By Rehan Iqbal
How long does a water softener last? Between 3 and 30 years. Why is there such a wide range? There are several factors at play, including the quality of the equipment, the quality of your water, the amount of water you use, and the technology you use to soften your water. Here’s what you need to know to pick the right system and maintain it, so you can get the best value for your money.
Why does a water softener direct from the manufacturer or from stores that specialize in water treatment cost several times as much as one you can buy from your local home improvement store?
You get what you pay for. There is a huge difference in reliability and repairability between these systems, which usually makes the cheap option more costly in the long run.
The softener from your local big box store is built to be disposable. The resin in the tank is low quality with few crosslinks. It’s these links that determine the amount of minerals and salt the resin can hold.
Without extra capacity built into the design, it won’t take long for the resin to lose capacity, reducing the softener’s effectiveness. These are almost always all-in-one units that combine the brine and media tank, and use an inexpensive, unsealed control head.
This leads to rapid failure of the controller from corrosion. The valve head isn’t just cheap, it’s built with proprietary components that are only in production for a couple years. By the time you have a problem, you’ll end up replacing the whole system instead of repairing it. In the end, you end up with a softener that lasts just 3 to 5 years.
Compare that with a quality water softener from a specialist retailer or manufacturer. It’s common for the brine tank to be separate from the resin tank. This keeps corrosive salt water away from the control head.
If it’s an all-in-one unit, the controller is completely sealed, protecting it from corrosion. These heads are standard units built by major manufacturers like Fleck and Kinetico. They’re on the market for years, and the manufacturers provide parts support long after they go out of production.
They also use higher quality components, and meet stringent industry tests. The resin has a high cross-link percentage, so it will last a decade or more before you need to replace it. As long as you maintain your system, it should last 15 to 25 years before it fails.
During that time, you’ll probably need to do some minor repairs, like replace rubber O-rings on the connectors when they dry out. When you consider that these systems only cost two to three times more than a disposable system, but last 3-5 times as long, they make better financial sense.
Why Do Water Softeners Fail?
Like any appliance, maintenance is key to maintaining reliability.
Water Softeners should be cleaned atleast once a year.
Salt should be mostly used up before refilling the brine tank. If salt sits in the tank through too many recharge cycles, it dissolves and reforms in a solid layer called a “salt bridge.”
This layer prevents the movement of water and salt. With less water and less salinity available, the recharge cycle can’t remove all the buildup on the media. Even with good salt practices, it will eventually cake up on the bottom of the brine tank. This needs to be chipped off and washed away to maintain flow between both tanks.
Mold should be cleaned when it appears, or it will make your water taste musty and sour. Salt buildup needs to be removed from the bottom of the tank every year or two to maintain flow between the tank and the brine well.
Iron treatments are needed to remove iron buildup from the filter resin. This can be added separately, or you can get water softener that has built-in iron remover. Occasionally, the hose connectors and brine injector need to be cleaned with iron remover to restore flow.
Resin mostly breaks down from oxidation. If there are strong oxidizers in your water, like chlorine, it helps to remove them before the water reaches your softener. Iron has a stronger ionic attraction than magnesium or calcium.
Water softeners can remove a small amount of iron, but if this isn’t carefully managed, the resin can get over-saturated. At that point, it stops absorbing salt and hardness minerals.
When you’re buying a water softener, a good rule of thumb is to buy one that only needs 65% of its grain capacity to treat your water. That way, there’s plenty of spare capacity if you have brief increases in water use, or the resin gets contaminated.
Salt use also doesn’t scale evenly with resin capacity. If you’re only regenerating half the resin with each cycle, you need to use 1/3 as much salt. These smaller cycles are easier on your softener and your wallet.
What Happens When the Resin Wears Out?
Once your softener’s resin breaks down to a point that it’s no longer effective, it needs to be replaced. While you can hire a plumber to do the work, this is a simple enough job that most homeowners choose to do it themselves. New resin costs between $150-$200 per cubic foot, while most residential softeners use ¾ and 2 cubic feet of resin.
Some softeners also require fresh gravel to form a bed in the bottom of the resin tank. There’s no need to replace other components in the system when you replace the resin, unless you happen to find a broken part.
How Long Do Water Conditioners Last?
Water conditioners don’t use salt. Some companies market these as salt-free water softeners, but they use a different process to deal with hard water. They have resin that attracts hardness minerals and gets them to crystallize. These crystals flake off of the media, and don’t leave behind deposits. This makes them much simpler than softeners. Instead of needing a head and a brine tank, a water conditioner is just a resin tank with a bypass valve.
Conditioner media lasts an average of 5 to 7 years. However, if you aren’t having hard water problems, there’s no need to replace the media. Some owners find that their conditioners last as long as 10 years before they need new media. Most problems stem from contamination from iron. Since there’s no recharge cycle, once iron attaches to the media, it can’t be removed.
Unlike water softeners, water conditioners are limited to use with water with a maximum hardness of 10 GPG. Water conditioners are more expensive than water softeners, but the total cost of ownership is about the same when you factor in the cost of salt. These are a great option if you don’t have iron in your water, or you live in an area where water softeners are banned due to issues with salt contamination.