water moves through, leaving the contaminants behind. 

Ion-exchange can remove certain chemicals by causing a chemical reaction before the water reaches your tap. Fluoride adsorption filters are another example of chemical filtration that removes fluoride from your water supply. 

If you want truly pure water, you can also consider a reverse-osmosis system. This water purification system relies on the principle of osmosis and takes advantage of water's natural tendency to equalize between different concentrations. The system uses pressure to force water across an osmotic membrane, which results in clean, salt-free water. 

The efficiency and type of system depend a lot on your existing water quality and your needs. If you want good drinking water, you'll want a filter that removes unpleasant tastes and anything toxic or detrimental to your health. 

The final filtration solution is one that removes dangerous germs from the water. Many municipal waste systems may not remove all the bacteria and viruses that cause disease. If you notice that you're constantly getting sick from drinking tap water, consider installing an ultraviolet light filter. UV light kills bacteria, viruses, and fungi safely and effectively. 

How Do Water Softeners Work?

Water softeners are a type of water filter. The main difference between a water softener vs. water filter is that water softeners only remove calcium and magnesium from your water supply. In contrast, a whole-house water filter can remove much more. 

A water softener doesn't necessarily have a water filter. Instead, these systems use chemical means to soften the water and make it safe for human use. There are main water softeners on the market you'll need to consider when choosing a water softener for your home.

The most common water softeners use a salt and ion-exchange system to remove hardening chemicals from the water before reaching your home. A traditional ion-exchange water treatment contains special ion-exchange resins coated in a sodium solution. Calcium and magnesium bind to these ions while the rest of the water passes into your home's pipes.

The main disadvantage of this water softener method is leaving behind a sodium residue, which some people dislike. 

Another more advanced option is the salt-less system, which uses ceramic media beds instead of a sodium solution. This system is designed to remove calcium and magnesium without adding extra salt into your drinking water. It's a great way to filter water naturally, without the need for additional electricity or chemical waste. 

When Do You Need a Water Softener?

If you live in a hard water area, chances are you already know about it. Hard water makes getting soap suds almost impossible, and you'll have a residue on all your glassware, no matter how often you clean them. Many people also notice a white, difficult-to-remove build-up in their water pipes and appliances.

The type of water system you need depends on your area and your preferences. Typical salt-based water systems are more affordable and effective, but they require regular maintenance when the sodium ions get depleted through constant use. 

Ceramic, salt-free media beds may be better for your health, but they're significantly more expensive than salt-based water softening systems. 

When Do You Need a Water Filter?

If you have contaminated water that looks cloudy or impure, you may want to invest in a whole-house water filter. The type of whole house water filtration system you choose depends on your particular problem. Ideally, you want your whole-house filter to remove your particular contaminants, and different surface water systems will need different water treatment solutions.

For instance, if you notice that you have rust particles or sediment, you'll need different water removal filters and water softeners than if you have hard water problems. 

Choosing the Right System for Your Needs

Whether you choose a water softener vs. water filter depends mostly on your water problems. Sometimes, you'll need to install both softeners and water filters to get soft water and salt-free, high-quality drinking water. In other instances, you can simply install a filter and a water tap to get clean drinking water.

In the worst-case scenario, you may want to consider a whole-home water filtration system. This type of whole house filter system takes water purification systems to the next level. It includes water filter systems, water softener systems, carbon filters, ion-exchange filters, and a whole host of other water filters. 

Before you commit to either a house water filter or a water softening filter, do a thorough analysis of your home's water quality. By understanding the quality of your water, you can select the right house filters and systems for your needs. 

Also, keep in mind the maintenance tasks required to keep up whole house water filtration and water softening systems. Most water filters need regular changes to function at peak performance. How often you change your house water filters will depend on your water softener vs. water filtration setup and how contaminated your water is. 

Your best option is to speak to an expert and find out what water softener or filter system works best for your needs. 


I'm Patricia Baker, a kindergarten teacher turned stay at home mom. I enjoy researching and writing product reviews as a way to help other consumers (like myself) make informed decisions. signature

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