By Rehan Iqbal
Is your water softener not working right? Are you looking for ways to get the most out of your investment? Here’s what you need to know about maintaining this piece of water treatment equipment, the common problems you’ll encounter, and when it’s time to get a new unit.
How Long Can You Use a Water Softener?
Ion exchange water softeners have a media tank, a brine tank, and a control head. The media tank holds salt, which swaps places with hardness minerals. Once the media is saturated, the control head draws brine from the brine tank and flushes it through the media tank, replacing the hardness minerals with salt. While tanks will last a lifetime, the media, head and connecting hoses wear out with use.
There is a huge difference in quality between the softeners sold at hardware stores and those offered by businesses specializing in water treatment. It’s not uncommon for off-the-shelf systems to have problems after as little as three years of use. Parts aren’t readily available for these systems, so you have to replace the whole unit when something fails.
A quality system from a water treatment specialist uses industry standard components. These components don’t just last longer, they’re easy to replace. It’s common for ion exchange systems to last up to 15 years with a few minor repairs. While they cost about twice as much as a budget system, their longer service live gives them an excellent return on investment. These systems are also more efficient, saving money on salt over the system’s life.
If you live in an area that bans salt-based treatment systems, you can treat your hard water with a Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC) water conditioner. This device joins calcium and magnesium together to form microscopic crystals that won’t build up on plumbing and appliances.
These wear out faster than water softeners, but they don’t require salt, and they don’t need a control head. In some cases, the total cost of ownership is lower than a water softener, despite a higher purchase price. Typical media life for these systems is 6 years, but some users report up to 8 years of use without a reduction in water quality.
Once you have a water softener installed, how do you keep it running? At most, a water conditioner needs to be flushed with bleach once a year. However, there are several steps you can take to extend the life of a water softener.
Preserving the Media Tank
The media in the tank is a resin that holds onto salt from the brine. When hard water passes through the media tank, calcium and magnesium ions swap places with the salt ions. Once the media is saturated, the system runs a regeneration cycle. Hardness ions with salt from the brine tank, and this hard water brine goes down the drain. While the media does wear out, it lasts longer if it’s kept clean.
Iron has a stronger attraction to the media than salt or hardness minerals. Once it attaches to the filter media, that media can no longer soften water. Adding an iron treatment to the tank removes this buildup from your media. There’s also softener salt that has built-in iron treatment chemicals. If you have high levels of iron in your water, you should treat it before it reaches your softener, either with an oxidation system, or an ion exchange system designed specifically for iron removal.
Only use salt made for water softening. Other salts can leave behind deposits in the media tank, limiting the effectiveness of your water softener. If you see softener salt labeled “rock salt,” it means it was mined, as opposed to solar salt, which comes from evaporated sea water. Unlike the rock salt sold for use as a deicer, softener rock salt doesn’t contain impurities that can harm the water softener.
Taking Care of Your Brine Tank
The brine tank stores the salt used to regenerate the filter media. Most low-end systems are “pre-fill.” When it’s time to run a regeneration cycle, water is added to the tank. After a couple of hours, the resulting brine is flushed through the media tank. Higher quality systems are “post-fill.” These systems always keep water in the tank. This gives it more time to absorb salt. This saltier brine is more effective at regenerating the media.
Most problems come from the formation of a salt bridge. As salt dissolves and precipitates out of the brine, if forms a lump that can cover the tank. If you only adding salt when the tank is less than 1/3 full, it won’t sit in the tank long enough to dissolve in the bridge. Using salt that isn’t made for softeners can clog the pump system, keeping brine from reaching the media tank.
Mold growth and dirt buildup can make its way into the pump and head, clogging components. To prevent this, the tank needs to be emptied and cleaned when it starts to look dirty.
Common Control Head Problems
The control head at the top of the media tank moves valves around, redirecting water and brine to regenerate the media as needed. High quality control valves from companies like Fleck and Clack usually last well over a decade. However, they contain components that wear out with age.
Most problems are caused by debris in the valve components or perished rubber seals. Seals are used on the water connections, the brine valve, the control valve and the injector. There’s also a filter screen somewhere before the brine injector. Some small components may become cracked or scored by debris over years of use.
When Does It Make More Sense to Get a Replacement?
If you have a TAC water conditioner, the media needs to be replaced when you start seeing hard water problems, like soap scum buildup. This media is expensive, so it may make more financial sense to replace the entire tank instead of filling it with new media.
Like any appliance, at some point the cost of repairs and downtime exceeds the cost of a replacement.
If your water softener is over 10 years old, you may just need new media. However, if you’re experiencing problems with a system that’s over 15 years old, it’s probably time for a replacement.
There are a few reasons you should consider earlier replacement. 10 to 15 years is a long time, and you’ve probably changed your lifestyle in that period. If you have a different number of people living in your home, or you’ve made other changes to your household that affect water usage, your softener might not be the right size for your needs.
Replacing your system could save you money in the long run. Upgrading to a high efficiency water softener decreases salt, water and electricity use by up to 50% compared to older clock-based units, which can save you money in the long run.