How to maintain a water softener

Can you believe that after you’ve gone through the trouble of testing your water hardness, purchasing a water softener, and installing that water softener, there’s still something to worry about? Well, believe it! Luckily, you’ve gotten through the hardest parts of your water softening system. 

If you’ve read my article on everything you need to know about water softeners, you already know how important it is to choose the right water softener for your specific needs.

That brings us to the next important element—maintenance. With proper maintenance, you will preserve the life of your new water softener and keep your water supply free of mineral ions. Regular water softener maintenance will prevent potentially expensive problems. Depending on your water softener, you’ll most likely only need to work on maintenance once a month.

With that in mind, let’s get into what water softener maintenance entails, including common problems and how to troubleshoot them.

The Importance of Regeneration

To understand why common issues revolve around the brine tank, you have to understand the regeneration process. There’s some chemistry involved, so buckle up and channel your inner Bill Nye.

The most common type of water softener is the ion exchange system. In the words of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, these systems “remove the calcium and magnesium ions found in hard water by exchanging them with sodium (or potassium) ions.”

If you haven’t heard “ions” in a while, don’t worry—all you really need to know is that some stuff has a negative charge and other stuff has a positive charge. The mineral tank is full of resin beads, which have a negative charge. As one water treatment expert explains, these resin beads have a lot of pores. 

This is important because those pores are where the positively charged particles are going to sit. The first positively charged particle to sit there is sodium. The negative resin bead attracts the positive sodium ion, so it attaches itself to those pores.

This is all fine and dandy—until water flows through. As you probably know, water softeners are responsible for softening water. Chemically, the water softening process means pulling hardness minerals like calcium and magnesium ions out of your water.

Calcium and magnesium ions are also positively charged, but they form stronger bonds with the resin beads than the sodium ions do. So when hard water flows through the resin tank of your water softener, the magnesium and calcium get pulled out while the sodium gets dropped into the water.

As a result, your resin beads have a bunch of magnesium and calcium sitting in their pores. Which is great, but what happens when every single resin bead has hardness minerals instead of sodium? How can the system possibly pick up more magnesium and chloride if all the resin beads are at max capacity?

What great questions you ask. The answer is that they can’t possibly pick up more—it’s time for a reset. And that reset comes in the form of a regeneration cycle. During the regeneration cycle, the brine tank fills with water to create a brine solution. 

This solution of high concentrations of salt will then wash through the resin tank, sweeping away hardness minerals from the resin beads. It’s concentrated enough in salt to overcome the bonds between the positive hardness minerals and negative resin beads, once again leaving the resin beads full of sodium ions.

Without the regeneration cycle, your water softener wouldn’t be able to pick up more minerals out of your hard water. Messing with the regeneration cycle will mess up the entire water softening process, which leads to the next topic.

Common Issues

Thanks to the water softener forefathers, I can tell you with confidence what will clog up your water softener’s valves or build up in the brine tank. Equally as important, I can tell you how to fix these problems when they happen.

Salt bridges

If you’re using the wrong kind of salt or your water softener isn’t in ideal temperature conditions, you may find yourself dealing with salt bridges.

A salt bridge forms in a water softener when the salt solidifies in a crust above the water in the brine tank. The Clean Water Center goes into a bit more detail about salt bridges, saying that the “solidified layer or crust of salt” goes around the entire brine tank. 

As they explain it, when water is dissolving salt during the regeneration process, sometimes salt clumps together and stays behind in the brine tank even after the brine solution has gone to the mineral tank. The layer of crust that’s left behind separates the salt pellets and water that flows into the bottom of the brine tank.

So the salt bridge is just a fancy name for a layer of salt crust. It makes the water unable to dissolve the salt pellets at the top of the brine tank. This becomes a problem during the next regeneration cycle because the water and salt pellets are unable to touch, create the brine solution, and flush the resin beads.

How to fix salt bridges

The hardest part about fixing a salt bridge is spotting it to begin with. You likely won’t be peeking into your brine tank on a daily basis, so there’s a high chance you won’t notice the solid layer of salt crust that’s ruining your regeneration cycle.

But let’s say that you notice rust stains on your dishes or scum on your shower walls and decide to check out that brine tank for once. From there, all you need is a broom handle. Even the professionals recommend you use a “long-handled item” to break up the salt bridge.

Before you attack the crust with a broom, you’ll need to scoop out loose salt at the top of your brine tank. From there, you’re free to whack at the salt bridge until all the chunky pieces are gone.

Next, use some brine tank cleaning solution and refill the salt pellets.

Salt mushing

While salt bridges can be annoying, salt mushing is a more serious problem when it comes to water softener maintenance.

According to Diamond Crystal, salt mushing is when salt breaks down but doesn’t dissolve all the way. As a result, it creates a thick sludge at the bottom of the brine tank. This can be the result of changes in humidity or temperature, which are outside of your control. However, salt mushing can also be caused by using the wrong kind of salt, so you should do your research before buying salt pellets.

This thick sludge is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, it blocks the water intake valve at the base of the brine tank. With that valve blocked, the brine tank takes on too much water every regeneration cycle. The brine tank will overflow and create a mess (according to Fresh Water Systems).

Second, the regeneration cycle is completely blocked. That means water will run through your water softener and you’ll still be getting hard water.

How to fix salt mushing

Unfortunately, salt mushing doesn’t have an easy fix like salt bridges do. Instead, you’ll have to go through the process of cleaning the entire water softener brine tank.

The steps are fairly basic, there’s just a lot of them (according to Fresh Water Systems). First, you’ll want to engage the softener’s bypass valve to shut off the water. Then, disconnect all tubes and hoses from the brine tank. That means removing the brine grid, too.

Here’s the fun part—you’ll need to completely drain the brine tank. After the tank has been drained, scoop out the leftover salt and empty it out in the trash. From there, you can clean out the tank using plain dish soap. Make sure to scrub the inside of that brine tank.

After a quick rinse of the tank, it’s time to reconnect everything and refill it with salt. See? Not too bad. Just a few more steps than fixing the salt bridge.

Other Maintenance Tasks

Resin bead cleaner

A top priority in maintaining water softeners is keeping them running at maximum efficiency. A water softener cleaner (or resin bead cleaner) will help keep those water softeners in top form, and you only need to use them every four months. Over time, your water softener can become polluted with iron, silt, organic compounds, and heavy metals that hurt your system’s efficiency. 

In fact, there’s an easy way to tell if your resin bed is due for a rinse. Just check for any brown slugs that discolor your water. Well owners especially need to be on the lookout because their water has more exposure to iron.

When dissolved iron oxidizes, it becomes an insoluble iron that appears as brown slugs in your resin bed. If you don’t use resin bead cleaner and rinse out the resin bed, your water will turn brown AND your water softener will lose efficiency.

To deal with this, pour water softener cleaner into the brine tank and turn on a regeneration cycle to keep it clean. The water softener manual will tell you the recommended amount to use, and you can pour it during a routine regeneration cycle.

According to EcoPure, water softener cleaner will keep the resin “clean” by removing residual materials from the resin bed. You’ll get rid of those compounds and metals that hurt your water softener, improving the life-span of the system you’ve spent so much time and money on.

Venturi valve

While the venturi valve helps create suction to move brine into the resin tank during regeneration, it can get clogged (as stated by Homewater101). This valve can get clogged with all manner of debris, including sand and sediment.

To clean the venturi valve, all you need to do is unscrew the valve cover with your hand, remove everything inside, and clean them with soapy water. Dish soap will work just fine. This can be done only twice a year, but it’ll make a huge difference. A blocked venturi valve would otherwise interfere with the whole regeneration process.

Preventing Common Issues

Water softener salt

As I said before, the regeneration cycle is key to water softener performance. Much of your water softener maintenance revolves around the efficiency of your water softener’s regeneration cycle.

Thus, the salt pellets you use in the brine tank are important. With each regeneration cycle, the salt levels will be depleted, so you’ll need to refill those salt pellets every month or so. And once your salt level goes down, you’ll start getting hard water. That’s when you know it’s time to refill.

So let’s get down to the basics of these pellets. There are three types of water softener salts, and they each have their pros and cons.

Rock salt pellets

First up is rock salt. According to water softener installation experts, rock salt is the cheapest option for water softener pellets. This salt comes straight from the salt mines, so you can imagine that they have more minerals than other types of pellets. 

As for cost, 40-pound bags will cost $4 or less based on how much per ton rock salt costs at any given year. I’m talking a few cents per pound. That’s about as cheap as it gets.

You also have to consider what you’re paying for. If the water softener manual suggests rock salt pellets, great. But you should keep in mind that rock salt is less pure than more expensive options, such as evaporated salt.

Sure, you’re paying less per bag, but it doesn’t dissolve as easily. This can cause buildup in your water softener’s control valve or even the entire brine tank by forming salt bridges. That means you’ll have more maintenance over time and more of a headache overall.

Solar salt pellets

If you’re a fan of eco-friendly products, you’ll love solar salt. Solar salt is made by evaporating sea water through solar power.

If you have water that’s only moderately hard, you should be just fine using solar salt pellets for your water softener. But if you have really hard water, you’ll want to go with evaporated salt pellets. Solar salt doesn’t dissolve as easily in water as evaporated salt pellets do. 

Much like rock salt, solar salt can lead to salt bridges and buildup. Again, that’s more likely to happen in especially hard water.

Evaporated salt pellets

Evaporated salt pellets are top class when it comes to purity and solubility. They are formed through an evaporation process (obviously) that leaves behind crystallized salt, which then gets dried and screened. As the purest form of salt, they are less likely to form salt bridges than mineral-rich rock salt and dissolve the most easily in water.

That being said, they are the more expensive option, but you are paying for higher purity and higher solubility. Remember, these are the pellets that will get dissolved in the brine tank and be used in the regeneration cycle. Paying a little more on this end will save time and money when compared to less pure salt pellets that lead to salt bridges.

Block salt

I know, I know. I said there were only three types of water softener pellets. Technically, this last kind doesn’t count because many water softener and water filter companies don’t recommend using block salt.

According to one water filtration system company, block salt is just salt with bonding agents added to it. These bonding agents just result in more impurities that are not good for your water softener.

The moral of the story is, stay away from block salt unless your water softener manual specifically calls for it. 

Pre-filters

I’ve gone over salt pellets, broom handles, and various other important components to maintaining your water filter. However, one thing I haven’t gone over is the use of pre-filtration in water softening systems.

Water treatment systems like water softeners use chemistry to create softened water. By now, you know all about how the resin beads pull calcium and magnesium ions out of your hard water. But did you think about other pollutants and compounds that can affect your water softener? 

As it turns out, a pre-filter on your water softener can remove sediment, iron, chlorine, and manganese (as stated by Haferman Water Conditioning). These are the compounds and dirt that make your water smell bad and look tinted. 

Aside from catching literal dirt, the pre-filters prevent damage that pollutants and sediment alike could’ve done to the more delicate parts of your water softener.

Conclusion

Water softener maintenance has a lot of moving parts. For the most part, you’ll want to keep tabs on your salt levels. Water softeners need the proper amount of salt to run their regeneration cycles, which are responsible for resetting the resin beads. Without regeneration cycles, your water softener won’t be able to soften for very long at all.

The pellets are a huge part of maintenance but not just because of the amount. The type is just as important. While rock salt pellets are desirable for their lower price, evaporated salt pellets are ideal. They are high quality and will prevent issues like salt bridges from cropping up.

Speaking of salt bridges, routine maintenance like frequent cleaning will prevent common issues like salt bridges and salt mushing. While both are fixable, they can damage your water softener and cost you time, money, and energy.

Aside from those issues, you can extend the lifespan of your water softener by using resin bead cleaner, installing a pre-filter, and cleaning valves. These tasks don’t take very long, and you only need to do them every few months. These simple actions will pay off over time, helping your water softener run more efficiently and last longer than neglected systems.

After putting so much effort into finding and installing a water softener, don’t let maintenance be the reason your system doesn’t last as long as it should. Even the best water softener or best water filter will fail without proper maintenance.