How to Inspect Your Water Softener in 8 Simple Steps

Ben Kissam
Written by Ben Kissam
Updated December 20, 2021
A woman washing her hands in a sink
Photo: Cultured Images / Adobe Stock

Troubleshoot your water softener with a few easy steps

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To change your water’s taste or to prevent the buildup of minerals around hot-water-emitting appliances, many homeowners install a water softener at the home’s main water source. Since installing a new water softener costs between $500 and $6,000, it’s certainly frustrating when you notice your home’s water is still hard.

Don’t panic or return your water softener—instead, use this 8-step checklist to inspect your water softener and determine next steps for your device.

Look For Signs of Water Hardness or Device Wear Out

Whether your water softener is simply underperforming or needs maintenance, most homeowners notice similar signs of water hardness.

Signs that you need to service your water softener include:

  • Hard water stains in your sink or shower

  • Sporadic changes in water pressure

  • Mineral stains on hot water appliances

  • Salty or chemical-tasting water

  • Brown or yellow water coming out of your faucets

  • Feeling film on your hands after washing them

The easiest way to determine whether your device is working is to test its water hardness levels. Water hardness strips cost $10 for a box of 100 to 150 strips, or you can get a digital tester for under $20. Use the strips or digital tester to find out your water hardness levels, which will indicate whether your softener needs repairs or replacement.

Make Sure Your Water Softener Is Plugged In

Hey, it happens to the best of us. Water softeners are usually installed at the closest point to your water’s main line, which may be off the beaten path relative to foot traffic in your home.

They’re often placed outside the home in warmer climates as basements are less common. Check your water softener to ensure that it’s plugged in and operating correctly. It’s possible that someone tripped over the cable and unplugged the device after installation.

Ensure Your Water Softener Isn’t In Service Mode

Most water softeners have at least two modes: service and bypass modes. In service mode, your device should actively reduce water hardness in the home. Double check that yours isn’t in bypass mode, which means it’s purposely not pulling minerals from your water source.

While bypass mode is helpful for use in second homes or when homeowners go on vacation to save electricity, it could make it seem like your water softener is broken or malfunctioning.

Make Sure Your Water Softener Isn’t Regenerating

Many water softener systems also have a third mode called regeneration, where your machine prepares itself to reduce water hardness. In this mode, your unit flushes out minerals and chemicals caught while softening your home’s water to maintain efficiency and effectiveness. Modern units typically do this once every 24 to 72 hours automatically. 

  • If your unit has a manual switch to regenerate, though, make sure it’s not stuck in this mode.

  • If your unit is automatic, check what time it enters regeneration mode. 

  • It’s best to have your unit regenerate at night, instead of during prime hot water hours during hours when you need hot water like before work when you take a hot shower or at night when you’re doing the dishes.

Check the Salt Levels

Adequate salt levels make a huge difference in reducing your home’s water hardness. Each device is different, but you’ll need to replenish salt every 4 to 8 weeks in most cases.

Read your manual to determine how much salt your device needs, or search online to acquire this information. Set a reminder on your phone or computer to remember to top off your device.

Determine Whether You’re Using the Right Salt

 A man adding salt in a water softener
Photo: knowlesgallery / Adobe Stock

We’re all guilty of shopping for deals online to save a few bucks from time to time. In the case of your water softener, though, it’s important to use the exact salt that the manufacturer recommends. In some cases, devices use a proprietary blend of salt that you have to buy for the device.

The three main types of salt used in a water softener are:

  • Solar salt (sun-evaporated seawater salt)

  • Rock salt

  • Evaporated salt

Each type of salt varies in its chemical makeup and comes with other differences. For example, solar salt is more than 99% pure, but it may still contain trace chemicals that impact some water softener device’s performance. Rock salt is the most affordable, but it shouldn’t be used in some units.

Evaporated salt is the purest, and therefore the most expensive option, but it performs the best and can be used in most devices.

Replace the Water Softener Resin Bed

Perhaps your water softener still isn’t putting out soft water, or the maintenance work you’re doing to fix the device only lasts a day or two before hard water returns. This result could be a sign that the resin bed inside your device needs servicing or replacement. (This is especially common if you’re sourcing well water, which tends to have more iron in it than city water.)

  • Turn off your device and detach it from your water source.

  • Unscrew the device and remove the old resin beads.

  • Replace the resin beads with new ones. A bag of resin costs between $100 and $150.

Call in a Professional

Beyond the scope of the suggestions listed above, there could be an issue with a valve, leaks, or even a motor failure that’s keeping your home’s water hard. Hire a local water softener installation specialist to inspect your device and determine what elements need replacement or repairs. 

The average cost to repair a water softener is between $150 and $735, which is much more affordable than having to buy a new unit if something goes wrong when trying to fix your unit.

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