15 Most Common Water Softener Problems and How to Troubleshoot

In the USA, a shocking 80% of people have to deal with hard water. According to the USGS, many Americans are worried about hard water because it shortens the lifespan of their plumbed appliances.

In my experience, people also care about the taste and feel of their water, as well as hard water’s harshness on skin (especially for kids).

Given all that, it’s not surprising that a USBR survey 25% of homes polled had a water softener installed. 

Home water softeners make the water you wash with, wash your clothes with and even drink, softer and more usable. 

Whether you live in a super hard water area, or just have sensitive skin (or kids with sensitive skin) your water softener is probably pretty important to your quality of life if you’re used to it!

That means it’s pretty annoying when there are problems that lead to your softener breaking down, working less well than usual, making strange noises, or otherwise misbehaving.

Not to worry!

I’m here to help, with fifteen of the most common water softener issues fully explained and instructions on how to fix them.

1. Salt Bridges

Salt bridges are hard crusts of salt that form in the brine tank. This salt then doesn’t dissolve, and neither does any salt added later. Thus, your "brine" is just water, and doesn’t soften anything!

It can be hard to tell if you have a salt bridge. According to the manual for a Whirlpool water softener, you can work out if there’s a salt bridge in your brine tank simply by having a poke around in there (gently!) with a broom handle or similar implement. 

You can break up a salt bridge, which will help temporarily, but salt bridges are often a recurring issue when you use too much salt or the wrong kind of salt for your softener set-up and water. When you have fixed your salt bridge, look into the type and amount of salt you are regularly using.

2. Water That Tastes Salty

Although salty water is unpleasant, most softener salt manufacturers assure customers that their softener salt is safe for consumption. 

All the same, It’s not exactly ideal. You don’t want salty water for cooking, drinking and cleaning! According to the plumbing gurus at InspectAPedia, salt in your water can also be harmful if you’re on a low-sodium diet, and isn’t good for infants or the elderly. 

So, why is your water salty and how do you fix it? Well, the most likely culprit is a clogged drain hose that isn’t allowing proper sluicing and drainage. Check your hose, and unclog it if necessary and your problem should be fixed! 

If your water is still salty, check that your softener’s regeneration cycle is running properly. 

The final factor to take into consideration is the mineral makeup of the water going into your softener system. If it’s naturally heavy in minerals, then the additional salts from your softener may push your water into the realm of ‘funny taste’ or ‘salty taste’ even if your softener is working normally.

3. Water in the Salt Tank

The salt tank (otherwise known as the brine tank) should only have a few inches of water at the bottom of it. This is a common issue, and why is it common? 

Because there are a whole series of reasons your brine tank water level might be too high!

According to an online inspection guide, there are eight potential issues you should check for.

  1. Your water softener injector may be clogged. You need to remove it and clean it out.
  2. Water softener valve seals may be leaking - they will need to be replaced.
  3. The pistons in your system may be damaged or worn - they may need to be replaced or serviced.
  4. Your water softener’s drain line may be clogged. Check for obstructions, and try to flush or clean them out.
  5. The water supply in your building may be at an unusually low pressure, or your drain line is routed too high so that your softener system isn’t draining properly. If the issue is poor water pressure, you may need to contact your local council or your water provider.
  6. Tubing within your brine tank may be clogged. Check for obstructions.
  7. Your backwash flow controller is clogged or damaged - it may just need cleaning, or it may need replacing.
  8. Your float controller may be stuck, clogged or broken - you might need to replace it.

4. Low Water in Your Brine Tank

Just like high-water issues in the brine tank, low water in your brine tank can be caused by a variety of problems in your water softener system. If in doubt, get a professional to take a look, but do remember that the brine tank should never be full of water - the level is supposed to be quite low. 

If the water level seems to be causing issues, however, your brine tank’s float may be stuck. This can usually be fixed by cleaning the float mechanics.

5. Your Water Softener is Losing Resin Beads

Resin beads are important! They do the work of actually removing minerals from your water to soften it, and are cleaned periodically by the brine in your brine tank.

You might occasionally see these yellow or orange beads in your toilet, sink, or anywhere else in your plumbing system. A few intact beads isn’t a problem, but finding a lot of them indicates that a distribution basket or strainer within your system is broken. You will need to find the problem area and replace that basket or strainer.

Smaller pieces of debris coming out of your faucets or showerheads (probably pieces of bead rather than whole beads) are a sign that your resin is deteriorating and needs to be replaced.

Whatever size the resin debris is, if there’s a substantial amount of it you should give your pipes and hoses the once over to check for blockages. Resin can build up inside your system and cause it to run slowly or break entirely.

6. The Softener Isn’t Regenerating

During a regeneration cycle, your water softener should be flushing out all the minerals it has been catching from your hard water. This leaves space for more minerals to be caught, allowing the softener to work effectively.

You can check that your system is regenerating by setting the regeneration timer and listening to see if it kicks in when it should. If not, the problem may be with your timer, which will likely need to be replaced. 

Remember, the unit being accidentally turned off or a general power failure will reset your timer and you’ll need to manually set it to your desired intervals again.

7. Low Water Pressure

If your water pressure seems like it has become lower, and that the slow-down happens somewhere within your water softener, there is probably a clog or buildup in your softener’s system.

It could be caused by a few things. These include an iron or sediment buildup in the water softener supply tubing, and iron buildup in the control head, or resin buildup in your faucets, showerheads or within the system’s strainer. 

Cleaning each of these parts and flushing the piping system should help. You could also try increasing the frequency of your water softener’s regeneration cycle, and adding mineral cleaner to the water softener’s mineral bed.

8. Operation Errors

Operation errors can be big or small, and can mess up all sorts of processes within your water softener. Perhaps your unit is new, or maybe a power cut returned it to factory settings and you’ve found yourself lost staring at its manual controls. 

The good news is, if you’ve lost the manual for your specific model you can probably either find a copy online or find Youtube videos to help you fix specific problems.

Before you do that, let’s think about what could be wrong. 

Most water softeners require several manual setup steps. You need to set the time of day, the regeneration cycle frequency, the water hardness (you should test your water to find out how hard it is before you do this, and often you can choose the type of salt you’re using too.

All of this should be easy enough to work out, though you may opt for some trial and error with your regeneration cycle frequency.

I always find it’s best to jot down the presets I need on a post-it or in a journal so that if they’re ever lost I can easily punch them in again without too much hassle.

9. Your Water Softener Tank is Leaking

A leaking brine or resin tank is usually pretty obvious - you can tell you’ve got a problem because of the big puddle of water on the floor!

If your brine tank is leaking and your water softener is only a few months or years old, then check whether it is still within warranty. If you got a faulty tank, you may well be entitled to a new one.

If, however, you think you probably caused the leak yourself (for example, you just cleaned out a salt bridge and weren’t exactly careful with the tool you dug around in the tank with) then you’ll be pleased to know you can also probably fix it yourself.

Your best bet for a solid fix is using epoxy, which according to the book Epoxy Resins: Chemistry and Technology, is corrosion and stress resistant. 

Before applying epoxy you will need to empty, clean and prep the surface of your tank.

10. Your Regeneration Cycle is Stuck "on"

If your water softener regeneration cycle seems to be running constantly the cause may be mechanical or electrical. 

Firstly, check that there are no stuck switches that are obviously causing the problem. After that, you can check the brine tank float as a stuck float may stop the softener drawing brine from the tank, which in-turn would cause the unit to continually attempt regeneration. If it’s not the float, it could also be a clogged line. Cleaning and flushing will usually fix these problems.

Slightly more complicated issues that could cause a stuck "on" regeneration cycle include a water softener drain that won’t stop running, or a broken circuit. Check your water softener drain, and check the control head for debris and leaks.

If it’s not the drain, the issue is probably electrical and you may need to replace a part.

11. Air is Being Released From Your Plumbing Fixtures

Does it sound like your faucets are coughing, your shower is sneezing, and your toilet is banging a drum every time you use them? That’s probably air in your plumbing!

If it’s a problem with your water softener, it will usually happen after a water softener regeneration cycle. It indicates an issue with the air check valve on the brine tube within the brine tank. You need to go in and check this valve, tightening or cleaning it if it seems loose or gunked up. 

There’s a good chance this is a wider plumbing issue, so check the air check valve on your brine tube first (and cross your fingers, as this is the easiest to fix issue), and then begin investigating your water tank or well.

12. Making Funny Noises

Water softeners should run relatively quietly, though usually you can hear the regeneration cycle if you’re close by. So, if yours starts making a racket all of a sudden then there’s probably something wrong!

There are a number of reasons that could explain a noisy water softener, but the most common are clogged lines or valves, broken air-valves or a timer that has… well… had its time.

In particular a water softener distributor tube that has come loose or been damaged can be pretty noisy, so check that first. After that, check the valves and timer. Anything clogged can be cleaned or flushed, but a defective timer will need to be replaced.

13. Electrical or Power Issues

As with all electrical issues, you may just need to rewire a shorted out plug. Try this before you try anything else. You should also check all connections, and make sure any switches on the water softener itself are in the ‘on’ position, 

With water softeners, a total loss of function (the water softener just ‘dying’) is usually caused by motor failure. This is a big issue, and the motor within your softener will probably need to be replaced. 

If this is the case, then check your warranty! You may be entitled to a new unit, or entitled to your current unit being repaired for free.

14. Your Water is Still Hard!

As you might imagine, there are a whole host of reasons for a water softener not doing its number one job and softening water. 

Before you do anything else, check that your water softener is not in bypass mode (this would mean that no water is entering the unit to be softened), as sometimes a bypass switch can be easily knocked to an on position or left on after the water softener has been cleaned or repaired. 

If that looks good, check your tanks and lines for scale, iron buildup and debris. Cleaning and flushing the system should get rid of any issues like this. 

A salt bridge in your brine tank could also be the underlying problem, so check for those. 

Finally, if your water softener has never worked well or if your family circumstances have changed lately (extra household members because of visitors, new roommates or family members moving in, or simply existing family members spending more time at home and using more water) it could be the case that your water softener simply doesn’t cut it any longer!

In other words, it may not be able to keep up with your family’s water usage. Alternatively, if this has been an ongoing issue since you got your softener, it might be that your water is too hard to be fully softened by your water softener. You might need a more powerful piece of equipment.

15. Your Water Smells Bad

Although there are a few different contamination issues that could lead to unpleasant smelling water, the most common is growth of sulphide bacteria. These bacteria produce hydrogen sulphide, which smells like rotten eggs and will make your water smell like them too!

You will definitely need to clean out your water softener if you encounter this problem, but it is best to seek professional advice. The Minnesota Department of Health advises calling the manufacturer or your own local health department. 

A rotten egg smell may well be caused by your water softener, but it could also be bacteria elsewhere in the system. Use this as a guide:

Final Thoughts

The problems in this list of fifteen water softener problems may seem varied, but if you look carefully you’ll see that water softeners breaking down can often be avoided with proper maintenance. 

Generally, you should check salt levels in your brine tank once a month. If there are salt bridges, break them up, and if there’s a lot of salt mush stir it to help dissolve some of it into brine.

If you want your system to last as long as possible, avoid using rock salt (unless your manual specifies that you should) as both solar and evaporated salt are more pure and will help your water softener last longer.

If you have a new water filter, it only needs to be cleaned about every five years. However, older models may need annual cleaning.

Overall, just keep an eye on things! Catching issues with your water softener early may well help you to avoid far more costly issues (right up to needing to replace the whole system) later on.

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