Why is My Water Softener Not Working

Updated on:
January 6, 2024

Your water softener has a significant impact on your home’s water quality. An effective water softener saves energy, extends the life of appliances, lowers the cost of cleaning products, improves skin and hair, and decreases hard-water scale. However, if your water softener isn’t operating correctly, you won’t be able to enjoy any of these benefits.

While you can fix some water softener problems on your own, there are other situations that call for expert assistance. But before you call your local plumber, think about applying the solutions mentioned below the next time one of these water softener problems pops up.

What Are the Signs of a Malfunctioning Water Softener?

Trouble with your water softener system might leave you feeling salty (quite literally), as it can leave white streaks on your glasses and scale buildup in your tub. There’s something wrong with your water softener if you notice any of these signs, because hard water shouldn’t be able to enter your plumbing:

Your water is unusually hard

This is one of the most obvious signs that a water softener is failing. A water softener is designed to remove hard minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, from household water. Because hard water minerals react poorly with soap, you’ll notice that you need to scrub with soap more vigorously to achieve a decent lather.

Soap also combines with hard water to generate soap scum, which can develop on the surfaces of your shower or bathtub as well as leaving a film on your skin. In addition to spots and streaks on your dishes, glasses, and cutlery, hard water can leave mineral stains on your laundry.

Presence of salt bridges and salt mushing

Maintaining the correct salt level is vital for your water softener’s operation. Occasionally, especially when using extra-coarse salt crystals, too much salt can accumulate and form what is known as a “salt bridge.” A salt bridge develops when salt combines and forms a crust at the brine tank’s rim. Salt bridges can occur when the brine tank is placed in a high-humidity environment or when the salt concentration is high.

Salt bridges and salt mushing are frequently mistaken for the same thing, although while both are common, they are separate issues. Salt mushing occurs when salts recrystallize and form a sludge, which accumulates at the bottom of the brine tank.

Salt mushing obstructs the tank’s base and inhibits brine solution from entering the resin tank. This impacts the processes of softening and regeneration. If you no longer have soft water, one of the first issues to investigate is salt mushing.

Low water pressure

Your water softener might be to blame for low water pressure in your home’s plumbing system for one of the following reasons:

Incorrect water softener size

If your water softener is too small, it won’t be able to supply your plumbing system with sufficient water flow. When your water softener’s maximum water pressure output is too low for your home, you have no choice but to replace it with a properly sized system.

Clogged resin tank

Low water pressure can be caused by the resin bed itself. As the resin ages, the resin beads that are flushed down the drain line may cause a blockage that slows the flow of water out of the system.

Iron and sediment buildup

This is typically a concern for water softeners with sediment-trapping filtration systems. If the filters are not periodically replaced, substances such as iron and sediment build up and cause blockages in the water softener’s resin tank .

Iron buildup

If you live in an area with very hard water, iron can also accumulate in the resin tank and cause blockages. You can add mineral cleaner to the tank to solve this. You can also increase the number of regeneration cycles your water softener does every day.

Motor issues

Your water softener’s motor, like any other appliance with a motor, can fail and cause major problems with the system’s functioning. The motor spins the valve between different modes, such as softening and regenerating, so if it fails, the valve cannot switch between modes.

If the motor in your water softener breaks completely, the system will most likely stop operating. However, other factors might contribute to this, so it’s critical to determine whether a faulty motor is the root of the problem.

Your brine tank is overflowing

The brine tank in your system is critical to its functionality. When the brine tank is empty, it should have 8 to 14 inches of water in it, depending on the system capacity and salt setting. When salt is added, the water level rises as the salt dissolves in the water.

A brine line obstruction, a broken valve, a clogged injector, or a blocked float can all cause an overflowing brine tank.

There’s not enough water in the brine tank

Apart from an overflowing brine tank, another problem you might encounter is a brine tank that doesn’t have enough water.

It’s possible you won’t even notice this. The water level in the brine tank is typically not something you give much thought to. However, here’s what may have occurred if your brine tank was halfway full with salt and you still cannot see any water:

The brine line is clogged 

The brine line is a tube that supplies water to the brine tank during the regeneration process. If this tube gets blocked or broken, water may not enter the tank as expected.

The float valve is at its lowest setting

The float valve might be adjusted either too high or too low, preventing sufficient water from entering the salt tank. Follow the directions in the user handbook to adjust the float valve to a higher setting.

Water-entry valve is broken

A faulty water-entry valve can either let too much water into the brine tank or prevent water from entering the tank. When necessary, this valve should be replaced.

Your water tastes salty or has a rotten egg smell

Drinking salty water is unpleasant and may induce stomachaches. While most modern systems soften water with salt, the salt should not remain in the treated water. If your system does create salty water, the problem might be a blocked drain line or incomplete regeneration cycles, which render the resin beads ineffective.

Any water softener tank, regardless of manufacturer, can begin to smell foul if it becomes infested with sulfur bacteria. This bacteria is drawn to the salt present in water softener tanks. As the bacterium grows, hydrogen sulfide gas is emitted as waste, giving rise to the rotten egg odor.

Most plumbers recommend that you install both a water softener and a water filter system. Many people falsely assume that their water is safe and pure because it has been treated by a water softener. This is an unfortunate misconception. A water softener may make your water less hard, but it does not make it safer or cleaner to drink.

Water softeners do not filter water; instead, they remove calcium and magnesium minerals to treat hard water. Even if you already have a water softener installed, you’ll still need a water filter to remove impurities (such as lead, chlorine, and bacteria) from your water so it’s safe for drinking, cooking, and showering.

There are numerous water filtration systems available on the market. To find out which is best for you, read my review of the best water filters.

Your water softener won’t regenerate

Lack of regeneration is another typical water softener issue. A properly functioning water softener regenerates at least once every two weeks. If your system isn’t replenishing, it won’t be long until you no longer have access to soft water. Therefore, you must investigate the issue immediately. Below are some potential causes of this issue:

Clogged tubes

Another typical problem with water softeners that might limit the frequency of regeneration cycles is clogging of the tubes. In this instance, you may hear noises indicating that your water softener is going through a regeneration cycle, but the water may not be soft or may be too salty to drink.

Faulty regeneration timer

A malfunctioning regeneration timer is one of the most common causes of a water softener that will not regenerate. The regeneration timer instructs the system to undergo periodic regeneration cycles. If this timer is defective or damaged, the softener will conduct irregular regeneration cycles or none at all.

To test for a faulty regeneration timer, set the timer to a specified time and then listen for the softener to start a regeneration cycle at this time. If it doesn’t, the timer is likely defective and should be replaced.

Water softener stuck in regeneration loop

A typical water softener regeneration cycle lasts two hours. If your water softener is running regeneration cycles that are substantially longer than this, or if there are frequent regeneration cycles, there is a problem with the system. Here are some possible causes:

Broken switches or incorrect settings

Since modern water softeners are computerized appliances, even the smallest technical issue may lead to malfunction. Make sure the system’s settings are accurate and that no switches are broken. Change the settings and, if necessary, repair or replace the switches.

Clogged water line

If the connection between the salt tank and the resin tank becomes blocked, brine cannot enter the resin bed. The softener will continually attempt to take brine from the tank but will be unable to do so, resulting in an endless regeneration cycle. To remedy this problem, detach and clean the water pipe, then set a manual regeneration cycle.

Low water pressure

This problem isn’t so much with the water softener as it is with your own water supply. If your water pressure is too low, the softener may be unable to regenerate effectively, resulting in a stalled regeneration cycle. You can install a booster pump upstream of the softener to improve water flow into the unit.

Your water softener is making strange noises

It is normal to be worried if your water softener is emitting strange sounds, since this may indicate that the system is not working correctly. When your water softener emits loud clunking or whirring noises, it indicates that one or more of its components are blocked, damaged, or broken.

Inspect the water pipes and valves, as well as the timer, motors, and air check valve. If any of these components are clogged, broken, or otherwise damaged, flush or replace them as needed.

The resin bed is dirty or worn out

The resin bed is the most crucial component in a water softener. If neglected, it could lead to water discoloration and low water pressure, among other issues.

So, what causes the resin bed to break down? Impurities, including silt, iron, sulfur, manganese, organic compounds, and bacteria, are present in all water sources, although they tend to be more concentrated in well water. These contaminants, when allowed to accumulate to a critical mass within the resin tank, eventually foul or clog the bed.

Particularly vulnerable are newly installed softeners, those that have been out of operation for an extended period, and those that go for extended periods of time without being regenerated.

It is also possible that the resin is worn out. This occurs most often in municipal water systems because chlorinated water degrades the plastic beads. To determine whether your resin bed needs replacement, rub a few beads between your fingers. If they disintegrate easily, it is an indication that they have reached the end of their lifespan.

To assess the state of the resin, look for particles in faucet strainers and shower heads, as well as those floating in the soft water. Unfortunately, replacing the resin tank is the only remedy for this situation.

Brown water in the salt tank

The presence of brown water in the salt tank may indicate excessive rust in the feed source. When combined with brine, it produces a brownish hue. It is also possible that dirt has collected in the salt over time. Rock salt is especially known to contain high dirt and sediment content.

The most apparent solution is to clean out the brine tank. Depending on the quality of the feed water, a conventional water softener should be cleaned anywhere between once a year and once every five years.

Your water softener is leaking

Leaking is one of the most serious—and potentially disastrous—problems with water softeners.

If you see a pool of water under your water softener, the first step is to determine the source of the leak. Examine all of the connections between the tanks, water lines, and other components.

A leak is most likely to be discovered shortly after installing a water softener or performing maintenance. In this scenario, the issue is due to improper installation. Tightening the connections should help.

Worn components might also create leaks. The problem should be resolved by replacing the components. If you have a big leak, turn off your water supply as soon as possible and contact a professional to assist you in detecting the issue.

Your water softener is dead

Make sure the softener is both plugged in and turned on if it doesn’t seem to be doing its job. If it is, and it’s still not working, then the problem is probably a faulty motor. A broken motor means your softener can’t regenerate or perform other essential processes.

If you are still inside the warranty period, you may be able to have the motor replaced at no cost to you. If not, you’ll have to replace the motor at your own expense.

Given how expensive it can be to fix or replace the motor, you may want to think about upgrading to a new water softener.

Water Softener Troubleshooting

It’s crucial to understand that softeners over 20 years old are almost impossible to fix yourself, and in most situations, even skilled plumbers can’t. Depending on what failed with your previous unit, you will most likely need a new one.

Before you hire a plumber, examine your system. Although there are several probable explanations for water softener failures, the following troubleshooting “tips” may assist you in resolving the issue on your own:

Tip 1

If you realize that you are not receiving soft water, check the system settings. The backwash cycle of most softeners can be programmed electronically, both in terms of start time and run time.

During this time, the softener uses brine water to flush the resin beads and restore their ability to absorb hard water minerals. Before you start tearing apart your softener, make sure the electricity is on and the clock is set correctly.

Regenerate the system in the wee hours of the morning, when no one is using water. As water hardness may fluctuate depending on environmental factors and well water systems, it’s important to double-check the hardness setting (not all units have this feature). If the control unit checks out, proceed to the next phase.

Tip 2

Next, you need to inspect the salt supply tank that feeds the softener for any issues. When salt bridges develop in the salt tank, salt no longer dissolves in the brine tank, the resin beads are not fully cleansed, and hard water flows into your pipes.

To fix this issue, push a broom handle into the salt until you reach the bottom of the tank, then repeat this motion around the middle of the tank. If you hit a salt bridge, the salt will collapse in on itself. If you do come across a salt bridge, you’ve most likely solved your issue. Wait a few days to check whether your water has softened.

If there are no salt bridges, drain the brine tank of all salt, paying close attention to the bottom of the tank. A functioning system should only have a small amount of dirt and grime at the bottom of the brine tank.

If you come across salt mush instead, that might be the cause of the problem. That “mush” is most likely salt that has not entirely dissolved. When this occurs, it may block the intake system and limit the amount of salt required to thoroughly clear the resin beads. If that occurs, you will not have soft water.

You can remove and discard the mush. However, you can also dissolve it in a bucket of hot water and pour it straight back into the brine tank; after all, it is salt, and if dissolved completely, will still work in the softener.

Make sure you cleanse the brine tubing after cleaning the brine tank and removing the salt mush. This is the tube that feeds the salt brine from the tank to the resin tank. If the tube is clogged with salt mush, no brine will be drawn in to clean the resin.

Once you’re certain that the brine tank is clean, add a couple of bags of salt to the tank and wait a few days to see whether you now have soft water. If not, try the next tip.

Tip 3

It’s time to clean the resin bed. For your specific unit, you’ll need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. You will need to get a resin cleaner; for your water softener to work properly, the resin needs to be clean. If your water has iron in it, make sure to get a cleaner that is made for water with high levels of iron. 

Be sure to follow the instructions on the resin cleaner bottle (and your water softener manual) so that the cleaning process is thorough. If you’ve followed all three tips and still don’t have soft water, move on to the next tip.

Tip 4

The last significant thing you can do is clean the interior structure of your softener unit. However, you shouldn’t try this unless you’re experienced with electricity, gears, timers, and pumps. When maintaining your softener, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions. Use extra care when dealing with water and electricity. For detailed instructions, read my article on how to clean a water softener. Also, if you need some additional tips on how to take care of your water softener, check out this article on how to maintain a water softener.

If you’ve tried these suggestions and your water still isn’t soft, it’s time to contact a plumber.

Final Thoughts

Your water softener may be broken for a variety of reasons, including those you’ve read about in this article.

If you find any of these issues with your water softener, you can easily remedy them by following the tips provided above. However, it’s best to have a professional check and maintain your water softener on a regular basis to prevent any major issues that might end up costing hundreds or thousands to fix. 

Some problems can be too complicated for a novice to fix, and that’s when you may want to consider hiring a professional specialist with expertise in water softeners.

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I read through the article but still have a problem. We have a water softener and can see that it is working by using a test kit. But sometimes hard water shows up on the test strip. Is the water softener leaking hard water into our water?

James Layton

Hello Jules! Going on the information you provided, I believe I have the answer for you. Sometimes hard water will start to pass through the water softener right before it needs to be regenerated with salt. This is called “breakthrough” in the water treatment business. I use the following method to find out if a water softener is working efficiently. Write down when the unit regenerates. Test the water hardness every day. Depending on the water hardness and how much water you use, you may see water hardness start to be detected by the hardness test kit before the next regeneration cycle. Keep testing until the softener regenerates. If there is only one day between when the hardness breaks through and when the softener regenerates, you’ll probably have no hardness issues. If there is more than a day in between breakthrough and regeneration,you should adjust the settings on the softener’s controller. Depending on the model, you may simply tell the controller that you have harder water, which makes it regenerate sooner. Read the manual to find out how your controller is adjusted. It is not difficult. You can repeat the hardness testing with the test strips to see if the fine-tuning was enough to fix the issue. If not, make another adjustment. It should do the job.