Most water softener problems are caused by salt or rust buildup. Both the brine tank and valve head need regular cleaning to remove blockages that can lead to overflows and failed regeneration cycles. Having trouble with musty water? The brine tank could be full of mold. Here’s what you need to know about cleaning these devices, and what you can do to troubleshoot common problems.
Salt Refills and Resin Treatments
If you maintain your brine tank correctly, you can cut down on the amount of cleaning you need to do, while helping your system maintain its effectiveness.
You must use salt pellets made for water softeners. Any other salt will cause problems, either by failing to dissolve, or by adding contaminants to your resin tank. Only add salt to the tank when it’s under 1/3 of its capacity. If you keep adding salt when the tank is almost full, the salt at the bottom can form a salt bridge.
This lump of salt blocks the flow of water through the brine tank, and make it seem like the tank is full of salt when it’s mostly empty. Make a habit of poking the salt inside the tank with a shovel or broom handle before loading in new pellets. If you poke through a thin layer of salt, you need to break it up.
Salt bridges are more common in new systems, because the new resin needs less salt to recharge. If you have a salt bridge, you may notice your system stops using salt, or your water is suddenly hard. Most digital control heads have a salt monitor that needs to be reset when you refill the brine tank.
Although recharging the resin removes most of the contaminants, it isn’t perfect. Over time, iron buildup will keep the resin from recharging, making it less effective at softening your water. To keep this from happening, you need to couple the salt with an iron remover.
Your owner’s manual will have recommendations, but you can usually use a household rust removing cleaner. Water softener manufacturers generally recommend adding the iron remover directly to the brine well. This is a covered tube inside the brine tank. If the iron remover is a powder, dissolve it in water before adding it to the well.
Loose Connections, Rust Clogs and Salt Bridges
The amount of salt used for regeneration determines the amount of water needed. One gallon of water absorbs three pounds of salt. High efficiency systems may only add two or three inches of water to the tank. A standard efficiency model may fill the tank by a foot or more.
Manufacturers tend to use the same size brine tanks for all of their systems. If you have a water softener built for a large household, you’ll have more water in the tank to regenerate the added resin. If your tank is full of salt, don’t be surprised if you can’t see any water.
Is your brine tank adding too much water? This is caused by either salt buildup or a loose connection. Before you investigate, make sure the softener is in bypass mode. On some models, you need to do this manually by turning the valves on the head. Electronic heads often have a bypass mode included in their controls.
First, check the most obvious problem: There must be a cap on top of the brine well. Otherwise, salt can get inside and build up on the float, keeping it from moving. If this has happened, you need to scrub down the float and the support it slides on until everything moves freely. Find the cap and put it back on the well.
Brine tanks use quick connectors. A sleeve goes into the end of the hose, and then the hose slides into the connector. A C-clip goes into the space just behind the opening on the connector to hold everything in place. If the C-clip or the hose aren’t seated, or the sleeve is missing, the connection will leak.
If you have iron in your water, it can build up on connections and clog them. This mostly happens to the brine line and the float control line, since these are the smallest diameter connections in the system. Check the inside of the connectors and scrub off any contamination. The injector at the top of the valve body also gets clogged.
Unscrew the cap at the top of the valve body, and you should be able to pull out the injector. Clean as needed. You can use a toothpick to push rust out of the hole. Never use metal, as it can make the hole larger, keeping the injector from drawing in brine.
If the connections are tight, your system might be adding the correct amount of water. However, salt buildup inside the tank is blocking flow to the resin tank, or taking up space that should be filled with water. To get the salt out of your tank, run a recharge cycle until it drains the tank, then put the system in bypass mode.
Start by using a broom handle to poke through any salt bridges. Scoop out any brine left in the tank. Pour hot water into the tank and let it sit for four hours to dissolve any remaining salt. Take your softener off bypass and run a regeneration cycle.
This removes the brine and adds more water to dissolve the remaining salt. Run a regeneration cycle every day until the bottom of the tank is clean. Once all of the salt is gone, you can add new salt to the tank.
If you are still having problems, you may need a new spacer stack and pistons. These control the flow between the brine line and the drain line. This is a complicated job that you’ll want to hand off to a professional.
A small amount of mold can give your water a moldy or sour smell. Larger amounts can cause health problems. Its important to run the tank completely out of salt every year or two. This lets you inspect the bottom of the brine tank for buildup.
If you have a post-fill tank, you can run a regeneration cycle, then pause it once it drains the water from the tank. Switch the valve head to bypass mode to keep the system from cycling.
Next, scoop out all the salt in the brine tank. Once the tank is empty, scrub it down with dish soap or mold cleaner. You can kill off any remaining spores by filling the tank with two to three gallons of water and one to one-and-a-half cups of bleach.
Let the solution sit for at least 15 minutes, and then drain the tank. Do not let the bleach water cycle through the resin tank. Rinse the tank with water, then turn off bypass mode. Check your owner’s manual to see if your water softener supports bleach cycles.
If it doesn’t, fill the tank with salt, and let the recharge cycle continue. If you can run a bleach cycle, add one cup of bleach to a 9 inch wide tank, or two cups to a 12 inch wide tank. Run a new recharge cycle. All of the bleach will flush out of the system once the cycle is complete.
Replacing the Softener Resin
If everything is clean and in working order, and your water is still hard, it may be time to replace the resin in your water softener’s media tank. While you can hire someone to to this, it’s an easy enough job for most people to tackle.
It should only require a few common hand tools, but a couple items will make this job a lot easier. While you can fill the resin tank by hand or with a canning funnel, it’s much easier if you have a resin tank funnel.
This funnel has a perfectly-sized opening for the tank, and a wide cone that holds plenty of material. A wet/dry shop vac is also handy for removing the water at the top of the tank. You want to avoid picking up the used media directly with the vacuum.
Some water softeners have a gravel bed in the bottom of the tank to distribute water. If your tank has this, you need to replace it with fresh gravel made for water softeners. Always rinse gravel thoroughly before you use it in your water system.
Begin by setting the valves to bypass mode and run a regeneration cycle to release the pressure inside the tank.
If you have an electronic head, disconnect the power. Next, get a bucket ready to catch any spilled water. Disconnect the drain and brine hose first, then disconnect the head from the valves. You should be able to move the tank away from your plumbing system.
Unscrew the head from the tank. This should only be hand tight. You’ll see a pipe leading down to the bottom of the tank. Remove this pipe and inspect it for cracking and dirt. Clean or replace as needed.
Empty the tank. If you have a shop vac, use it to get the water out of the top of the tank. Once all the water and media is out, thoroughly wash the inside.
Put the tank back in its original position. Cover the top of the tank pipe to keep resin from getting inside, and set it in the tank. The bottom of the pipe should line up with a bump in the bottom of the tank.
Place the funnel over the top of the tank. Add gravel, if your softener came with some originally. Follow this with the resin. Finally, fill the tank with water.
There will still be a little air in the system when you reconnect everything, so don’t be surprised if there’s a little water hammering when you reconnect the softener. Uncover the top of the tank tube.
Screw the head back on the tank, making sure the base lines up with the tank pipe. Connect the head to the valves, then reconnect the hoses between the resin tank and the brine tank. If you have an electronic head, plug it back in. Run a regeneration cycle and put your softener back into service mode.