Water Softener Maintenance 101

Posted by
John Woodard on January 14, 2020

A water softener protects your home from hard water by eliminating calcium and magnesium ions from the water. This prevents your appliances from becoming choked by scale build-ups, keeps your laundry bright and soft, and gives your hair a shinier, silkier appearance. But part of protecting your home from hard water is making sure your water softener undergoes regular maintenance and cleaning. Salt bridges can lead to hard water coursing through your plumbing, leaving behind limescale deposits in your pipes and soap stains on your counters. A clogged resin bed can lead to reduced water pressure and diminished water softening capacity. We’ve compiled some of the most common water softener troubleshooting questions and maintenance tips to help you ensure your softener is operating at peak performance. 

Why is my water softener not using any salt? 

If your water softener is running regeneration cycles regularly, but the salt levels in your mineral tank are not diminishing, it is very likely that a crust known as a salt bridge has formed in your brine tank. Salt bridges prevent the pellets of salt from dissolving in the water used to regenerate the water softener’s resin beads. 

What is a salt bridge in a water softener?  

A salt bridge forms in a water softener when the salt solidifies into a crust above the water in the brine tank. Since the salt and the water are separated by a hollow space, the water is unable to dissolve the salt and create the brine solution to flush the resin bed. Without the brine regenerating the resin beads, the ion exchange process cannot take place and the water will not be softened. When your brine tank has a salt bridge, the water softener will seemingly continue to operate as normal, but the resin beads will only be rinsed with water during the regeneration cycles. The beads rely on the brine solution to replenish them with sodium and restore their charge. Without the sodium ions, the resin beads will not remove any of the water hardness minerals as they flow through the water softener’s tank.   

If your brine tank appears to be full, but you can tell from the re-emerging soap scum streaks that your water isn’t being softened, it’s likely you have a salt bridge. If your salt levels don’t decrease despite the softener running regeneration cycles every night, it’s also a good indicator the salt has fused into a crust that isn’t reaching the water. The salt pellets in the brine tank should always remain loose, from the top of the tank to the bottom. Any indication that the salt is calcifying or crystallizing on top means a salt bridge is forming. 

What causes a salt bridge in a water softener?

A salt bridge is caused by overfilling the brine tank with salt, by humid temperatures, or by using the wrong kind of salt in the water softener. Humidity creates moisture in the brine tank, causing the salt pellets to stick together and form a crust. If you live in a particularly humid area, you can prevent salt bridges by filling your brine tank more frequently with less salt. This way, your water softener will use up the salt before the humidity causes a salt bridge to form. 

Replacing the salt too frequently will also cause a salt bridge to form. When refilling your brine tank, never fill it past 2/3 of the way to the top. Wait for the water softening system to deplete a significant amount of the salt before adding more. When the brine tank is only about 1/4 full of salt is an ideal time to refill the tank. (Although overfilling causes problems, you also want to ensure the salt level never drops below the water in the tank. Ideally, the salt will always be at least 3 inches above the water line.) 

If you continue to see the formation of salt bridges, check what kind of salt you are using with your softener. Different salts work better with different softeners. Be careful never to mix salt cubes, pellets, and blocks together, as the dissimilar shapes are more likely to form a bridge. Evaporated salt is raw salt that has been dissolved and treated with heat to eliminate all moisture. It is almost entirely free of insoluble material and among the highest purity salt available. Evaporated salt pellets are widely recommended for use in water softeners, and are far less likely to form salt bridges than mineral-rich rock salt. The purer the salt, the less likely it is to form a bridge.  

water softener salt bridge diagram

How do I remove a salt bridge in my water softener? 

    1. Turn off the water running to the water softener. Shut off all water running to the water softener. You can turn the water off using the water softener’s bypass valve or by shutting off the water at the water inlet valve.  
    2. Locate a tool to help you break the salt bridge, like a broom or mop. Find a tool you can use to break up the salt bridge. The handle of a broom or mop will suit perfectly. Stay away from sharp or forceful tools like an ax or hammer. These could puncture the walls of the brine tank or damage part of the system.
    3. Use your tool to tap the crust until you break the salt bridge. Using a tool like a long-handled broom, mop, or shovel, gently chip away at the crust. Repeatedly tap the salt bridge, dislodging the salt chunks until they start to break apart and the bridge crumbles. Do not pound or pummel the salt bridge, as you risk cracking the walls of the brine tank. If you are unable to crack the bridge, pour 1-2 gallons of warm water over the salt bridge to loosen it. If you need to use a heavier or sharper tool, be cautious and avoid hitting anything but the salt bridge. 
    4. Scoop out the chunks of the salt bridge. After you’ve successfully dislodged the salt bridge, use something like a plastic pitcher to scoop out the larger chunks of crystallized salt at the bottom of the brine tank. The water will struggle to dissolve these lumps of the salt bridge. 
    5. Vacuum out the brine tank. Using a wet/dry shop vacuum, vacuum all of the water out of the brine tank. 
    6. Refill the brine tank with salt. Be sure you are filling the tank no more than 2/3 of the way up with salt. If your salt bridge was the result of using improper salt, make sure you replace it with salt pellets appropriate for a softener (like evaporated salt pellets). 
    7. Initiate a regeneration cycle. Have your water softener rinse the plastic resin beads with the now salt-rich brine solution. This should recharge the beads with sodium ions, priming them to once again soften your water.       

What is salt mushing?

Salt mushing occurs when the salt congeals into a thick sludge at the bottom of the brine tank. Salt mushing obstructs the water intake valve at the base of the brine tank. As the valve clogs, the brine tank will take on more and more water with each regeneration cycle. Eventually, this will cause the brine tank to overflow, resulting in a flood of salty water on your basement floor. A salt mush will also prevent the resin beads from being recharged with sodium ions, impairing the performance of the water softener. The more the salt mush restricts the flow of brine to the mineral tank, the harder the water emerging from your water softener will be. Salt mushing occurs when the salt does not fully dissolve in the water, instead recrystallizing around the base of the tank. A salt mush is usually the result of the incorrect type of salt being used in the water softener.

If your brine tank has a salt mush, scoop out the sludge and discard it. Then perform a routine brine tank cleaning to ensure that all traces of the mush are removed and the valve is clear of blockage. If the salt formed a mush, you should switch to a different kind of salt pellets or purchase salt specifically marketed for water softeners. Rock salt crystals are high in mineral content and are more likely to form a goop in your tank. Though solar salt and evaporated salt pellets are more expensive, they are higher in purity and dissolve in the water with greater ease.

Learn more about how water softeners work. | Read about the damage hard water does to your home.

How often do I need to clean my water softener’s brine tank?

You should thoroughly clean your water softener’s brine tank about once a year. Routine maintenance ensures your softener is operating at peak performance, so frequent cleaning ensures the system stays effective. Letting your tank idle too long without thoroughly cleaning it can lead to clogged water inlet valves and salt mushing. Any time you notice discolored or smelly water, a salt bridge forming in the tank, or see a decline in performance, you should clean out the tank. This helps protect the lifespan of the system and keeps your water soft. To ensure you are keeping your brine tank as clean as possible, be sure to only use high purity salt pellets that do not contain trace amounts of minerals or other insoluble materials.

How to clean a water softener brine tank:

    1. Shut off the water to the water softener. Using the bypass valve located on top of your water softener, shut off the incoming water to the softener and the brine tank.  
    2. Disconnect the brine tank from the water softener. Unplug all hoses and tubing connections between the brine tank and the mineral tank and control valve. Remove the brine well and brine grid (if your tank has one). 
    3. Drain the brine tank. Since most softeners automatically refill the brine tank with water after each regeneration cycle, you will need to drain the tank. You can manually start a regeneration cycle or use a wet vacuum to suck the water up out of the tank. 
    4. Empty the remaining salt out of the brine tank. To make this task easier on yourself, wait until the water softener has depleted most of the salt out of the brine tank. The tank will be lighter and easier to handle, and you won’t have to waste large quantities of salt. Scoop out whatever salt remains in the tank and dispose of it. The best way to discard the remaining brine solution and salt is to pour it in a hole you’ve dug in your backyard. The salty solution will kill all plants, flowers, and grass it touches, so be careful when emptying out the tank. 
    5. Mix together a cleaning solution. Add a couple of tablespoons of dishwasher detergent or dish soap to 1-2 gallons of water. You do not need to use harsh chemicals to effectively rinse out the tank. 
    6. Use a bristle brush to clean the inside of the tank. Dip the brush in the cleaning solution and thoroughly scrub the interior of the tank. Pay special attention to the base and corners of the tank, where salt is most likely to get encrusted.
    7. Rinse out the tank with a garden hose. Be sure you are somewhere in your yard where you can dispose of the rinse water. There may be residual salt within the tank that could hurt your grass or garden. Again, you can always dig a hole to dispose of the salty water in. 
    8. Reconnect the brine tank to the softener. Turn the bypass valve back on, so water once again can flow to the tank. Return any parts you removed before cleaning. Make sure the float switch is unencumbered and can move freely about. 
    9. Refill the brine tank with salt. Reset your control valve so that a regeneration cycle takes place that night. Your tank is now freshly cleaned and ready to charge the resin beads. 

water softener diagramCan I clean my water softener with bleach?

You can use bleach to clean your brine tank and rinse out your resin bed. Short term exposure to moderate levels of bleach will not significantly damage the resin’s ion exchange capacity. Bleach is also very effective at neutralizing resin-fouling bacteria and sanitizing your system. However, when using bleach, be sure to keep it between 50-100 mg/L (or parts-per-million). Stronger concentrations of bleach will degrade the softener’s resin and weaken its ability to eliminate the hardness minerals. Prolonged exposure to oxidants will eventually render resin powerless. This is why many people who are softening chlorinated municipal water pass their water through a carbon filter to dechlorinate it before it reaches the water softener. 

Why is my water softener turning the water brown?

Brown water emerging from your water softener is usually the result of iron and manganese building up in your mineral tank and fouling the softener resin. However, brown water can also be a sign that there is a sediment build-up in your tank, that you have eroding pipes, or is the byproduct of flushed water mains. Tannins in your well water can also cause brown and yellow tea-colored water to appear throughout your home.

Water softeners are adept at removing ferrous iron (dissolved iron) from your water supply. Given that iron is the most bountiful element in the earth’s crust, iron is prevalent in groundwater across the world. While municipal water supplies are unlikely to contain iron, iron is a very common water quality issue for well owners. When dissolved iron oxidizes, it becomes ferric iron (insoluble iron). This iron will manifest in your resin bed as brown slugs that will discolor your water. Over time, the iron will accumulate on your resin bed, and you will need to rinse the iron out to prevent the resin from fouling. Iron fouling will not only turn your water brown, but it will also diminish the softener’s efficiency and restrict flow rates. Oxidized iron molecules are around 20 times larger than their dissolved counterparts, so they quickly dwarf the resin beads and eliminate their water softening capacities. Fortunately, you can eliminate rust particles from your water softener easily with resin cleaners.  

If sediment is collecting in your mineral tank and giving your water a brown tint, you will need to deep clean the resin tank and install a sediment filter before the softener. You can use a phosphoric acid resin cleaner to help flush silt, heavy metals, and organic compounds out of the water softener. However, water softeners should be protected from dirt and debris, as sediment damages the screens and injectors inside of the softener’s control valve and will cause the system to fail prematurely. Sediment filters provide integral protection to water filtration systems, as well as prevent debris and particulate matter from appearing in your drinking water. However, there are many water quality issues that could potentially lead to discolored water. If neither iron nor sediments like sand, rust, or tannins are causing your water to turn unappealing colors, it is wise to perform a thorough water test and refrain from consuming the water until you’ve identified the source of the contamination.  

Learn how to remove iron from well water. | Explore how sediment filters work

How do I clean iron out of my water softener? 

Resin cleaners like Rust Out chemically alter the iron and rust accumulated on your water softener’s resin bed before flushing it out of the softening system. Water softener regeneration cycles are not capable of removing the entirety of dissolved iron from the system on their own. The iron remnants will solidify into rust particles, stick to the resin beads, and muddy the color of your water. Regularly cleaning your water softener with a product like Rust Out will protect the softener’s service life. A softener clogged with iron particles will also be much less effective at reducing water hardness, as resin beads covered in iron won’t be recharged during regeneration. 

To remove iron from your water softener resin: 

    1. Dissolve 1 cup of Rust Out in 1/2 gallons of cold water.  
    2. Pour the solution into your brine well. For softeners without brine tanks, pour the solution directly into the brine tank. Make sure you add the resin cleaner directly into the water when the salt levels are low. If you add the solution onto dry salt, it will not mix evenly with the water. 
    3. Initiate a regeneration cycle using the control valve. The water softener will flush the Rust Out throughout your mineral tank and will wash all the collected rust and iron particles down the drain. 
    4. Taste your water. If there is still discoloration or a chemical aftertaste to the water, continue regenerating the media until the water comes out clean and clear. Mineral tanks with heavy iron build-up may take multiple cycles. 

After you’ve completed this process, you’ll want to engage in preventative maintenance to ensure that your water softener never becomes overwhelmed by iron again. When adding 40 lbs. of salt to the brine tank, layer in 1/4 of a cup of the Rust Out resin cleaner. Disperse the cleaner throughout the salt to ensure that each regeneration cycle introduces a dose of the cleaner to your tank. Repeat this process every 3-12 months (depending on how much iron is in your well).

water softener salt

Can a water softener cause low pressure? 

A water softener can interfere with water pressure if the resin beads have been damaged by chlorine or sediment, the control valve has become clogged, or the softener has been installed incorrectly. An appropriately sized water softener should not reduce water pressure as a byproduct of treating the water. If your water pressure is being reduced, it is an indication there is a problem within the water softener or the water softener is not the proper size or was installed wrong. 

If you are experiencing low water pressure, the first thing you should do is isolate the source of the problem. Using the bypass valve located on top of the softener, allow the water coming into the house to bypass the water softener. If your water pressure returns to normal, you know the water softener is the culprit. If you are still experiencing low pressure, you will have to conduct more research. Hard water causes scale accumulation inside of plumbing which will restrict flow rates and diminish water pressure. If hard water flowed through the pipes in your home for a while before you installed a softener, they may have significant scale deposits within them that could be reducing pressure. A sediment pre-filter clogged with grit and debris can also cause pressure to drop.  

If your water softener is the source of the problem, the first thing to check is the resin media. Usually, if the water softener is responsible for the loss in pressure, it is because the resin bed is either damaged, contaminated, or clogged. Resin beads are made from crisscrossed strands of polystyrene, a synthetic plastic polymer. The beads are held together by a bonding agent called DVB (Divinylbenzene). Exposure to chlorine causes the bonding agent to degrade and ultimately break down completely. When this happens, the resin beads turn to a mushy gel. Resin that is exposed to high concentrations of chlorine will become unusable over the years. Once the resin has been destroyed, the water will struggle to pass through the media and water pressure will start to decline. 

High levels of iron and sediment can also cause the resin media to become clogged, making it harder for the water to flow through. Algae build-up and bacteria growth can also hinder the resin’s performance, which will affect the pressure. In rare cases, broken pistons and rotor discs within the control valve will cause a loss of pressure. In both of these cases, you would expect to see water constantly draining out of the drain line. If you have isolated that it is the water softener affecting pressure, but have deduced your resin is not at fault, it is wise to involve a technician to determine the problem. It may be time to replace the control valve of the water softener or invest a newer, more efficient system altogether.

How often do I need to replace my water softener’s resin? 

Water softener resin will usually need to be replaced every 10 years. Resin that’s exposed to high levels of chlorine, iron, or water hardness will only last around 5 years. The lifespan of the resin depends on the quality of the water it is treating. Water softener resin is made of crisscrossed strings of polystyrene fibers, bound together by DVB. The number of “links” in the beads will determine its resilience and its longevity. For example, a 10% resin has a stronger ion exchange capacity than an 8% resin. These links create “exchange sites” within that resin bead that will seize the positively-charged calcium and magnesium ions and swap them out for sodium ions. 

As previously discussed, high doses of chlorine will ruin water softener, causing the beads to disintegrate into bloated mush. Optimal residual chlorine levels in drinking water fall between 0.2 and 0.5 ppm. At such low levels, the chlorine should not significantly damage the resin, and you can expect ten years of service from your resin beads. However, according to the EPA, the maximum allowed levels of chlorine in drinking water is 4 ppm. At these elevated levels of chlorination, you can expect to see premature wear and tear on your resin. Chlorine breaks down the DVB binding agent, causing strings of the beads (called “fines”) to break off and flush down the drain during regeneration. 

The rule of thumb for predicting resin life is to take the parts-per-million of residual chlorine in your water and divide it by 10. So, if your city water possesses 3 ppm of chlorine, your softener will last just over 3 years. If it falls around the ideal range of 0.5ppm, you can expect over 10 years of use. If the chlorine levels in your water are higher than 1ppm, it’s strongly advised that you install a carbon pre-filter in front of your water softener.  

Iron is another enemy of water softeners and the resin. Iron coats the exterior of the bead, preventing the water hardness minerals from reaching the exchange sites. Since iron is so prevalent in well water, it is necessary to regularly rinse your resin bed with an iron cleaner. Otherwise, the system will quickly lose the majority of its water softening capacity. Regardless, you can expect to see a shorter lifespan from resin that is removing both water hardness and iron. Without diligent maintenance, resin treating iron will foul and become unusable before the 10-year mark. 

As the resin begins to break down, you will notice a loss of efficiency. It’s wise to periodically test the hardness of your water to make sure that your system is satisfactorily softening your water. If your area has water with 30 GPG of hardness, and you notice the water at your tap is creeping up to 15-20 GPG, this is a sign that the softener is underperforming. If your resin is over a decade old, it’s certainly time to replace it, as it will only continue to degrade and lose its ion exchange capacity. If your softener is 15 years old, you may consider investing in a new system altogether. 

Explore 5 benefits of having water softeners. | Discover the truth about salt-free water softeners.

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