Water softeners soften water by attracting mineral molecules and trapping them in their resin in a process known as ion-exchange. However, after this process, some mineral molecules still remain in the resin, and after a while, the resin itself needs to be purified from the mineral residue and buildup.
Although water softener devices often clean the resin automatically by running pre-programmed regeneration cycles, these cycles aren’t always effective. The regeneration process means a brine solution is prepared in the brine tank and flows over the resin beads, but if the brine tank itself isn’t clean in the first place, that process won’t be successful.
Additionally, the salt inside the brine tank may cause other problems. For instance, if there’s a salt bridge formation inside the brine tank, a brine solution with the necessary brine levels to clean the resin can’t be prepared.
So, it’s essential to learn how to clean all parts of a water softener to ensure that it keeps on functioning properly. Fortunately, we have all the relevant information you need.
How to Clean the Water Softener Resin
More often than not, there are two tanks in a water-softening system. The bigger one is the resin tank, where the resin is placed and the softening process happens. The smaller one is the brine tank, where the salt is, and where the brine solution is made.
Having established that, there are two ways of cleaning the water softener resin. The first is purchasing a product made specifically for cleaning water softener resin. The other way is to make a homemade solution in the brine tank with either bleach or vinegar and then run a manual regen cycle.
Now, let’s see how to proceed with both.
Cleaning the Water Softener Resin With a Resin Cleaning Solution
Some water softener manufacturers only recommend cleaning their devices with a proper solution because bleach and vinegar may damage the resin. We concur that it’s a likely outcome if the manufacturer warns you it can happen.
There are also resin-cleaning products that the manufacturers may recommend or that they themselves produce. If you have a Whirlpool device, for example, we have no choice but to refer you to the Whirlpool Water Softener Cleanser.
If the manufacturer has no specification, our recommendation depends on whether you’re softening municipal water or well water:
- The Pro Products Softener Mate is the best all-purpose option on the market for cleaning water softeners that work with municipal (city water) source. It can only remove limited amounts of iron, silt, manganese, and organic material from the resin, but it’s going to do a great job since municipal water tends to be softer than well water.
- The Pro Products Res Care is great for well water systems that have a higher chance of contaminant and mineral buildup. It can remove contaminants from the resin that the brine solution can’t and will prevent mineral buildup not only in the resin but also through the valves of the system.
- The Pro Products Rust Out is the ideal cleanser for water softener devices that work with an iron-rich water supply. When iron gets stuck to the resin in high quantities, it can start affecting the quality of water. In the end, your water might even turn brown. The Rust Out prevents such unpleasant outcomes. On a side note, if your water supply has too much iron, we recommend you supplement your water softener device with an iron filter.
To cleanse the water softener resin with the products listed above, you need to:
- Open the lid of the brine tank.
- Pour the liquid solution into the brine well or directly into the tank itself. For the Softener Mate and Res Care, 4oz is the recommended dosage. For the Rust Out, you need to pour 4oz of it into ½ gallon of cold water, mix it, and then pour it. If you’re pouring it directly into the tank, do it when the salt levels are low.
- Run a manual regeneration cycle. If it’s the first time you’re doing it, check the instruction manual.
Don’t use soft water during the regeneration cycle. If you still need to use water inside the household, you can bypass your water softener.
Cleaning Water Softener Resin With a Homemade Bleach or Vinegar Solution
Water softeners are already expensive devices, so it’s understandable if you want to handle the maintenance without spending too much extra money. Luckily, a bleach or vinegar solution is also capable of cleansing the water softener resin.
However, before you start, you should carefully read the instruction manual to confirm that the manufacturer allows their device to be sanitized with bleach. If there’s no info about it in the instruction manual, you should contact the customer service of the manufacturer.
Bleach is a harsh chemical that contains chlorine, and when some resin beads come into contact with it, it causes a chemical reaction. In the end, the ion exchange properties of the resin beads might either be reduced or completely diminished, rendering the water-softening device ineffective.
The amount of bleach you’ll put into your device is also important. The following numbers apply to both bleach and vinegar for an effective and safe sanitizing solution:
- Small units (1 – 3 bathrooms): ¾oz (2 tablespoons)
- Medium/whole house units (4 – 6 bathrooms): 1.5oz (4 tablespoons)
- Large/Industrial units (7+ bathrooms): 5oz (13 – 14 tablespoons)
Once you determine how much bleach or vinegar your device requires, you can continue:
- Pour the carefully measured amount of bleach inside the water softener tank. Similar to what we said in the previous section, doing it when the salt levels are already low will increase the efficiency of the sanitary solution.
- Run a regeneration cycle by manually programming the system. Refer to the instruction manual if you’re unsure how to do it or want to confirm that you’re doing it right.
- Don’t use water during the regen cycle. Otherwise, you’re likely to get bleach or vinegar-stained water.
How to Sanitize Water Softener Brine Tank
Sanitizing the brine tank doesn’t require as much consideration as the resin, but doing it right is nonetheless important. After all, it’s where the brine solution that regularly cleans and recharges the resin is prepared, and if you don’t take good care of the brine tank, you’re not taking good care of the system overall.
It’s also important to clean the brine tank before you sanitize the resin. If you only clean the resin but leave the brine tank as is, once the system runs its own regen cycle, whatever contaminant there is inside the brine tank will travel to the resin and reduce its efficiency.
Luckily, you don’t need to go and purchase specifically engineered solutions for this particular purpose. Vinegar and bleach will do the job without damaging any parts.
Time needed: 30 minutes
How to sanitize water softener brine tank:
- Turn off your water softener device
If you or another member of your household still want to have running water inside the house, you can simply bypass it and unplug it.
- Clear whatever’s inside the brine tank
In some cases, there might still be some water inside the tank. You need to drain that water and remove the salt (or if you have a salt-free softener, the potassium chloride). Since you’re not going to be able to use that salt again, we recommend you conduct the cleaning session when the salt is low.
- Clean the inside of the tank with a soap mixture
Pour a bit of scentless soap that has no additives into warm water and make a foamy mixture. Clean whatever sediment, dirt, debris, or salt clumps are still inside the tank by gently scrubbing. Use a soft brush or sponge during this step so as not to damage the tank and its parts.
- Wash the tank with your sanitizing solution and rinse it
A medium bleach or vinegar solution should suffice to wash the inside of the tank. To make a medium solution, you need 1.5oz (20mL or 4 tablespoons) of sanitizing liquid for 1L (4 cups) of water. That said, these numbers don’t matter much since you’re going to rinse it after, thoroughly washing every corner of the tank.
- Put new salt into the tank.
You should never put back the salt you removed in the second step. If you do that, the whole process will be meaningless, since the reason for the sanitation is clearing out contaminants. These contaminants might be in the salt itself.
- Proceed with the resin-cleaning steps we mentioned above if need be.
If you want to sanitize the resin, now is the best time to do it. Pour recommended amounts of sanitizing solution inside the brine tank and run a manual regen operation.
How to Clean Salt Bridges
A salt bridge is salt particles clumping together more strictly than usual, thus constituting a stronger, far less soluble body of salt. It might occur due to using low-quality salt in the brine tank, putting too much salt into the brine tank, or simply humidity.
In the end, a salt bridge prevents the water coming into the brine tank from reaching the soluble salt by forming an obstacle between the two. As a result, no brine solution can be prepared and the resin can’t be charged or cleansed, which makes the softening unit practically redundant.
So, checking the insides of the brine tank every once in a while, making sure that there are no salt bridges, and if there are, immediately cleaning them out is imperative for the device to maintain efficiency.
Here’s how to remove a salt bridge:
- Unplug the softener and shut off the water supply to your home.
- Drain any remaining water that may be in the brine tank.
- Remove the regular salt from the top of the tank by lifting the lid.
- To remove the salt bridge, use a hammer or knife. However, be gentle and cautious during this step to avoid harming the tank.
- Use a vacuum cleaner that can be used in water to clean the tank’s interior of the remaining salt particles. Please refrain from using a dry vacuum.
- Turn on the water supply, plug in the softener, and have your softening machine perform a manual regeneration cycle.
- To get the machine back to working normally, add salt.
When and How Often Should I Sanitize My Water Softener?
You should sanitize your water softener when it’s been out of use for more than a week. In addition to that, you should do it whenever you suspect bacterial contamination or that your water softener isn’t functioning properly.
- If the device has been out of use for more than a week, it hasn’t regenerated either. And without regeneration, there’s a good chance that hydrogen sulfide bacteria will settle inside it, especially if your private well is already rich with them. So, in such cases, sanitizing the unit, even if it’s just a precaution, won’t hurt anyone but the bacteria.
- If you suspect bacterial contamination, first, you should collect a water sample from both a hard water and soft water faucet and send it to an EPA-certified lab for testing. It’s important to have two different water samples to determine whether the bacteria are inside the water supply or the softener and whether they carry pathogens or not. Then, you can sanitize your water-softening device following the steps we provided above. Also note that water softeners don’t remove bacteria, and depending on the test results, you might need to install a whole house filtration system or a reverse osmosis unit.
- If you suspect that your water softener isn’t functioning properly, it’s probably either because the resin beads were rendered ineffective due to too much buildup or there’s a salt-related problem inside the brine tank. So, first, you should check the brine tank to see whether there’s enough salt in it and ensure there are no salt bridges. Then, you should sanitize the system. If it still doesn’t function properly after all that, contact a professional plumber or the manufacturer.
Note that it’s also good to sanitize the whole system every time you add new salt to the brine tank.