How to Fix Water Softener Problems (Complete Guide)
Before we embark on this topic, we would like to point out that you can always seek technical assistance from the company you bought the water softener from when in doubt. (Unless you are the technical assistance, then we have a different set of problems altogether).
If your appliance has a warranty or any form of guarantee, you might also want to go through it to confirm you will not be infringing on any terms of the contract while solving your water softener problem.
It is easier to diagnose water softener problems if you understand the internal processes that facilitate the water treatment and what is required for them to function optimally.
How a Water Softener Works
Water softeners eliminate calcium, magnesium, and silica ions from hard water in a process called ion exchange. These mineral deposits cause water hardness because they always fight dissolution and return to a solid state. They are responsible for all the devastation caused by hard water, which is why water softeners fight to ensure they don’t get into your plumbing system.
As the hard water enters the main tank of the water softener (also known as the mineral or resin tank), it gets into contact with negatively charged resin beads which are saturated with sodium ions and occasionally potassium ions.
Because the hardness ions are positively charged with stronger electric energy than the sodium or potassium ions, they are attracted to the negatively charged beads and form bonds with them, displacing the sodium or potassium ions and forcing them to bond with water molecules.
The water that flows out of the tank is soft because all the hardness minerals have been removed.
The resin beads become saturated with hardness ions after a while and cannot soften any more water. At this point, regeneration is due. It can be triggered by a preset timer or meter or manually initiated. This is dependent on the water consumption rate and the quality of water.
Saturation is one of the first things you look out for when troubleshooting a malfunctioning softener. There is a need to flush out the accumulated calcium, magnesium, and silica at this point and recharge the resin beads so they can attract more minerals.
The softener is temporarily set to bypass to facilitate regeneration. This means for a while, the hard water will be directly available for household consumption. This is why regeneration should be set for periods without the water demand, like late at night when people are asleep.
Another thing you should look out for when water softener troubleshooting is if the water softener is set to bypass and if it was returned to its functional state. It can be an oversight, especially if the regeneration was manually initiated.
- The first step is to backwash the resin beads, meaning changing the direction of water flow within the softener so that it flows upwards instead of downwards through the resin beads, expanding them in the process. This should dislodge any precipitation ion, debris, or sediment that might have gotten stuck in the resin, which all goes down the drain.
- The second step is brining where the water is now flowing in its normal direction but still ending up in the drain pipe. Because the softener is still on bypass mode, the vacuum creates a siphoning effect in the brine tank, pulling the brine into the resin tank to charge the resin beads.
- This time around, the sodium or potassium ions will displace the hardness ions because of their sheer concentration. Brine solution comprises high-density salt and has been formulated for this purpose.
- The accumulated hardness ions are released from the resin and washed out of the resin tank along with the brine. They are replaced by a fresh layer of sodium or potassium over the now rejuvenated resin bed, ready to take on the next cycle of hard water.
- The salt tank (or brine tank) should be refilled to prepare brine for the next cycle.
Common Water Softener Problems
The brine salt forms a hard crust spanning the entire diameter of the brine tank. This crust is mostly above the water level, leaving a gap between the water level and salt. It prevents salt that is on top of it from coming into contact with the water below it.
Consequently, the water in the brine tank will not reach the salt to create the concentrated brine solution needed to recharge the resin bed in the mineral tank. It does not have the power to dislodge the saturating mineral ions, and the resin bed will stay saturated. Hard water then passes through the softener untreated.
- You start feeling the effects of hard water with dry, itchy skin and brittle nails. Your soap takes a long time to lather, scaling starts to develop around faucets and streaks on your washed utensils.
- The salt levels in the brine tank do not seem to be going down as they should with every regeneration cycle. A fresh layer of water softener salt will effortlessly disguise a salt bridge, and it may take longer to discover.
- When inspecting the brine tank, use an object with a long and thin but steady handle, like a broom, to poke the salt and see if there is a gap between it and the water level.
- Turn off the water supply to your softener at the source or engage the bypass option. Scoop out the loose salt lying on top of the crust or bridge.
- Use a long-handled object to break the crust and discard the chunks. Take care not to puncture a hole in your brine tank or break the salt grid at the bottom; avoid the sides or poking too deep, and if the salt bridge proves hard to break, look for a sharper object that can pierce through it.
- If the bridge is still stubborn, don’t use too much force and risk making your water softener problem permanent. Pour some hot water on it and wait for the water to start absorbing the salt.
- Clean the brine tank, refill it with the prescribed amount of salt, and you should be good to go.
- Initiate the regeneration process to restore your resin bed before resuming water treatment.
- Do not fill the salt tank above the prescribed salt level, as the extra water pressure encourages the salt to crystallize and form the crust.
- Take every measure to safeguard the salt tank from humidity, like making sure the brine tank lid is always securely fastened. Humidity is a major contributor to crust building.
- Use only manufacturer-recommended or high-quality salt as they are more resilient and will hold out against environmental extremes.
The dissolved salt in the brine solution recrystallizes and creates a sludge that settles at the bottom of the brine tank. This clogs the brine well and chokes the brine solution to not get to the mineral tank as it should, hampering regeneration.
Besides the usual hard water problems, the water levels in the brine tank will keep rising with each regeneration cycle because brine is not getting into the mineral tank. Eventually, the tank will be overflowing.
You have a number of viable approaches to handle this problem:
- Use an object with a long and thin handle to break up the crystals into smaller pieces that dissolve in the brine solution.
- Empty the brine tank completely, scooping out the salt and washing it to ensure nothing remains, and replace the salt.
- Pour hot water on the retrieved salt and pour the solution back into the brine tank as a form of recycling
- You need to clean the brine tank and initiate a regeneration cycle to ensure everything is working after this process is done.
- Avoid filling the brine tank with too much salt. When wet salt is not used up, it tends to bind together, which brings about this mush at the bottom of the tank.
- Use high-quality salt that can better withstand conditions in the brine tank.
Morton Clean & Protect 1499 Salt Pellets
These are 99.7% pure salt pellets made in America using the highest standards and will keep your water softener system fresh and ready to tackle hard water.
Many established softener manufacturers recommend this water softener salt, including Morton, Kenmore, Northstar, and Eco Pure.
Fouled Resin Bed
Iron and Manganese
Manganese and iron are naturally occurring in water. They are also positively charged, making them attracted to the resin in the same way as the targeted calcium and magnesium. They bond with the resin, taking up spaces that should be reserved for calcium and magnesium.
They are, however, not effectively removed during brine regeneration and will keep accumulating. Because resins are mostly black and amber in color, it will be difficult to notice this accumulation with the naked eye.
This leads to an overall reduction in ion exchange capacity of the resin bed and an inability to soften water.
Resins can be fouled by natural organic compounds, which are products of decaying material and usually take the chemical form of tannin and humic acids. They do not bond with the brine but rather precipitate and get stuck in the resin.
This reduces the ion exchange capacity of the resin, and they will keep accumulating because normal regeneration is not adequate to dislodge them from the resin bed.
There will be a marked decrease in your water softening capacity. You will get the urge to initiate regeneration often because the resin beads are not all contributing to the cause.
The quality of soft water will also deteriorate due to the presence of fouling byproducts in it and inefficient softening. You will start experiencing some hard water problems.
The water will develop a tea-like coloration, an odor, and unpleasant taste courtesy of tannin and humic acids
Ferric iron is evidenced by cloudy water or water with a reddish-brown water color and a foul taste.
To confirm the presence of iron, you can soak a sample of the resin beads in hydrochloric acid for approximately 10 minutes and test if the solution has more than five parts per million (ppm) or 5 milligrams per liter (mg/L) of iron. This is the threshold between trace elements and concentrated amounts.
Iron or Manganese
- Backwash the resin tank to loosen up the resin beads so that all parts are accessible
- Run a regeneration cycle with a water softener cleaner certified to get rid of iron and manganese.
- Run a second regeneration cycle with the recommended amount of salt to purge the wastewater system containing the released iron and manganese traces.
Organic Fouling Precipitates
- Reduce the water in the mineral tank almost to the level of the resin bed and add a caustic soda solution.
- Let it soak in the caustic soda for up to 4 hours, and then drain the caustic soda out.
- Rinse the resin tank in downflow mode until the water is clear
- Initiate regeneration
- Install a pre-filtration system to take care of the contaminants before they reach the water softener system. A carbon filter is ideal as it specializes in removing chlorine, chloramines, volatile organic compounds, and sediments. This also reduces the number of organic compounds being introduced into the resin tank by the hard water.
- Continuous resin cleaning while incorporating resin cleaner when feeding salt to the brine tank. This will clear and prevent the buildup of organic compounds in the resin tank.
- Once you establish the most prevalent compound, you can even add water softener resin cleaners that target the specific fouling agents.
- Maintain a consistent regeneration schedule to avoid the buildup of fouling agents in the resin tank.
Res Care Easy Feeder Starter Kit by Pro Products
It has been specially formulated to strip iron and manganese from resin beds. It also gets rid of metal particles and organic compounds that may be introduced in the water softener by hard water.
It will extend the life of your resin beads and reduce the cost of hard water treatment.
It comes with an easy feeder that automatically pours it directly into your brine well or salt tank to be present in the brine line through every regeneration cycle. Guaranteeing sustainable health of your resin tank.
Most water softener problems are easy to fix with a bit of knowledge about how they work. We, however, recommend prevention as opposed to remedy.
If you understand the quality of the water you are dealing with and the types and levels of contamination, you can take the appropriate steps to ensure your water softener is not struggling in the first place. If you do this and service it on time, you should have a lifetime supply of soft water at your disposal and you can avoid these common water softener problems.