Water conditioning is the catchall term for filtering, treating or softening water. When most people talk about water softening versus water conditioning, they speak to the softening of water using a salt or soda ash system as opposed to simply treating or filtering the water.
A salt water softening system works by exchanging the calcium and magnesium ions that cause hard water with sodium ions that soften water. Calcium and magnesium leave a white and scaly mineral deposit buildup around taps, faucets and water valves.
A variety of options exists to condition water, including filtration through media, reverse osmosis (RO) or an ozone system. Costs of treating or filtering water vary with the method chosen. RO wastes 40 to 90 gallons for every five gallons treated, and an ozone system is complicated, expensive and touchy. A filtration system uses naturally occurring sand, gravel and rock media to filter sediment, iron and other minerals out of well water.
Adding sodium chloride to water causes multiple problems from dry skin to undrinkable water. Babies or people with heart conditions, high blood pressure or diabetes cannot drink salt-softened water. Water treatment or filtration does not add anything to the treated water; it simply removes the bad constituents in the water. Many states have banned the dumping of saltwater effluent into wastewater systems because of harmful effects.
The choice ultimately resides with the consumer. It's a decision of health versus convenience. Salt-treated water makes it easier to wash clothes, but the water is not healthy for drinking. Calcium and magnesium, the constituents that contribute to hard water, are part of a body's daily mineral requirements. It's a matter of scrubbing away the calcium and magnesium deposits on water fixtures in filtered water or buying bottled water for drinking when using a salt water treatment system for washing convenience.