Do Descalers Work? Or Do You Actually Need a Water Softener?

Katy Willis
Written by Katy Willis
Reviewed by Joseph Wood
Updated April 14, 2022
man washing greens in kitchen sink
Photo: Maskot / Getty Images

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Your countertops have residue, your dishes have a film on them, and your shower doesn’t seem to stay clean. By now, it’s pretty clear you’ve got a hard water issue, Not only is mineral-laden hard water aesthetically annoying, but it can also clog your pipes and significantly impact your washing machines and dishwashers. So, is a water descaler the answer? Or do you really need a water softener?

To help you decide, we’ll explain what exactly descalers do and which solution is your best bet for combatting hard water.

What Is Hard Water?

Hard water is water that's loaded with minerals. As the groundwater works its way over rocks and through soil, it picks up tiny mineral particles such as magnesium and calcium. The dissolved minerals are the source of water hardness.

Hard water can: 

  • Leave a residue on your countertops and dishes

  • Decrease the lather from detergents, soaps, and bath and shower products

  • Dry up your skin and hair

  • Cause mineral buildup in your pipes

  • Interfere with heating and cooling systems

  • Significantly shorten the lifespan of your washing machine, dishwasher, and any other appliance that uses water

To rectify such an issue, many homeowners may opt for a water softener (a logical conclusion, no doubt), but a descaler could also help eliminate some of the problems.

How Descaling Helps Combat the Effects of Hard Water

Descaling uses, well, a water descaler to reduce the impact of hard water on any surface water touches. The descaler itself has coils that wrap around the cold water intake pipe (your water supply) and generates a magnetic field or a low-voltage current that charges the mineral particles. This positive charge holds the particles in the water so that they're less likely to deposit themselves on surfaces, including the insides of pipes, on heating elements, on countertops, and inside appliances.

However, the water isn't softened. A magnetic descaler is really stopping the deposits from adhering to your plumbing, thereby thwarting the long-term effects of scale on your systems. 

So, while your plumbing and appliances should fare better, you'll still have hard water and experience the effects like soap scum on your dishes, stiff laundry, and "grimy" hair and skin.

Water Descaler vs. Water Softener

limestone buildup sink water descaler
Photo: Ian Dyball / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

While a water descaler holds the minerals in the water to lessen its impact on your plumbing, a water softener actually removes the minerals to produce softer water. Water softeners use sodium chloride-charged polystyrene beads to catch the mineral particles. As the minerals flow over the beads, they switch places with the sodium chloride ions (like magic!). 

With a water softener, the sodium chloride content in the water is insignificant and undetectable by taste or smell. The result? Water that doesn't leave your clothes stiffened with soap scum. You’ll also get to enjoy baths with bubbles again. And of course, your appliances and pipework should perform more efficiently and be less prone to breakdown and clogs.

However, water softening systems are more expensive and harder to install than descalers. Electronic water descalers cost, on average, $200, compared to water softeners, which cost between $800 and $3,000. You'll need to hire a water softener specialist to install these systems for you because they require adding new pipework with valves to direct the water into the softening unit and back out into your home.

“It’s worth noting that not all septic fields are equipped to handle the backwashing cycle of most softening systems and this water may need to discharge outdoors,” warns Joseph Wood Expert Review Board member and Master Plumber at Boston Standard Company. Make sure to ask your water pro about the best system they recommend for your home. Lastly, you may need to have someone perform regular maintenance on your water softener.

Will a Water Descaler Descale Pipes?

No, a water descaler won't descale pipes. The charged water running through the pipes may very slowly dissolve mineral deposits and hold them inside the water, but it's a very gradual process. If your pipes do need decaling, it's much better to get a local plumber to descale your pipes.

Do Electronic Descalers Work?

Yes, they work in the sense that they help reduce the impact of hard water on your pipes and appliances. But they do not soften water. If you have the budget and you want to enjoy the benefits of soft water (soft, comfy clothes, shiny hair, and bubbly bathwater, anyone?), you need a water softening system instead.

Is Descaled Water Safe to Drink?

Yes, descaled water is safe to drink for humans, pets, and plants. It doesn't have any extra sodium and the essential trace minerals we need for our health are still there. And, interestingly, descaled water is better for your aquarium than softened water because it has a stable pH so it won't upset your fish.

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