Water softeners don’t go wrong too often.
However when they do, there’s a ton of potential problems and you’ll need to troubleshoot to get your soft water supply flowing again.
This compilation of the most common water softener problems is the result of 8 hours research, three calls to my maintenance man – and unfortunately – having experienced a couple of these issues myself.
If you’re sure what’s causing the issue with your softener, click to go straight to its section. If not, start with diagnosing the problem in step number one and continue from there.
- Water Softener Water Still Feels Hard – Initial Troubleshooting
- The Water Softener Won’t Regenerate
- Water Softener Stuck in Regeneration
- Water Softener Not Using Any Salt
- Water Softener Using Too Much Salt
- Frozen Water Inside The Water Softener Tanks
- Overflowing Brine Tank / Water Level Too High
- Brown, Dirty Water
- Resin Beads In Water
- Low Water Level In Brine Tank
- Low Water Pressure
- Water Softeners Making A Loud or Funny Noise
- Water Softener Motor Failure
- Water Softener Has A Bad Smell
- Salty-Tasting Water
- Operation Error: Water Softeners
- Softener Is Leaking
1. Water Softener Water Still Feels Hard – Initial Troubleshooting
What are the first steps to troubleshoot a water softener?
By definition, these devices are installed to provide soft household water. If this isn’t happening you’ll need to do some water softener troubleshooting. Try to carry out the steps in a logical order.
- Check the electricity. Is the device and display powered?
- Ensure the bypass switch is not in the ‘bypass’ position.
- Check the clock is set correctly (this could be wrong due to a power outage).
- Check the softener settings for the correct hardness, salt, and usage.
- Check the salt levels and check for a salt bridge in the brine tank.
- If the unit has just been installed, check the connections and be sure the installation was carried out correctly.
- Finally start a manual regeneration cycle, and test your water again.
If the manual regeneration process won’t start check the next step.
If you test your water after the regen cycle and it still isn’t softened enough, continue down this list and see if you are suffering from any of the following problems.
2. The Water Softener Won’t Regenerate
A regular regen cycle is essential to the correct running of the system.
If you don’t hear any sounds this is usually due to incorrect clock setting or a faulty timer (but since you checked this in Problem 1 we can ignore this problem here).
If you hear the regen cycle trying to run, then the timer is working correctly. In this case you’ll need to continue down this list to check for other issues.
3. Water Softener Stuck In Regeneration
The issue here is the regen cycle keeps running over and over and the running water won’t stop.
Another issue like a blocked drain line, a clogged injector, or a blockage in the brine line or valve could be the cause. This means the resin tank is failing to draw in brine from the salt tank.
You should also check the float valve.
Any of these problems could cause water to continuously flow into the brine tank causing it to overflow.
4. Water Softener Not Using Any Salt
Why is the salt in your softener not going down?
If you notice that the salt level isn’t getting any lower over time, your water is not being softened properly. This is one of the most common water softener problems.
Usually the cause is a salt bridge inside your brine tank.
Salt bridges mean a hard crust has formed, creating empty space between the water and the salt. As a result, the water and salt are prevented from mixing and there is no brine to rinse the resin beads.
Grab something with a long handle, like a broom or a mop, and gently poke the salt bridge. You should also remove any larger blocks of salt in the brine, as it’s unlikely that these will dissolve.
Keep your salt tank half-full in future. This will reduce the likelihood of salt bridges forming again in the future.
5. Water Softener Using Too Much Salt
Conversely, if your salt is running low frequently you may be using the incorrect salt dose, or your regeneration cycle is running too frequently.
Check your manufacturer’s guidelines for the correct salt dose, and check the control unit and timer to adjust the regen cycle frequency.
6. Frozen Water Inside The Water Softener Tanks
Water inside the brine tank that has frozen can damage your pipes,, and could even cause your water softener to blow up.
This happens due to extremely cold weather, leaving the garage door open, or installing the softener in the wrong location.
Avoid this by keeping your water softener at above 32 degrees. You can prepare for cold weather by installing insulation around your pipes and water softener.
If you’ve been caught off guard by an unusual snap of cold weather, use a space heater to warm the water softener and pipes.
When away from home for long periods of time, consider leaving the faucet dripping. This will prevent the water from standing still, making it less likely to freeze.
7. Overflowing Brine Tank / Water Level Too High
One of the most common water softener problems is when water in the brine tank is leaking over the top or side of the system.
Several water softener problems can cause this, and we’ll look at them one by one.
Brine Line and Float Malfunction
It’s possible that the brine line was not connected properly during installation. Another possibility is the float has come less secure over time.
The float works in a similar way to your toilet. So if the float is not connected properly, the float valve won’t stop the water flow at the correct level.
Take off the lid from the brine tank and ensure the line is securely fitted. Make sure there are no water or air leakages.
Drain hose line clogged or kinked
An overflowing tank can also be caused if your drain hose line isn’t straight, or it’s been clogged up with salt.
Take out the drain hose and clean it and ensure that it’s straight without kinks. You should do this regularly as part of normal water softener maintenance.
Injector is clogged
TThis component has a small hole that draws water through it. This can become clogged particularly in homes with high levels of iron in the water.
Remove and clean the injector and the injector screen (don’t forget to shut off the water by activating the bypass valve first). This is an inexpensive spare part, so if you can’t unclog it you can just replace it instead.
Pro tip: If you’re using regular rock salt, consider switching to pure salt with iron remover. Low-quality salt can be the cause of sediment build-up and other blockages.
8. Brown, Dirty Water
Brown water coming out of your faucet or showerhead is probably the most shocking water softener problem. You’ll want to get this fixed immediately.
Be sure that your water softener is the cause. Most likely your plumbing is rusty, or worn out. If this is the case then there is nothing wrong with your softener.
If the water softener is to blame, it’s likely due to dirt and rust in the brine tank or sediment build-up.
Open up the brine tank and examine the water. It will be easy to see if their is brown water inside or not. You can either give your brine tank a regular clean or use a resin rust remover.
If you have a well and sediment build-up is to blame, you may want to consider installing a sediment filter.
9. Resin Beads In Water
Another of the more worrying water softener problems is orange or yellow beads appearing in your toilet, bathtub, or other places.
These resin beads are not a cause for panic. However they can cause damage to your plumbing system or other appliances if ignored.
Under normal operation the beads form a resin bed inside the mineral tank (resin tank) and exchange calcium and magnesium, for sodium ions. If resin beads are finding their way out of the tank, this may be due to a damaged water softener screen.
Check the water softener screen for damage, and replace it if necessary.
If the resin beads look like they are broken into small pieces, you may also be suffering from low water pressure. In this case you may need to replace the resin beads.
10. Low Water Level In Brine Tank
Of all the water softener problems we describe, this is the one that reading this article will save you the most embarrassment.
The salt water brine tank having no water is actually not a problem at all.
This is actually normal operation of the system. If the water tank is operating normally you shouldn’t be able to see the water and your home should be benefiting from soft water.
No action needed.
11. Low Water Pressure
Either all of the water appliances in your home have low pressure OR you notice a single appliance (eg. a shower, or a bathroom faucet) has weak water flow.
To fix this issue, first make sure that your water softener is the cause of the issue. Activate the bypass valve and check the water pressure again. If the water pressure is normal now, then you’ve isolated the issue to the water softener.
There are a couple of common problems that could be the cause of this.
Water Softener is Too Small for Your Home
Your daily softening requirement is based on your water hardness level and your daily water usage.
If your daily softening requirement is too high for your current systems, this is likely the cause of your low water pressure.
Calculate your requirement, and upgrade your system to a larger model if necessary.
Sediment Filter Or Resin Bed Clogged
If your home has a sediment filter for well water, this could be your problem.
Your sediment filter may be clogged or dirty which will restrict the flow. Alternatively, if the sediment filter isn’t working properly then sediment may have found its way into the resin bed.
Check the sediment filter and clean, or replace it as necessary. If the resin bed is dirty, you should clean the tank with iron removing chemicals.
Escaped Resin Beads Clogging Faucets or Showerheads
Old resin beads have broken into small pieces and escaped into the plumbing system.
You may also notice resin beads elsewhere in your system. If they’re small broke pieces you should replace the resin beads.
12. Water Softeners Making A Loud or Funny Noise
Most noises probably normal and are part of the regular regeneration cycle, which happens in three stages:
- First backwash stage: sounds like a normal hose pipe and lasts for around ten minutes
- Regeneration cycle: a normal running sound that is quieter than the last stage and lasts around 90 minutes
- Second backwash stage: This stage happens very quickly and can sound like a car engine starting up and there may be some high-pitched noises.
If the problem is that the regeneration cycle is disturbing your sleep then consider adjusting the timer.
Another normal sound is the ticking of the water softener timer. This timer is similar to the ones you might find in a water heater. There are small gears inside the timer which can make a low-level noise as they turn.
Water Softener Problem Noises
- A banging sound might be caused by hard minerals building-up in the inlets or in the control valve. You’ll need to clean these and remove the deposits of minerals.
- A hissing sound could be caused by a water valve sticking, or a small crack in tubing. Check the valves and pipes, and clean or replace where necessary.
- A squealing noise is also likely to be caused by a sticking valve.
- A loud clicking sound suggests a broken gear tooth due to a sticking piston. It’s possible the piston can be cleaned and repaired, but you’ll most likely need to replace both parts.
13. Water Softener Motor Failure
A motor failure is one of the less common water softener problems.
Water softeners that suddenly die or sound like they are ‘struggling’, usually have a failed or failing motor.
If the device is still under warranty the manufacturer may be able to help you or even replace the motor.
The best way to prevent a motor failure is to keep the device regularly maintained following the manufacturer’s directions.
14. Water Softener Has A Bad Smell
Water softeners that suffer from bad or stinky smells can be split into two categories: the water tank smells bad OR the water from the faucet smells bad.
The Water Tank Smells Bad
Water softeners use sodium to create the brine. The sodium in the brine can attract sulphur bacteria which produces bad-smelling sulfur gas as it grows.
To get rid of the smell you’ll need to clean the tank. This should be done annually by a professional as part of regular maintenance to avoid it happening again.
The Water Itself Smells Bad
Water that smells bad after being treated by a water softener may have high levels of iron, hydrogen sulfide, or sulfur.
This is probably not dangerous for health. But you certainly won’t want to drink it.
The solution is to install a pre-filter that will remove these contaminants before they enter the water softener.
15. Salty-Tasting Water
Under normal operation your softener system should produce soft water that does not taste unusually salty.
Most likely there is a kink in the brine or drain line, or the injector is clogged.
Salty-water has the same causes as an overflowing brine tank. Troubleshoot your water softener with those fixes.
16. Operation Error: Water Softeners
Water softeners will often tell you exactly what is wrong with your water system by displaying an error code on the timer or control unit display.
This helps plumbers know how to repair a water softener system and to know which components need replacing.
You can find lists of common error codes online, or you can check the manual for your model.
17. Softener Is Leaking
The causes of a leak could be due to issues with several of the softeners components.
There may be a crack or damage in the salt tank, the resin tank, the control valve, or on any of the inlets and outlets.
Inspect the whole system and work out where the leak is coming from. Once you’ve found the location of the leak, you’ll just need to fix or replace the broken part.
Often leaks appear just after installation, maintenance, or a repair. If a plumber has recently been working on your system, shut off the water supply, and call them back to fix the issue .
Keep on Top of Your Water Softener Maintenance
Now you’ve sold your water softener issues, you’ll want to make sure you keep your system well maintained.
An annual service by a professional will ensure your softener system operates for the length of its lifespan.