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BACKUP PREVENTION, SEPTIC
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BATH & KITCHEN DESIGN GUIDE
CHEMICAL CONTAMINANTS in WATER
CHEMICAL ODOR SOURCES
CHLORINE IN DRINKING WATER
CLOGGED DRAIN DIAGNOSIS & REPAIR
DEBRIS in WATER SUPPLY, Water Heater
DEPTH of SEPTIC TANK
DRAIN & SEWER PIPING
FAUCETS & CONTROLS, KITCHEN & BATH
FAUCETS, OUTDOOR HOSE BIBBS
FLOOD DAMAGE ASSESSMENT, SAFETY & CLEANUP
FLOOR DRAIN / TRAP ODORS
FLUSHOMETER VALVES for TOILETS URINALS
GAS PIPING, VALVES, CONTROLS
GALVANIC SCALE & METAL CORROSION
HARD WATER - SOFTENERS
HEAT TAPES, Heat, Insulation prevent Freeze-Up
LEAD POISONING HAZARDS GUIDE
LEAD IN DRINKING WATER, HOW to REDUCE
METHANE GAS SOURCES
MIXING / ANTI-SCALD VALVES
MUNICIPAL WATER PRESSURE IMPROVEMENTS
NOISE / SOUND DIAGNOSIS & CURE
ODORS GASES SMELLS, DIAGNOSIS & CURE
ODORS IN WATER
ODORS, SEPTIC or SEWER
ODORS SEWER GAS in COLD WEATHER
ODORS, SULPHUR SMELL SOURCES
ANIMAL or URINE ODOR SOURCE DETECTION
PIPING IN BUILDINGS, Clogs Leaks Types
PLUMBING FIXTURES, KITCHEN, BATH
PLUMBING NOISE TRANSMISSION CONTROL
PLUMBING VENT DEFINITIONS & CODES
PLUMBING VENT DEFECTS & NOISES
PUMPS USED in BUILDINGS
PUMPS, WATER REPAIR
RELIEF VALVE LEAKS
RELIEF VALVE, TP VALVE, BOILER
RELIEF VALVE, TP VALVE, STEAM BOILER
RELIEF VALVE, WATER HEATER
RELIEF VALVE, WATER TANK
REPAIR BURST LEAKY PIPES
METHANE GAS HAZARDS
SEPTIC SYSTEM INSPECT DIAGNOSE REPAIR
SHUTOFF VALVE LOCATION, USE
SULPHUR & SEWER GAS SMELL SOURCES
SWEATING (CONDENSATION) on PIPES, TANKS
TOILETS, INSPECT, INSTALL, REPAIR
WATER, WELLS, WATER TANKS: TESTING GUIDE
WATER PRESSURE LOSS DIAGNOSIS & REPAIR
WATER PUMPS & TANKS
WATER SOFTENERS & CONDITIONERS
WATER SOURCE ALTERNATIVES
WATER SUPPLY & DRAIN PIPING
WATER SHUTOFF VALVE LOCATION, USE
WATER SHUTOFF VALVE, WELL PUMP
WATER TESTS, CONTAMINANTS, TREATMENT
WELLS CISTERNS & SPRINGS
WINTERIZE A BUILDING
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.
Green links show where you are. © Copyright 2015 InspectApedia.com, All Rights Reserved.
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If your water softener does not seem to be working or is not working properly, also see DIAGNOSE WATER SOFTENER PROBLEMS
Also see SOFTENER ADJUSTMENT & CONTROLS for details of water conditioner controls, how they work, how to set them.
Separately at INSTALLATION of WATER SOFTENERS we discuss how this equipment should be installed.
If your water softener is not working, see DIAGNOSE WATER SOFTENER PROBLEMS.
Our photo at left 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.
If a water softner 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:
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.
Watch out: Some water softner 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.
Sanitize New Water Softener Installations
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.
C.S. I haven't seen that specification but certainly if the manufacturer recommends such a step (some do) I'd follow their recommendations.
Can you tell us the brand and model? I'd like to take a look at the instructions as well. Daniel
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 brinewell 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 intitially 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.
Water Softener Sanitizing References
All salt used in water softeners, whe3ther 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, 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 Check the Sacrificial Anode on the Water Heater. Also see How to Identify Odors in Drinking Water.
These instructions presume that your water conditioner (water softener) uses a separate salt or brine tank. The following instructions are adapted from advice from Culligan.
You will need these tools to clean out the salt storage tank
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.
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Now we are ready to put the water conditioner salt tank and its controls back together.
Question: Using Iron Out™ (sodium hydrosulfite) to remove iron deposits from the water softener resin tank: reduced water pressure traced to water conditioner resin tank fouling
[Our photo at left illustrates iron staining on a bathroom sink - Ed.]
But like all filters of any sort do not filter 100% of a substance. Unnoticed over the years, until at some arbitrary point is reached, the flow rate over the years at the tap was reduced. This was found to be iron fowling in the resin in our water softener tank.
But prior to that fact Culligan personnel were telling me that the water conditioner unit should be replaced. I did further research into this problem.
Initially I did not suspect it was iron fouling because I had an iron filter installed ahead of the water conditioner.
The solution to this problem turned out to be simple. From the hardware store I obtained a powder to remove iron from any thing. I followed the instructions on the container for a softener. By repeating the instructions three times, once at each recharging cycle, the problem was solved over about nine days.
The product for removing iron is called 'Iron Out' The principle ingredient is sodium hydrosulfite, which is used in some application as a water conditioner. - M.P.
I was not too concerned about residue of the product in the softened water as all water that is used for human and pet consumption is drawn before the softener but after the iron filter, therefore, I cannot answer the question about possible poisoning or resin damage.
Independent of the iron removing product, we prefer not to drink conditioned water because of the sodium content and the lack of calcium and magnesium, of which those two ingredients are in my opinion beneficial to health. My softener is a Culligan Mark 88. The softener consists of a brine tank and a resin column with the controls on top of the column, probably a unit that's quite standard to others. - M.P.
Watch out: There could be health hazards from drinking or bathing in water produced by a water conditioner or other water treatment equipment after running cleaning chemicals through the system. Any chemicals used to try cleaning or sanitizing a resin tank should be thoroughly flushed out of the system. It should be easy to do this by repeating enough water softener backwash or "regeneration" cycles. See the Super Iron Out usage instructions from the manufacturer, below, and see the MSDS for that cleaner also found just below.
Watch out: And could the iron remover damage the water conditioner resin? Check with your water softener manufacturer before trying this.
Iron and Rust removing Chemicals & Stain Removers are available from a number of manufacturers including
According to Summit Brands in discussing the use of Super Iron Out to clean a water softener system:
Does your water softener make your water taste bad? Water softeners and heater tanks need regular maintenance to operate efficiently and effectively. Rust never sleeps. Using Super Iron Out on a regular basis knocks rust out before it stains your home's surfaces.
Water Softener - First Application — Use 1 cup (250 mL) Regular Use - Use 1/4 cup (62 mL) All softeners treating high iron content water require Super Iron Out as preventative maintenance and to eliminate iron buildup.
First Application of Iron Remover in a Water Softener
Regular Use of Iron Out in Water Softeners
Note: If taste or odor is detected in tap water, manually regenerate softener again, then run cold water until odor is gone. For cabinet models, use for periodic cleaning only. Follow First Application instructions above.
Please follow cautions and instructions on the label carefully.
MSDS Material Data Safety Sheet for Super Iron Out rust and stain remover.
MSDS Material Data Safety Sheet for Pro Rust Out, rust and stain remover, Pro Products, contains sodium hydrosulfite & sodium bisulfite. Warnings include against inhalation, eye and skin contact, ingestion (which would include drinking). Overexposure can exacerbate asthma or lung disease. 
Sears Kenmore water softener instructions for some models point out that consumers can buy water softner salt that includes an iron removing additive, increasing the water softener's ability to remove iron content in the water supply along with minerals associated with hard water.
That manufacturer recommends using a special water softener cleaning resin provided by the manufacturer.
Take a look at Michele Hébert's Water Softeners Annual Maintenance [separate PDF from the University of Fairbanks Cooperative Extension] for more detail about chemicals & processes used to clean water softeners.
Reader Question: life of water softener resin
(Feb 17, 2013) Eric said:
Greetings. I have a Culligan Mark 10 system and the Culligan folks came out to inspect what I think is a failing valve. Sure enough they concluded that the valve is failing, but they did their typical sales thing and offered to: replace the valve with modern technology and keep the resin tank in place, re-resin the tank, and flush the brine tank. What is the life of resin? The Culligan guy said "15-20 years maximum". The system has now been unplugged for 3 weeks while we consider these options - does it take much to just start this back up if I go buy my own valve and install it?
If your water softener has been out of service for some time or is old, it would be appropriate to sanitize the unit - see SOFTENER CLEANING & SANITIZING for that procedure.
The life of water softener resins is indeed limited and I agree with your Cullligan representative. But you might want to take a look at
WATER SOFTENER RESINS & CLEANING COMPOUNDS in the article above.
Cleaning & Sanitizing Water Softeners & Using a sanitizer in water softeners - the effects of sanitizers on septic systems
Question: Will using BioSafe™ sanitizer in the water softener harm the septic system?
Reply: BioSafe's Hydrogen Peroxide and Peroxyacetic acid - based sanitizers
BioSafe's Hydrogen Peroxide and Peroxyacetic acid - based sanitizers, used as directed, should have significantly less impact on the environment (and therefore on a residential septic system) than certain other chemicals used as sanitizers or disinfectants. But be sure you were using the right product for the right application and in the proper manner.
The article you cited, found at SALT OR WATER INTO SEPTIC - does not discuss Biosafe nor any other specific sanitizer or disinfectant, but perhaps you saw a Google-placed a Biosafe ad at the top of our page.
The "fine print" to which you refer may have been our statement affirming our independence from any advertisers, products, or services that I quote here:
I took a look at a Biosafe site (www.biosafesystems.com) that may be the source of the product you asked about: BioSafe Systems LLC - but you should confirm that this is the company whose product you are asking about.
BioSafe Systems produces a wide range of sanitizing products used in agriculture, animal health, greenhouses, water and wastewater industries, food safety, turf, pond and lawn care, and general sanitation. The BioSafe product line, as I read the company's information on general sanitation, is based on activated peroxygen sanitizers marketed as an alternative to chlorine, phenol, and quat-based formulas. Even as a layman not a chemist, it is easy to understand the basis of the company's assertion that their approach is less harsh and less persistent in the environment than some of the alternatives.
Here you can see a list of links to MSDS sheets for BioSafe™ products: http://www.biosafesystems.com/Product-PH-MSDSsheets.asp
Of their products, and not knowing which Biosafe product you're interested in, I looked at SaniDate 5.0 Sanitizer/Disinfectant a sanitizer described at http://www.biosafesystems.com/MSDS%20Labels/SaniDate5.0MSDS.pdf
The BioSafe MSDS shows that the hazardous components of this product are Hydrogen Peroxide and Peroxyacetic acid - two very common and widely used disinfectants that are less dangerous to the environment than some other chemicals because the products are not cumulative in the environment. BioSafe says that the product degrades 99% in 20 minutes. That's quite a good argument supporting the assertion of no bioaccumulation. It's worth noting that the product is however in direct contact acutely toxic to fish, crustaceans, and bacteria (bacteria was probably its target in the first place, no?)
Watch out: at BioSafe's website I did not read specific advice addressing use of their products in a residential water softener. I have asked the company for more information and advice.
I am not an expert in the field, but as a general researcher/investigator I interpret the information about the product to indicate that the product, used as directed by its producer, and at normal levels and frequency of household use, is unlikely to damage a septic system drainfield.
Your husband is right in intent (product OK) but wrong in a literal sense (we do not recommend specific products) - the product does not look harmful to the septic system, with how-to guidance from the manufacturer might be fine for sanitizing a water softener, but in particular, we do not recommend specific products or services. (Google ads support our website; to avoid any conflict of interest, we have no relationship whatsoever with products or services advertised or discussed)
Further details needed:
Please tell me what product you were using, why you are not satisfied with the results, and keep me posted on how things progress in your own case, let me know how you were intending to use the product, and send along photos of any equipment (like water softener) involved if you can. Such added details can help us understand what's happening and often permit some useful further comment.
Also if you were dissatisfied with a BioSafe product you should contact the company to assure that you were using their product for an application that they recommend, and in the manner that they recommend for that use.
What we both learn may help me help someone else.
Question: Is it Ok to Use Pro Rust Out as regular water softener maintenance, sodium hydrosulfite and sodium metabisulfite, in a water softener
I have added Pro Rust Out very occasionally in small measures to our water softener as a maintenance measure. Pro Rust Out contains sodium hydrosulfite and sodium metabisulfite. Will these chemicals make our water unsafe for drinking? Thank you so much for your reply. Jon
Reply: Used as directed these water softener cleaning products should be safe. Here are details, examples of use, usage instructions, & health warnings.
The product you ask about, Pro Rust Out™, is produced and sold by Pro Products , a company that distributes a line of water softener cleaning products. Quoting, the company produces:
Information about the use of sodium metabisulfite and sodium hydrosulfite in water treatment equipment:
Sodium metabisulfite (Na2S2O5) is an inorganic compound used as a disinfectant, antioxidant, or preservative. Its uses include both as a food additive and as a sanitization and cleaning agent. It is also used in some medical applications such as in the EpiPen.  Sodium hydrosulfite (Na2S205) is used as a cleaning agent for reverse osmosis water treatment equipment. 
In sum, the company's instructions indicate that used as directed (1/4 cup for every 40 lbs. of salt added) for regular water softener maintenance, the product should be safe. Certainly it would appear that the concentration of sodium hydrosulfite and metabisulfite will be very low in the building water supply.
Concentration of sodium metabisulfite and sodium hydrosulfite in water processed through a treated water softener
If we use a guesstimate of 4 pounds of salt used per water softener regen cycle (check your machine's actual salt dosage level) that would place an average of about 0.025 cups (1/4 divided by 10) of chemicals in the water used to clean and regenerate the water softener during a regen cycle.
Furthermore, as that water is supposed to be flushed through and then out of the water softener resin tank during the regen cycle, only a low level of salt + Sodium Hydrosulfite and Metabisulfite would be expected to remain inside that resin tank and to come into contact with drinking water during subsequent use.
Watch out: that analysis presumes that a water softener is adjusted and working properly and that you are using the cleaning agents as recommended by the manufacturer. To do otherwise could be unsafe. For example, used in concentrated form, sodium metabisulfite is even used to remove tree stumps! 
At SOFTENER CLEANING & SANITIZING (above) we have provided further comments on the use of sodium hydrosulfite on water softeners and on the safety of drinking or bathing in such treated water.
The bottom line advice on water softener treatment using sodium hydrosulfite and metabisulfite
The bottom line is that while such chemicals may be effective in cleaning out iron and sediments, it is very important to thoroughly flush the system before returning the water softener to operation, or there could be health hazards from chemicals that enter the water supply from chemicals left in the resin tank.
That article includes recommendations for safe levels of usage of several water softener cleaners and treatments. We also include links to health and safety information (MSDS forms) and information for the chemicals involved. I've checked and added information about the second chemical you name, sodium metabisulfite.
In general, should a more harsh treatment or cleaning be needed at a water softener, it may be acceptable do to so provided the system is adequately flushed and cleaned afterwards.
It's possible to thoroughly flush and clean out a resin tank if it has first been emptied of all salt (and any dirt and debris are of course first manually cleaned.
On the other hand, it would be quite difficult to thoroughly flush cleaning or treatment chemicals out of a water softener and brine tank if the tank remains full or partially full of salt. So many repeated flush cycles would be needed that you'd be wasting both water and salt. And if the building is served by a private septic system there could be a risk of flooding or damaging the drainfield by that added water and salt volume as they would exceed normal usage levels.
Also you'll note that we warned that some water softener resins might be damaged by some cleaning chemicals. Check with the manufacturer of your water softener or its resin content.
Question: Do I Need to Add Water to the Salt Tank After Cleaning it Out?
I had to take all of salt out because it was getting to hard and water was above the salt. When I put new salt in should I also add some water? - Brian
Reply: No, water will be placed into the salt tank by the softener control during the next regen cycle
Brian you do not need to add water to the water softener brine tank when you have emptied, cleaned, and then refilled the tank with salt. The water softener regen cycle and float control will automagically put the correct amount of water back into the salt tank.
If all the water is emptied out of brine tank upon cleaning, depending on model of softener, you might need to add water. All the fleck valves need water added. Kinetico and possibly culligan do not.
Thanks so much Carlin Water Tech. Contact us if you want to be listed and linked-to as an expert resource.
Question: is water softener resin dangerous
Resin broke through to our pipes and came out our faucets. Is this dangerous to our health in any way?
Naturally it's not good to drink particles or debris of any sort. Presuming you are talking only about a conventional water softener that uses a resin tank and salt (that is not a treatment system that includes more dangerous chemicals) the drinking water that you were consuming before was passing through that very resin.
However the resin risks clogging pipes and valves and faucets and needs to be flushed out.
(Nov 12, 2012) Using Starsan to sanitize my GE said:
I am wondering if it would be alright to use Starsan to sanitize my water softener. Starsan from fivestarchemicals.com, is a phosphoric acid based product. It is promoted as a 'no-rinse' sanitizer and is often used in food preparation environments, most notably in breweries. I would like to use it instead of bleach, but am concerned with two things. 1- any negative affect to the water softener or drinking water. 2- it has a foaming nature, will this cause damage?
Reader question: is it ok to use Potassium Chloride instead of regular salt in my water softener?
My water softener installer says we should use potassium chloride rather than salt in our water softener. Is that a good idea?
Reply: Sears has the following advice that you should follow if using potassium chloride (KCL) instead of sodium chloride or "regular salt" (NaCL) in your water softener:
Continue reading at OTHER WATER SOFTENING METHODS or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Question: air in plumbing after water softener recycles
(Feb 22, 2014) Jim Lotito said:
After my Culligan water softner cycles there is air in my water lines, Why?
Thanks for any help!
Jim there is an air leak, possibly in the tubing connecting the brine tank to the water softener resin tank, OR running water for a time during the regeneration cycle may be introducing air into the building water supply from a leak in well piping. If the latter were true you'd see air at other times not just when the water softener recycles.
Questions & answers or comments about Cleaning & Sanitizing Water Softeners & About using a sanitizer in water softeners and the effect of sanitizers on septic systems.
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