By Rehan Iqbal
In some areas, water softeners are a necessity, because they prevent mineral buildup that destroys appliances and ruins plumbing. However, while they save you money, it still hurts to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars on a replacement unit. What can you do to get the most out of your investment?
Like most things, proper maintenance can extend the life of your equipment, lowering costs over your softener’s lifetime. Here are the steps you should take to extend the life of your water softener, ensuring it will do its job for years to come.
How Often Should I Put Salt in My Water Softener?
This varies depending on the size of your system, and how often it recharges. The more total dissolved solids (TDS) and iron you have in your water, the more frequently your system needs to regenerate. Manufacturers also tend to use the same brine tank for all of their systems, so a system sized for a home with several bathrooms needs to be refilled more often than one built for a one or two bathroom home. It’s typical for owners to refill the tank anywhere from every month to every three months.
Only add salt when the brine tank is at 1/3 of its capacity or less. If you constantly top up the tank, the salt at the bottom can form a salt bridge. This blocks water flow, keeping your resin tank from recharging. It can also cause the brine tank to overflow.
What Type of Salt Should I Use in My Softener?
Only use salt made for water softeners. Other salts will either fail to dissolve, or they’ll leave behind minerals and other contaminants to your resin tank. Softener salt is available as rock salt, which is mined, and solar salt, which is made by evaporating sea water. Functionally, there is no difference between rock and solar softener salts. However, rock salt for water softeners isn’t the same rock salt used in ice cream makers or to de-ice pavement. Standard rock salt contains high levels of impurities, which will damage your softener’s filter media.
Iron has a stronger attraction to water softener resin than salt or hardness minerals. Over time, iron contamination will limit your softener’s capacity. You can remove iron by adding an iron treatment directly to your brine tank. However, you can skip this step by buying softener salt with built-in rust remover.
There are four salts used to make water softening salt:
Potassium and calcium salts offer the best performance, so they’re preferred for recharging systems used to treat very hard water (over 120 mg/L.)
These salts are available as blocks or pellets. Some block salts use a binder that leaves deposits in the brine tank, requiring more frequent cleaning. This isn’t a problem with pellets, but they are more expensive.
When Do I Need to Replace the Resin in My Water Softener?
Is your recharging cycle doing its job? Are you treating the resin for iron? If everything on your softener is working, and the water from your faucets is hard or becomes hard a couple of days after regenerating, the resin is probably worn out. On average, resin in a correctly-sized softener should last somewhere between 10 and 15 years. Chlorine speeds up degradation, so systems connected to municipal water need new resin sooner than those that filter well water.
The nucleation process used by TAC conditioners physically wears down the tank media. Typically, this media lasts around 6 to 8 years. If your plumbing is showing signs of water hardness, like soap scum around faucets, the media needs to be replaced. Remember that a conditioner doesn’t remove hardness minerals, so your water will still test high for TDS, even when the system is working.
When Should I Clean the Brine Tank?
Inspect the tank every time you add salt. Clean the brine tank when the tank looks dirty, or you notice the brine looks dirty or has suds. All softener salt contains small amounts of dirt that builds up inside the tank. It’s also normal for mold to grow in the brine tank, leaving behind black rings on the tank’s surface. Both dirt and mold can be removed with dish soap or mold cleaner.
Most softeners are post-fill systems: they always have water in the brine tank, giving it more time to absorb salt. While you can scoop the water out before cleaning, it’s easier to start a recharge cycle. When the cycle reaches the brine stage, it will draw the water out of the tank for you.
When Should You Regenerate the Water Softener?
Regeneration frequency depends on the hardness of your water, the amount of water you use, and the size of your system. Generally speaking, if you have a correctly-sized system and low amounts of iron in your water, regenerating the media once per week should be enough to keep it working effectively. If your water has high levels of iron, and you aren’t treating it before the softener, you may need to recharge the media as often as twice per week.
Depending on the type of head you have on your softener, it can trigger a regen cycle based on the amount of water passing through the system, after a certain period of time, or both. Using water flow ensures your system only regenerates when it needs to, saving water, salt and electricity. Electronic heads measure flow, but they will wait to regenerate at a set time, usually late at night. That way, the cycle doesn’t interrupt water usage.
Should There Be Standing Water in the Water Softener Tank?
It depends on whether you have a pre-fill or post-fill water softener. Low-end water softeners sold at hardware stores are usually pre-fill, while higher quality units are usually post-fill.
Pre-fill softeners start regeneration by adding water to the brine tank. This water sits in the tank for a couple of hours to absorb salt before entering the media tank. If there is water in the brine tank outside of a regen cycle, there is probably something wrong with the pump that transfers the brine to the media tank.
Post-fill softeners keep water in the tank at all times. This gives the water more time to dissolve salt, and it cuts down on the time needed to run a regen cycle.
Why is My Water Softener Overflowing?
There are a few issues that can cause overflowing: an uncapped well, a loose connection, a clogged valve, or a salt bridge. Before you inspect your brine tank, set the system to bypass mode. This can be selected from the controls on an electronic head. If you have a manual head, close the valves on the head, so water passes by the resin tank. Here’s what you should check:
Should I Turn Off My Water Softener When I Go On Vacation?
Yes. This keeps your softener from wasting water and salt on regeneration when you aren’t using it to filter water. It’s a good idea to run a regeneration cycle when you get back to flush out any standing water in the system.
How Long Can a Water Softener Sit Without being Used?
It depends on the quality of your water, how long the softener has been off-line, and whether it was connected to the rest of the plumbing system. Your water softener should be fine, as long as it has only been off for a few weeks. Sitting longer can cause problems.
Unplugging or turning off the head does not stop water from flowing through the media tank. This only prevents the system from running a regeneration cycle. The media can be damaged by long term exposure to chlorine, hardness minerals and iron without being regenerated. Instead, set the system to bypass mode. When you come back, run a regeneration cycle to flush out the water in the media tank.
It’s common for the brine to form a salt bridge if it sits for weeks. Before you turn your system back on, break up the salt to keep the tank from overflowing when you turn it on.
What Type of Water Softener Do I Have, and How Does it Affect Maintenance?
The terms “water softener” and “water conditioner” are used almost interchangeably in marketing. These refer to two treatment technologies: ion exchange and Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC.)
Salt Based Water Softeners
Ion exchange water softeners have media saturated with salt. As water passes through the media tank, calcium and magnesium ions swap places with salt ions, softening the water. When most of the salt on the filter media is replaced by hardness minerals, it needs to regenerate. The valves on the head disconnect the softener from the rest of the plumbing system.
Next, salty water from the brine tank is flushed through the media tank. The salt in the brine swaps places with the hardness minerals. The hard water brine that comes out of the media tank goes down the drain. These systems need fresh salt for recharging cycles. The brine tank and filter media require occasional maintenance, while it’s common for small parts in the head to fail during the system’s life.
Water Conditioners (Salt Free)
Water conditioners are usually TAC systems. The media in these systems acts as a nucleation point for hardness minerals. Calcium and magnesium latch onto the media, forming microscopic crystals. Eventually, these crystals flake off into the water. The water is still hard, but these microscopic crystals don’t leave deposits on pipes and around plumbing fixtures. In fact, your water will be harder when you first install a conditioner.
The nucleation process creates microscopic gas bubbles that scrub mineral deposits off of plumbing. There are no additional chemicals required to operate a water conditioner. This type of softener uses a single tank connected to your plumbing. Water conditioners usually require no maintenance. However, nucleation media breaks down faster than ion exchange media. TAC conditioners are mostly used in areas where salt use is banned, although some people prefer them over water softeners since they require less work to maintain.