Written By: Natalie Frank PhD
There are many models of efficient compact water softeners available today. They can be used in smaller homes, apartments, condos, campers, boats and motor homes, or any small structure such as a personal office. Compact water softeners are versatile since they can fit into small spaces like under sinks or cabinets, tucked into a corner of the basement utility room, or even in a closet where regular size water softeners will not fit. A number of models are portable so they can be moved from the house to a boat or camper. Over time, water softeners can lose their ability to remove hard water minerals if they are not maintained properly. The good news is that when owners are aware of basic upkeep techniques and schedules, it is simple to keep their units running great.
Regeneration, Salt Types and Sodium Chloride vs. Potassium Chloride
Every water softener, no matter how simple or complex, needs to have the unit regenerated. This is probably the most important part of maintaining the unit, as it addresses the salt levels which are key to ensuring a properly running water softener. Every month the salt level should be checked. Use the specifications listed in the manual to know what the normal salt level should be. Salt regenerates the resin beads and prepares them to soften the water. Lifting the lid will allow the salt level to be observed or LED lights indicate salt levels on electric models. In general, salt should be added when the level is lower than half full. The manual will state whether the salt form used should be a tablet, a block, or granular.
It also critical to use the right type salt. There are three types of salt available.
- Rock salt is not extensively processed, which makes it much cheaper than other options. The downside to rock salt is that it has impurities that build up in the water tank. This means the tank must be cleaned out more frequently than when using other types of salt.
- Solar salt is salt that is left over after seawater evaporates. It contains fewer impurities than rock salt, so the build-up occurs more slowly and the tank does not need to be cleaned as frequently as when rock salt is used.
- Evaporated salt is similar to rock salt but it has been more heavily processed and all moisture is evaporated out. This has the lowest tendency to build up. If it can be used in the model in question .it can be the best to use when there is exceptionally hard water or when a lot of water is used daily.
Most older water softeners use sodium chloride, which replaces hard water minerals with sodium. This adds a tiny amount of sodium to tap water which is not noticeable but may not be ideal especially for those on a low sodium diet. However, since it is cheap and plentiful it is often the choice people make. Newer models also have the option of using potassium chloride. This mineral is not harmful to health and may even be beneficial. Since there is less chloride in the waste water it is better for the environment. The downside is it is harder to find and more expensive than sodium chloride.
Sometimes owners will choose salt because they have heard it is the “best” or because it is the cheapest. The salt that is best is the one that works the best with a particular type of unit. The same goes for the choice between using sodium chloride or potassium chloride. Your manual will include information about which type of salt to use. That being said, if the manual states that more than one salt works equally well and either potassium or sodium chloride can be used, the best choices to keep a water softener running well and to decrease the cleaning frequency are potassium chloride and evaporated salt. This is a more expensive option and can be harder to find but it pays off in decreasing the amount of time spent cleaning the tank and associated structures.
Maintaining Other Parts of a Compact Water Softener
While all models have parts that need a certain amount of care, this can be accomplished relatively easily by reviewing the operating model and becoming familiar with the various pieces of the equipment. The parts of the water softener that need to be focused on are the injector, the brine line and the brine compartment.
The purpose of the injector is to control the flow of the brine into the resin tank. Over time, salt deposits can build up, slowing or blocking the flow or making it flow irregularly. The first step to cleaning the injector is to switch the water softener to the bypass mode. Then remove the injector cap and lift out the screen and nozzle. The screen is easily cleaned with warm, soapy water. To clean the nozzle, carefully insert a straightened paper clip into the nozzle hole to loosen debris. Then, blow air through it gently to clear the debris completely. This may need to be done twice to make sure all the built up material has been removed.
The brine line is a small tube that transfers the brine to the resin tank. The line should be checked regularly for clogs. This can be done by unplugging the unit and setting it to bypass. A turkey baster can be used to inject warm water into the line to clear any clogs.
Cleaning the brine compartment to remove build up should also be part of regular maintenance upkeep. To clean the brine intake area, a tooth brush and warm water can be used to gently scrub away build-up. The tank can be cleaned by dumping out the brine and residue and flushing the tank with a water hose. Depending on the size of the tank a wet-dry vacuum can also be used. The brine tank should be cleaned before each salt refill.
Regular Inspections and Professional Maintenance
Compact water softeners should be inspected every several months by a trained technician. The technician will look for any leaks, signs of wear and tear and any other malfunctions or indications that the system is not working up to expectations. This can be done when it is time to replenish salt and the technician can take care of this part of regular maintenance as well. This can be helpful since sometimes a solid build-up of salt may be found in the brine tank which needs to be removed by breaking it up. Once a salt bridge forms, it is likely to happen repeatedly with increasing frequency. The trained technician can break up these bridges and provide options to prevent this from continuing to occur or at least decrease the frequency with which they occur.