5 Reasons Why Your Water Softener Salt Tank Has Brown Water

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Water softeners are such expensive, important appliances that when something doesn’t look right, it can be a cause for worry. Brown water in your salt tank can be especially alarming. Does this indicate an issue with the system? Or is your home’s water to blame? Is the salt you’re adding causing the browning?

There’s no single answer to why your hard water softener brine tank may contain brown water. It’s likely to be caused by one of the above factors, or perhaps a combination of two or three. Luckily, brown water isn’t usually a cause for concern.

In this guide, I’ll be looking at the reasons why the water in your salt tank may be brown, and how to fix the issue going forward.

🤔 Why Do I Have Brown Water After Water Softener Regeneration?

If you see brown water in your softener after a regeneration cycle, it could be caused by several factors:

Iron & Manganese Buildup in Mineral Tank

Iron and manganese are commonly present alongside calcium and magnesium in hard water. Most water softeners are capable of reducing these minerals in water. However, if you have a particularly high iron or manganese content, they may begin to build up in your mineral tank.

ion exchange water softener in basement

Most municipal water supplies contain very little iron. Well owners, on the other hand, are much more likely to have iron problems in their water supply.

The resin bed can only hold so much iron at a time. The iron or rust that does make it into the resin beads will manifest as reddish sludge, which will give your water an orange tone after every regeneration cycle.

Iron fouling can be damaging to your softening system. Not only can it cause the resin bed to deteriorate, but it can also reduce flow rates and affect the efficiency of your softener’s performance. If you’re a well owner and you don’t know your iron or rust levels, it’s worth testing your water to find out.

Sediment Buildup in Brine Tank

The brine tank in your water softener may also be responsible for brown or discolored water, especially if you use rock salt, which contains a high dirt and sediment content. While it doesn’t normally pose a health risk, this sediment can build up over time inside the brine tank, and may even cause blockages that prevent the system from working properly.

The easiest way to avoid sediment buildup is to replace your rock salt with evaporated salt pellets, which have the highest purity. This means you’ll get a bag of almost 100% salt, rather than salt with sediment mixed in.

Pipe Corrosion

Pipe corrosion is a less common issue, but it’s still something to consider. The water in your salt tank has had to flow through pipes into your home before reaching your water softener. If these pipes are decades old, they may have started to corrode on the inside. This corrosion can cause flecks of metal to become suspended in your water, and may also cause your water to take on a brown color.

To determine whether pipe corrosion is causing brown water in your brine tank, try diverting your water supply to bypass your water softener. If the water that comes out of your faucets is as brown as the water in your brine tank, it suggests an issue with your water pipes and plumbing, not your softening system itself.

Flushed Water Mains

Another issue that’s less common, but still worth a mention, is flushed water mains. Every so often, your local authority will service your underground water mains by increasing the water pressure. This sends water through the pipes at a faster speed. The increased water pressure can dislodge sediment in the pipes, as well as pulling away corroded materials.

Water Main Flushing

You will usually be notified as to when your mains will be flushed. You may choose to drink bottled water and bypass your water supply for showering or using your home’s appliances to prevent sediment damage to your softener system.

If you do notice brown water in your brine tank, and you discover that flushed water mains are the cause, there’s no real reason to worry. You should only experience a temporary change to your water quality, and it should typically be safe to drink (unless you’re notified otherwise).

Tannins in Well Water

Finally, if you get your water from a private well, brown water in your brine tank could be caused by tannins. Tannins are natural, organic matter, produced by the decomposition of vegetation. These contaminants are considered an aesthetic problem as they turn your water a yellow-brown color, but they’re not dangerous.

If your water contains tannins, consider buying a whole-home filtration system. This will filter out the problem contaminant before it reaches your hard water softener.

🛠️ How to Fix Brown Water in Your Salt Tank

Even if you fix the cause of your brown water, you may still see it in your water softener. You might also notice issues with water pressure because of your water softener’s hindered ability to perform.

Don’t assume the worst – that your softener is broken. You might be able to fix the issue by cleaning your water softener’s brine tank or resin tank.

Cleaning Salt Tank

Clean Iron from Your Resin Bed

A clogged resin can affect your water softener’s ability to tackle mineral hardness, so it’s important to treat the issue when you notice it. To remove iron or rust from your resin bed, you’ll need to flush out the resin tank. Here’s what to do:

  1. Use the control valve to set the unit to bypass, following the instructions provided by the manufacturer.
  2. Prepare your resin cleaner. You can choose from a selection of resin cleaners online – IronOUT is a popular choice at the moment. You need a product that’s specifically designed for use in a water softener resin, and can effectively remove mineral buildup.
  3. Add the resin cleaner to your brine tank, with salt lower than the halfway line, according to the instructions on the bottle. Some resin cleaners will need diluting before they’re added to your system’s resin beads, so make sure you follow instructions for your specific product.
  4. You can now set the system to perform a manual regeneration cycle. The resin cleaner in the tank will be sucked into the mineral tank, where it will interact with the resin beads. During regeneration cycles, the system will flush the resin beads, and any minerals in the resin will be washed down the drain. Using a cleaning solution for the resin will help to more effectively remove any lingering contaminants that might be turning your water brown.
  5. For the best rust-removal results or for an excessively clogged resin, refill the brine well with the resin cleaning formula, then program the system to run one or two additional regeneration cycles. You can then use the control valve to return your system to normal settings.
  6. Flush the water in the system, then switch on a faucet in your home. Let it run for 10 minutes to allow the cleaning product to completely leave the system.

One final note: it’s worth checking that your resin media doesn’t need replacing altogether. Resin beads generally have a lifespan of between 8 and 12 years. If you’ve owned your whole home water softener for longer than this, your softener resin may be unable to properly hold onto water hardness ions during the softening process, and it may struggle to release certain contaminants during the regeneration cycle.

Clean Sediment Out Of Your Brine Tank

Cleaning the brine well in your water softener is a simple maintenance task that you should do at least once every 3 years. When you’re ready to start, follow the instructions below:

  1. Following your manufacturer’s instructions in the user manual, use the control valve to put your water softener into bypass mode. This will allow water to bypass the water softener while you focus on cleaning the brine tank.
  2. Disconnect the hoses and lines that connect the brine tank to the main softening unit. Then empty the salty water from the tank, using a bucket or wet vac. Be mindful of where you empty the water – the high sodium content will kill grass and plants.
  3. If you have any salt left in the tank, remove it now and dispose of it. Use hot water to remove any salt bridges (or big chunks of salt that are difficult to break up).
  4. If your system has a brine grid, which can be found at the bottom of the tank, remove it now. Rinse the brine valve in cold water to remove any clogged salt, dirt or sediment, then replace the valve before the next step.
  5. Next, combine 1-2 gallons of water with a few tablespoons of dish soap. Pour this mixture into the tank, then use a long-handled brush to scrub the inside surface. This should remove any dark staining.
  6. Dump the water, then pour another 2-3 gallons of water into the tank, combined with around 1/4 cup chlorine bleach. After stirring, leave the chlorine bleach solution for up to 15 minutes.
  7. Scrub the inside of the tank once more, then dump the water again.
  8. Reconnect the brine tank to the water softener and use the settings on the control head or valve to take the system off bypass mode. Add 5 gallons of fresh water to the tank.
  9. Finally, replace the salt with a new batch. Make sure the tank is at least one-quarter full, but don’t fill the salt to the very top. Leave at least 6 inches between the salt level and the tank’s lid to prevent salt bridging.
  10. The system is now ready to provide soft water benefits once more.


Is Brown Water in My Water Softener Dangerous?

Usually, no. Most dangerous contaminants are odorless and colorless. However, if your water isn’t normally brown, I would highly recommend getting it tested in a laboratory – especially if you use a well. It’s best to know exactly what’s in your water to be on the safe side. Chances are, you’re dealing with one of the issues mentioned in this guide, which should be quick and easy to resolve.

water testing with tap score

How Can I Stop Iron From Damaging My Water Softener?

While high iron levels aren’t typically a cause for concern, this contaminant can cause aesthetic problems in your home. Iron and rust deposits can affect the lifespan of your appliances, and that includes your water softener.

There are several things you can do to tackle iron in your water softener. You could clean iron from your resin bed, as I mentioned in this guide. But to avoid rust altogether (and limit the need for maintenance) you might want to look into installing a whole-home iron filter, such as a carbon/KDF filter. Install this filter before your water softener to remove iron from your supply line before it can cause any damage. My list of the Well Water Iron Filters should help you to decide on a suitable option for you.

Alternatively, if you’re on the market for a new water softener, I would suggest buying a water softener that can handle hard water and a larger concentration of iron. You can check out my top picks of rust-removing water softeners.

When Should I Install a Sediment Filter?

It’s true that a sediment filter can be handy in preventing damages to your water softener. Whole house water filters can prevent issues with water pressure, too, as well as preventing damage to your water heater and plumbing. But a sediment filter might not always get rid of your brown water problem.

If you’re using cheap softener salt, for instance, you’ll be introducing sediment in the system itself, so having a water treatment filter installed before the water softener won’t make a difference. Buying better salt should make the biggest difference here.

What Should I Do If I’m Still Unsure?

If your water softener contains orange or brown-ish water, I recommend cleaning the softener thoroughly, following the steps above. Replacing your salt with a new kind may also fix the issue if you think you have an issue with the salt quality in your brine tank.

Normally, that’s all there is to it. But if you continue to experience a drop in water pressure or drinking water quality issues, you don’t have access to soft water, or your system is clogged and you can’t drain it, I recommend reaching out to a plumbing expert, who can help you get your system back to normal operation again.

  • Michael Claybourn
    Water Treatment Specialist

    With 25+ years in water treatment, Michael Claybourn Sr. (WT Specialist 3) leads his company, Water of Texas LLC, in solving industrial, commercial, and residential water challenges. From filtration to ozone, he tackles any task, from initial consultation to equipment maintenance. His passion, honed in nuclear power and Culligan of Brazosport, fuels his commitment to delivering pure, healthy water for every client.

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