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What Is a Water Softener Salt Bridge?

a water softener

Hard water contains high levels of dissolved minerals in the form of ions, most often magnesium and calcium. These hard water minerals seep into our water supplies from the ground, and that water leaves behind mineral deposits known as scaling.

If you find a stubborn, whitish build-up on your faucets, drains or other areas that come in contact with your water supply, like shower doors or toilets, it’s likely to be mineral scaling left behind by hard water.

To help prevent issues from these mineral deposits, many homeowners install water softeners or water conditioners to treat the incoming water and reduce the impact.

What is a Water Softener Salt Bridge?

A salt bridge is a hard, crusty layer of salt that forms in your brine tank. What makes this problematic is that it gives the appearance that the tank is still full when, in fact, you may be low or even completely out of salt. This salt is essential to the proper functioning of your water-softening system.

Water softener salt bridges can form for a few reasons. The top three are high humidity, an over-full brine tank or using low-quality salt in your system.

Accordingly, the best steps you can take to prevent salt bridges from forming in your water softener are:

Use Only the Recommended Amount of Salt

If the brine tank is more than two-thirds full of salt, salt bridges are a common result. Don’t use more salt than recommended by the system’s manufacturer.

Use High-Quality Salt

Poor-quality salt can lead to salt bridging, as well. These salts are typically made of sodium chloride, similar to table salt. However, salts used specifically for softening often have additional ingredients to help prevent caking and mushing inside of the salt tank, as well as those that help prevent rust stains on laundry fixtures, sinks and bathtubs.

Also, softening salt is usually the highest possible quality. The purity and percentage of sodium help reduce mineral deposits and other residue formations in the tank.

Signs of a Water Softener Salt Bridge

There must be enough salt in the tank’s resin beads to remove the minerals that produce hard water. This salt combines with water to form a brine, and this solution flows into the resin tank, regenerating the resin beads. The softener serves no purpose without an adequate amount of salt.

This is why fixing any bridging issues as soon their evident is vital.

If you’re wondering if you may be dealing with water softener salt bridge issues in your water softener, here are some common signs that could indicate so:

  • Surface crust. One of the most obvious indicators of a salt bridge is the resistance caused by the bridge when you press down on the salt in your salt tank. As the bridge is a solid block of salt, instead of the normally loose pellets, there will be resistance from where the bridge is attached to the sides of the tank.
  • If there seems to be the correct amount of salt in the tank, but you’re still seeing hard-water symptoms like scaling, it can be another sign that a salt bridge has formed in the tank, hiding the fact that the actual salt level is too low.
  • If the salt in your water softener tank is hard and unyielding, or there are visible chunks of salt in your brine solution, you’re probably experiencing a bridging issue.

a kitchen in a home

How Often Should a Water Softener Regenerate?

Water softeners function by the exchange of ions. When hard water flows over the bed of resin beads, the beads “capture” the calcium and magnesium ions that are creating the hardness in the water, and replace them with sodium.

As you might imagine, these resin beads can only hold so much of these ions before becoming saturated and ceasing to function. This is why the resin must be frequently recharged. This regeneration effectively “cleans” the beads and recharges them with sodium.

Regular regeneration is key to keeping the resin beads active and to keeping your softener’s continued functionality. Regeneration typically needs to be repeated every 5 to 7 days, although a high-end softener can often regenerate one or more times daily.

How to Tell When Your Softener Needs Recharging

So, how can you tell when the beads in your softener need to be recharged?

Here are a few things you can check:

  • How hard is your water?
  • How much iron is in your water?
  • Is water still hard after the softening process?
  • Is iron still present?

While some of these signs may be easy for the average homeowner to detect, others will likely require the help of a water quality expert with the tools and knowledge to perform the tests and evaluate the results.

How old your system is can also impact its performance. Older water softeners will lose capacity over the years, resulting in a more frequent need to regenerate.

On average, a water softener system takes 90 minutes to regenerate itself. This process can use as much as 25 gallons of water, depending on the hardness of the water in your area.

a home's kitchen

Water Softeners Versus Water Conditioners

If you’ve researched water treatment systems, you’ve likely found information on water softening and conditioning systems. While both of these systems treat hard water, they do so differently. Understanding each function is important to get the right system for you.

What is a Water Softener?

Water softeners are the more common solution for hard water issues in residential settings. Softeners use reverse osmosis to treat hard water.

What are the benefits of water softeners? Water softeners are ideal for treating large volumes of hard water consistently. But, due to the greater complexity of the filtration systems, ion exchange softeners can need more maintenance than conditioners.

What is a Water Conditioner?

Most water conditioners use salt-free systems to remove unwanted materials that may affect the taste or aroma of your water. Some water conditioners filter out unwanted substances, such as chlorine and chloramines. Others change the structure of the minerals in the water.

Which System is Best?

If you’re unsure which system is right for you, it’s best to contact a water quality expert who can help you assess your current needs and hard water issues.

Before you decide between water conditioners versus water softeners, keep in mind that some cities and areas have restrictions that limit the use of water softeners. Some cities have different restrictions even within the same general area. Known as “brine restrictions”, these laws forbid the use of water treatment systems that flush excessive amounts of salt brine into the public drainage lines.

Like any appliance or system, water softeners or conditioners can develop performance problems like salt bridges as time goes by. Regular inspection and maintenance are important to avoid lapses in function or breakdown.

The wisest option is to resolve water softener issues is to contact a water softener specialist. They will ensure that any issues are dealt with efficiently. A water treatment specialist will know exactly what to look for and how best to deal with it, to help you maximize your system’s lifespan and minimize future issues.

ABC Can Handle All of Your Water Softener Needs

If you want to improve the water quality in your home, contact ABC Home & Commercial Services. Our professionals can test your water and offer advice on what your best next steps are. Additionally, we can help you determine what size water softener you need for your home.

Tom Riggs

Tom Riggs is the Division Manager for Mechanical Services, overseeing sales and operations for HVAC, Plumbing, Electrical, Appliance Repair and Water Quality for all ABC Austin branches. He joined ABC in 2014. Before ABC, he was an HVAC Service Technician, HVAC Comfort Advisor/Sales and Operations Manager. Tom attended Universal Technical Institute. He's an avid outdoorsman and enjoys country living with his wife and two sons.

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