There are a few different ways of cleaning a water softener, but the most recommended method is to get a cleaning product that’s specifically made for disinfecting water softener devices.
However, you don’t always need or even want to spend money on an extra product when you can use common household items like bleach and vinegar. Bleach is a popular water softener cleaning agent, but not every water softener manufacturer approves cleaning their devices with bleach. This is because the chlorine molecules in bleach products can interfere with certain water softener resin beads and wear them down. The device may then lose its capacity for ion exchange and become redundant.
This is why most water softener owners recommend vinegar. Since vinegar can also break the bonds between mineral molecules, it can clear out the minerals absorbed and trapped in the resin bed.
Can I Clean My Water Softener With Vinegar?
Yes, you can clean your water softener device with vinegar. One cup of vinegar poured into the brine tank will be enough to clean a small (1 to 3 bathrooms) unit. That number is doubled for medium units (4 to 6 bathrooms) to 2 cups. If you have an industrial unit (7+ bathrooms), you need to pour 3 – 4 cups of bleach into the brine tank.
Unlike bleach, there’s no precaution for the use of vinegar as a sanitation tool for water softener systems. Still, we recommend you refer to the instruction manual or contact the customer service of the manufacturer of your product to verify.
How to Sanitize a Water Softener With Vinegar
You can clean your water softener by sanitizing the brine tank or running a manual regeneration process yourself.
Please note that the former will only disinfect the brine tank, while the latter will allow the sanitizing solution to travel through the whole water softener system. For a more precise cleaning session, you might want to do both.
Below are step-by-step guides on both procedures:
How to Sanitize the Brine Tank With Vinegar
Traditional water softeners come in double-tank designs. The bigger one of these tanks is the resin tank, where the softening process takes place. The smaller tank is the brine tank where the salt goes, and where the brine solution that recharges the resin during the regeneration process is made.
Here’s how to make a vinegar solution and sanitize the brine tank:
- Cease all water-softening operations. Disconnect the pipes that lead to the device and unplug it from the electric socket. Or, if there’s still a need for running water in the house, simply bypass the water softener and then unplug it.
- Empty the water inside the brine tank. There might be some leftover brine solution inside the tank. Dump it down the drain. Don’t pour it in your garden because the sodium inside the brine solution will cause soil to degrade, and possibly kill nearby plants.
- Remove the salt from the brine tank. Remove all the salt inside the brine tank and dump it in a trash bin. If there are certain sludge formations, clumps, and whatnot, use a soft brush or sponge to clear them all out. Also, we recommend you sanitize your device when the salt inside the brine tank is at its lowest since you’ll save salt that way.
- Scrub the inside of the tank with soap. Make sure to use a scentless soap and, once again, a soft brush so that nothing is damaged. Then, rinse it thoroughly.
- Make a vinegar solution. Pour a cup (250mL) of vinegar into a gallon (3 – 4L) of water, stir it, and let the mix settle for 15 – 20 minutes.
- Pour the solution into the brine tank of your water softener. Pour it slowly while gently scrubbing the inside of the brine tank. (Note: This step will be carried out more efficiently if a family member assists you: one of you can pour the solution, and the other one can just scrub gently and carefully.)
- Dump the solution and rinse the tank one more time.
- Add new salt to the brine tank. Now that the brine tank is thoroughly sanitized, you can pour 3 – 5 gallons of water into it and add new salt afterwards.
- Put the water softener back into operation.
How to Run a Regeneration Cycle with Vinegar
You can run a regeneration cycle after cleaning the brine tank with vinegar, or you can just run a regen cycle without cleaning the brine tank. Ultimately, that decision solely depends on how clean the brine tank is.
Additionally, you can either manually run a regen cycle after making a vinegar solution in the brine tank or make a vinegar solution right before the device runs a pre-programmed cycle. This decision depends on which one is the more convenient option for you.
Here’s how to sanitize your water-softening system by running a regen cycle with a vinegar solution:
- Determine how much vinegar you need. As we established above, the amount of vinegar you need to clean your softening system thoroughly depends on the size of the unit. If you have a small unit (1 to 3 bathrooms), the brine tank is likely to hold 4-5 gallons of water at most. In that case, a cup of bleach will suffice to make an effective solution. For medium units (4 to 6 bathrooms), we recommend 2 cups, and for large units (7+ bathrooms), 3 – 4 cups should do the job.
- Put the necessary amount of vinegar inside the brine tank. Don’t worry if there’s no standing water inside the brine tank, as there shouldn’t be. When the time for regen comes, the water will be there to form a brine solution that’s rich with vinegar.
- Program the water softener to run a manual regen cycle. Most water softeners have salt system heads or Bluetooth apps that allow you to monitor, control, and adjust regeneration settings. Through these, you can also run manual regeneration cycles when it’s time to do some maintenance. You should also refer to the instruction manual when running a manual cycle since it’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Don’t use water during the manual regen cycle. Since the vinegar solution travels through the softening system during regeneration, the water that comes out of your faucets will have quite a bit of vinegar in it. If you or another household member must use water, bypass the softening device.
- Flush out the vinegar after the regen cycle. Just run a soft water faucet after the process and let it run until the water is devoid of any vinegar that might have remained within the system.
How Often Should I Sanitize My Water Softener?
It’s best to clean the brine tank every time you put new salt in it. Additionally, if you haven’t used the softener for a week or so (when you were on vacation, for example), we recommend you clean it before turning it back on.
It also wouldn’t hurt to send a soft water sample to an EPA-certified lab every now and then. No matter how smoothly your device operates, there’s always the chance it may be contaminated by bacteria and other contaminants found in the water source itself.
Vinegar is an effective tool for sanitizing water softeners. You can do it by cleaning the water tank or running a regen cycle with a vinegar solution inside your brine tank.
While the former will only disinfect the insides of the brine tank, the latter will allow the disinfecting solution to travel through the whole system and clean the resin tank as well. No matter what method you opt for, you should refer to the instruction manual or contact the manufacturer’s customer service to ensure you’re doing everything right.
Sanitizing your softener every time you add salt to the brine tank and sending samples to EPA-certified labs to ensure no unwelcome contaminants will prolong the system’s lifespan.