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What Happens If Water Softener Runs Out Of Salt?

Fact checked by Stephen Conklin

what happens if water softener runs out of salt

Getting a water softener for your home may have been your best decision yet. Not only does your skin feel softer, but your sink and dishes are also limescale-free, and working up a lather with soap is almost effortless.

Since it automatically regenerates, softeners eliminate most of the manual labor from maintenance. Although there’s one task it can’t do on its own: refilling its tank with salt.

So, say you happened to forget this task. What happens if water softener runs out of salt? Let’s investigate.

Table of Contents

How Does My Water Softener Work?


Your trusty water softener manages to soften your tap water through ion exchange. This is a process that removes the hard ions in tap water and trades it with sodium ions – or what you’ll know as salt.

For your softener to do this, it needs the help of numerous beads that are negatively charged with salt. The beads and salt are set up in a resin bed – awaiting the arrival of mineral-rich tap water. Once the hard water flows through, the ions exchange places; magnesium and calcium ions in the tap water rush to the beads, trading places with the salt. The salt then gets dissolved into the water.

Now and then, your water softener will have to go through a regeneration cycle. This process refreshes the system and avoids oversaturating the resin bed. Water softeners are programmed to do this automatically, whether through a timed alarm system or through sensors that can detect your water usage.

Regeneration occurs when the softener releases a brine solution onto the resin bed – which essentially reverses the ion exchange. The brine washes off the hard water ions, and the salt from the brine solution takes its place.

Most water softeners have two separate tanks – one for the resin bed and another for the brine solution. However, some high-end models combine these tanks as a single unit, making them work more efficiently.

How Much Salt Does My Water Softener Need?

For your brine solution to work, you have to add the right amount of salt into your brine tank. It’s recommended that the salt level be 3-4 inches above the water level or half of your brine tank.

About 20-25 gallons of water will be used for every batch of newly softened water, although this will depend on the size of your water softener. Get familiar with your water softener’s brine tank capacity and eye out the right amount of salt. The rule of thumb is always to make sure that there’s more salt than water.

While water softeners can work fine on their own, you’ll sleep a lot better if you check on your brine tanks often – at least once a month, to see if the levels have changed. If you notice the brine tank looking dry and less than half-full, refill it right away.

The harder your tap water, the more salt your water softener uses. If your tap water happens to be notoriously rich in minerals, your water softener will have its work cut out for it. You may have to check your brine tank weekly.

What Happens If My Brine Tank Runs Out Of Salt?


If you forget to top up your brine tank with salt, the effects can prove problematic. Since the brine solution isn’t salty enough to refresh the resin bed, the beads will stay saturated – causing the entire ion exchange process to stop.

A saltless brine tank will render your water softener useless and allow tap water to enter your home – hard ions and all. If your lovely soft water starts turning into hard water all of a sudden, this is likely because your water softener has now been compromised with an oversaturated resin bed.

Even if you manage to refill the brine tank with salt after this slip-up, it may take 2-3 days to get soft water running in your house again. This is because it will take more than one regeneration cycle to bring your water softener back in shape.

An excess of salt in your brine tank is just as bad as a lack of it. Too much salt could lead to salt crystals sticking to the walls of your tank or irregularities in your brine tank’s humidity. A combination of these two could cause your water softener to malfunction. If gone unchecked, it could damage your water softener.

It’s best that you monitor your water and salt levels in your brine tank closely – never add too much or too little.

How Do I Clean My Water Softener?

You may get intimidated by your water softener’s automated technology, but don’t forget that it’s mainly just two tanks working together – and they need to be cleaned on the regular.

You’d think that the resin tank is fine without cleaning since it’s continuously rinsed with the brine solution. However, this is the part that’s in direct contact with your tap water. It’s the most likely to get contaminated. An uncleaned resin bed could mean exposure to harmful bacteria.

Thankfully, most water softener manufacturers provide resin bead cleaners for your resin tank. If you’re lucky, you could find third-party resin bead cleaners that work just as fine. Be sure to check the effectiveness of these cleaners by consulting with a professional first, as you wouldn’t want to worsen the contamination that’s already going on.

Conveniently enough, cleaning out your brine tank won’t need any specially-crafted cleaning solutions. But before you grab your soap and scrub, first get familiar with what you should be looking out for in your brine tank.

A brine tank left alone for too long could likely have salt bridging. This crusty buildup of salt settles at the bottom of the brine tank. Because this hardened salt can’t dissolve into the brine, your softener can’t regenerate.

To get rid of it, the salt bridge has to be carefully crushed. Don’t use anything sharp – the blunt end of a tool will do the trick. Once you manage to break apart the salt bridge, manually set the softener to a regenerate cycle mode to refresh itself.

Besides salt bridging, there’s also salt mushing. This presents itself as a moldy muddy mass of salt at the bottom of the brine tank that raises the water level – blocking the brine solution from flowing correctly and possibly overflowing the tank.

You can save our water softener from this sludge by cleaning it out with bleach. Refer to your water softener’s manual for the proper measurements. A typical 9-inch brine tank may need one cup of bleach, while a 12-inch brine tank may need two cups. Do not drink any of your tap water while cleaning out your water softener.

Caring for Your Water Softener

A well-maintained water softener will do wonders for your home, but sometimes its needs could be overlooked. A water softener that has run out of salt will cause all types of harm – not just to your water, but to you and your family.

Now you know What happens if water softener runs out of salt. Please take all the necessary precautions when checking, cleaning, and caring for your water softener. Remember that by the time your water starts feeling like hard water again, it could be too late. Avoid all the hassle of costly repairs or time-consuming troubleshoots – care for your water softener as often as you can.

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