Water Softener Troubleshooting Guide – Problems & Repair

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Most households depend on hard water to clean, cook, drink, shower and complete many other tasks in the house.

However, hard water contains minerals that destroy appliances in the house such as dishwasher, coffee makers and water heaters, it also leaves scums build ups on utensils, kitchen and bathroom walls and curtains making them look discolored.

Hard water also causes clogging in water pipes causing a decrease in water pressure, makes ones’ hair and skin feel itchy dry out faster after a shower.

In addition, while doing your laundry, you will need more detergents, since hard water does not lather easily. Hard water is one of the major water quality problems facing most households.

To solve the problem, most people have water softener equipment fitted in the water system of their houses. A water softener helps to save the cost of continually changing prematurely ruined house appliances, and hours of scrubbing and removing soapy residues in the house.

Water Softener Troubleshooting Guide
Water Softener Troubleshooting Guide

Water softener is a filtration system that removes water hardness, caused by presence of magnesium and calcium minerals in the water, through a process known as ion exchange.

When water is pumped into a water softener system, it flows through a series of plastic resin beads that are made from polystyrene and are charged with sodium ion.

The resin beads are anions, have a negative charge, that attract the cations, positive charge, in calcium and magnesium minerals. As water flows through the resin beads, calcium and magnesium minerals ions are removed from the water and sodium ions are released.

The resin beads remove all water hardness and softened water is pumped into your home water system for use.

Components of a Water Softener System

A water softener system is made of three major components. These components help to remove water hardness, as well as clean the water softener system in a process known as regeneration process. The components include;

Mineral Tank

This is where hard water is pumped into first. The mineral tank contains the bed of resin beads that are charged with sodium ions. It is in this chamber that hard water is softened and pumped out through pipes into your tap or house appliances.

Control Valve

The control valve regulates and measures the amount of hard water that is passing from the mineral tank into the house. As hard water is converted into soft water, the resin beads wears off over time reducing their capacity to soften water.

The control valve initiates the regeneration process once a certain amount of water has passed through the mineral tank. The control valve is automatically set to initiate the process after a certain amount of hard water has been softened.

Brine Tank

The brine tank helps in the process of regeneration. It contains salt or potassium solution that restores resin beads’ positive charge. Once the control valve initiates regeneration process, the salt solution is drawn from the brine tank and flowed through the mineral tank to recharge the beads. Salt or potassium solution is manually added into the brine tank.

How do you know if the water softener system is working properly?

Just like any other electrical appliances, water softener system is also prone to malfunction. To know if your water softener system is functioning properly, you need to test whether the output water from the system is soft or hard.

You can test this on your own using a testing kit that is readily available at stores, without getting a professional. First, test water hardness before passing through the water softener system, then test the output water after going through the softening process.

While testing for water hardness, you are checking the level of calcium carbonate in the water. This is measured in ppm (parts per million) or mg/l (grains per gallon). If the concentration of calcium carbonate in the output water is below 60 mg/l, then the water is soft and the water softener filter is working properly.

However, if the concentration level of calcium carbonate in the output water is above 60mg/l, then the water is still hard and the system may not be functioning properly.

Why is Water Softener Not Working?

Before running into conclusions that your water softener needs to be replaced, it is important to check some possible reasons why it may not be working. Below things to check when the softener is not working;

Water softener connected the wrong way

If you just purchased a new water softener system, then make sure it is connected correctly. Incorrect installation by the plumber is the main reason why some water softener systems fail to work.

Water softener not plugged in

Most water softener systems use power. Make sure your system is properly plugged in and the outlet is turned on.

Little or no salt in the brine tank

For your system to perform regeneration process and keep it working properly, you need to have salt or potassium in the brine tank. If the system is not softening the water, check if there is enough salt in the brine tank.

Also, check if the salt is in a solution form or if it has formed a crust beneath brine tank. If it has, then break it.

Control valve is not recording water flow

The water valve measures the amount of water flowing into the system. Once a certain amount of water has flowed through the water softener system, the valve starts a water regeneration process. Check if the valve is recording water flow properly by opening any faucet.

Incorrect display of time and day

If you have been experiencing constant power outages, it is possible for the softener head to display incorrect time of day, which may cause a malfunction of your system. Check the softener head, if it displays incorrect time, then adjust it accordingly.

Leaking water softener

Leaking can be caused by improper installation or poor maintenance which can result in the water system not working properly. Some of the most common spot where leaking may occur is the bypass valve that is fitted with round rings that need to be lubricated from time to time.

Leaking will not only cause your system not to function properly, but it can also be dangerous for you because it can cause electric shock. Make sure your system is installed properly and there are regular maintenance routines.

How to Manually Regenerate a Water Softener?

After doing a thorough check of your system and you realize everything is working properly, then there is one more thing that you can do, regenerate your system manually. The water softener system contains resin beads that help to soften the water.

These resins needs to undergo through the process of regeneration, in order to recharge them. If water consumption in your house is higher compared to the supply, then the softener stops working after it reaches its capacity.

Instead of waiting for the scheduled time to regenerate, you can manually regenerate system.

To regenerate the softener manually, add salt into the brine tank. If the system does not function properly still, then it is time to troubleshoot your system

How to Repair a Water Softener?

A water softener contains different parts that function together to make the system provide soft water. Each of those parts are prone to wear and tear, therefore when repairing your system, it is important to thoroughly check which part is broken. Below are guidelines on how to repair different parts of a water softener;

Motor failure

The motor may fail due to one reason or the other. If the motor fails, then the best choice is to replace it.

Misconfigured or broken timer

Make sure you have set your softener’s timer to show the correct time and day of the week. A misconfigured timer could lead to the system not working properly. You can learn how to configure the timer set by set from the user manual bought with the system.

However, if the timer is broken, then you have to replace it. To know if the timer is broken, set it to start regeneration process daily, if the system does not automatically regenerate at the set time, then it is most likely broken, and needs to be replaced.

Blocked drain hose

If the water softener system is not draining the salty water properly, then the drain hose may be blocked. Clean the drain pipe to unblock it and allow saltwater to draw during recharge.

Moreover, if the drain pipe is positioned in an elevated manner, reposition it to allow the unit drain appropriately.

Unclean mineral tank

The mineral tank is made of resin beads that are charged with positive ions. If the resin beads are clean, then the system will function properly. However, as hard water passes through the mineral tank, different types of materials are deposited at the bottom of the resin bed making it dirty and foul.

As a result, the output water may look cloudy, with an odor and contain a different taste. If this is the case with your softener, then clean the mineral tank and sanitize it properly to get clean, odorless and tasteful water. In addition, a dirty mineral tank may be as a result of long breaks between regeneration process, then lessen the time between the regeneration phases to ensure the tank is always clean.

Too little water in the brine tank

As the softener is allowing water to pass through for softening, then some water needs to flow into the brine tank as well to allow the regeneration process. If too little water, or no water is flowing into the brine tank, then this could affect the regeneration cycle.

Check the float switch if it is working properly, easily switch up and down, but if it is not moving easily, then the brine tank needs to be cleaned, or the switch needs to be replaced. Moreover, check if the brine valve or tube are blocked, if they are, then clean them thoroughly.

Excess water in the brine tank

Too little water in the brine tank is an issue, but also, too much water in the brine tank is a problem as well. Too much water will affect the softener from recharging properly. Drain the brine tank manually and clean it carefully later to solve high water levels in the tank.

In addition, check if the float switch is working properly or if the brine valve and brine tube are blocked. Excess water in the brine tank may also be as a result of low or high water pressure. Adjust the pressure accordingly to meet the softener’s requirement.

Salt bridge in the brine tank

Salt bridging is a condition where salt forms a hard crust at the bottom of the brine tank. This inhibits the salt from getting dissolved into the water, therefore, affecting the regeneration process.

To repair this issue, use a hard object to crush the salt bridge, then start a manual regeneration process afterwards, to recharge the water.

Salt may also get dissolved in the water to form a thick muddy layer that accumulates at the bottom of the tank. This may increase water levels in the tank which will affect the regeneration process.

Clean the tank properly and remove the mushy solution then fill the tank with water and salt to function properly.

Loud hissing noises

A water softener that operates with a loud hissing sound does not necessarily mean the system is broken. The softener makes a low humming sound especially during the regeneration process that mostly happens at night, when it is too quiet.

However, if the noises are getting louder with time, then you should check for worn out timer, damaged air valve or blocked valves and tubes.

A water softener system solves most water problems in the house. However, like any other system, a softener is prone failure at times. Once you realize the system is not working, do the basic checks first before dismantling the softener for further troubleshooting.

You can troubleshoot and repair your system locally, or you can hire a company to repair the softener for you. Trained personnel will diagnose and fix your softener quickly at a cost.


This is George, the Aquaman, editor at AquaMantra. I'm a water quality analyst by profession, and used to work at one of the largest water bottler company.
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