Water softeners are your best weapon against limescale. The best water softening systems are so effective that they can eliminate hardness minerals from your water, providing soft water benefits throughout your home.
To maintain this high standard of water treatment, however, you’ll be required to put in some work. Looking after a water softener isn’t hard – but it is essential if you want to ensure the system can continue to provide a high-quality service.
In this guide, I’ll be highlighting the importance of water softener maintenance, and sharing the step-by-step processes to follow when cleaning and topping up your system. I’ll also be answering your frequently asked questions at the bottom of this page.
Don’t yet have a water softener? Read our reviews of the best softening systems out right now!
Table of Contents
🔧 Why Water Softener Maintenance is Important
There are different aspects of softener maintenance that are important for different reasons.
Generally, if you don’t perform regular system maintenance as advised by the manufacturer, your water softener may become defective. Many forgotten maintenance tasks will affect the system’s ability to perform a regeneration cycle, and considering regeneration tops up the system’s salt levels, it’s pretty necessary. Without salt, a water softener is pointless.
You might think that, considering the role of a water softener is to remove hard water minerals, that it’d know how to keep itself free from scale build-up. But while regeneration does help somewhat, minerals like calcium, magnesium and iron are highly likely to accumulate inside the unit.
If you’re softening a well water supply, your water softener is even more susceptible to a build-up of mineral ions in the long run. Read about our favorite water softeners for well water here.
Let’s take a look at three of the most common problems that you may have to deal with when maintaining your water softener.
Removing a Salt Bridge
Occasionally, your water softener brine tank may form a hard crust, known as a salt bridge. Salt bridging is usually a result of too much humidity or too much salt inside the softener.
When salt bridges, it forms an air gap between the salt and the water, preventing the salt from being able to dissolve. With no dissolved sodium, you have no brine – which means the resin bed won’t regenerate properly, and any water that flows through the system won’t get softened.
Removing a salt bridge takes minutes – you just need to remember to check regularly for bridging. To fix this issue, take a broom or a mop and turn it upside down, then gently press the top of the handle against the salt until it breaks off. Be careful not to be too aggressive here, especially if you’re removing salt from the sides of the tank. Hot water can also be handy in breaking up the chunks if they’re particularly tough.
Once the chunks of salt are floating in the water, scoop them out with a small container. The system is now ready to regenerate, and you can add new sodium straight away.
A way to avoid salt bridging altogether is to make sure you only fill your brine tank two-thirds of the way with salt. The top third should just be water, which should give enough space to stop bridging from happening.
Fixing Salt Mushing
Salt mushing is a similar problem that occurs in the bottom of the brine tank. Sometimes, salt pellets may not properly dissolve in water. When this happens, the salt forms small granules that clump together, resulting in a mushy layer – or “salt mushing”.
When salt mushing is allowed to build up over time, it may eventually clog the tank’s water intake valve. A lack of water in the tank will cause further issues with bridging and drying out, so it’s best to avoid this at all costs.
Try cleaning the brine tank if you discover salt mushing. The problem might have been a one-off issue, but if it returns, try a different brand, or a different type of sodium.
For instance, if pellets don’t seem to work well in your system, try crystals. Additionally, quality can play a part in salt’s ability to dissolve, which is why it’s worth paying slightly more for salt from a different brand to see if that’s your issue.
Addressing Iron & Manganese Buildup
Some water softeners are designed to tackle small amounts of iron and manganese, but when these minerals are present in excess, they can form deposits on the inside of your tank. These deposits can restrict your water flow and affect the efficiency of the water softener. They could even plug a water softener over time if regular cleaning isn’t carried out.
If you discover iron and manganese buildup in your water softener, you will need to clean out the affected components of the system according to your user manual.
It’s worth considering a whole-home water filter if your water is particularly contaminated with these impurities, which will keep your water softener and your pipes and appliances in a much better condition.
We Recommend: SpringWell Whole House Well Water Filter System
- Removes up to 8 PPM hydrogen sulfide
- Removes up to 7 PPM iron
- Removes up to 1 PPM manganese
- No maintenance required
- Automatic backwash
- Bluetooth control via Springwell app
- 12 or 20 GPM flow rate
- pH rage: 6.5 – 10
The alternative is to clean your water softener regularly to get rid of the deposits, which is more work on your part.
🧼 How to Clean a Water Softener
Water softeners aren’t very complex appliances, but they have separate components that all require their own method of cleaning. Follow the instructions below to learn how to drain and clean the brine and resin tank.
How to Drain the Brine Tank on a Water Softener
Before cleaning the brine tank in your water softener, you’ll need to empty it of water. But you may not need to do this in all circumstances. If you have a pre-fill water softener, it won’t automatically refill the brine tank after regeneration, which is what a post-fill water softener does.
There are several options for draining your post-fill softener’s brine tank:
Scoop or Vacuum the Water
The simplest option is to scoop out the water using a clean container or a bucket that’s small enough to dip into the tank.
If the water is clean and fine to reuse, keep hold of it. You can then pour it back into the tank once you’ve finished cleaning. Any large, stubborn blocks of salt can be broken down with some hot water before they’re scooped out.
A wet vacuum is another option for getting the water out of the tank, if you happen to own one of those. It’d be much harder to keep hold of this water for reuse, however.
Regenerate The Softener
The second tank draining option is to program your softening system to start a manual regeneration cycle, which would drain the tank of water during the brining stage. As soon as the tank is ready, you’ll need to select the option to skip the rest of the cycle to prevent it from automatically refilling. Your user manual should provide information on regeneration if you need to know more about your specific unit.
Empty Down a Drain
Finally, if you have a suitable drain to dump your brine tank’s water into, this is an option to consider. If you need to move the tank, make sure you’ve bypassed your water before doing so. You can then safely disconnect the water plumbing that fills the brine tank.
You should also remove the overflow hose at this stage, and the salt grid, if your softener has one.
Finally, remove the brine well and the float before tipping the tank, emptying it into your drain. Keep in mind that emptying salty water onto your lawn will kill the grass, so be mindful about where you empty the tank. This is a heavy job, so ask for help from another person if you can’t lift the tank on your own.
How to Clean the Brine Tank
Once your brine tank is empty, it’s time to clean it. It’s recommended that you clean your tank once every 1 year to 5 years, depending on the quality of your water and any relevant personal circumstances.
Before getting started, turn your water softener’s bypass valve to shut off the water. Then follow the step-by-step instructions below for how to clean a water softener brine tank:
Wait for the most suitable time for cleaning
If you’ve just topped up your brine tank with sodium, there’s no point in cleaning it now. Instead, wait until the tank is nearly cleared, which will save you the job of scooping the salt out. The tank will also be lighter and easier to handle.
A low salt level will give you a better view of what you’re dealing with, such as any mold or dirt that may have formed at the bottom of the tank. If your salt level is pretty high and you want to get started on cleaning your brine tank straight away, you can remove it with a bit of extra effort.
Salt that’s beneath the grid plate should be disposed of, but you should save any salt above the plate and add it back in once you’ve finished cleaning.
Remove the salt grid and brine well
You may have already taken out the grid plate (if your system has one) and brine well by now. If you haven’t, now’s your time to do it.
Clear salt/sludge from the system
Even if you’re cleaning your water softener when the salt tank is relatively low in sodium, it’s still likely that the tank will contain some salt or sludge that needs removing.
Assuming you have drained the tank following the instructions above, you can now remove this sludge. Grab yourself a shovel or a similar tool and prepare for some hard work.
Scoop away the sludge, being careful not to damage the walls of the tank. You may also need to use a broom handle to break away any stubborn bits of salt that are clinging to the tank’s surface.
Rinse the inside of the tank
Next, take a hose and use it to rinse out the inside of the tank. This should clear the tank of any lingering salt pellets or sludgey matter.
The cleaner you can get the tank by hosing, the easier it’ll be to manually clean it out.
Scrub the inside with dish soap
You’re now ready to scrub the inside of your water softener’s brine tank.
Take some dish soap and a brush, then add a little detergent and get scrubbing. You don’t need anything harsher than this to do the job, unless you have mold, which may require a mold removal treatment. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll bring your tank back to like-new status, and that’s fine. Your goal is to simply clean what you can.
Rinse thoroughly & refill
Once you’ve scrubbed off everything you can, rinse the tank thoroughly to wash away the dishwashing detergent. Your tank is now ready to refill with sodium (and water for post-fill water softeners).
Re-install the tank before refilling, as it’ll get pretty heavy when it’s full. Remember to only fill your salt two-thirds of the way up to the water line to prevent salt bridges from forming. And don’t forget to turn the bypass valve to divert water back towards the water softener.
Set manual regeneration cycle
It’s recommended that you manually set your water softener’s regeneration cycle for the coming night after cleaning the system out. This is simply because you shouldn’t need to use your water overnight, and by the next morning, the softener will be ready to use once more.
You should clean the brine tank every 5 years at the very least. I would recommend cleaning it once every 12 months.
How to Clean the Resin Tank
Looking to clean a water softener resin tank? Luckily, this tank is much easier to clean – and you may not even need to clean it at all.
If you use municipal water, you might not need to worry about cleaning your water softener resin tank (though, of course, you can still clean it if you want to). But if your water has a high iron or manganese content – which it probably does if it comes from a private well – cleaning the tank is more essential. That’s because these contaminants aren’t fully removed during a regeneration cycle, and can end up fouling the resin.
Water Softener Resin Cleaner
If you’re cleaning the bed inside the resin tank, it’s recommended that you use a specialized water softener resin cleaner for the job. The condition of your water will affect how often you clean the resin bed, but it’s typically recommended that you clean it at least once every 3 – 12 months.
There are several kinds of resin bed cleaners to choose from. There may also be products suitable for cleaning the resin bed that aren’t labeled as “resin cleaners” – they may be called “rust removers” or “rust stain removers”. They will, however, clearly state that they’re suitable for water softeners, and it’s important to find a solution that’s designed for water softener use.
The exact process for cleaning the resin bed will depend on the manufacturer’s instructions.
The majority of products require dissolving in water and pouring over the salt in your brine tank. You may need to introduce the product to the resin tank before you start the regeneration cycle. Some are liquid solutions, while others are dry. Be sure to check instructions carefully, as some may require lots of salt in the brine tank, while some may only be able to work when your water softener’s salt level is particularly low.
The cleverest products come with a dispenser that should be installed on the inside of the brine tank. This dispenser will do the hard work for you, adding a small amount of cleaning solution into the water softening system on a daily basis. This makes it easier to keep the resin beads clean, as they’re automatically cleaned when the system performs a regeneration cycle.
Can I Put Bleach in My Water Softener?
We all know that household bleach is one of the best cleaners out there, and most of us have got a batch of the stuff in our cupboards. Water softeners can become contaminated with harmful pathogens, such as bacteria, even if your home receives a disinfected municipal water supply.
Mildew, iron, sulfur and other contaminants make it more likely for contamination. If your water softener runs for a long period of time before regenerating, it’s at a higher risk of accumulating biological organisms, as are water softeners that haven’t been used for a period of time.
In short, yes, you can use bleach to clean a water softener. Once you’ve scrubbed out the brine tank and cleaned the resin beads, you can introduce a bleach-water mix (use 2 ounces of bleach for every 3 gallons of water) to the brine tank, which will act as a sanitizer. Make sure to use unscented bleach for this job.
When using bleach, follow the standard safety practices: air out the room by opening windows, and wear gloves to protect your hands from the solution.
Leave the solution for up to 20 minutes, which is long enough to kill off any microorganisms or mold. Scrub the tank’s inside surfaces (including the float assembly) with a brush, then dispose of the water and clean the tank out with a batch of tap water.
Dump this water too, then refill the tank with salt.
🧂 Refilling Salt
I’ve talked a little about refilling the brine talk already, but let’s look specifically at the best means of adding softener salt to your system to prevent salt bridges.
Add 2-3 bags of salt
I’m going to assume that if you’re refilling your salt, you’ve just cleaned out your brine tank. In that case, the tank will be completely cleared, and will require 2 to 3 bags of salt to top up. If your brine tank has a fill line, pour salt up to this indicator – no higher.
Don’t add water unless you need to
The majority of softeners will automatically supply their brine tanks with water once you add the salt. But if you have a post-fill system, you’ll need to pour in up to 3 gallons of water. Make sure the salt levels in the softener tank are 2/3 (two-thirds) of the water levels.
Prevent a salt bridge
Salt bridges aren’t inevitable in a water softener. The simplest way to avoid forming a salt bridge is to only fill the brine tank two-thirds of the way. If you’re just topping up with salt, wait until the salt level has reached around one-quarter full before doing so. You shouldn’t have a salt bridge issue going forward.
Mushing, as we know, is a little different from a salt bridge. It’s usually caused by dissolved salt that recrystallizes inside the softener tank. The best way to avoid mushing is to spend more money on some decent salt. Rock salt, for instance, might be one of the cheapest salts available, but it’s dirty, not the best quality, and renowned for mushing.
👨🔧 Hiring a Water Softener Service Professional
You might prefer to avoid dealing with water softener maintenance yourself. If you’d prefer to hire a professional plumber or handyman to clean out your softener tank, you can do so. Many plumbers offer water softener maintenance programs for a fee of around $100-$150 per year. This includes a system inspection and cleanout of the resin beads.
Though it may offer peace of mind, it’s certainly not necessary to hire a professional to carry out maintenance on your behalf. Most people should be capable of performing these duties themselves, but if you simply don’t want to, you have the option to pay to get it done by an expert.
❔ Frequently Asked Questions
What happens if I don’t clean my water softener?
Most likely, the system would eventually lose its ability to perform a proper regeneration cycle, which would mean the resin would be unable to remove hard water minerals. If you want to effectively tackle hard water problems over the years, cleaning is essential.
How does dirt get into my brine tank?
Most likely, the dirt has come from your softening salt, which naturally contains sediment that can’t dissolve into your water. That’s how the grit and grime is able to accumulate over time – you add more and more salt, which dissolves, while the sediment is left in the tank. Some salt is dirtier than other types – for instance, rock salt is notoriously dirty.
Is there any other water softener maintenance to remember?
Aside from cleaning out the resin beads and softener tank, you should also give the full system a once-over. When inspecting your water softener, check that the connections don’t leak and the O-rings aren’t worn. It’s a good idea to replace any faulty or worn parts to improve the efficiency of your softening system.
Check that the bypass valve is nicely lubricated and replace the pre-filter if it’s too clogged to perform properly (usually once every 1-4 years; check your user manual to be sure). Though it might not look like much, the pre-filter will stop sediment from damaging the resin, so it’s important to make sure this filter is working properly throughout your softener’s life.
Why is regeneration important?
Regeneration is technically considered an aspect of water softener maintenance, though the majority of high-quality systems nowadays will automatically regenerate, so it’s not something you need to be concerned about.
When a softener regenerates, it flushes the resin, helping it to keep clean and provide consistently high performance. Without regeneration, the resin would become so full of calcium, magnesium, iron and sulfur that it’d be unable to properly perform ion exchange.
If you think your softener isn’t regenerating, you’ll need to troubleshoot the problem and find the solution, fast. You might have a faulty regeneration timer, which will prevent the softener from being able to know when it’s reached the end of a cycle. Clogging can also prevent regeneration. In this case, you’ll be able to hear the softener trying to regenerate, but you’ll probably end up with water that tastes salty. You may need to call in an expert if you can’t figure out the cause of the problem yourself.
Do I need to clean the brine injector valve?
Yes. You should clean the brine injector valve at least every 1 year; preferably every 6 months. Otherwise called the venturi valve, the brine injector has a mesh screen that prevents dirt from getting into the brine tank. This screen clogs up over time and requires cleaning out. You’ll usually need to bypass the softener then run it through a regeneration cycle before you open the cap or cover to reach the valve. Check your user manual if you’re not sure of the location of this valve within your water softener.
Does mixing bleach with resin cleaner make it work better?
No. If you’re just looking to clean your water softener rein beads, use the resin cleaning solution alone. Combining bleach with other chemicals is dangerous and can produce harmful fumes. If you’ve just cleaned out the brine tank with bleach, disconnect the brine line and remove the bleach before cleaning the resin beads.
My water softener has limescale – is this normal?
Yes! Though limescale – caused by calcium and magnesium minerals – is the very thing that water softeners tackle, you’ll still likely notice hard water scale inside your system. Without regular cleaning, calcium and magnesium mineral deposits can even form blockages, which reduces the overall efficiency of the system.
Will I ever need to change my softener’s resin beads?
Yes. Typically, the softening resin needs to be changed every 10 years. If your resin has been exposed to particularly high levels of hard water, chlorine, iron or sulfur, it may need to be replaced even more regularly. The frequency of the resin changes depends purely on the quality of your water supply and the quality of the original resin beads. When replacing your resin, consider 10% resin over 8% resin, which has a greater number of “links” in the beads and will therefore have a longer lifespan.