Water softeners rely on sodium to treat hard water minerals, so if the salt level in your brine tank never goes down, there’s a problem. You’ll see and feel the consequences on your skin and see them on your bathroom fixtures.
But the good news is that salt use issues are typically simple fixes that don’t require a plumber. If your water softener isn’t using salt, we’ll help you diagnose the problem and find a solution.
How Does a Water Softener Work?
Water softeners replace calcium and magnesium ions with sodium ions in a process known as ion exchange. During the regeneration process, the resin tank is flooded with brine solution, washing away hard minerals so that you can enjoy soft water – read more here.
Why Is the Salt Level in My Brine Tank Not Going Down?
If the level of salt in your brine tank doesn’t go down, one of these common issues is probably to blame.
Water softener salt can form a hard crust over the water in your brine tank. Called a salt bridge, it gives you the impression that the salt tank is full when actually, it’s low. This prevents salt and water from combining to produce the brine solution that makes your water soft. The solution is to break up the salt bridge and take measures to prevent it from reoccurring.
Breaking up a salt bridge is straightforward. With the softener in bypass position, gently push on the salt bridge with your hands or a long wooden stick like a broom handle until it crumbles. Repeat the process whenever a salt bridge forms.
Avoiding salt bridges isn’t quite as simple. If you live in a high humidity climate, decreasing the moisture level near your water softener with an air conditioner or dehumidifier can help. Or switch to evaporated salt pellets — they’re less likely to form salt bridges than salt crystals.
Finally, don’t overfill your brine tank. Adding too much salt can impede water flow and create dry salt deposits or salt clumps near the top of your brine tank.
“Salt mushing” occurs when thick salt residue forms at the bottom of your brine tank. This salt build-up eventually solidifies, forming a salt crust that prevents proper brine formation.
Like salt bridges, mushing may be related to humidity or frequent temperature fluctuations near the salt tank. But more often, the causes are overfilling your brine tank, using the wrong type of salt or a damaged grid plate.
Evaporated or solar salt is better for most water softeners than rock salt. Rock salt contains small quantities of minerals that make it harder to dissolve. And if you overfill the brine tank, it compresses the salt at the bottom and clogs the brine line which prevents water from flowing through it effectively. Most water softeners have a grid plate at the bottom of the brine tank that prevents mushing, but it may deteriorate over time.
Fixing this issue is simple but time-consuming — empty the brine tank, break up the salt and replace the grid plate if it’s damaged. To prevent mushing, let the salt level drop by three-quarters before adding more salt and add slightly less than the full recommended amount. If you have a small brine tank, however, check it often to ensure there’s enough salt.
Clogged Venturi Nozzle/Venturi Valve
A clogged Venturi nozzle/Venturi valve won’t draw brine out of the salt tank. The result is too little salt use, mushing or bridging.
As part of maintaining your water softener’s salt tank, clean the valve with warm water and a soft toothbrush to maintain peak performance.
The Wrong Type of Water Softener Salt
Not all salt is created equal. Table salt, for example, is too fine for use in water softeners. Most softening systems are engineered to use average water softener salt — the bagged salt pellets or loose salt crystals you can find in stores.
Evaporated salt is the purest salt available — uniform in size, it dissolves readily and is less likely to mush or form a salt bridge. Solar salt and pellet salt are also good choices, but salt crystals vary more in quality.
Rock and block salt are the least efficient types of salt. Hard to dissolve, they may contain minerals and debris that compromise their efficiency. It’s also worth noting that some water softeners work better with some types of salt than others, so refer to your owner’s manual for recommendations.
Water chemistry also varies, and it affects how well softening salt dissolves. So, even the purest water softener salt may not be the best choice for your model. If your salt-use woes began shortly after switching salt types, it’s worth going back to what worked.
Salt Level Too High
You should see 3-4 inches of salt above the water level in your brine tank. More than that means you’ve added too much salt.
It’s tempting to overfill the brine tank to avoid repeated maintenance, but don’t do it. Exceeding the maximum encourages salt bridges and mushing.
Float Valve Set Too Low
The brine tank has a float valve like in a toilet tank that controls the water level. A safety feature, it ensures that the tank can’t overfill. If it’s set too high, your brine could contain too much water. If it’s set too low, salt bridges may form.
The float valve setting can be challenging to troubleshoot if you don’t know the original setting. Sometimes, a drop is obvious, but it may also be subtle. If you suspect a problem with the float valve setting, raise it incrementally and assess the effects each time the water softener regenerates.
Clogged Drain Hose
A clogged or pinched drain line throws off the salt to water ratio in the brine tank, affecting the regeneration cycle.
If your water softener isn’t draining properly, remove the drain hose, clear any kinks or obstructions or replaced damaged hoses. Restoring flow through the drain line may correct the salt use imbalance.
Low Water Pressure
Softeners have minimum incoming water pressure requirements. If the water pressure drops too low, it may affect the regeneration cycle and salt use.
If the problem is a sudden drop in city water pressure due to a broken main, the issue will correct itself after repairs are complete. A drop in well water pressure due to drought, however, may be more challenging to fix. Consult a professional.
Water softeners depend on input from the user to regenerate properly. If the wrong hardness or water usage settings were entered, the unit may regenerate too little, resulting in less salt use.
If you just installed a new water softener or had an extended power outage, it’s worth going to the control panel to verify the settings.
Water softeners are simple machines. Malfunctions are rare, but they do occur. If your water softener isn’t using salt, and there’s no salt bridge, mushing, or other run-of-the-mill problem, a component may have failed.
The most common failures occur in the control valve, but when they do, low salt use is rarely the only problem you’ll detect.
Symptoms such as —
- Signs of hard water
- Brown water
- Frequent regeneration cycles
- Constant draining
- An unusual taste in your drinking water
— indicate something more than meets the eye is afoot. The decision then becomes whether to try fixing it yourself or to call a professional.
Water Softener Maintenance and Repair Tips
With DIY skills and a can-do attitude, most people can maintain and repair a water softener. Here are a few expert tips.
- Safety first — turn off the electrical power before working on your water softener.
- Always put the water softener in the bypass position before beginning repairs. This engages the bypass valve so water won’t accidentally flow through the system while you’re conducting repairs.
- Use only quality salt.
- Take care of your water softener as directed. From resin beads to the brine valve, most parts eventually wear out. But clogged valves and water lines rarely occur in a well-maintained system.
- Keep good maintenance records. If you have to call a professional, it will help them get your equipment up and running faster.
A water softener protects your skin, safeguards your plumbing system and extends the life of appliances from washing machines to dishwashers. Give it the TLC it deserves.