Should I Buy a Water Descaler or a Water Softener?

Kathryn Pomroy
Written by Kathryn Pomroy
Reviewed by Joseph Wood
Updated February 25, 2022
Woman unloading clean dishes from dishwasher
Photo: Kentaroo Tryman/Maskot / Getty Images

A water descaler or softener could be the solution for your bad hair days and not-quite-clean dishes—learn the pros and cons of each

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From spots on your favorite glassware to hard-to-clean toilets, hard water and built-up calcium can be hard to remove. Both water descalers and water softeners can help solve hard water problems, but via different methods and at different price tags. Explore the differences and decide which one you want to invest in.

Joseph Wood, Expert Review Board member, Master Plumber, and Founder of Boston Standard Company says, “A big reason to install these systems is that they both protect the downstream fixtures. This will ultimately save your toilet and shower valve and similar components from the undue stress caused by minerals in fresh water."

Water Descaler vs. Water Softener: What are the Differences?

How do water descaler and water softeners work? What are the advantages and drawbacks of each, and which is best for your home?

Water Descalers

Water descalers have a few key advantages over water softeners. Unlike a water softener, it doesn’t use salt to soften the water. The two most common water descalers are template-assisted crystallization (TAC) water descalers and magnetic descalers.

TAC Descalers

TAC descalers will not affect the quality of your water. Instead, they work by filtering water to remove sediment and contaminants. When the minerals stick to the filter’s surface, they go through a chemical change—crystallizing and growing in size. 

Then, the minerals are unleashed back into the water. Although your water is still hard, a TAC descaler eliminates the effects of hard water by preventing the minerals from sticking to surfaces.

Magnetic Descalers

Magnetic descalers are salt-free and use a magnetic coil wrapped around an incoming water line, which sends out an electromagnetic wave that alters the structure of mineral ions. Like a TAC descaler, a magnetic descaler also prevents water from sticking to surfaces, eliminating mineral build-up. Your home’s water is still hard, but you should see much less scale accumulation over time.

Water Descaler Advantages

  • Uses no salt

  • Requires no maintenance

  • Less expensive than water softeners

  • Maintains healthy minerals in your water

  • Water still tastes good

Water Descaler Drawbacks

  • Doesn’t actually remove minerals

  • Difficult to see results of decreased mineral build-up

  • Less expensive than traditional water softeners—the average cost of a water descaler is $200

Nice shower with clean glass doors
Photo: LOOK Photography/UpperCut Images / Getty Images

Water Softeners

Water softeners provide mineral-free soft water to your whole house. Salt-based water softeners use a process called ion exchange to remove minerals. It’s typical to see a system with a sediment water filtration system in one large tank. As a result, scale deposits and minerals don’t stick to plumbing and appliances or show spots on glassware.

Water Softener Advantages

  • Very effective at removing minerals

  • Water “feels” softer

  • Less spotting, mineral build-up, and scale on glassware and dishes

  • Time-tested method to remove hard water scale

Water Softener Drawbacks

  • You must purchase salt to operate the system

  • Some septic systems do not permit the use of softeners because they will backwash the salt solution through the drainage and can overwhelm a septic system. You should confirm eligibility before installation.

  • May require more maintenance than descalers

  • More expensive overall than descalers—A water softener system costs between $500 and $6,000 for the unit and installation. Many companies also rent units for a monthly fee ranging between $20 to $30, which covers renting the unit and any service repairs. You’ll likely also need to hire a local water softener specialist to install it for you, plus perform routine maintenance.

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