water softener maintenance

Maintenance Guide – Learn How to Drain, Clean & Service Your Water Softener

Water softeners are low maintenance for the most part. However, to ensure that your system continues to run smoothly and at peak performance for years to come, you can do more than just pour new salt into the brine tank every now and then.

Proper water softener maintenance will also increase longevity and lower repair costs. And the good news is that it’s simple enough for every homeowner to take care of.

Want to learn more? The following guide will provide you with everything you need to know.

Contents:

Refilling Salt

No need to make things more complicated than they have to be. Simply check the salt level of your water softener’s brine tank once a month. Refill when it’s below the ¼ mark. Don’t fill up to more than ⅔ to prevent bridging. That’s it!

How to Drain the Brine Tank on a Water Softener

Draining a brine tank is necessary for cleaning, sanitizing and troubleshooting.

Thereby we need to differentiate between pre and post-fill water softeners:

  • A post-fill system will automatically refill its brine tank at the end of each regeneration cycle. Thus, it always has water respectively brine inside.
  • If there is no water in the brine tank that means that you own a pre-fill unit and there is no need to drain it, obviously – at least as long as it’s functioning properly.

That being said, there are different options for how you can drain a post-fill water softener.

For example, you could simply scoop the water into a bucket. This way you can pour it back into the tank when you are done cleaning or whatever it is that you are doing. Of course, this only makes sense if the water is not too dirty.

Alternatively, you could use a wet vacuum. Another option would be to start a manual regeneration cycle. During the brining phase the softener will automatically suck all water out of the brine tank.

(Depending on your model you can trigger regeneration by pushing and holding the “regenerate“-button. When regen starts, push the button one more time to skip to the brine cycle. Once the brine tank is empty, skip all other cycles to get back into service.)

water softener

Your last option is to empty all water into an appropriate drain. Before you move the tank, however, remember to put your softener into bypass. Then disconnect the fill tube that connects the brine tank to the head valve (for side-by-side softeners only) as well as the brine tank’s overflow hose.

If your softener features a salt grid it’s a good idea to take it out, too. You will also need to remove the brine well – that is the extra tube inside the brine tank that stores the float assembly. First, take out the float. Then dismantle the overflow elbow if there is one and finally pull out the tube.

Now you can carefully tip over the tank. But beware that if you empty it on your lawn, the grass will turn brown and die.

How to Clean a Water Softener

A standard water softener needs to be cleaned once a year to every five years depending on the circumstances. However, if all of a sudden output water hardness increases or the water is discolored or smells funny, it’s definitely a good idea to clean the entire system as soon as possible.

Here is how:

Cleaning the Brine Tank

The best time to clean the brine tank is when it has almost run out of salt. This way you don’t have to scoop it all out by hand and the tank is lightweight so that you can move it around for easy access. Maybe you even want to take it outside where you don’t have to be super careful about making a water mess.

What’s more, when the salt-level is low you can already see any dirt or mold in the bottom of the tank.

FYI: The dirt is contained in the softening salt – inexpensive rock salt in particular. Because sediment cannot dissolve it accumulates over time as you keep refilling the brine tank. After a while, the brine might look like sludge. This is the main reason for cleaning: So that the sediment does not clog your system. It could also prevent salt from dissolving properly.

In case the salt level is still high and you don’t want to wait you will have to take it out manually. Usually, any salt above the grid plate (if there is one) is worth saving for later use. Anything below the plate is garbage.

If you own a post-fill water softener that refills automatically you will also have to drain all water going forward.

Like we said, there are different options for how you can do this (see above).

Got rid of all the water? Great! The rest of the cleaning procedure looks like this:

  1. Remove any remaining salt + sludge
  2. Clean inside
  3. Add new salt (and water with post-fill softener)
  4. Set regeneration cycle for coming night

In case you haven’t already taken out the brine well and salt grid at this point, now is the time to do so.

To remove any remaining salt and/or sludge you can use a shovel or whichever tool you find suitable. But be careful not to damage your tank. Again, a shop vac is great for this. If the salt is too hard to vacuum you can break it loose with a broom handle. Then use a hose to rinse the inside of the tank and vacuum the remaining salt, water and sediment.

For the actual cleaning, mix water with good old dishwashing detergent – no need for harsh chemicals – or mold remover if need be and use a brush to do some scrubbing. Keep in mind that there is no point in trying to make the tank look brand new. And don’t forget to rinse thoroughly afterwards.

Pro tip: This is the perfect time to check that the float switch is straight and can move freely up and down. Also, double-check that it’s not plugged so that it can suck in brine during regen (soak in hot water to unclog).

heart sponge

Once everything is nice and clean, it’s time to put the pieces back together and add new salt, 2 or 3 bags should do the trick. But first, put the brine tank back in place because it will be pretty heavy soon.

Remember that with a post-fill system you will also have to add about 3 gallons of water. Don’t worry, the unit will adjust its own water level over time.

Lastly, set your water softener to regenerate the following night and you will be back in service the next day.

Venturi Valve/Brine Injector Cleaning

Water softeners come with either a venturi valve or a brine injector. Both are responsible for drawing brine from the brine tank into the resin tank.

Thereby, they make use of a mesh net or another type of screen to stop dirt from entering the resin tank. This means that the valve or injector will eventually clog up. In other words, whichever you have you want to clean it out every 6 months or so.

Now, for every water softener model it’s going to be different, so it’s best if you refer to the manual.

The components sit somewhere at the back of the head unit. Generally, you first need to put your softener into bypass. Then release water pressure by running through a manual regeneration before opening the cover/cap.

Sanitizing – Can You Put Bleach in Your Water Softener?

A water softener and its resin in particular can become contaminated with biological organisms like bacteria for different reasons, one being a polluted water supply. But even if your water is disinfected at the source, microbes can enter at any point before the softening unit.

Above that, iron, sulfur and other impurities can promote infestation. Typical signs are a change in color, foul taste or rotten egg smell in your water. In addition, mildew might form in the brine tank which can also cause an unpleasant odor.

Newly installed softeners and those that have been out of service for some time or that run for long periods between regenerations are particularly affected.

Bottom line: After the regular cleaning process, you may want to use 2 ounces of unscented household bleach mixed with 3 gallons of water to sanitize the brine tank.

Just let the solution sit for about 15 to 20 minutes to kill any mold or mildew. Then scrub with a brush. Tip: Focus on the float assembly.

Dump the mixture and rinse carefully with clean water.

Before using bleach or any other chemical to sanitize your water softener, read the instruction manual for specific hints and restrictions or consult a professional.

Alternatively, what you can (and should) do is sanitize the entire system. In fact, some softeners will require periodic disinfection, like every 3 to 12 months, during their normal life.

Again, 5.25% sodium hypochlorite (bleach) is usually best suited for this. It can be used with polystyrene resins, zeolite and greensand.

One manufacturer recommends to add 1.2 fluid ounces – that’s less than a quarter cup – per cubic foot polystyrene resin into the brine well before/after backwashing the system. The bleach will dissolve in the brine and then be sucked into the resin tank during the brining cycle. Proceed with normal regeneration.​

Depending on your softener you might also have to add 2 to 3 gallons of water into the brine tank. This usually entails unplugging the unit for 20 to 30 minutes during the brining phase to allow all brine to be used up.

For complete sterilization, the bleach should remain in contact with the resin for at least one hour.

And to make sure that none of it ends up in the water that you are later going to use, the resin bed should be rinsed with a minimum of 75 gallons of water per cubic foot. This will also eliminate any disinfection byproducts that may have formed.

bacteria

3 Further Comments:

  1. Never mix bleach with resin cleaner (see next section). Doing so may produce potentially harmful fumes. If the latter is already in your salt or brine you have to disconnect the brine line and suck the bleach out of a bucket.
  2. Chlorine diminishes the softening capacity of the resin bed. Why then use bleach for sanitization? Because compared to long term chlorination as will be the case for most municipal supplies and many private wells, a strong concentration for a very short time will result in minimal damage. Also, the pros outweigh the cons. Chlorine is one of the most effective and at the same time most inexpensive sanitizers available. When bacteria is present in the resin bed, occasional shocking is the better of the two evils.
  3. There are NSF & EPA approved sanitizing products that kill 99.99% of harmful bacteria and a wide range of viruses.

Have you neglected the maintenance of your water softener for too long? Check out our softener reviews if you need a replacement!

Cleaning the Resin Tank

What do you need to be doing to keep the resin bed in great shape? Not a whole lot in most cases, unless your water is really bad.

Municipal water is fine, usually. Well water can be problematic if it contains high amounts of iron or manganese. Both can foul the resin, since they are not entirely removed during regeneration.

Besides, accumulation of organic compounds, most commonly tannin and humic acids, can occur in homes with shallow wells. When these compounds precipitate they become trapped between the resin beads.

In such a case, cleaning a fouled bed with a specialized resin cleaner will restore softening capacity for reduced salt and water usage, prolong resin life, and guarantee that all other system parts work smoothly as well. It might even help to improve the taste of your water and boost flow rates.

How often to clean? Most experts recommend time intervals of 3 to 12 months, depending on the condition of your water.

Water Softener Resin Cleaners

There are a great number of resin cleaners for you to choose from, Iron OUT® being the most popular for removing iron deposits.

Iron OUT® – Available on amazon.com

Iron OUT® triggers a chemical reaction that puts iron ions back into solution. The main reagent is sodium hydrosulfite. Other products might use citric or hydrochloric acid for instance.

Unfortunately, not every iron remover or other specialized cleanser will be suited for your softener and resin. So you want to find out which ones you are allowed to use first. The manufacturer will be able to provide you with all the necessary information.

Then all you have to do is follow the instructions on the product. Some you dissolve in water and pour on top of the salt, others go into the brine well before you start a regen cycle. Some are liquid, some dry. Some need plenty of salt in the brine tank, others can only be used when the salt level is low.

For some you can also use a dispenser that you mount to the side of your brine tank. The dispenser will drip feed half an ounce to one ounce of water softener cleaner into the salt every day for continuous maintenance. The resin is cleaned with each regeneration and fouling is prevented.

Cost? Between $5 to $20 USD per bottle.

Want to ensure to remove any cleaner residues prior to using the water? Thoroughly flush your softener after regen or run a second cycle approx. 2 hours after the first.

How to Remove Salt Bridges

With salt bridging a.k.a. salt clogging, an encrusted bridge hinders the salt from reaching the bottom of the brine tank and getting in touch with the water to form brine. This, in turn, prevents your softener from regenerating properly.

Just to clarify: If a salt bridge has formed your brine tank might still look like it’s completely filled. However, all salt underneath the bridge is probably gone. This is why it’s important that you watch out for this phenomenon whenever you refill the tank.

softener salt

The bad news is that issues with salt bridges have become more common in recent years. Why? Because today’s water softeners are much more salt efficient than they used to be. As a result, they use less salt which means that it has more time to clog. Other reasons for bridging include high air humidity and using the wrong type of salt (consult the manual to make sure that you’re using the right one).

By the way, the most obvious symptom of a salt bridge is that the brine tank salt level is not going down at all. What’s more, hard water might come out of the system.

You can easily test for this by gently hitting on the side of the brine tank to see if it moves or if it’s really firm. The latter is an indicator for a salt bridge. What you can also do is take a broom handle and try to push it all the way down to the bottom of the tank. If you can’t then you definitely have a bridge.

Be sure to crush any encrusted salt and large clumps that may have formed. Again, you can use a broom handle for this or any other tool that is not too sharp – be careful not to break the salt grid at the bottom. What you can also do is knock around the side of the tank with a rubber mallet. Once you have eliminated the bridge start a manual regen cycle.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7vU33Cmzic

In more severe cases, loosen and take out as much salt as you can. Then remove all brine that is left in the tank (it has already dissolved as much salt as it possibly can).

Next, pour 2-3 gallons of warm or hot tap water on top of the salt. This might already be enough for the salt bridge to cave. Pour another ½ gallon into the brine well.

Within the next couple of hours the water will start absorbing some of the salt. After about 4 to 5 hours you can hit the regen button.

The next day, poke around in the brine tank. Has the bridge dissipated? If not, try to loosen up some more salt and trigger another regen cycle. You might need to do this a couple of days in a row.

If you’ve used the wrong type of salt there is no way around replacing it.

How to Prevent Bridging

A simple rule to prevent salt from bridging is to fill your brine tank up to ⅔ and add no more salt until the level is down to about ¼. In humid areas, you should test adding even less but more often. And you don’t want to mix pellets, cubes, crystals or block salt with one another.

As long as you keep doing this you will likely never have issues with salt bridges ever again.

Mushing

Salt mushing is a different kind of problem. It occurs when salt dissolves and then recrystallizes to form a thick layer of sludge at the base of the brine tank.

Instead of mixing with water, the mush can clog the brine well and cause the water level in the tank to rise with each regen cycle. Eventually, it will overflow.

To fix this you can use the broom handle and try to break up the mush or scoop it all out. You don’t necessarily have to discard the salt, especially if it’s not overly dirty. Instead, you can dissolve it in hot water and pour it back into the brine tank – think recycle.

Cost

If you prefer not to deal with any of the maintaining yourself you can hire a company to do it for you. Fees for water softener maintenance programs that include monthly salt delivery and system inspection start at $120 USD per year.

For a complete breakdown of all operating costs follow this link: https://www.best-osmosis-systems.com/water-softener-cost/#running-costs

Water Softener Maintenance Checklist

This checklist covers basic maintenance tasks that you can do yourself.

General

  • Softener is plugged into power supply
  • System is in service mode unless regenerating
  • Optional: Test output water for hardness – provides insights into whether or not system is properly calibrated + functioning correctly; adjust if need be:
    • Hardness settings
    • Regeneration time of the day, frequency + duration
    • Timers
    • Salt settings
  • After power outage: Reset timers

Brine Tank

  • Water level is normal
  • Salt level is above water level; refill if need be (up to ⅔)
  • No salt bridge or mush; remove if need be
  • Empty + clean; set regeneration for coming night (about once a year)
  • Float switch is straight + free from salt/dirt + can move freely up and down; soak in hot water if need be
  • Optional: Sanitize

Resin Tank

  • For high iron/manganese/tannin levels: Clean resin with resin cleaner (about every 3 to 12 months)
  • Optional: Sanitize

Single Parts/Components

  • Connections do not leak
  • O-rings are in good condition; replace if need be
  • Exercise bypass valve to keep it lubricated
  • Clean brine injetor/venturi valve (about every 6 months)
  • Optional: Replace pre-filter

Checklist for Download: Checklist.pdf

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If you have any thoughts or questions about how to maintain a water softener please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!

Leave a Comment:

3 comments
Ajit Bhakta says 8 months ago

Useful and informative post. Keep on updating.

Reply
Andy S. says last month

“One manufacturer recommends to add 1.2 fluid ounces – that’s 1.5 cups – per cubic foot polystyrene resin…” – – – there is a big difference between 1.2 ounces and 1.5 cups.

Reply
    Gene says last month

    Andy,
    Of course, you are absolutely right. Thank you for pointing that out. Paragraph edited!

    Reply
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