Water Softener Madness

My wife and I recently noticed that the water in our house was measuring very high in total particulates. Rings had appeared in our toilets, and calcification was showing up on faucets. I tested our water, to verify that my new parts per million/total dissolved solids (PPM/TDS) meter was working properly. After all, how else would I verify that my Aeroponics setup had the right level of nutrients? The measurement read over 400ppm, which is high. As a result of the poor measurement, I started investigating. An important note is that ppm/TDS readings of softened water are actually useless in determining whether or not your softener is working (I learned that later). Simply put, this is because a softener exchanges calcium and magnesium for sodium ions, effectively maintaining the original ppm of the water.

Initial mistakes aside, due to the other issues in the house, it was clear that the water softener was no longer softening. I buried myself in research about how water softeners work, and things I might do to narrow down what the issue might be. I watched several handyman YouTube videos, and before long came to the conclusion that a salt-bridge was a likely issue. I marched down into my basement, and scooped ALL of the salt out of the brine tank. Sure enough, my softener had created a salt mush bridge, due to my adding too much salt to my high efficiency water softener. I never knew you could add TOO MUCH salt to a water softener. One way to resolve a salt bridge (without removing the unit) is to pour hot water into the brine tank, wait four hours to allow the water to take on as much salt as possible then perform a regeneration cycle on the unit. I ended up performing this procedure four times – I had a lot of salt bridge build up…

After the salt bridge was resolved, I added salt back into the unit, and performed a couple more regeneration cycles over the next two days. Unfortunately, the water did not become any more soft, and I had to question if there was something else wrong with the unit. Back to the world wide web I went, and continued my research on the matter. I could not find videos of my particular water softener online, but after reading the owners manual a few times I felt confident enough to dismantle the simpler parts of the unit in order to verify that there were no clogs in the components of the water softener. I took out the small rubber rings and mesh filters stored on the top of the water softener and soaked them in warm soapy water after scrubbing them. I could not find any clogs unfortunately, so I put it back together, and in desperation ran yet another regeneration cycle. A couple days passed, and still, no soft water.

Since we use cloth diapers, the lack of soft water was beginning to impair the air quality in our laundry (washing cloth diapers with hard water fails to remove a portion of the stink). Times were getting rough. Based on all of the research I had performed online I was fairly confident that the issue with my water softener was that the resin bed had been fouled. What that means is that (for some reason) the resin beads used to exchange magnesium and calcium for sodium ions were taking on iron and slowly losing their ability to clean the water. If a salt bridge is left alone long enough, it is a sure-fire way to foul your resin bed since the beads cannot take on new salt ions, they essentially can not be cleaned. Changing the resin bed though… was a bit more complicated than I was willing to get. I would have to disconnect the water softener from the house water, lift the 150lb. resin bed, empty the contents somewhere, and then refill it. I ran a quick cost estimate for resin and activated charcoal on Amazon and it appeared the total supplies bill would be about $120. My particular water softener is a hybrid that uses activated charcoal to remove iron from the water, in addition to the use of resin.

Knowing how much it would cost ME to repair the water softener, I thought surely a local plumber would be able to do it somewhere in the neighborhood of that amount. Given the grim smell of the house, we decided to call a plumber out to take a look. The plumber came, tested for hard water (verifying iron, magnesium, or calcium is present after the water softener). He confirmed that the water softener was NOT working *shock*. He went down into the basement and tinkered with the unit for awhile. In the end, he decided that the issue was very likely that the resin bed had gone bad, and needed to be replaced. I felt a small sense of pride in the fact that at least I was able to arrive at the same conclusion as the professional plumber. Then he dropped the bomb on us. “We do not replace resin beds in water softeners that we do not sell. We have several models of water softeners you can purchase from us, however.” He went on to tell us that we could purchase a brand-new fancy water softener from them for a mere $6,000. When my wife reacted poorly to that price-point, he quickly explained the other model options, which ended in the “low-tier” water softener for the low price of $2,400.

These prices were insane to me–unthinkable really. After all, the water softener we owned I had purchased for $500 from Sears, after a local water company had tried to sell me on a $10,000 RainSoft water softener. While I had been nervous of trying to replace the resin bed, or perhaps replacing the resin bed, and then discovering that that had NOT been the issue, I was not about to spend thousands of dollars on something I could potentially fix with hundreds of dollars. My wife, being the cheerleader of the family, helped me to decide that we could at least try fixing the broken softener. That night, I placed the order for resin beads and activated charcoal for a total of $112.32. Since we have Amazon Prime it all arrived in a few days. We wasted no time in getting into the basement, and turning off the main water to the house.

Once again, I removed the salt from the brine well. I disconnected the water softener from the house, and ensuring the water was off, and that all valves near the water softener were closed. We (did I mention my wife was helping — she is amazing!) then worked on disassembling the water softener head, and got that disconnected from the distributor in the resin bed. To our surprise, and despite the fact I had run a regeneration cycle with the water off, the resin bed was still full of water, making it essentially impossible for us to lift. Remembering back to my youth, I recalled a need to siphon gas from a broken riding lawnmower into a functioning one. I found a loose piece of rubber hose, and sucked away, as soon as I felt the rush of water in the hose, I lowered it and let gravity do the rest of the work. Since we had snaked the rubber hose down the distributor PVC we were able to get almost all of the water out of the resin bed. That made the tank weight more manageable.

Still, the tank was heavy, and it was rough to handle. After an hour of fiddling around, and trying to leverage the weight appropriately, my wife managed to get at the resin inside the tank while I held it at an angle for her to empty. Since the resin was still wet, it had to be scraped out for the most part. We emptied it, and then I took it outside and rinsed it and our brine tank off with the hose. Finally, it was time to refill the tank. To my dismay, I realized that I had not purchased gravel to place at the bottom of the tank to cover the distributor intake. My wife looked at the resin and charcoal sitting in the tote we had just filled and noted that there were small rocks to be had there… So, we found a strainer from the kitchen and began panning for gold, er, I mean rocks. It took us about thirty minutes to find enough gravel to cover the distributor intake. Then we dumped the cubic foot of resin into the tank, followed by the 5lbs of activated charcoal. Thirty or so minutes later we had a re-assembled water softener. All in all, it took us about 4.5 hours to complete, despite the hassles, and having to pan for rocks. After a couple of regeneration cycles, and a week of usage, it was apparent that we had been successful. Our diapers were smelling cleaner, our water tested out at “very soft” using a water softness test kit and the chlorine taste of our water had disappeared.

Overall, my wife and I feel pretty proud about our work on this project. It was fairly complicated for us to do, and involved skill-sets we had yet to develop. However, we learned quite a bit from the experience and my handyman confidence level increased drastically. Now, of course, let’s run the numbers…

Assuming we decided to purchase the “cheap” option from that plumber ($2,400) — we saved a total of $2,287, once you subtract out materials, by doing this repair. If you average that out over the 4.5 hours my wife and I each worked on it, we paid ourselves $254 each per hour to do the repair. My job doesn’t pay that well. If we had just decided to buy another copy of the water softener I bought in the first place we would have paid ~$400 extra. In that scenario, we paid ourselves $55 each per hour to do the repair. As you can see, the effort, anxiety, and fear of doing the repair was well worth the work. In my opinion the knowledge I gained concerning water softeners alone was worth the challenge.

Products purchased for this project:
Water softening resin 1 cu. ft. bag replacement softener resin
Granular Activated Carbon – 5 Pound Bag

Things I should have bought…
Funnel – 2.5″ x 10″ (Would have made the dump into the resin bed MUCH easier)
15 Pound Gravel – Replacement Filter Tank Gravel (Skip the sifting for rocks)

Is there a D-I-Y project you have accomplished recently? How much money were you able to save?

2 Comments

  1. Trevor

    My favorite part is when you allude to the cost of fear. Fear is very expensive. My most recent DIY project was removing and replacing a deck.

    Total savings: $1000.
    Ice cream afterwards: $3
    Sense of accomplishment: Priceless
    Lawsuit from MasterCard: $500

    Reply
    1. Mr. Getaway (Post author)

      haha! That’s great! Nice humor about the MasterCard commercial. Yeah, the sense of accomplishment from even smaller tasks is really quite amazing. I wish more people would take on the extra work of diving deep into a project, learning about what makes things tick, so they can fix it. Good job on repairing the deck! The coolest thing, aside from the tasty savings, is that you will forever have the knowledge you need to do it again. Learning how to perform a fix or task is really a one-time cost, that will reward you multiple times during your life.

      Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *