What Happens if My Water Softener Runs Out of Salt?

Salt top-ups are the most important maintenance job for a water softener. We all know that we need to make sure there’s plenty of salt in the brine tank – but why?

What happens if your water softener runs out of salt? Would the system stop working, or would it simply be less effective? I’ve covered it all in this article.

🔔 Can a Water Softener Run Without Salt?

To understand whether water softeners can continue to work if it runs out of salt, we need to first clarify how a water softener operates.

There are two main features of a water softening system: a brine tank and a resin tank.

The water softening resin tank, otherwise called the mineral tank, contains a resin that consists of thousands of interlinked resin beads. When water flows through this tank, the sodium ions in the resin beads swap places with minerals in the water in a process called ion exchange.

This softens water and eliminates scale.

The sodium ions, if you can remember from high school chemistry class, are salt. You fill the brine tank with salt as recommended by your manufacturer (usually every 3 months), and when the water softener regenerates, salt is carried into the mineral tank.

Imagine, now, that you didn’t add any salt to your brine tank.

When the unit regenerated, there’d be no sodium to carry into the water softening resin. The softener could continue to run, but nothing would happen, because for ion exchange to take place, there needs to be mineral ions present that can be swapped with the hard minerals.

As a result, your water will still be hard.

It’s easy to tell when you’ve got hard water, because it’ll leave spotting on your glassware, and it won’t lather as well as soft water. Over time, you’ll start to notice scale caused by hard minerals on your water-based appliances.

Keen to know exactly what happens if a water softener runs out of salt? Read on to find out.

low salt in softener brine tank

🤔 What Happens If a Water Softener Runs Out of Salt?

If you let your water softener run without salt, there are several consequences you may experience:

Hard Water Minerals in Control Valve

If you bought a water softener to deal with hard water in the first place, I don’t need to tell you what limescale is. This sticky, streaky substance can be a nuisance, affecting the appearance of your home and the performance of your appliances, and is very difficult to clean.

Hard minerals can affect water flow if they form deposits on the inside of your pipes – and it’s no different inside your softening system.

In a brand new water softener, the only water that passes through the control valve has already been softened. This means that it contains no hard minerals that can cause damage to the softener.

However, if your water softener runs out of salt, these hardness minerals have access to the important components in the control valve, including the piston chamber.

As well as generally slowing water flow, hard water minerals may affect the regeneration performance of your water softener as a result. A softening water treatment unit can last for 10-20 years, but only with the right care.

You risk shortening your system’s lifespan by allowing hard water to flow through it.

Brine Tank Overflow

A problem that’s less common, but worth mentioning in this guide, is an overflowing brine tank. Air or water leakages will cause a malfunction of your system and an overflow of water in the brine tank will occur. 

Obstructions can also cause issues on the float control. If it gets clogged with salt or debris in the brine assembly, take it out, rinse it and then make sure it is operating properly.

The brine float may allow water to continue filling, eventually causing an overflow. This may result in water damage in your home if the problem isn’t spotted in time.

Water is Not Softened

The most obvious issue if you let your water softener run out of salt is that your water won’t be softened.

The ion exchange process simply can’t happen without sodium ions. This means that you’ll be missing out on all the benefits of soft water, such as improved skin and hair health, easier cleaning and less soap required for washing.

Owning a water softener that doesn’t actually soften your water is a waste of a good investment. Why pay for something that you’re not even benefiting from?

Without salt, your water softener can’t operate. Your water quality will be poor, and it’s likely that you’ll experience problems all over your home, including issues with your dishwasher and water heating system.

Limescale Buildup in Pipes

One of the biggest hard water issues is limescale. You might be able to scrub this staining off the places you can reach – though it takes a lot of work – but you can’t do anything about limescale buildup inside your pipes.

Water softeners are the best defense against limescale. Because a water softener eliminates scale-causing minerals, there’s literally no way that scale can collect on your water fixtures. But if your water softener doesn’t contain salt, your water won’t softened , and the scale will be able to freely form.

When limescale gets into your plumbing, it can have an impact on your water flow.

You may be aware of a drop in water pressure, because limescale introduces friction, dragging water back as it flows through your pipes. Limescale may even cause clogging inside your pipes.

Eventually, you might notice that your shower stream isn’t as strong as it once was, or that you’re unable to use multiple appliances at once.

limescale in pipe
Александр Юрьевич Лебедев, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Soap Won’t Lather

Soft water lathers with soap more effectively than hard water. This is because soft water doesn’t contain calcium and magnesium minerals, and is unable to form scum. As a result, you can use less soap to achieve the same lather as you would with double the amount and hard water. This is especially handy for saving money on washing detergents.

With hard water, on the other hand, you’ll find that you need more soap to do the same job. The scum that hard water produces is also very sticky and difficult to remove. If you have sensitive skin, you may experience irritation from washing and bathing in hard water.

Salt-based water softeners are the only systems designed to effectively soften water. Even a water conditioner can’t help improve lathering, as the calcium and magnesium ions remain present. But if you don’t add salt to your water softener, you won’t experience these lathering benefits, either.

Hard Water Stains

Limescale in your pipes might be hidden from sight, but there’s no avoiding hard water stains on your faucets and fixtures. When you don’t own a working water softener,there’s nothing to stop limescale from depositing across your home.

Bathtubs and showerheads are common spots for limescale to accumulate. The longer you leave these stains, the thicker and stickier they get, until they become near-impossible to remove.

Hard water stains can look unsightly, especially to those of us who pride ourselves on having a clean home. It’s particularly difficult to remove this staining from glass shower screens and chrome faucets.

You may need to pay for specialist products to remove the limescale, many of which contain harsh chemicals that you might feel are too hazardous to use in your home.

hard water stains

Iron in Water

Oftentimes, hard water minerals come hand-in-hand with iron. While this mineral won’t cause limescale, it poses its own set of problems.

Most water softeners are capable of removing low levels of iron as well as hardness minerals. But if your water softener is out of salt, there will be no sodium ions present that iron could swap with. When this happens, your water softener is essentially useless – and iron will remain in your home’s drinking water.

The biggest issue with iron is that it causes rust staining. Once iron comes into contact with air, it can oxidize, which is why it’s so common to see iron staining in sinks, toilet bowls and bathtubs. When iron combines with bacteria, it forms a sludgy, unpleasant-smelling matter that can clog your pipes and plumbing.

👌 How to Ensure My Water Softener Doesn’t Run Out of Salt?

Now you know what happens if water softener runs out of salt, it’s worth knowing how to prevent this from happening.

Use a Smart System

Many of the latest water softeners on the market today are sold with a smart control valve that can be connected to your phone via a Bluetooth app. This app monitors your water softener salt levels and lets you know when salt is getting low.

If you’re admittedly a forgetful person, it’s worth buying a smart water softener. There’s no need to remember yourself – the system will remind you about maintenance long before your water softener runs out of salt.

Buying a water softener with a smart meter will also help you to familiarize yourself with your appliance and how it functions, so you’re more likely to know when something isn’t right.

Set a Reminder On Your Phone

If you’ve already bought a water softener and you’re not prepared to invest in a new one, you can still remind yourself about salt refills without actually having to remember. Simply access your phone’s calendar and set a reminder to check on the salt and top it up if needed.

It’s best to check up on your water softener salt a few weeks before the system will actually run out of salt. There’s no point only checking when there’s no salt left whatsoever. As soon as you’ve checked the system and topped up the salt level as required, make it part of your maintenance task to set another reminder for next time.

Make a Habit of Manually Checking

As well as setting a reminder on your phone, for extra peace of mind, it’s worth manually assessing your water softener between top-ups. Get into a habit of checking the brine solution once or twice a week.

There are plenty of ways to fit this into your daily routine – perhaps make it the very last thing you do before going to bed, or check while you’re doing another routine task, like brushing your teeth or combing your hair.

Once you know what your brine solution should look like, you’ll begin to gain a better understanding of when you will need to refill the salt tank. Knowing by eye when the tank needs refilling will make it less likely that your water softening system will ever run out of salt.

salt in water softener brine tank

Keep Extra Salt On Hand

Are you the sort to only buy softening salt when you need it, or are you equipped with plenty of spare salt? If you forget to top up your salt tank, or you didn’t correctly anticipate just how much sodium your softener would use, it’s important that you have extra salt on hand.

You can add salt to your salt tank exactly when you need it, rather than having to use the system as it is until you can buy some more. Remember, when your brine tank runs out of salt and the system performs a regeneration cycle, there will be no sodium for ion exchange, and your water won’t get softened.

📆 How Often Do You Need To Replace Salt in Your Water Softener?

The quality and brand of your water softener may affect how much salt it uses. The quality of your salt comes into it, too. Some salts get used at a faster rate than others.

Additionally, your daily water usage will affect how much water treatment is required, and how often the system is used – and how much salt is used per day. That’s why it’s so hard to give an exact schedule for topping up your salt tank.

The general advice is to replace your water softener salt every 8 to 12 weeks. However, you should check your water softener at least once every 6 weeks to be certain that the salt level hasn’t already dropped too low.

Eventually, you will have a better understanding of how much salt your water softener uses, and how often it regenerates. You will then be able to top up your salt accordingly, without relying on reminders from your phone.

Remember, all water softeners are slightly different, so read the user manual for your softener carefully to be sure you’re doing the right thing for the product.

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