Water Softener Maintenance Tips

Here’s how to clear salt bridges, make your softener salt last longer, correctly refill your softener system, drain your softener, and more!

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Salt bridging

When a hard crust of salt forms in the softener brine tank, it can create a “bridge” between the water and the fresh salt.

These salt bridges prevent salt from dissolving into the water supply and making the brine that’s needed to combat hard minerals.

Without this brine, the resin beads inside the mineral tank cannot effectively draw the hard minerals from your water.

Why do salt bridges form?

Salt bridges are a relatively common issue with water softeners and can occur at any time. However, certain conditions make them more likely. These include:

  • Changing or high humidity around the brine tank
  • Sharp temperature changes around the brine tank or in the water supply
  • Impure or non-pelleted salt

How do I know if my softener has salt bridges?

If your brine tank looks full but your system isn’t effectively softening water, a salt bridge may be preventing brine formation

Check the brine tank for any large, hardened sections of salt.

How do I fix salt bridging?

To remove salt bridges, simply use a broom handle or similar tool to break up the packed salt. Some pressure may be required, and you may need to be careful if your brine tank is made of plastic.

If bridging is happening a lot, get yourself a dedicated, clean salt-bashing stick.

Avoiding salt mushing

Salt mushing is similar to salt bridging, but it can be a more problematic issue if left unattended. It happens when salt that was previously dissolved recrystallizes at the bottom of the brine tank, forming a thick sludge that can clog valves and prevent the system from functioning optimally.

Some salt mush accumulation can also lead to further crystallization, creating a significant block stopping the softener regeneration process.

Why does salt mushing occur?

Again, salt mushing can happen in any system, but the quality of salt used and certain environmental conditions can make it more likely. These conditions include:

  • Sudden changes in air or water temperature
  • Impurities in the salt used

How do I know if my softener is experiencing salt mushing?

Like salt bridges, a visual inspection can reveal mushing. You can also press on the salt with a stick or broom handle—if it doesn’t break up with pressure, salt mushing might be happening.

How do I fix salt mushing?

If the salt mushing is minor, you may be able to scoop the salt formations from the bottom of the tank.

Otherwise, you’ll need to drain the softener system in order to remove and replace the old salt.

Choose the right salt for your softener to keep maintenance low

The best way to deal with common brine tank issues like salt mushing and salt bridging is to use high-quality softener salt. The best types of salt are made into pellets, which reduces the risk that they’ll crystalize into crust formations.

Here are the three types of water softener salt that most hardware stores have in stock:

Rock salt

Rock salt (or halite) is produced in salt mines and is usually the most inexpensive option. This is because it’s relatively impure and contains higher levels of impurities.

These impurities make crystallization more likely and can contaminant the brine tank, which reduces system performance.

Solar salt

Solar salt is farmed in large water pools. As a result, it’s purer and more soluble than rock salt, making it more suitable for brine tanks. Solar salt is usually available in pellet formats.

Evaporated salt

Evaporated salt is a more processed product than rock salt or solar salt, which makes it both purer and slightly more expensive.

With a 99.9% purity rating, evaporated salt is the most suitable salt for use in softener systems and should help to reduce brine tank maintenance, as well as the overall risk of clogging.

If you have very hard water (such as groundwater from a well), using a high-grade salt will help to increase the time between salt refills.

How to fill your softener brine tank

Your water softener’s brine tank (which is where you put the salt) should only need to be refilled around every two months. The exact refill schedule will depend upon two factors:

  • the hardness of your water, and
  • how efficiently your system utilizes brine

Most experts recommend checking on your brine tank levels and salt condition around once per month. Open the tank lid and ensure that the salt is submerged about an inch under the water.

Fill your brine tank somewhere between half-way and a few inches under the brim. This will help to ensure that older salt doesn’t sit in the system and begin to harden.

You also don’t want to constantly “top up” your salt levels, as keeping the salt constant at the same point in the tank may also encourage bridging. Before replenishing, let the levels fall naturally (but not empty entirely).

How to clean the main parts of your softener system

Cleaning the brine tank

The brine tank of your system is the part where salt mixes with water to form a saline solution, which the softener needs to demineralize hard water. It may be integrated into a single unit or be a separate, freestanding stank.

To clean accumulated salt crusts or contaminants from your brine tank, first turn off the system and initiate the bypass (if you have one) to divert the water supply.

Next, drain the water from the brine tank and survey the accumulation of hard salt and/or impurities.

Take as many components of the brine tank apart by hand as is convenient, then scrub them with a solution of water and dish soap. You can also use heavily diluted bleach.

A stiff brush or scouring pad is useful for this job.

Leave to dry, reassemble, and flush through before using again.

Cleaning the resin bed

Inside the mineral tank of your system is a resin bed. Made of small beads and coated in salt brine, this is the active site where the softener demineralizes water.

As hard mineral ions leave the water supply, they accumulate on the softener bed, creating a hard mineral layer. Periodically, the softener will enter a backwashing or generation phase to remove these hard minerals and replenish the resin be with fresh salt brine.

However, it’s also a good idea to manually flush out the resin bed every few months using a manufacturer-recommended cleaning solution. To do this, pour the liquid into the brine well and set your softener to regeneration mode.

Cleaning the venturi valve

The venturi valve is the part of your softening system responsible for drawing the saltwater solution from the brine tank into the mineral/resin tank. As a result, it’s one of the most common sources of clogging or contamination in water softeners of all kinds.

Clean the venturi valve by partially dissembling it and leaving it to soak in lukewarm, soapy water. You can also lightly scrub away any tough accumulation.

Setting softener regeneration cycles for low maintenance

In general, water softeners should regenerate every 3-7 days (or more frequently if your water is much harder than average).

Older or more basic level soften systems will have a regeneration timer, which sets the control valve to activate regeneration in set periods. Newer or more premium systems will have auto-modulating regeneration systems with sensors and microprocessors. This allows them to regenerate on-demand and maximize salt consumption efficiency.

Both types of regeneration systems usually allow for user programming. As you live with your softener, you’ll begin to get a sense of the optimal regeneration cycle for your needs.

(If your water softener is still new, head over to our page on water softener installation tips).

How do I set the right regeneration cycle for my water consumption habits?

Most water softeners have four regeneration settings. These are cycle frequency, cycle time, cycle length, and salt quantity.

Cycle frequency

Cycle frequency is probably the regeneration variable that homeowners will adjust the most. It determines how often the resin bed in the mineral tank is renewed with salt.

You’ll want to set this at a frequency where the resin bed is replenished before it becomes saturated with hard minerals, but not so often that you’re wasting salt. This is likely to be in the region of 2-4 days.

Cycle time

Cycle time is the time of day when regeneration/backwashing occurs. This should be set to a point in the day when water demands are at a minimum (such as during the night).

However, the regeneration cycles of some softeners can be noisy, so it’s important to take into account whether the noise will disturb sleep (if, say, the softener is fixed to a wall adjoining a bedroom).

Cycle length

Not all water softeners have a manual cycle length option, but if your system does, it can be an effective way to fine-tune efficiency.

Cycle length determines the length of the backwash, similar to how you might select the length of a dishwasher or laundry machine cycle. Shortening the regeneration cycle will mean that your softener is available to do its job for a higher proportion of the day.

However, setting the cycle too short may result in an improbably cleansed resin bed.

Salt quantity

The final of the four major cycle settings controls how much salt is dosed per regeneration cycle. This option is relevant if you feel that your system isn’t adequality demineralizing your water.

Adding more salt into the brine that covers the resin bed should give the softener performance. At the same time, increasing the salt dosage will mean more frequent refills.

My water softener isn’t regenerating – what should I do?

If you’ve fiddled with your softener’s cycle settings, but still feel that there’s an issue with regeneration, it may be due to one of these common reasons:

Your water pressure is too low or high

Measure the water pressure in your home—if it’s not matching the recommended pressure stated by your water softener installation guide, this could affect the regeneration process. Fixing this issue may require the installation of a pressure tank before the softener system.

Your system thinks the brine tank is empty

Even if your brine tank looks full upon inspection, a salt bridge or salt mushing may have occurred near the outlet of the tank, preventing the system from drawing brine into the mineral tank. If your softener contains flow sensors, it may interpret this situation as an empty brine tank, and cancel the regeneration process.

Another common reason that softeners incorrectly cancel the regeneration process is due to a faulty brine tank float switch. Ensure that the tank float switch is straight and able to move up and down.

Your softener is clogged and won’t stop regenerating

Lastly, if you’re Experientia regeneration woes, it may be that your system is stuck in a continual backwashing state due to a clogged valve.

A clogged drain line, brine valve, or injector/venturi valve can all affect the way in which brine enters and leaves the mineral tank, making the system think that it needs to restart regernation.

If you’re looking for more info on this topic, here’s our full article on water softener regeneration.