Unsure if your water softener is working properly?
Water softeners are a necessary part of many homes, but they require routine maintenance and are prone to a few operational issues that can reduce their capacity to soften your water. Regular testing of your water softener is an important way to monitor its performance to ensure it is functioning properly. Testing also allows you to identify problems as soon as they arise so you can address them before they harm your plumbing system.
This article provides 6 methods to test your water softener’s performance. We explain how to interpret the results, so you know what you need to do. We also provide tips on how to resolve problems with your softener to keep it operating at peak efficiency.
Continue reading to learn more about how to test your water softener!
Water Softeners – How They Work
Water softeners work by exchanging hardness ions, such as calcium and magnesium, for sodium. The softener resin beads inside the tank attract and hold the hardness minerals while the sodium is released into the water. When the resin becomes spent – meaning it can’t remove any more hardness from the water – the water softener initiates a regeneration process.
Regeneration is when the softener flushes the resin beads with a brine (salt) solution to remove the hardness minerals and reset them for another cycle of water softening. In this process, sodium ions displace the calcium and magnesium ions that are adsorbed to the resin. The hardness is discharged as a waste and the process can be repeated to continue softening water.
The frequency of regeneration is determined by how hard your water is, how much water you use, and the amount of ion exchange resin in your system.
What is hardness
Hardness is a measure of the dissolved calcium and magnesium ions in water. These are the minerals responsible for scaling and fouling on fixtures, appliances, and pipes. The higher the hardness level, the more scaling and fouling will occur.
Hardness is measured in grains per gallon (gpg). It is sometimes measured in parts per million (ppm).
Problems with hard water
Hard or extremely hard water is a problem in almost 85% of the United States. In some areas, the water hardness exceeds 200 ppm. Hard water can be described as shown in the following table.
I put together a detailed article on the harmful effects hard water has on your skin. Read it here.
How to Evaluate Water Softener Performance
Your water softener removes hardness from your water. The capacity of your softener is measured in grains per gallon (gpg). The higher the grain rating, the more hardness your water softener can remove from your water.
Read my article about the importance of water softener maintenance.
There are several ways you can evaluate how well your water softener is removing hardness. Some are qualitative and others are quantitative. Let’s review them.
1 – Visual checks
Water hardness causes a host of issues. Problems caused by hard water include:
- Clogged pipes and scaling
- Mineral deposits on dishes and glasses
- Dry skin and hair
- Brown or yellow water coming out of faucets
- Dingy laundry
- Reduced life of water-using appliances
- Higher energy costs for hot water
If you start to notice any of these issues, then it is an indication that your water softener is not softening your water adequately.
The best way to tell if your water softener is performing well is to do a visual check of your home’s plumbing system. Look for any evidence of scaling or mineral deposits on faucets, fixtures, dishes, glasses, and hard surfaces. Check your laundry to see if your clothes are becoming dinging or not getting cleaned as well as they did. Check your skin and hair for dryness.
Any of these conditions can be an indication that your water softener needs to be serviced or replaced.
While doing a visual inspection can give you a general idea of how well your softener is working, it is not quantitative. In order to get a more accurate measure of the performance of your softener, you need to use one of the following methods:
2 – Soap test
A soap test is a simple, yet effective, way to measure how hard your water is. As your water hardness increases, you can assume your water softener is not performing adequately.
To do a soap test:
- Fill a clear glass jar half full with a sample of your treated water. Mark the water level with a marker.
- Add 3 drops of soap to the water. Use a basic soap like Castile – it doesn’t have surfactants in it and performs very well.
- Shake the water and soap for 30 seconds.
- Check the water. If there is a thick layer of soap suds on the top, your water is soft, and your water softener is performing well. If the water turns a milky white, your water is hard, and your water softener needs attention.
3 – Hardness test strips
You can purchase hardness test strips at most hardware stores or online. These strips allow you to test the hardness of your water and give you a numerical value that can be compared against the grain rating of your softener.
To use hardness test strips, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Generally, the procedure is:
- Dip a strip into a sample of your treated water to wet the colorimetric tip.
- Remove the strip and shake off any excess water.
- Wait for 30 seconds for the color to develop.
- Compare the strip against the colors on the bottle or chart that came with the strips.
If the hardness is greater than 1, your water softener is not working properly and needs to be serviced.
4 – TDS meter
You can measure the total dissolved solids (TDS) in your water. This is not the same as hardness, but it can be used to get a general idea of how many ions (i.e., hardness) are in your water.
The TDS meter is very easy to operate. Simply turn it on and submerge the tip into the water sample. The meter should display the results almost immediately.
Since TDS measures ions that aren’t removed by your water softener – such as iron and manganese – you’ll need to have a value from a time when the softener was working properly. By comparing the initial value to the current reading, you can tell if the hardness is going up or not.
Any increases in TDS over time are an indication that your softener isn’t working properly.
5 – Laboratory analysis
The most accurate method of measuring your water’s hardness is to submit it to a laboratory for analysis. Water labs can test for a host of water parameters, including hardness.
This approach is the most expensive and takes the longest, but it can give you a detailed report of your water’s hardness. You can also have the laboratory test for other contaminants to get a more detailed assessment of your water’s quality.
6 – Check with City or Town
If you get your water from a public water supply, such as a city or town, you can check with the water department to find out the hardness of your water. This information is usually available online or through customer service.
Importance of Testing Your Water Softener
Testing your water and evaluating the performance of your water softener provides valuable and important information. By using one or more of the methods described above, you can determine if your water softener is removing hardness from your water and whether it needs attention.
If you find that your water softener isn’t working properly, don’t wait to have it serviced – contact a professional today!
Interpreting Water Softener Testing Results
Now that you have the test results, what do they mean?
It is useful to know if your water is being softened or if still has high amounts of hardness. Hardness levels above 1 grain per gallon means your water isn’t adequately treated. What does a high hardness level mean, and what should you do?
Here are six possible problems and suggestions for how to resolve them.
1 – Salt related problems
Salt is an important part of the water softening process. It is used to regenerate the resin so that it can continue softening your water.
There are several issues related to salt that you should check if your water is hard. They are:
salt bridging: This is when salt clumps together to form a hard crust that sticks to the tank walls. It prevents the salt from dissolving adequately and reduces the regeneration efficiency. Break up any salt bridges immediately. Use evaporated pellets to prevent this from happening.
no salt: If your water softener runs out of salt, it won’t be able to regenerate the resin bed and soften your water. Check the salt level every week or two and refill the brine tank when the level gets down to 25% full.
salt mushing: This occurs when dissolved salt in the brine tank recrystallizes and forms hard clumps and sludge on the bottom. The solid material won’t dissolve and must be removed from your tank. Use a high-quality salt to prevent this from occurring.
Learn everything you need to know about water softener salt in my article.
2 – Regeneration cycle too long
Most water softeners allow you to adjust the regeneration cycle. This is the time between regeneration events. The typical range for regenerating the resin in softeners is 3 days to 14 days. One regeneration every 7 days is the most common setting.
If your system is removing a lot of hardness, the resin can become saturated. If the regeneration cycle is too long (i.e., too many days between regeneration events), then the media won’t have any capacity to soften your water and the hardness will start to increase
To avoid this problem, don’t make too many adjustments to the regeneration cycle. If you make changes, be certain to verify your new settings are appropriate and can adequately maintain the resin.
3 – Brine dose too low
Many water softeners allow you to change the brine dose. I don’t recommend adjusting this value because it requires a good understanding of ion exchange, and if you get it wrong, your water softener won’t adequately soften your water.
Check the manufacturer’s recommendations before making changes. Once you make an adjustment, initiate a regeneration cycle and then test the water. If the hardness isn’t less than 1 gpg, then you should increase the brine dose.
4 – Fouled resin
The ion exchange resin in your water softener can become fouled over time. Common issues with the resin include biological fouling and iron fouling. In these cases, biological slime or iron scale can coat the resin and block it from the hardness in the water.
Periodically open the resin vessel and inspect the media. If you notice any slime accumulation on the media, it must be removed and replaced with fresh resin. If you notice a brownish/rust colored scale on it, you need to clean it. There are several resin cleaning solutions available to remove iron from the media.
5 – Excessively hard water
If the hardness of your water supply increases, it is possible that the water softener doesn’t have enough capacity to fully soften it. This is a rare occurrence, but it might happen if your tap water supply has a high hardness level.
If the water softener can’t keep up with the increasing hardness, it will stop removing any hardness from your water.
Your options for this issue are relatively limited. You may be able to reduce the regeneration cycle time to increase the number of regeneration events. You might try increasing the brine concentration to restore more capacity to the resin during each regeneration event. If these strategies don’t work, you may need to install a larger water softener or add another tank to your system.
6 – Unusually high water usage
Your water softener has a specific amount of capacity – the ability to remove hardness from your water. If you use a lot more water for an extended period of time, the softener may not be able to fully treat your water. This will cause hard water to start building up in your water supply.
If you’re using more water than normal, you may need to reduce the regeneration cycle time to regenerate the resin more often. You can also increase the brine concentration to provide more capacity to the resin.
Final Take on Testing Water Softener
Testing your water softener is essential to confirming that it’s working effectively. The tests you can use include visual checks, soap test, hardness test strips and a TDS meter reading. These will tell you if there is an issue with the salt, the regeneration cycle, or fouling.
Once you have collected all necessary data, use the strategies in this article to interpret what you’ve found. If your water softener isn’t performing as well as it used to or you are experiencing hardness issues, we have the answers you need!