Water softener brine tank (C) Daniel FriedmanWater Softener Cleaning & Sanitizing Procedures

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Guide to Water Softener Cleaning & Sanitizing:

This article provides an owner's guide to water softener cleaning, and sanitizing - two steps in keeping a water conditioner working properly. We discuss the use of various chemicals & cleaners to sanitize or clean out water softeners and their brine tanks, and we comment on the effect of such chemicals on septic systems.

We discuss the formation of salt crust in the brine tank, the accumulation of dirt & debris in the brine tank, & how to remove these problems & contaminants in a water conditioner

. We also discuss using iron removing products or other chemicals to clean & sanitize a water softener.

We also provide a MASTER INDEX to this topic, or you can try the page top or bottom SEARCH BOX as a quick way to find information you need.

Owner's Guide to Cleaning & Sanitizing the Water Softener / Water Conditioner Brine Tank

Photo of a water softener salt tank ready for cleaningHere we divide water softener cleaning into these sub-topics:

  1. How to inspect and correct salt crust or bridging in the brine tank or salt keeper.
  2. How to empty, take apart, and clean a water softener, focusing on the brine tank since you won't normally disassemble the resin tank.
  3. How to disinfect or sanitize a water softener to remove or kill harmful bacteria or other pathogens that may be found in the equipment

According to several water softener manufacturer's manuals, most water softener materials such as the resin tank and brine tank and controls do not support bacterial growth, but disinfection may be appropriate when putting a new or previously-winterized softener into service. In addition, a softener can become contaminated by bacterial from the water supply itself.

Really? In fact pathogenic bacteria growth in water softeners is well-known, has been widely studied, and is cited in references we give at the end of this document.

Fortunately it is quite possible, and actually easy to disinfect or sanitize a water softener when needed.

... the standard for the water softeners includes a test for contamination with Pseudomonas aeruginosa which has to be disinfected during the regeneration phase. This is possible by sanitizing the resin bed during regeneration by producing chlorine. (Hambsch 2004)

You should therefore disinfect a new water softener, one that has required cleaning, one that has been out of service for some time, or one that has otherwise become dirty or contaminated.

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Our photo above shows the interior of a water softener salt tank. Notice that brown soil line marking where dirty water has risen in this tank? Our photo at right shows a close up of the inside of the float tube in the water softener tank - it's the same yellow tube you see in the left hand photo.

Although the salt you dump into the water softener's salt reservoir tank looks clean, the salt you have purchased is usually mined from the earth and will contain small amounts of soil and other debris. The debris accumulates in the water softener salt tank over time and can become filthy and possibly unsanitary. Debris in the salt tank can also clog water softener controls.

We recommend waiting until the salt in the tank has been consumed, or nearly all consumed. This will leave a water softener salt reservoir tank which is nearly empty and which is quite light, making it easy to disconnect, carry outside, and hose out.

Be careful not to break the float controls in the softener tank, but if you do break something or if you find that the float no longer moves freely, this part can and should be replaced.

Check the water conditioner brine tank for salt crusting or salt bridging

Identify the basic parts of a water softener (C) Daniel Friedman at InspectApedia.comIf a water softener is not softening the water and appears to have power and runs through regeneration cycles, taking a look into the salt or brine tank can fool you.

The tank can look "full" of salt crystals or pellets but if the top of the salt has crusted or formed a hard bridge stuck to the sides of the brine tank, in fact no salt may be dropping into the tank water to form a brine solution.

First though, to avoid some embarrassment, check that the water softener is not in "bypass" position. Now take a look in the salt tank.

A salt crust may form on the sides or across the whole interior surface of the brine tank. Periodically you should break up and remove this scale as it may prevent proper water softener operation. For example a thick salt crust may prevent salt in the tank from falling freely to the tank bottom where it is needed to mix with water during the regeneration cycle.

To avoid salt bridging or crust formation or to break up the salt bridge Sears advises:

Sometimes, a hard crust or salt “bridge” forms in the brine tank. It is usually caused by high humidity or the wrong kind of salt. When the salt “bridges,” an empty space forms between the water and the salt. Then, salt will not dissolve in the water to make brine.

Without brine, the resin bed is not recharged and hard water will result. If the storage tank is full of salt, it is difficult to tell if you have a salt bridge.

A bridge may be underneath loose salt. Take a broom handle, or like tool, and hold it next to the water softener. Measure the distance from the floor to the rim of the water softener.

Then, gently push the broom handle straight down into the salt. If a hard object is felt before the pencil mark is even with the top, it is most likely a salt bridge.

Gently push into the bridge in several places to break it. Do not use any sharp or pointed objects as you may puncture the brine tank. Do not try to break the salt bridge by pounding on the outside of the salt tank. You may damage the tank. - "Kenmore Model / Modelo No. 625.384200 Water Softener with Ultra Flow Valve retrieved 4/20/14, original source: [copy on file]

If the brine tank water or brine levels are too low or too high or brine is not being pumped into our out of the brine tank, see BRINE TANK DIAGNOSIS & REPAIR - home

Check the water softener brine tank for dirt and debris build up

Water conditioner salt sample (C) Daniel FriedmanWhen salt is low in the tank check for an accumulation of dirt and debris.

Salt is a naturally-mined mineral that is dug out of the ground. Although it looks (and is) pretty clean when you dump salt into your brine tank, a bit of soil (earth, dirt) comes along with it and may accumulate in the bottom of the brine tank.

So even though the salt looks clean and beautiful (our photo at left) when you are pouring it into the brine tank, in fact it may contain soil particles or other debris.

Because soil particles (dirt) does not dissolve and pass out of the system during the backwash/regeneration cycle, it accumulates in the bottom of the water softener brine tank where eventually it looks like muddy water.

You won't see this dirty crud because it's always hidden by the new salt you keep pouring on top of what's already in the brine tank - until you allow the water softener to "use up" its salt enough that you're looking at a nearly-empty brine tank.

When your water conditioner's brine tank looks dirty just empty it out and wash its interior with an ordinary household cleaner or detergent.

See Basic Procedure To Clean or Sanitize a Water Softener and Detailed Procedure to Clean & Sanitize a Water Softener.

Watch out: Some water softer companies such as Sears advise against using rock salt, recommending pellet salt or similar products because some rock salt contains soil and other debris that can clog the water softener.

Use NUGGET or PELLET water softener salt. DO NOT use rock salts, as they have dirt and sediments that will stop the softener from working. To maintain optimum performance of your water softener, the salt tank should be cleaned out every 2 to 3 years- "Kenmore Model / Modelo No. 625.384200 Water Softener with Ultra Flow Valve retrieved 4/20/14, original source: [copy on file]

How to Disassemble & Clean a Water Softener Salt Salt Storage Tank / "Salt Keeper"

Water softener brine tank (C) Daniel FriedmanThese instructions presume that your water conditioner (water softener) uses a separate salt or brine tank. The following instructions are adapted and expanded from advice from Culligan and from American Aqua's cleaning instructions for the Hellenbrand H-100 Water Softener.

These and other water softener draining and winterizing instructions organized by brand and model water softener are found at WATER CONDITIONER / SOFTENER MANUALS

There are a lot of steps in this procedure but don't be discouraged. We've broken down the brine tank cleaning procedure in to small, easy-to-follow steps. It's not technically difficult.

You will need these tools to clean out the salt storage tank

Steps in Dis-Assembling & Cleaning and Sanitizing a Water Softener & Its Brine Tank

  1. Turn off electrical power to your water softener - or check the control to be sure that the water softener won't be starting a backwash/regeneration cycle while you are in the middle of cleaning out the salt tank.

    [You can leave power on if you're sure you are not going to encounter a regen cycle during your cleanout. Leaving power on avoids having to later re-set the water softener timer or clock.]
  2. Remove the cover from the salt storage tank or sat keeper.
  3. Remove the cap from the brine valve chamber. The brine valve chamber is the smaller diameter vertical tube that you will find inside the salt tank when you have removed the tank's cover.

    Our photo (above-left) shows the interior of a salt tank or "brine tank" with the cover removed. The yellow tube is the brine valve chamber. Brine valves are discussed and illustrated at SALT DOSE SETTING, WATER SOFTENER.

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Photo of a water softener salt tank ready for cleaning

  1. Scoop out and Save clean salt: if your salt tank contains a volume of clean salt you can scoop out the salt and save it in a clean container such as a plastic bucket or even in clean dry grocery bags if needed.

    If the salt at the bottom of the tank and if it is visibly dirty we recommend that you remove all of it and throw it away.

    Watch out: Don't dump unused salt on the ground - you will kill your plants.
  2. Clean out remaining salt and debris from the bottom of the salt chamber using your scoop.

    Since you have removed the brine valve assembly, your salt tank may at this point be simply a free-standing plastic container, so you can tip it or move it if that helps clean out its contents.
  3. Disconnect & remove the brine float valve (the assembly inside the vertical yellow plastic tube in our photo (left) out of the valve chamber (the yellow tube) and place it aside in an "upright" position.

    You will need to disconnect the brine tank float assembly from the tubing that connects the brine tank to the water softener before the assembly can be removed.

    We brush off any dirt and debris and wash the brine tank float assembly in clean water, making sure that it dry and contains no water before leaving it upright for storage.
  4. If the water softener uses an air check valve on the brine tube in the brine tank that too deserves inspection and cleaning.


    Also see WATER SOFTENER CHECK VALVE STUCK as a cause of air discharge at fixtures
  5. Remove the brine tank overflow elbow or fitting. You will need to hold the fitting inside the brine valve well (large diameter yellowish plastic tube in our photo above) in order to loosen the overflow fitting lock nut on the exterior of the salt tank.
  6. Remove the brine chamber itself from the salt tank.

    You will probably have to remove a retaining screw and nut that hold the chamber to the side of the salt tank.
  7. Remove the salt plate at the bottom of the brine tank.
  8. Remove sludge and debris from the salt tank bottom & wash out the salt tank:

    Place the salt tank on its side [do this outdoors or at an indoor floor drain if you must work inside] and using your garden hose and sprayer, spray out all of the residue or debris that remain inside the salt tank.

    We perform this operation in our gravel driveway in an area where we don't want weeds and grass to grow since we expect that the salt may kill grass anyway.

    Also clean the salt plate or grid that you removed from the bottom of the salt tank.

    Also clean the brine chamber.

    Wash these parts out with clean water and use a clean cloth to dry them.
  9. If the water softener has been exposed to flooding or contamination by bacteria etc. disinfection or sanitizing may be needed.

    Any household cleaner spray that includes a disinfectant should be sufficient for cleaning and sanitizing the cleaned parts that we have described above.

    However none of that cleaning will have addressed any possible bacterial contamination of the resin and resin tank portion of your water softener.

    Watch out: The normal regeneration cycle of a water softener rinses debris and minerals out of the resin tank but does not disinfect or sanitize it. Bacteria can enter the water softener from the building water supply.

    To sanitize the water softener, see SANITIZE the BRINE TANK & WATER CONDITIONER
  10. If you plan to leave the water softener out of use during freezing weather, see WATER SOFTENER / TREATMENT TURN OFF then return to this water softener cleaning article.

Steps to Re-Assemble the Cleaned Brine Tank or Stalt Keeper

Now we are ready to put the water conditioner salt tank and its controls back together.

  1. If you left the water softener out of commission during freezing weather, see DE-WINTERIZE WATER SOFTENER then return to this water softener cleaning article.
  2. Return the salt tank to its original location and stand it upright.
  3. Replace the salt plate in the bottom of the salt tank.

    Watch out: If you forgot to clean this or any other components, clean them and dry them before continuing to re-assemble the brine tank.
  4. Replace the brine valve chamber in position and secure it to the salt tank with the screw and nut you removed earlier.

    If that hardware has become corroded and difficult to re-use it can be replaced.
  5. Replace the brine valve into the brine valve chamber and replace the brine valve chamber cap. Inspect the brine valve assembly before returning it to its chamber.

    If it is dirty or if you find broken parts or parts that are not moving freely those parts may be cleaned or replaced.
  6. Put water into the bottom of the salt tank - typical instructions call for 4-6 inches of water in the bottom of the tank.
  7. Fill the salt tank with salt to about 3-inches from the tank top edge.

    Be careful not to spill salt into the separate, smaller-diameter brine valve chamber - that's why it's important to keep the cap on that chamber.

    Salt falling into the brine valve chamber will interfere with proper movement of the brine valve float and valve.
  8. Put the cover back onto the salt tank.
  9. Turn the electrical power back on at your water softener if you turned it off earlier. If you turned off power or pulled the plug you may also need to re-set the water softener timer or clock to the correct time or position.
  10. Run a normal or manual regeneration cycle of the water softener.


How to Sanitize a Water Softener or Water Conditioner

All salt used in water softeners, whether it is "rock salt", "salt pellets", "solar salt" or "evaporated salt" is a natural mineral that will contain impurities and possibly soil particles. These materials accumulate in the bottom of the salt tank during normal use and eventually can interfere with water softener operation or water quality.

Every year or two we let the water softener use up its salt so that we can inspect and remove any dirt or sludge that may have accumulated at the bottom of the salt tank.

The following procedures are given in both basic and detailed forms and are adapted from maintenance recommendations from Culligan™ and other water conditioner companies.

If your water softener has been shut down for a week or more, if you are restoring to service a building that has been winterized (WINTERIZE WATER SOFTENER), or if your building water supply both hot and cold water have a stinky sulphur smell or "rotten egg" smell (caused by harmless but nasty smelling sulfate-reducing bacteria), you'll want to try the sanitizing procedure we describe below.

If only the hot water supply in the building smells like rotten eggs, see ANODES & DIP TUBES on WATER HEATERS..


Detailed Steps To Disinfect or Sanitize a Water Softener (and its salt reservoir or brine tank):

  1. Turn off any other water treatment equipment that uses Sodium hydrosulfite, Sodium bisulfite, or any other reducing agent and disconnect that device temporarily. If you're not sure what your other water treatment equipment is, ask your plumber or water treatment company who installed it.

    If you are not the original owner of the building and don't know who installed your equipment, look on the equipment for its name, model number, and for a sticker that may identify the local installer.
  2. Run a manual regeneration cycle to flush out the equipment;
  3. Put 3 gallons of water into the salt tank. Generally our instructions prefer that you have removed all salt from the brine tank and have cleaned it of any visible mud, crud, or debris, and that you've checked that the brine tank float tube is also clean and that the float moves freely.

    This is the most thorough cleaning approach. However some water softener manuals (such as the Sears Kenmore 100 / 150 UltraSoft) note that you can perform this sanitizing cycle with or without salt in the brine tank.
  4. Add bleach to the brine tank:

    Bleach dosage to sanitize a water softener: use 1.2 fluid ounces of bleach per cubic foot of resin in the resin tank (typically this is 2-3 cubic feet in an average home water softener).

    Add the bleach solution directly to the brine well in the salt tank. Then run the water softener through a normal or manual regeneration cycle.

    Watch out: do not pour bleach right onto the salt in the salt tank as it may not dissolve uniformly into the brine. Be sure to pour the bleach into the brine well where you'll see liquid brine. I prefer to also pour a cup or two of water after the bleach to wash bleach off of plastic parts that are not submerged in the brine in the brine well.

    For the Sears Kenmore 100-150 series water softener (others are similar) the company suggests adding 3/4 ounce or 1-2 tablespoons of 5.25% unscented household bleach to the water in the brine tank. Examples of "Household bleach" brands include BoPeep bleach, Clorox bleach, Eagle bleach, Linco bleach and White Sail bleach.

    Other directions use much more bleach, suggesting that you pour a one cup of household bleach (if your water softener is a 9" diameter unit) or two cups of bleach (if your water softener is a 12-inch diameter unit) right into the salt tank.

    We pour the bleach into the yellow tube that houses the float assembly but don't do this and let the bleach sit there for days since it might be so concentrated as to damage water softener parts. Just go ahead to the next step.

    Watch out: using more bleach is a more aggressive sanitizing process that may require extra regen cycles to flush all of the bleach out of the system.
  5. Run an extra manual water softener recharge cycle: set the water softener to perform an extra (manual) recharge cycle.

    The control to run an extra regen cycle varies by water softener brand or model. On the Sears Kenmore 100 / 150 series water softeners that use an electronic control head you'll have to press and hold the ON/OFF-HOLD button for three or more seconds to start a recharge / regen cycle. The regeneration cycle may take about two hours.

    This will flush salty chlorine disinfectant through the equipment. (No, using the recommended quantity of bleach will not harm the septic system.)
  6. Add salt? If you performed sanitizing of the water softener with no salt (or potassium chloride KCl) in the brine tank remember to now re-fill the salt tank with your salt supply.

    Watch out: as we explain at WATER SOFTENER SALT SUBSTIUTE: POTASSIUM CHLORIDE, different water softener settings will be required if you're using KCl.

To learn more about disinfecting water pipes, pumps, storage tanks, etc, also see WATER TREATMENT EQUIPMENT DISINFECTION.

How to Disinfect or Sanitize a New Water Softener Installation

Reader Question: do I need to disinfect or sanitize a new water softener at time of installation?

(Apr 19, 2014) C.S. said:

Do you need to sanitize a new soft water machine? After ours was installed by a technician and ready to go, I read installation manual that said to sanitize with bleach before using.

Reply: yes

C.S.The manufacturer of water softeners typically recommend such a step - I'd follow their recommendations.

Here is an example excerpt from an American Aqua Hellenbrand water softener manual:

The materials of construction of your water softener will not support bacterial growth nor will these materials contaminate a water supply. However, the normal conditions existing during shipping, storage, and installation indicate the advisability
of disinfecting a softener after installation, before the softener is used to treat potable water.

In addition, during normal use a softener may become fouled with organic matter or in some cases, with bacteria from the water supply.

Therefore, every water softener should be disinfected after installation, some will require periodic disinfection during their normal life. every water softener should be disinfected after installation, some will require periodic disinfection during their normal life. - source: American Aqua Hellenbrand H-100 manual at WATER SOFTENER MANUALS

Check the manual for your water softener, or if you don't have it, you can find it at WATER CONDITIONER / SOFTENER MANUALS as well as by contacting the manufacturer of your softener.

Can you tell us the brand and model? I'd like to take a look at the instructions as well.

Reader follow-up:

Thanks for answering. It's a Kenmore 420 Series. It's just annoying that the installer sent by Sears got it all set up, programmed it, told us we could add the salt, but didn't mention anything about the sanitizing. - C.S.

Reply: Sears Kenmore water softener manual recommends sanitizing new equipment installations

Indeed on p. 14 of the Sears Kenmore 420 water softener installation manual the company recommends disinfecting the equipment when it is newly installed, using 3oz of household bleach in the brine well and running a regeneration cycle followed by 50 gallons of flush-out to remove bleach from the system before placing it in service. It's good advice considering that plumbing fittings, equipment and devices are not kept in absolutely sanitary conditions prior to installation. It's also cautious advice.

There are probably millions of water softeners installed that were never initially sanitized though they may beg for that treatment after having been in service for a time, particularly if contaminated by water that itself contains bacteria or by rock-salt that contains soil and debris.

If you like you might wait until your unit has consumed the salt in the brine tank, then go through the sanitizing advice the company recommends, rather than trying to shovel out the salt already therein.

If you have any doubt about the potability of your water supply, be sure to test that as well, taking a sample from a point ahead of all of your water treatment equipment.

Cleaning & Sanitizing Water Softeners & Using a sanitizer in water softeners - the effects of sanitizers on septic systems

This topic moved to its own page at WATER SOFTENER SANITIZER IMPACT on SEPTICS

Where to Find Water Softener Cleaning Products

This discussion moved to a new web page at WATER SOFTENER RESINS & CLEANING COMPOUNDS


Continue reading at WATER SOFTENER MANUAL REGENERATION or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.


Or see WATER SOFTENER CLEANING FAQs - questions about cleaning and sanitizing a water softener




Or see WATER SOFTENER / TREATMENT TURN-ON - returning a water softener to service

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