Reverse Osmosis VS Water Softener: What’s The Difference?

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reverse osmosis vs water softener

Reverse osmosis is known to be the most effective home water purification method since it can remove up to 99.9% of contaminants, while a water softener treats hard water minerals that cause scale buildup and damage to appliances.

Understanding the difference between a reverse osmosis vs water softener system can be tricky. This guide will discuss how they both work and what use cases they are best suited for.

How Does Reverse Osmosis Work?

Reverse osmosis forces water through a semipermeable membrane to remove up to 99.9% of harmful contaminants while allowing pure H2O molecules to pass through. A reverse osmosis system utilizes multiple filtration stages: sediment filtration, RO membrane, post-filtration, and drainage. 

Here, the water will go through a sediment filter first to remove bigger particles such as sand and rust. 

The water then goes through a semipermeable membrane where the reverse osmosis process happens to remove up to 99% of water contaminants. 

An additional filter is also added in some RO systems to further remove contaminants that cause bad odor and taste. Once the filtration process is done, wastewater is drained out of the RO system and clean water is stored in a tank ready for use. 

Pros and Cons Of Reverse Osmosis

Reverse osmosis is considered one of the most effective water treatments on the market with semipermeable membranes capable of removing 90-99% of contaminants in the water supply. But like any other filtration system, reverse osmosis has its pros and cons:

Benefits Of Reverse Osmosis

  • Efficiency. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), reverse osmosis is “effective in eliminating all disease-causing organisms and most chemical contaminants.” Capable of removing up to 99% of common contaminants, RO systems are considered the most efficient way to treat water.
  • Savings. The average American spends at least $266 a year on bottled water. That’s $17,290 in a lifetime, money that can be spent on something more useful. But when you invest in a reverse osmosis system, you’re only spending once, and you get access to clean drinking water for years.
  • Healthy. An article by the New York Times revealed that “the FDA doesn’t require bottled water companies to disclose to consumers where the water came from, how it has been treated or what contaminants it contains.” But when you process your own water, you’re confident that it will turn out clean and healthy for you to drink and use.
  • Eco-friendly. The Average American buys at least 167 bottles of water per year and that adds up to the massive waste that’s becoming a problem around the world. But with your own RO system, you can cut down on this waste significantly while making sure that you’re providing good quality water to your family.
  • Quality. There’s good reason a lot of restaurants invest in their own RO system, and that’s because clean water that’s free of bad odor and taste improves the taste and quality of their food. Using filtered water to wash ingredients and cook food can actually enhance its flavor.

Drawbacks Of Reverse Osmosis

  • Inconsistent pressure. A lot of those who use RO filter systems report that they notice a drop in their water flow rate, especially during high demands. This is why it’s important to choose the right RO system that can supply your entire household consistently.
  • Wastewater. A reverse osmosis system can really crank up your water bill because it only recovers between 5-15% of the water it filters. The EPA says that “reverse osmosis units use approximately three times as much water as they treat.
  • Expensive. If you compare a reverse osmosis filtration system to regular water filters, you’ll see that there’s a huge difference in price. But this is also because RO systems feature different types of filters and they’re also more efficient. You just need a substantial investment for your own RO system, especially if you have a big household.
  • Water disposal. A lot of these RO systems don’t have a proper disposal system for wastewater, so you may need to invest in disposal to make sure that your groundwater and soil are not contaminated, especially if you’re in a landlocked area.

How Does A Water Softener Work

A water softener is a filtration system that’s designed specifically to target magnesium and calcium minerals that cause hardness in the water using a process called ion exchange. 

With 85% of the country having hard water, a water softener helps to improve the quality of water for daily use and drinking. The process begins with water entering the mineral tank and through a bed of sodium ion-charged resin beads. 

Since calcium and magnesium minerals are cations, they will stick with the resin beads that will remove them from the water. The beads also release sodium ions to soften the water and still make it healthy. 

Pros And Cons Of Water Softeners

A water softener is a good investment if you have serious water hardness problems in your area because it can help improve the quality of your water and protect your plumbing and appliances down the line. Here are its pros and cons:

Benefits Of Water Softeners

  • Quality. Hardness can make water smell and taste bad, which is why a water softener is needed to improve water quality, so it’s ideal to use for cooking and drinking. A lot of those who use a water softener reported that their dishes tasted better than before they had a filter.
  • Efficiency. It’s no secret that hard water can make soaps and detergents less efficient causing you to spend more on these products. But you can eliminate this problem by investing in a water softener, so that your water will allow soaps to lather better.
  • Protection. Are you tired of cleaning those limescale buildup on your kettles, showerheads, and taps? Hard water can cause this buildup, so having a water softener will also eliminate the problem. You can also protect your appliances from breakdowns due to limescale buildup, so they can last longer. This also goes the same for your plumbing system.
  • Budget-friendly. Although you might think that the upfront cost of a water softener is too high, you actually save a lot down the line because you get to have access to clean water, you don’t need to spend so much on soaps, and you can save on the repair and replacement of appliances. 
  • Healthy. Prolonged exposure to hard water can cause some health issues, especially to vulnerable family members like children and the elderly. So, if you have a serious hard water problem in your area, it’s best to invest in your own water softener to supply healthy water to your household.

Drawbacks Of Water Softeners

  • Mineral waste. Although high levels of calcium and magnesium can cause hardness, these minerals are still essential for health. Since water softeners remove them completely from your water, a lot of these minerals are wasted in the process.
  • Water waste. The ion exchange process removes hard minerals from your water in exchange for sodium or potassium. In this process, you’re also disposing a lot of water, which can cause your water bills to skyrocket. According to reports, a water softener can waste about 120 gallons for every 1,000 gallons delivered to tour water supply.
  • Single purpose. Unlike a reverse osmosis system that offers different stages of filtration, a water softener can only remove hardness in your water and not other contaminants that may be present in it. This is why you may need a separate filtration system to remove other water contaminants, which is an added expense.

Do You Need Both Water Softener And Reverse Osmosis?

Although some would say that having a water softener or a reverse osmosis system is enough, they actually work better when installed together. 

For one, a water softener can only remove minerals that cause hardness in the water, so you need a reverse osmosis system to take care of the other contaminants including the sodium that’s released during the ion exchange process, which can make your water unhealthy.

On the other hand, a water softener can help to extend the life of your reverse osmosis filtration system by taking care of hardness minerals that can cause damage to your carbon and sediment filters. 

This means that you’re not going to constantly replace these filters, which helps to maximize their efficiency and save you money.

Key Considerations When Choosing RO Vs Water Softener

If you’re not yet ready to invest in both an RO system and water softener, you can decide which one you need most by considering these factors:

  • Water composition. To get started, it’s best to have your water tested for contaminants to know if you need an RO system or water softener. You can also check the EPA’s hardness map and the reports submitted by different water suppliers around the country to know what filter would be more beneficial for your household.
  • Warranty. Warranty is such an important part of any investment, so you need to look at how long the manufacturer will cover repairs and replacements. This will help protect your finances from unplanned expenses down the line.
  • Maintenance. Whether you’re investing in an RO system or water softener, you need to find one that’s not hard to maintain. In most cases, the best filtration systems out there only require minimal maintenance that you can do on your own.
  • Installation. Installation will depend on the type of RO system or water softener that you’d like for the space that you have. For instance, if you’re going for a tank system, you need a professional to install it on your plumbing and to position your tank properly. But if you’re going for an inline system, you can do the installation yourself.
  • Budget. Of course, you need to consider how much you can afford for this investment. This will help you determine if you will buy an RO system, water softener or both.

FAQs For Reverse Osmosis Systems Vs Water Softeners

Is reverse osmosis better than a water softener?

Both reverse osmosis and water softeners have their own purpose. While a water softener focuses solely on removing water hardness, a reverse osmosis system removes contaminants present in your water. This makes your tap water cleaner and healthier than if you only had a water softener. 

Does reverse osmosis remove water hardness?

Most RO systems are capable of removing minerals that cause hardness in your water. So they can protect your pipes and appliances while providing you with safer and cleaner water.

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