How to Tell if Your Water Softener is Working (11 Key Signs)

Just installed a water softener? Wondering whether that unusual sound is a good or a bad sign? Considering live-chatting with customer service?

Check out this article first – you should find the answers you’re looking for.

It can be difficult to differentiate between a healthy water softener and a malfunctioning water softener if you’re not sure what signs to look for. In this quick guide, we’ll be sharing the key signs that a water softener is working properly.

💦 Water Softening: The Basics

First thing’s first, to know that your water softener is working, you need to know how a water softener works on a good day.

The traditional water softener performance goes like this:

  1. The water softener resin beads are flushed with salty water from the brine tank. The salt (sodium) is attracted to the resin and sticks to its surface.
  2. When water flows through the resin tank, salt leaves the resin beads, and water hardness minerals take the salt’s place. This is known as ion exchange.
  3. Eventually, the salt level inside the resin is too low for the ion exchange process to occur. The softener flushes the water hardness minerals out of the resin tank, then sends more salty water from the brine tank into the resin bed. This is known as regeneration.
Ion exchange process
Ion Exchange Process

The softening process is pretty self-sufficient. As long as you add salt to the brine tank, the system should continue to follow the cycle of softening and regenerations, producing softened water for years – decades, even.

But sometimes, things can go wrong. And to check whether things aren’t working, you need to know how they should work.

📰 Signs your Water Softener is Working Properly

A water softener working properly will display the following signs:

Reduced Scale Buildup (Or None at All!)

The purpose of a water softener is to prevent mineral buildup on your pipes, appliances, toilets, sinks, shower screens, and so on. If your kitchen and bathroom are sparkling and scale-free, there’s a good chance that your water softener is working properly.

limescale before after water softener install

Softened Water Taste

Softened water has a smooth, unique, almost salty taste that is completely different from the taste of hard water. You will have noticed the difference in your water’s taste immediately after installing your water softener. This taste tells you that your water softener is working properly.

Easy-to-Lather Water

If you can’t tell whether your softener is working from taste or appearance alone, do the soap test. Add a squeeze of dish soap and water from your faucet to a bottle with a lid. Close the lid and shake the bottle. If the water is clear, with a layer of fluffy, white bubbles on top, you have soft water – and your water softener is working properly.

Soft, Bright Laundry

Washing your laundry in soft water will produce a much better result than using hard water. A good sign that your softener is working is soft, bright laundry after washing.

Related: Our List of the Best Water Softener Systems in 2022

⚠️ Signs your Water Softener Isn’t Working

On the other end, here are the signs that suggest something isn’t right with your water softener:

Mineral Deposits

Water softeners should near-enough eliminate scale formation. If you notice mineral deposits collecting around your faucets and on your showerheads, your water softener probably isn’t softening your water as effectively – if at all.

Limescale in home

Sticky Skin after Washing

Water softeners give water a smooth, silky feel. If your water softener isn’t working, your skin will feel sticky after washing, and your hair will feel brittle, too. This is a sign of hard water in your home.

Water Tastes Salty

Soft water should have a mildly salty taste that some people can detect. But if your water tastes saltier than usual, it’s likely that too much salt is getting into your water supply. Consult your user manual to resolve the issue.

Scratchy, Dull Laundry

Using hard water to wash your laundry results in scratchy, stiff, dull clothes. Water softeners should leave your laundry feeling soft – if this isn’t the case, there may be an issue with your softener.

No Salt in the Brine Tank

Sorry to say, but an empty brine tank is usually the fault of the owner, not the water softener itself. How much salt should be in the brine tank at any time? At least 1/3 of the tank should contain salt to allow for regeneration. Make sure you’re checking the brine tank at least once every four weeks and adding salt pellets when necessary.

No Noises from the Softener

Water softeners are quiet most of the time, but they hum when they’re regenerating. If you can’t hear a peep from your water softener, it might not be working at all.

Reduced Water Pressure

Most softeners won’t cause a noticeable dip in your water pressure. If you’ve noticed that your water flow has slowed down significantly, you could be dealing with a malfunctioning water softener.

Slow water flow

📝 How to Know if your Water Softener is Regenerating Properly

There are a few ways to check that your softener is properly regenerating:

  • You can hear the system regenerating. This is a sure sign that your softener is working correctly. You should hear the hum of the motor and the sound of water flowing down the drain.
  • You can see the salt levels dropping. This tells you that brine (water containing sodium ions) is flowing into the resin tank during regeneration, which is another key sign that the system is regenerating.
  • Your water is soft. Without regeneration, you’ll end up drinking hard water. If your water is soft, your system is regenerating as it should.

📌 Factors Affecting Water Softener Performance

Motor Lifespan

Water softeners use a motor to power the system. Motors don’t have a forever lifespan, and when the motor becomes weaker, the performance is likely to be affected. When the motor dies, you’ll need to replace it if you want to carry on drinking soft water.

Resin Quality

The quality of the resin affects how long the resin will last. 8% crosslink resin is still good quality, but it’ll last for around 6-8 years less than 10% crosslink resin. When the resin wears out, it can’t be repaired, and you’ll need to buy a new batch of resin to keep your softener working.

Pre-Filter Effectiveness

Most water softeners are sold with a pre-filter, which prevents large, abrasive sediment particles from damaging the resin. The more effective this pre-filter, the better protected the softener will be. Make sure to change the pre-filter as recommended by the manufacturer to keep the system functioning properly.

Water Quality

If your water contains a high concentration of hard minerals, your water softener will need to work harder to soften your water supply. The harder a softening system works, the faster it’ll exhaust itself.

Water containing a large number of contaminants can also damage the softener resin. Well water is more damaging than city water, which is treated before it enters our homes.

Salt Buildups

Finally, salt buildups and bridging prevent the system from performing a proper regeneration cycle, resulting in hard water in your home. Don’t add too much salt to the sodium tank and you should avoid the related minor issues in your softener.

Salt mushing in brine tank

⚙️ What to Do with a Malfunctioning Softening System

If your water softener isn’t working properly, follow these steps to resolve the issue:

  1. Diagnose the problem. Use the information in your user manual to figure out what might be happening. Alternatively, call or message your manufacturer’s customer support.
  2. Clean out the tanks. Issues with your softening system could be easily resolved by cleaning out the tanks and resetting the unit. Try this before moving on to the next step.
  3. Purchase replacement parts. In many cases, if your softening system stops working, you won’t need to replace the entire unit. It could be that the system’s resin beads or motor need replacing. Buy the replacement parts as soon as you can.
  4. Make the required replacements. If you’re a handy person, you shouldn’t have trouble replacing the parts yourself. Otherwise, call a professional plumber to do the job for you.

Whatever scenario you’re facing, don’t panic! Just divert water away from the system using the bypass valve while you perform the necessary maintenance. Unless your softener is really old, you should be able to resolve most issues in a matter of days – and it shouldn’t cost a fortune, either.