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How to Clean Your Water Softener System

Water softeners are designed to eliminate calcium and magnesium ions from your water. This prevents scale and mineral build-up in your appliances, promotes cleaner, brighter laundry, better drinking water, and just feels better on your skin and hair. However, your water softener system will eventually need cleaning and maintenance. Over time, iron and other minerals can build up in the resin tank and salt can potentially clump up. That can result in water hardness. Mold can eventually form in the tank, which can present some serious health issues.

These are things people tend to forget when they wonder how to choose a water softener. Regular cleaning and maintenance can also help you avoid more expensive repairs or complete breakdowns. For the uninformed, cleaning a water softener system can be intimidating or daunting, but it is much easier than you think. Learn how to clean a water softener tank below.

How Water Softeners Work

A water softener comprises a unit connected to the plumbing where your water enters your home. The unit uses a porous plastic resin tank, which attracts the calcium and magnesium ions as water flows through it. The process releases sodium ions to maintain the electrical charge in the resin. Over time, the sodium ions will release into the household, which can cause an excess concentration of calcium and magnesium ions to stick to the resin.

This is where the brine tank comes in. Every few days, the resin gets rinsed by a concentrated solution of saltwater from the brine tank. The saltwater covers the resin in sodium again while displacing and knocking loose the magnesium and calcium ions. The calcium, magnesium, and any excess saltwater get flushed down the drain, leaving your water softener back to normal.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of components at work here, which leaves a lot of room for potential cleanup and water softener maintenance issues. When considering the pros and cons of water softeners, the water softener maintenance is an essential thing to factor in.


Cleaning the Resin Tank

The resin tank is the main component of your water softening system. An unclean or malfunctioning resin tank can result in brown water appearing in your drinking water. That is usually a sign of iron, manganese, and other minerals building up in the resin tank. Iron is the plentiful mineral in the earth’s crust and is a common component found in groundwater. While you generally shouldn’t have to deal with iron from a municipal water supply, it can be common if you get your water from a well.

Water softeners are good at removing that iron from the water, but over time, the mineral can collect on the resin bed and discolor the water. Remember, as iron oxidizes, it turns into rust. The iron molecules also reduce the resin’s ability to soften water and can cause blockages. Eventually, your resin tank may not be able to remove iron or other minerals at all.

The good news is that you can clean iron out of your resin tank using an iron-removing cleaner. These are readily available at home goods stores. These cleansers work by altering the chemistry of the iron and rust, making them soluble in water, which allows the minerals to easily flush out of the water softening system.

The process usually involves pouring the resin cleaning solution directly into the water in the brine tank or brine well and starting a regeneration cycle. Read the instructions on the cleanser that you use. You generally want to keep running a regeneration cycle until the water runs clear and tastes clean. Heavy iron buildup in the resin will require multiple cycles.

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Cleaning the Brine Tank

  1. Shut off the water going to the water softener and unplugging all of the hoses connected to the brine tank.
  2. Drain the brine tank by either running a regeneration cycle or using a wet vacuum to remove all the water and remaining salt. This is also why it’s best to clean the brine tank before a salt refill.
  3. Mix a simple cleaning solution comprising a couple tablespoons of dishwashing liquid or detergent with up to two gallons of water. Avoid using any harsh chemicals. Gentle, natural ingredients are always better.
  4. Dip a bristle brush into the cleaning solution scrub the inside of the tank, focusing particularly on the base of the tank and any corners where salt might have accumulated.
  5. Rinse the tank out with clean water.
  6. Reconnect all of the hoses and plugs.
  7. Refill the brine tank with salt and water. Set the control valve to run a regeneration cycle that night.

You can use household bleach in lieu of a cleaning solution to clean and rinse your tank. Short-term exposure to bleach should not have any drastic effects on the resin beads, and bleach can work effectively to sanitize your system and eliminate any bacteria. However, make sure you heavily dilute the bleach. Strong concentrations of bleach will degrade the resin beads and potentially wear down components in the tank. You generally want to stick with about 50-100 mg of bleach for every liter of water.

Bleach can also be used to break down any mold in either of your tanks. Some water softener units allow you to run a “bleach cycle”, but make sure you read the owner’s manual.

Salt Bridges and Salt Mushing

One of the most common issues in a brine tank is the formation of a salt bridge. Salt bridges are essentially a crust appearing on top of the salt. While all the salt below gets used up normally, the salt bridge remains, which also creates the illusion that your brine tank is full. This can lead to people not refilling their brine tanks, which results in resin beads that are rinsed only with water.

Salt bridges can form based on a variety of factors, including humidity, overfilling the brine tank, or simply using the wrong type of salt. To clean out salt bridges, shut off the water going into your water softener system and break down the crust using a broom handle, mop, or whatever tool you have handy. Scoop out the chunks of the salt bridge as the water is generally unable to dissolve larger pieces of salt. Vacuum out all of the water and salt remaining in the tank before refilling the tank with salt and running a regeneration cycle.

Along with salt bridges, you may experience salt mush comprising a thick gunk forming at the bottom of the brine tank. This sludge comprises salt impurities that have not fully dissolved in the water. As it accumulates, salt mush can obstruct the water intake valve in the brine tank, which can eventually cause the tank to overflow. Salt sludge can also prevent the resin beads from getting properly recharged with sodium ions.

There isn’t an easy or pretty way to clean out salt sludge. You will have to scoop out all the sludge and then perform a general brine tank cleaning.

When you ask yourself “how much is a water softener system”, make sure that you also consider the cleaning and maintenance necessary. Cleaning out your water softener tanks is not difficult or pricey, but it is necessary to extend the life of your water softener system and ensure clean, soft water throughout your home.