Water Softener Maintenance 101

Keep your hard water at bay by learning to maintain your water softener.

Have you invested in a water softening system to deal with hard water? Some quick checks and regular water softener maintenance could save you time and money in the long run.

The last thing you want is for your machine to break down when a few simple precautions could have kept it up and running. Rather than having to call in the experts for an expensive repair, read on to find out some easy care tips you can do yourself.

Water Softener Maintenance

Since water softeners have different areas that serve different functions, there’s no one-size-fits-all maintenance process for the entire system. Let’s look at each individually.

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1. Maintaining the Brine Tank

The brine, or salt, tank helps clean the softening tank of your unit. When in operation the softening tank cleanses minerals such as calcium and magnesium from your water, and adds sodium.

It’s filled with resin beads that are coated with sodium. The negatively charged resin attracts the positively charged minerals and traps them. To maintain the charge and balance in the water, it releases sodium to replace them.

Eventually, the beads in the softening tank become saturated with the minerals it’s removed. These need to be washed off, and the sodium replaced. This is where your brine tank comes in.

Salt and water from this tank pass through the softening tank to clean away the minerals and replace the sodium.

To ensure the brine tank completes its important cleaning job properly, you need to do a few maintenance jobs:

  • Top up the salt.
  • Clear away salt bridges.
  • Remove salt mush.
  • Routine cleaning.

Topping up the Salt

There are a couple of things you can do to make sure the salt levels are optimized:

  • Check regularly: Check the salt level in the brine tank about once a month, or according to your manufacturer’s recommendations. As a general rule, don’t fill the tank any more than about two thirds. If you do, you risk getting a salt bridge (we’ll come to that in a moment).
  • Salt compatibility: Make sure you use the right type of salt. Your manual should inform you whether your system uses tablet, granular or block salt. The most common is granular salt, which comes in pellets.

How to Clear a Salt Bridge

A salt bridge is a solid layer of salt that forms on the top of the brine tank. When this happens, it stops the salt mixing with water beneath, and your softener won’t work as it should.

Indications you have a salt bridge include:

  • Salt levels: The salt level doesn’t diminish as you would expect it to.
  • Unsoftened water: Signs your water is not being softened, include cloudy watermarks on shower screens or dishes, or a change in the way soap is performing.

Salt bridges can happen if you overfill your salt tank, use the wrong salt for your softener, or by humidity or temperature changes.

To break up a salt bridge:

  1. Turn the water off: Either via the bypass valve or the incoming faucet.
  2. Break the crust: Using something like a mop or broom, use the long handle to tap on the top of the salt bridge until the crust breaks.
  3. Remove loose salt pellets: Using a plastic container, scoop the loosened salt out of the brine tank.
  4. Clean the crusted salt from the edges: Chances are the salt crust will be stuck to the side of the tank. Use a plastic mallet to gently hammer away the salt from the edges.
  5. Remove any remaining salt chunks: Using a plastic container, make sure all the broken-off salt is removed.
  6. Remove the water left in the tank: Scoop out the remaining water in the tank. You could also use a wet/dry vacuum to do this.
  7. Refill and restart: Restore the water supply and refill the salt, but take care not to overfill. Remember, no more than two thirds. Follow the softener’s directions to regenerate and clean the softener tank.

Go Steady

Be careful when removing salt attached to the tank. Don’t hammer at the side of the tank; you might damage it.

Salt Mush

Salt mush happens when salt recrystallizes at the base of the tank after dissolving. It forms a layer of mushy sludge at the bottom of the brine tank, preventing salt from mixing with the water.

This can prevent the softener tank from regenerating and can cause the water level in the brine tank to rise, eventually overflowing (1).

  1. Scoop it out: To alleviate this issue, scoop all the mushy salt out of the brine tank. Use a plastic container to do this, taking care not to damage the tank.
  2. Recycle with hot water: The salt you take out can be recycled by using hot water to dissolve it, and pouring in back into the tank.

How to Clean a Water Softener — the Brine Tank

Every once in a while, your brine tank will need to be cleaned. Check the recommendations in your owner’s manual as to how often this should be. It seems for newer models that every five years or so is fine, but for older ones, maybe annually.

You might notice the brine in your tank looking dirty; this is a good indication it needs a clean. The reason this happens is some salts can contain impurities, especially inexpensive ones. Over time, these build up, and sediment is left in the water that can end up clogging your system.

It might be a good idea to clean the brine tank when it’s low on salt. That way, you won’t have to scoop out lots of salt. Also, the tank will be lighter to carry if you want to move it somewhere more accessible for cleaning.

To clean the tank:

  1. Disconnect from softener tank: If you have a bypass mode on your softener, engage this, so water bypasses the softener system while you clean. If not, turn off the water via the incoming faucet. Disconnect the hoses between the brine tank and the softener tank.
  2. Get rid of the brine: Dump or siphon out the brine (salt and water mixture) from the tank. Take care not to do this anywhere near your lawn or plants as the high sodium levels can harm them.
  3. Remove salt: Using a plastic container, remove any remaining salt from the tank.
  4. Take out the grid: Some brine tanks may have a grid at the bottom of the tank. Remove it if there’s one in place.
  5. Mix soap and water: Mix about 2 or 3 tablespoons of dish soap into a couple of gallons of water.
  6. Pour the mix in the tank: Put the soapy mixture into your brine tank and then use a brush with a long handle to scrub the inside of it.
  7. Rinse the tank: Once you’ve finished scrubbing, empty the soapy mix and rinse the tank with fresh water.
  8. Disinfect the tank: Fill the tank with 2–3 gallons of fresh water and about a 1/4 cup of household bleach. Mix by stirring, and then leave the solution in the tank for about 15 minutes. You can scrub the inside of the tank again before emptying the mix from the tank.
  9. Rinse the tank again: Once the bleach and water mix has done its work, ditch it and rinse your tank well with clean water.
  10. Replace and reconnect the brine tank: Pop your brine tank back where it came from and reconnect all the hoses.
  11. Turn the water back on: Restore the water supply to your tank.
  12. Refill with water and salt: Follow your manufacturer’s directions for refilling your tank with water and salt.


To prevent salt bridges, don’t overfill your brine tank with salt. It should be about two-thirds full, and the salt should be above the waterline.

Once your system is all set up again, set it to run a regeneration of the softener tank about 24 hours later. Don’t do it immediately; the salt and water won’t have had enough time to mix to form the strength of brine needed to clean the resin.

2. Maintaining the Softener Tank

The softener tank is where the magic happens. It’s where the calcium and magnesium, or any other metals and minerals that make your water hard, are removed.

The resin is regularly cleaned when you regenerate your system, and the beads are loaded up again with sodium from the brine tank. Nevertheless, there are cleaners available that can be used every few months. These can help keep your resin working as it should.

This could be the case especially if your supply is from well water. It can contain high levels of iron and other contaminants, which might not be removed during the regeneration process (2). This will mean your water softener could lose its efficiency.

You simply add these products to the salt, and when the system regenerates, they clean the resin. It is possible to hook cleaners to a drip, so they pass through with the regeneration each time the process is run.

A quick bit of research and customer feedback leads towards these highly rated cleaners:

  • Rust Out: This is a popular product for a one-off clean. It can also be layered with your salt to clean every time the tank regenerates.
  • Iron Out: Another popular water softener resin cleaner and is currently “Amazon’s Choice.”

Whichever you choose, make sure you follow the directions carefully. These cleaners are automatically rinsed when the system regenerates. If you want to be sure they have all been removed, you can set a second regeneration manually to rinse out the softener tank.

3. Maintaining the Valves in a Water Softener

There are a couple of valves within your water softener system that need occasional attention:

  • Bypass valve.
  • Venturi valve.

Maintaining the Bypass Valve

This valve, if you have one, temporarily cuts off the water softener from your incoming water supply. It’s usually a rod that can be pushed to shut off the flow of water.

For maintenance:

  1. Turn supply off: Push the rod to turn the supply off.
  2. Reset: Turn the outtake and intake valves off and back on.
  3. Turn supply on: Finally, push the bypass valve back to the on position.

Maintaining the Venturi Valve

The venturi valve helps siphon water from the brine tank to the softener tank during regeneration. It can occasionally get blocked by sediment, sand or dirt.

To clean it:

  1. Use soapy water: Unscrew the cover, remove the parts inside and clean them with soapy water.
  2. Rinse and reconnect: Once you’re done, rinse them and put them back together again.

Doing this every six months or so will help keep your water softener working well.

Water Softener Troubleshooting Tips

If your water softener appears not to be working correctly and you’ve performed the maintenance tasks we have listed, here are a few things you can check.

  • Bypass Valve: Make sure it’s open, and water is going through the system.
  • Timer: Check that the regeneration timer is set, so your system is flushing when it needs to.
  • Hoses: Make sure that the hoses in your system aren’t kinked. If they are, water won’t be able to get through.
  • Computer display: Look at the wires for any sign of wear, and check the fuses. Make sure that the power is switched on.

If all investigations and maintenance have failed to get your water softener working, it could be time to call in a service engineer.

Be Safe Not Sorry

If you’re unsure about carrying out any of this maintenance yourself, then get a professional to do the work for you.

Time to Get to Work

With the help of our guide, and your owners manual, there are aspects of water softener maintenance you can carry out yourself. This will help keep your system working and could prolong its life.

A little time and care now could save you a lot of expense later. Your appliances and plumbing will be protected from buildup. Plus those hard water gremlins, like stains and marks on household surfaces and utensils, will be kept at bay.

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About the Author

Peter Gray

Peter has been a homeowner for 35+ years and has always done his own repair and improvement tasks. As a retired plumber, Peter now spends his time teaching others how they can fix leaks, replace faucets, and make home improvements on a budget.