Water softener controls showing adjustment pins (C) Daniel FriedmanWater Softener Troubleshooting & Diagnostic Procedures

  • DIAGNOSE WATER SOFTENER PROBLEMS - CONTENTS: How to Diagnose & Fix a Water Softener that Is Not Working Properly - How to diagnose water softener operation problems. CHECKLIST for an inoperative water softener
  • POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about how to diagnose water softener operating problems: how long the softener runs, how much water is in the brine tank, how much salt, how salty or soft is the household water, more.
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Diagnose & Fix Water Softener Problems:

This article series describes procedures for diagnosing and repairing water softener or water conditioner problems including water conditioner control settings and adjustment or repair, brine tank and brine tank float cleaning and repair, and the proper amount of water softening or conditioning that is needed.

This water softener repair article describes what to check first if the softener is not working properly. Also see the FAQs at the end of this article for examples of water softener problems & solutions.

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Owner's Guide to Diagnosing A Water Softener that Is Not Working Properly

Water conditioner bypass valve, built-in option  - Autotrol

Article Series Contents

[Click to enlarge any image]

Water Softener Checklist: if the Softener is Not Working Check These First

if the water softener doesn't seem to be doing anything, check these items:
  • Check the water softener bypass valve: You want first to see that the water softener is not on "bypass" - is household water flowing through the unit? A sketch of an Autotrol bypass valve is shown at left.

    Details about how to use the water softener bypass valve are at BYPASS VALVE.

    This valve is an option and may not be installed on your unit. But there may be standard plumbing valves or globe valves that accomplish the same purpose.
  • Check power to the water softener: If the unit uses electricity to run a timer be sure it's plugged in to a live outlet and has power. Some water conditioners use a low-voltage transformer to power the control - be sure that device is present, plugged in, and working. You can use a simple VOM to check that the transformer is outputting DC at the proper voltage level.

  • Check salt tank: Is there salt in the salt tank?
  • Manually regen cycle: Then try a manual regen cycle - you'll see on most units a lever you can push on the control box to start that process
  • Set the water conditioner controls: Set the right doses and regen cycles for your water hardness and level of water usage
  • Watch the water conditioner timer: it is possible that the timer mechanism itself has failed. You should see the timer wheels or clock wheels turning and, if you try setting a regen cycle at every day (just for starters) you should see and hear the system go through a regeneration cycle automatically the very next night.
  • Feel and test the water supply: if you still can't get a lather when bathing the water may be insufficiently treated, or if the water feels slimy and you have trouble washing soap off, the water may be over-treated. Test the water for hardness so that you know how to set the controls.

How to Get a Water Softener Working & Confirm that It Works Correctly

Before replacing a water softener - a step that may not be necessary, here are some things to try:

  1. Make sure that the water softener is actually "on" and working, that is, that the system has electric power, valves turned on, not left on "bypass"
  2. Make sure the water softener is clean and that no debris is blocking any water passages or tubing.


    Also see DIRT & DEBRIS in BRINE TANK
  3. Make sure that the salt tank is properly filled.

    If the salt tank has stayed "full" for a long time, either no salt is being used (improper operation) or a crust of salt has formed over a virtually empty tank. Poke around into the salt to be sure the salt tank is really there.

  4. Run an extra water softener regen cycle - use the water softener control to run the equipment through an extra cleaning/regeneration cycle.
  5. Watch the water softener control or check it frequently for several days to be sure the control is actually working and that it is cleaning and regenerating the water softener salt dose regularly.

  6. Test the incoming water for hardness so that you know what level of treatment is required.

  7. Test the water softener output water for hardness and if you like, also test the output water salt level for excess salt
  8. Check the water softener control adjustments. If the equipment appears to be working, but water is still too hard (or has too much mineral content) you can increase the salt dose or the backwash/regeneration cycle frequency.

  9. If the water softener is leaving too much salt in the water, reduce the salt dose on your softener's controls. You may see this as a thin salty film left at faucets or in a dishwasher. Mineral scale may also be a thin hard white deposit but is a separate problem not a too-much-salt problem.


  10. Call for professional help with the water softener. If the equipment is not visibly broken, damaged, leaking, and/or you don't want to mess with it yourself, most water softener companies will be glad to send a service technician to your home to inspect, clean, adjust, and test the equipment.

Try these water softener diagnosis and repair steps before rushing to replace the water softener itself.

Master Table of Water Softener Problems, Causes, Repair Procedures

Water Softener Problem

Water Softener Problem Cause

Water Softener Problem Repair

Water Softener Won't Regenerate
Water softener regeneration cycle inadequate
No electrical power Check that the softener is plugged-in, that its electrical circuit is powered-on, that a switch, pull chain, breaker or fuse are all "on" and working.
Defective timer If the timer does not operate the softener won't cycle; replace the timer.
Power failure caused timer or clock to be improperly set Re-set the day of week and time of day on the water softener timer after an electrical power failure or after the softener has been powered "off" for a time.
Water Softener regeneration cycle delayed, stuck, or continuously "on" Softener is not drawing brine from the brine tank

Comnmon causes: clogged or stuck rine tank float valve assembly, clogged drain line flow control, clogged injector or injector screen, low water pressure, internal leak in the control.

Softener control keeps cycling continuously Often a broken or short circuited switch or control. See the article listed just above.,
Water softener drain won't stop flowing Common causes: improper programming of the control head, timer, or failed control head; clogged or debris in the control head; leak inside the control head. See the article listed just above.

Hard water

Water softener is not making the water soft or not making enough soft water

Softener is in "Bypass" mode

Check the position of the softener bypass switch and close it if the switch is in "open" or "bypass" mode.

No salt in the brine tank

Check the brine tank salt level and add salt if needed.

Check for a "salt bridge" or crust that has formed, preventing salt in the upper brine tank from falling down into the tank bottom where it can mix with water.

Break up the crust, then add salt if needed. The salt level should be above the water level in the brine tank. Normally the water level reaches 6-8" in the brine tank during a regeneration cycle. For diagnosing brine tank problems

Plugged injector screen

Clean the injector or its filter-screen.

Insufficient water flow into the brine tank

Insufficient water into the brine tank opr insufficient salt dose or related brine tank problems can cause the water softener regen cycle to be too short or can cause the softener to fail to produce enough soft water.

Scale in the hot water tank, hot water cylinder or geyser

De-scale and flush the water heater.

Distributor tube leak Check for a cracked or leaky distributor tube; check for a bad O-ring or Tube Pilot.
Internal valve leak Replace the control head valve seals, O-rings, spacers and/or piston.
Control Head program wheel not rotating (mechanical water softner controls) with timer motor Pull cable out of the control head cover and rotate the trip-wheel manually. Program wheel must move without binding and clutch must give positive “clicks” when program wheel strikes regeneration stop. If it does not, replacethe timer assembly or control head.
Control head not measuring water flow or hardness (these features are not present on all water conditioners) For a mechanical water conditioner control head, check output by observing rotation of small gear on front of timer (Note - program wheel must not be against regeneration stop for this check). Each tooth to tooth is approximately 30 gallons (model dependent). If not performing properly, replace the control head.
Water usage + hardness exceeds water softener capacity Measure water hardness and daily or weekly water usage quantity; compare these with the water softener capacity specifications; try increasing the salt dose, regen cycle frequency and regen cycle duration.
Excessive salt usage Improper salt dose setting Check the salt dose setting on the softener control head;
Check the regeneration cycle frequency setting at the softener control.
Improper water level in the brine tank

Check for a stuck brine tank float, a clogged drain line, a clogged drain line flow control, a plugged injector system, for a timer not cycling, or for a clogged brine tank float valve. For details

Loss of water pressure downstream from the water softener Iron, scale, sediment build-up in the water conditioner supply piping

Clean the clogged piping or valve or piping elbow; install appropriate water filters or treatment if needed.
See these articles and use your browser "BACK" button to return here.

Iron build-up inside the water conditioner

Clean the water softener control head; add mineral cleaner to the water softener mineral bed, and increase the frequency of water softener regeneration.

Clogged water softener control inlet due to debris in water supply or debris caused by recent plumbing work Clean the water softener control head, piston, valves
Minerals or resin discharge from the water softener into water supply Air in the water system

Check and repair an air volume control, air eliminator, loss of water in the well, leak in well piping and similar causes discussed at

Stains, odors, debris traced to water softener Bacteria, sulphur, sediment, iron, debris can produce stains in water softener output.


Iron in the conditioned water output from the water softner, caused by a fouled mineral or resin bed

Check the water softener back-wash (regen cycle) operation and brine tank operation.

Increase the water softener regeneration cycle frequency, lowering the salt dose if necessary.

Increase the water water softener regeneration cycle duration time.

See the diagnostic articles listed in the column entry just above.

High water level in the brine tank Various causes explained in the article at right
Low water level in the brine tank Various causes explained in the article at right


Check the diagnostic suggestions in your water softener's installation & service manual.



Reader Question: Water Softener Not Softening the Water: water test shows 1120 ppm of hardness and other data - how should I remove the hardness?

In my home the water test report showing the following details :

PH 7.7 7.5 - 8.5
TDS 1266 PPM

Note: Not advisable for cooking & Bathing purpose use for floor cleaning & flushing.

Can I know what is the best way to remove the hardness of water. - Shobia 6/20/12

Reply: water softener capacity must be able to handle level of water hardness

Shobia it does sound as if you'd need water treatment to make that water usable in the home; if you call two local water treatment companies they will be glad to propose systems to meet your needs, and typically don't charge for that advice. Using hardness as an example, it's quite simple to check the level of hardness you need to deal with against the capacity of the water softener system proposed.

I can't say more as I don't understand your data - hardness is usually expressed in milligrams per liter or grains per gallon, not parts per million.

Reader Comment from Cullman 8/26/12:

You need larger size water softener to remove this high hardness. Also TDS (total dissolved solids) level is very high , so for drinking water I suggest using Reverse osmosis system at the kitchen sink. Ph level is good.


Thanks Cullman for the helpful suggestions to Shobia - Ed.

Reader Question: Water softener keeps regenerating & water remains hard

About once a year my softener will have salt in the tank and will run regenerating. But nothing happens and the water remains hard running throughout he house.

Maybe something is clogged? What should I look to do. Thanks so much. - Rob P. 7/24/12


Rob, check for a stuck float switch in the brine tank;


and see BRINE TANK FLOAT LEVEL ADJUSTMENT in our water softener diagnosis & maintenance articles.

Reader Question: Can I replace the resin media inside of a water softener?

8/31/14 Ron Fix It Man said:

My softener is 13 years old and I have read the resin becomes ineffective in about that life time. Iron out has been used with little benefit. Effectiveness of the softener has declined unless greater amounts of salt per cycle are used. Troubleshooting reveals no improper cycle operation. Is it true the resin has a limited life? Can it be restored, say with a wash of dilute muratic acid? If not, where can it be purchased?

Reply: procedure to replace water softener treatment tank resin media


Indeed it is possible to replace the resin in a water softener.

Water softener resin can last for 20 years or even longer, but may have a shorter life depending on the chemistry of the water being processed in the water softener. But I would not start down the "replace water softener resin" path before diagnosing the problem with my water softener to be sure I'm making the proper and necessary repair.

If you've done that and are ready to replace the resin in the softner tank, details of just how to replace the resin in the water softner, where to buy resin, and other advice are

White Scale Deposits on Plumbing Fixtures: hard water indicators

Question: White Deposits on Faucets: why does my water keep leaving water marks on my plumbing fixtures? Should I replace my water softener?

White scale on faucets - hard water (C) Daniel FriedmanI currently have a water softener system in my home BUT, there are always water marks on my chrome fixtures and on my windows,mirrors,etc.

What can I do to improve this system or should I just replace it with a different one?

I realize that soft water does not mean non-staining water but I was hoping for better results.

Can you help of advise? - C.T.

Reply: Diagnose, clean, adjust, and test your water softener before buying a new one

We speculate that there are several likely explanations for what you describe:

The water softener is not working adequately or not properly adjusted, does not remove enough minerals, and minerals continue to be deposited on your fixtures

The water softener is not adjusted properly and excess salt is being sent through your system, depositing salt on the fixtures.

The water softener unit is dirty, and needs cleaning and perhaps also adjustment

The water softener simply has stopped working - broken, perhaps leaking, clogged, or with a control that no longer functions.

The water softener regeneration system is not working: no salt in the salt tank, or improper regeneration cycle or salt dose setting, or the regeneration control timer may be stuck.

See DIAGNOSE SOFTENER BACKUP / FLOODING for an example of what can happen.

Watch out: too often a water softener failure or operating problem that could have been corrected by a simple adjustment, cleaning, or repair, is in stead "repaired" by installing new equipment.

Since a new water softener just installed is more likely to be clean and properly adjusted, the old problem may indeed go away, and you may think that replacement was needed, but if simple cleaning and adjustment of the old water softener would have been sufficient, you have faced an unnecessary expense.

Reader Question: corroded drains & faucets - does this mean a water softener problem?

Our drains and faucets are starting to corrode and rust. we have always used a water softener and maintained it. Is this an indication that there is a problem with our softener? - Sharon Osterby 9/16/12


Sharon I'm not sure the problem is with your water softener or with the chemistry of your water. If the softener is not working you might see white mineral build-up at faucet strainers and openings; If the water chemistry is aggressive that might be a factor in plumbing corrosion.

Start by testing your softened water to see if it is effectively treated, and if not, clean, adjust, repair the water softener first.

If you suspect a problem with water chemistry (say the softener is working normally and the water at the tap is not hard) then I suggest asking a water treatment company to test your water. Such vendors often will test your water at no charge (they want to sell you equipment) or if you're doubtful, pick up a sterile bottle from your local water test lab and ask their recommendations for what screening tests to perform.


Continue reading at BRINE TANK WATER TOO HIGH or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.

Or see WATER SOFTENER TROUBLESHOOTING FAQs for some helpful questions & answers



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