A Sears water softener degrades its functionality - here's why

"How come my hair won't lather?" That had become a familiar cry from the shower over the past month or so. "Is there enough salt in the softener?"

A quick trip to the basement verified that the salt in the Sears water softener was at least half full. Seemed as though it wasn't using as much salt as in the past though. Better increase the salt cycle a tad and see if that does the trick.

I guess here is as good a time for a bit of explanation as to just what a water softener is and how it works. Just what is hard water and how does one get it to be "soft" water? Well, if you lived in the Webster NY area for any length of time you would know that the results of having hard water are many. First and foremost, it is very hard to make suds with hard water. The water contains a lot of dissolved minerals, especially calcium. There is a very good chemical explanation as to why it is difficult to make suds with a high calcium content water but I won't go into that here. Another symptom of hard water is that there will be a white powder residue everywhere that the water settles. Wash and rinse your car with hard water and you will see spots all over the surface if you don't dry it thoroughly. Dishes washed in the sink have the same problem. Drinking hard water is supposed to be good for you - that is the only benefit I know of. For that reason most homes that use a water softener have a tap connected to the inlet to the softener that goes to a separate faucet at the sink - ours goes to the refrigerator which has a built in water dispenser.

OK, so there is a lot of calcium in the water - how do we get it out? A water softener is the answer. It contains a large cylinder which contains a few pounds of what are best described as plastic beads which are coated with a material that can absorb certain chemicals. This is called the resin bed. When properly prepared by a salt (brine) wash, these resin beads contain sodium ions on their surface. When hard water passes through a bed of these beads a strange phenomena occurs. There is an ion exchange, that is the sodium ions on the surface of the beads are replaced by the calcium ions in the water. That means that the water now contains one sodium ion for each calcium ion it contained originally. The water is now classified as soft, since the sodium ion will not interfere with water's ability to make suds, technically it can support a surfactant like detergent and will clean clothes, cars, hair and anything else you choose to wash. One thing is obvious - the water has become "salty" and one can taste the saltiness of soft water. That is another reason to have a separate source of drinking water which has not been softened.

On with the story. The water softener works at night while you sleep. A timer runs the system through a cycle which prepares the resin beads for another day of softening water. It automatically flushes a brine solution through the resin beads, backwashes the calcium from the system and settles the bed of beads into a compact bed so that it works efficiently the next day. So, what can go wrong with the system??

I have heard of several failure modes over the past years. The timer motor can quit, preventing the system from going through its cycle at night. The brine tank can corrode and leak. The orifice in the venturi tube can become blocked preventing brine from being delivered to the resin during the renewal cycle. One can forget to add salt! The resin beads can be broken down during the backwash cycle and the smaller pieces can be flushed out during the rinse. And there is one other failure which I hadn't ever heard of until now.

Of course I checked all of the above failure modes and found none of them to be the case. One thing I did notice was that the system didn't seem to be using the normal four pounds per cycle rate for salt usage. I decided to do a test. I measured the brine level in the tank and ran the system manually. I observed that the brine level began to drop initially and then stopped during the portion of the cycle where brine is supposed to be used. The brine level never fell to the bottom of the float mark where it should. Now normally I would remove the venturi nozzle, a simple process that is explained on the cover of the softener, and clean it out with compressed air. But it was clean - I had checked that. So why had the brine deliver stopped in mid-cycle??

I tried a simple test. I removed the brine feed line from the venturi head while the system was supposed to be delivering brine. To my surprise brine squirted out of the fitting at a high rate. Then I noticed something that seemed to be wrong. The plastic tubing that I removed had water squirting out of it at a much faster rate than that of the brine coming out of the fitting. I held a finger to each and noticed that the pressure at the brine supply was much lower than the fresh water coming back through the plastic line. It didn't take me long to realize that the brine could not possibly flow against that pressure. Hmmmmm, must be a blockage somewhere - but where??

I removed the cover and saw that there were three or four screws holding a valve body to the top of the brine tank. I removed the valve body and found the inlet and outlet to the brine tank. It wasn't very obvious at first, but down inside the tank on the inlet side was a plastic "basket" - a device which is supposed to spray the brine solution over the top of the resin bed in a distributed manner, sort of like a shower head. I stuck my finger into the basket and pulled up. Out it came. It didn't look much like I thought it should. There were fine slots cut along the sides - where the water should spray out. But the slots were all filled with ten years of crud from the Webster water system. I took the part out to the garage and blew compressed air through the slots. There really were slots there afterall! I rinsed the basket off and put it back in place. After re-assembling the valve body I did another test. The brine tank emptied down to the bottom during the brine cycle!! Voila! Back in service.

I didn't mention that earlier in the analysis phase of this problem it occurred to me that the resin bed might have been depleted as mentioned earlier in this story. I did remove the filler plug and found that it was not filled to the top. A quick call to Sears and I found out that the replacement package of resin costs around a hundred and fifty ($150) dollars!! After a call to a local commercial water softener repair house I found out that I could buy the same amount required for my unit for about ten bucks! The very nice gentleman there also told me that the system should not be filled up to the top and that the level I had observed was normal. It's nice to know that there are honest people in this world.

Well, there is soft water in the house once again. There is no longer the cry of spotted dishes or poor lathering of shampoo. And I am several hundred dollars ahead for not having to replace a water softener!

As far as the tools needed to take the water softener apart, all I needed was a good #2 phillips head screwdriver. I used my Craftsman air compressor to blow out the trash but you could do just as well with a tooth brush and running water.


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