Water softeners work hard to remove the minerals that cause water hardness. But just like other important home appliances, water softener lifespan is not infinite.
Even if you perform regular maintenance and repairs to your water softener, it’s important that you’re able to recognize when your water softener has reached the natural end of its useful life or if it just needs repair. Each brand and model of water softener will have a slightly different life expectancy.
I’ve researched the life expectancies of the most common types of water softeners and compiled a list of telltale signs that it’s time to replace your water softener.
Typical Warning Signs of Water Softener Failure
If you have a water-softening system in your house, you probably don’t give it much thought beyond changing the salt. Until it starts acting up, that is. Certain signs mean it’s time to replace your water softener.
Below are a number of factors that can help you determine when it’s time for a replacement water softener:
Changes in water pressure
Many factors might affect your water pressure, but if you notice a steady decrease over time, it could be an indication that your water softener needs to be replaced. This may happen when calcium and other minerals found in hard water begin to accumulate in your pipes. As these minerals accumulate, the flow of water through your pipes decreases, eventually reducing your water pressure.
Soap does not lather as well as it should
One of the most obvious things about hard water is that the calcium and magnesium in it make it hard for soap to lather.
You may test the lathering quality of your water by filling a water bottle or glass container with water from one of your fixtures and then add about 10 drops of liquid soap. Screw the cap on the bottle and give it a thorough shake. If the water doesn’t lather well, it’s possible that your water softener isn’t functioning properly.
Hard water spots around your home
A functioning water softener prevents telltale hard water symptoms, such as whitish stains on the surface of your dishes and glasses and visible white buildup around plumbing fixtures. Scale and hard water spots that are visible around your property are a clear indication that your water softener needs to be replaced or repaired.
If you’re not sure what scale looks like, inspect your sinks and fixtures for a chalky-looking substance on or around them. If you come across this mineral buildup, also called soap scum, it means that your home has hard water and your water softener isn’t working properly.
A strange water taste
Note any changes in your water taste. Hard minerals like calcium and magnesium give hard water its characteristic alkaline taste. Properly softened water shouldn’t have a chalky taste, so it may be time to replace your water softener.
Salt bridge in the brine tank
Most high-quality water softeners have a brine tank for storing the salt and water solution required to regenerate the resin. In high-humidity regions, the combination of humidity and standing salt water usually leads to the production of salt bridges.
A salt bridge is a hard crust that forms on the surface of the water in your brine tank, which ultimately damages your water softener. If your water supply has turned increasingly hard, you need to check your brine tank. When a salt bridge forms in your brine tank, an empty space develops between the water and the salt. When this happens, the water from the bottom of the tank does not reach the salt. The salt will not dissolve to form brine, and without brine, the resin bed of a water softener will not renew, resulting in hard water.
Faulty resin bed
Some resin beds will last for the entirety of your water softener’s service life, but a majority of them break down around 10 years before the rest of the system does. If your water supply has high chlorine or iron levels, you should check the water softener resin bed every five years to gauge its efficacy.
Hard water could indicate a damaged resin bed, which is one of the telltale signs that you need to replace it. New resin costs between $80–$120. If you hire a professional to replace the resin bed, you will pay an additional $200–$300.
However, if you’ve had your water softener for around 15 years, you can ask your plumber about the costs of resin bed replacement vs. purchasing a new water softener, as your current unit could be on its last legs.
Clogged or damaged bypass valve
The bypass valve monitors the volume of water that flows through the mineral tank and into your home. The valve has a meter that measures the amount of water that enters the mineral tank.
If the valve is clogged, broken, or improperly adjusted, water will not flow properly through the tank and will become hard. Ensure that the valve has not been inadvertently adjusted to bypass the whole system. If you believe that the valve is blocked or corroded, you may hire a plumber to repair it. Continuous neglect will ultimately necessitate a water softener replacement.
Dry skin and brittle hair
Dull hair and dry skin are some side effects of poor water quality, particularly hard water. Prolonged exposure to hard water has been linked to skin problems, including eczema. If you find yourself washing your hair more frequently or using more moisturizer than normal, it may be time to replace your old water softener with a newer model.
Old water-softener systems and expired warranties
The lifespan of a water softener lowers considerably if the water in your city is harder than average. If your system is more than ten years old and facing increasing repair and maintenance issues, it is more cost effective to replace it than to pay for regular repairs.
Most manufacturer’s warranties are only valid for 10 years, so you’ll have to pay for repairs yourself after a decade. Go for repairs if you are still inside the warranty period. Otherwise, get a plumber’s opinion on repairs vs. replacement.
If your water softener has whole-system electrical issues, it is probably more cost effective to replace it than fix the circuit board, transformer, fuses, and other associated components.
There are a few ways to know whether your softener has serious electrical issues. Most water softeners require electricity to power a timer that regulates regeneration cycles, so if the electrical components are destroyed, your softener will not regenerate effectively. LCDs (liquid crystal displays) in certain water softeners are powered by electricity, and these screens will not light up without an electrical current.
How Long Do Water Softeners Last?
If you need clear, soft water for drinking and other domestic uses, you need to invest in a proven water-softener system that will serve your household for more than 10 years. There are a few types of water softening systems, and some can more than 15 years and as many as 40:
On-demand water softeners
On-demand water softeners are identical to standard softeners but offer more functionality. These water softeners are more efficient since they monitor water consumption and initiate regeneration only after a preset volume of water has been utilized. With proper maintenance, these water softeners will last about 15 years.
Dual-tank water softener
Dual-tank water softeners have two tanks as opposed to one. While it functions similarly to a normal water softener, regeneration is handled differently.
Additionally, dual-tank water softeners regenerate water on demand. However, while one tank is being regenerated, the system automatically switches to the other tank. This eliminates the need to wait for a process to end before obtaining soft water.
Dual-tank water softeners may last between 20 and 25 years with proper care and maintenance.
Salt-based ion-exchange water softener
Salt-based ion-exchange water softeners have a lifespan of 10 to 15 years. This type of water softener exchanges calcium and magnesium ions for sodium ions provided by the salt in the brine tank. Remember to use pure salt to ensure the system’s longevity.
Magnetic water softener
It sounds unlikely, but a magnetic water softener utilizes electromagnetic coils to extract calcium and magnesium from the water. It is only effective on water that comes within the magnets’ reach. Magnetic water softeners are a low-maintenance method of softening water. The filter bed of a high-quality magnetic system may last for up to 40 years while still being significantly cheaper than other options available on the market.
Reverse osmosis water softener
Reverse osmosis (RO) is a common water purification method that utilizes a semipermeable membrane to remove up to 99% of contaminants. After passing through the RO membrane, water is filtered further to ensure it’s safe and clean for consumption.
A well-maintained reverse osmosis system may provide you with fresh water for 10 to 15 years. However, each of its filters and the RO membrane must be replaced as directed by the manufacturer.
How to Extend the Life of Your Water Softener
Though it’s easy to maintain, you should have your water softener checked regularly by a professional. In between checkups, here are some things you can do to ensure your system is working correctly and for longer:
1. Add a prefilter
I know, I know. Another system? Still, one of the best ways to prolong the longevity of water-softener systems is to install a whole-house prefilter. A prefilter can remove any suspended sediments in drinking water, such as sand, rust, and grime. These particles can harm the softening media in your water softener, reducing its lifespan.
Your water softener should last longer with a prefilter since it is not exposed to these particles. Prefilters are available for purchase online and typically cost between $30 and $50, depending on the manufacturer.
Using carbon filtration before the resin can prevent the softening medium from degrading due to chemical exposure, making it ideal for those who consume municipal or city water supplies that treat their water with chlorine.
2. Choose the right regenerant
Using the right type of regenerant, or salt, in your water softener is very important if you want it to last a long time and also improve your home’s water quality. Rock and block salt shouldn’t be used because rock salt contains a lot of calcium sulfate, which can lead to maintenance problems in the future, and you might not be able to fully immerse rock salt in the water in your brine tank.
3. Do not fill your brine tank to the brim
Still on the subject of salt, when it comes time to replace the brine in your brine tank, be careful not to add too much water and salt. When you see that the tank is only 1/4 full, it is time to replenish it. However, just fill it approximately 3/4 of the way with the saltwater solution. This will keep the water from seeping. It will save you time cleaning and will help your system last longer.
4. Keep the brine tank clean
A water-softening system’s brine tank needs the most maintenance. Wait until the tank is nearly out of salt, and then extract any leftover sediment. Use a tool such as a broom handle or long stick to dislodge it from the tank if it has been caked. Mold is also a prevalent issue. Use simple water and dish soap and, if necessary, a mold remover to wash it off. You can also purchase a commercial water-softener cleaner, but be sure to use it according to manufacturer instructions.
5. Inspect the water-softener system every three months
Every three months, you should inspect your water softener to ensure that everything is working properly and to identify any problems before they have a chance to fester.
Bridging, characterized by a hard crust in the brine tank that inhibits salt from dissolving in water to produce brine, might hinder your water softener’s proper functioning. However, this issue is easy to detect and address with routine inspections.
6. Go easy on the settings
The vast majority of water-softening systems can be adjusted to the desired level of softening intensity. They should be set high enough to soften your water adequately but not so high that they cause unnecessary wear and tear on the system. It may take some trial and error to find the optimal setting for your household, but doing so will help to extend the life of your water softener.
If you live in an area where the water is very hard, a water-softening system can completely transform your home’s water quality and protect your plumbing fixtures and water-using appliances. However, if you’ve had your water softener for longer than you can recall, the system may be due for an inspection to root out any defects.
The average water softening system can last for 15–20 years or longer if properly maintained. Poorly maintained units have a lifespan of 10–15 years.
Follow the aforementioned guidelines for monitoring your water softener and ensuring its longevity to maximize the return on your investment. A small amount of work may make all the difference when it comes to extending the life of your water softener and ensuring that it maintains optimal water quality and taste.