Residential water softener with incicator levels for adding more salt

Water Softener Maintenance 101 (Checklist)

Hard water can cause you a lot of trouble in your home. It can reduce the lifespan of your water-based appliances and clog your pipes, lowering your water flow and making your water heater less effective. It can also interfere with your soap, causing your dishes and glassware to have white spots on them.

Hard water is defined as water containing high levels of calcium and magnesium. These are often described as hard minerals and can cause limescale buildup in your pipes and appliances, making it harder for water to pass through.

This is where water-softening systems come in. A water treatment system of this kind will interact with the hard minerals in your water supply and flush them out, making sure they do not stick to your pipes and harm your appliances. If you are willing to do the proper maintenance (which should only be done about once a year, if it is done right), then a machine like this should last you up to 20 years, depending on your water hardness.

Homeowners across America have found that regular maintenance can help keep not only your water softener, but every other water-based appliance in your home (hot water heaters, washing machines, dishwashers) lasting longer, and working better. It is, however, extremely important to also make sure they are properly installed.

For this reason, we have put together this basic checklist with maintenance tips that can go through when you are doing water softener maintenance, so you can make sure you are doing the best you can to keep with your water-softening-system needs.

The upper tank of a water softener system.

As it is with any other appliance, it’s best to read the instruction manual so you don’t accidentally do something wrong when servicing your water softener.

Water Softener Maintenance Checklist

Pre-tip: Read Your Water Softener’s Instructions Manual

Different manufacturers often have specific directions for how you need to do maintenance on their product. This is why it is important to read your product’s instructions manual to make sure you are not supposed to do any additional things to the ones we have listed below. If you do not have your instructions manual anymore, you might be able to find the information you need on the manufacturer’s website or by calling their customer service phone number.

Step #1: Check your Water Softener’s Salt Levels

Your water softener uses an ion exchange process in order to break down the hard minerals in your water. For your water softener to do this, it requires salt. So it is important to make sure that your salt levels are what they should be, especially if you have high levels of hard water minerals. On average, you should check your softener’s salt levels at least every 4 to 6 weeks.

In order to check your water softener’s salt levels, you should direct yourself to the brine tank in your machine. That is where the sodium (salt) ions exchange with calcium and magnesium to create soft water so that is where you should fill up your softener with salt.

All you need to do is lift up your brine tank lid and throw in the salt pellets until you can no longer see any water in the tank. This means that you should fill up the tank about 2/3 full, or at least 3 inches above the waterline. There are also different types of salt you can use, so it is important to talk about which type you should fill up your tank with. There are three types of water softener salt, which are called rock salt, solar salt, and evaporated salt.

Rock salt is the least expensive type, but it is also the least effective. Rock salt contains some insoluble minerals that can lower your softener’s ability to soften water and also result in a muddy tank that needs cleaning more often than other types of salt. Solar salt (also known as sea salt) comes from evaporated seawater and is on average 99,6 percent pure.

This means it is more soluble than rock salt and more effective for your water softener. Finally, evaporated salt comes from mining and evaporation and it is 99,9 percent sodium chloride (which is the necessary ingredient for the ion exchange process). This means it is the purest and most effective option, but also the most expensive.

As mentioned above, it is important to read your product’s instructions manual so you know which type of salt works best for your water softener. One way (and the easiest way) to tell that your salt levels are low, in case you forget to check every 4 to 6 weeks, is to look for cloudy film on your glassware or to see if your soap will not lather. This is a good indicator that you might need to fill up your tank with more salt.

Step #2: Break Up Any Salt Bridges

A salt bridge can sometimes happen in your water softener. Salt bridging can be caused by high humidity, temperature changes, or by using the wrong type of salt for your product. A salt bridge happens when a hard crust forms inside your system’s brine tank. This creates an empty space between the water and the salt and makes it so that the salt can not dissolve into the water to make the brine, which is responsible for the ion exchange process that will soften your water.

This is the kind of maintenance that you only have to do about once every year. In order to test for any salt bridges inside of the tank, you can take a broom handle and gently push on the top of the salt to break up anything that may have solidified. If you notice that there is something hard that is not the bottom (or the sides) of the brine tank itself, then you have found a salt bridge.

If you find a salt bridge, then you will need to turn off the water in your water softener (you can do this from the incoming faucet or by using the bypass valve). Then you can either use your broom handle or something sharper and heavier, depending on how hard the salt bridge is and by tapping it, you should be able to break it up.

Then you will want to remove the loose salt pellets from the top by scooping them up and throwing them away. You can then use either a wet or a dry vacuum in order to remove the water from the tank. After this process is complete, then you can fill the brine tank back up with salt at 2/3 of the tank capacity.

You can then turn the water back on and add about ten inches of water. Alternatively, you can add the water in first and then add the salt until it is about 3 inches above the waterline. Then, all you need to do is wait for the water softener to regenerate (a process which will be explained below).

Step #3: Dissolve the Mush

Salt mushing is a process that happens when the dissolved salt recrystallizes and creates a sludge at the bottom of your brine tank. If you are in the process of checking for a salt bridge, find something but you are unable to break it up, then you are most likely dealing with salt mushing.

This kind of issue can prevent your water softener from going through its regeneration process and so it is extremely important that you take care of it if you find it. In order to take care of it, you will need to drain the tank and dig out the mush on the bottom of the brine tank, as well as replace it with fresh salt and water. You can refer to the next step on this list for how to properly clean a brine tank.

View of inside of brine tank

The brine tank is where a highly concentrated solution of salt or potassium is stored

Step #4: Clean your Brine Tank

This is yet another step that you only have to do when you are doing your yearly water softener maintenance. It should be more than enough to do it only once a year, however, if you forget or put it off for too long, the salt in your water softener can turn into sludge and make cleaning it much more difficult.

First, you will need to locate a place in which to dump out the brine tank, such as a pit or a gravel bed in your yard. If the tank is too heavy, you might need to find something to scoop out the salt in your tank so you can lift it off of the remaining machinery. Then, you will need to put the system in bypass mode, unplug your water softener and disconnect your brine tank from the valve assembly.

Once you have emptied the tank, you have to disassemble it in order to clean it. You will need to remove a piece called the salt plate and clean it off in your sink with cold water and dish soap. To clean the rest of the tank, you will need to mix dishwashing product and water in a bucket, pour the mixture into the tank and scrub it with a brush.

To rinse it off, get a water hose and make sure all of the soap is out of the tank. Then, you want to get around 4 to 5 liters of clean water, mix it with one-fourth cup of either regular household bleach or vinegar, and pour it into the brine tank. Once you have done this, you should let the water mixture sit in the tank for at least 15 minutes.

After this, you can scrub it one more time with a brush, then dump the water mixture out and rinse it one more time with a hose. After you are done with the cleaning process, you can put the system back together by reassembling the salt plate and putting it back into the main water softener, as well as plugging the system back in and connecting it to the water lines.

Then you can take the system out of bypass mode. At this point, you can fill the water softener brine tank back up with five gallons of clean water, adding also at least two 50 pound bags of salt to it as well. As mentioned above, you need to make sure that the salt is at least three inches above the water level.

You will need to wait at least two hours before regenerating can take place again. Regeneration is the process through which the water softener flushes out the hard minerals to get ready to soften new water. This means you should wait until you begin the regeneration process, so the salt has time to dissolve into the water and have the ability to completely flush out the hard minerals from the resin.

The entirety of this process, although fairly time-consuming, should really only need to be done once a year and can absolutely improve the lifespan of your water softener. So it is incredibly important that you make sure you get this done once a year. If you do not wish to go through this process, you can also flush it with a quality water softener cleaner that you can buy from the manufacturer. This is a more expensive process but can save you some time, so if you choose to do so, you should consult your manufacturer about the correct product to use.

Step #5: Add A Pre-filter If You Do Not Have One

Oftentimes, your water will not only have hard minerals such as calcium and magnesium, but it will also have harmful contaminants, such as sediment, iron, clay, sand, organic compounds, as well as other impurities that can damage not only your water softener but also your health. This is why adding a pre-filter that gets rid of these impurities can be a great idea for both you and your appliances.

Many water softeners do come with a water filter installed already, and if you are considering getting a water softener and do not already have one, you should definitely go for a model with an embedded pre-filter. However, if you already do have a water softener and it does not have a pre-filter, it is recommended you try and get one for your system. It is important to note that these products can be a little bit more difficult to install DIY, so if you do not have great plumbing skills, you might want to call in a professional to do it for you.

Step #6: Know How And When to Clean Your Resin Tank

If your water softener seems to be turning your drinking water brown, then it might be time to clean out your resin tank. If your water is turning brown, then this likely means that there is an excessive iron buildup in your resin bed, so you will need to rinse the iron out so the resin beads can continue to reduce the hardness of your water.

As mentioned in the step above, the installation of a filtration system in your water softener will help reduce the amount of iron going through your water system and might help you avoid this step for longer. In order to clean out iron residue in your resin tank, you will need to get a specific cleaning product for it.

You will need to contact the manufacturer to see which product they recommend you use on their product. Typically, you will only need to replace your resin tank every 10-15 years, although this will depend on the hardness of your water and the types as well as the amounts of chemicals (such as iron and chlorine) that are present in it.

Bonus Tip: Schedule A Professional To Service Your Softener

It is never a bad idea to call in a professional plumber to check up on your water softener every few years. If you keep up with its regular maintenance needs, you will only need to have a professional look at it every 2 to 3 years, although it can last longer without it if you are treating it well.

If you would want to call in a professional to take care of maintenance also, then you can call for annual service, which should only cost you between 40 to 100 dollars. If you need a repair it can cost you between 150 to 600 dollars, depending, of course, on the type of issue that needs fixing.

How Can I Tell If My Water Softener Is Malfunctioning?

It is also important to be able to tell if something is wrong that you or a professional will need to fix. So here are some of the most common signs something is wrong with your water softener:

  • Crusty pipes
  • Discolored or brown water
  • Soap that will not lather
  • A change in your water’s taste

These are all signs that you are dealing with hard water, meaning your water softener is not doing its job of softening your water properly. There are additional things to look out for that are not effects of hard water but can also indicate a problem with your water softener system:

  • Low water pressure
  • Leaking around the tank
  • Loud noises from the system
  • The system runs constantly or not at all

Final Thoughts

If you are more of a visual learner, check out this fun video that shows how to get through maintenance on your water softener.

Joshua Perkins

Joshua spent ten years as a water systems technician in California before settling down with his wife and two young children in Nashville in 2018. Through all of his experience, he learned the benefits and shortfalls of so many different types of water filtration systems, from pitchers to whole-house installations. He started Water Filter Authority in 2019 to empower other families to make the right decision for their long-term health and wellness.