What Happens If My Softener Runs Out of Salt?

What Happens If My Softener Runs Out of Salt?

People love water softeners because they remove minerals from the water that build up on pipes and fixtures. Softer water is also better for washing laundry because detergents are more effective when there are fewer minerals in the water. Hard water is also harsh on skin and hair. For all these reasons and more, water softeners seem to be more popular than ever.

But for all their benefits, water softeners also need some upkeep and maintenance. Besides the need to change filters and do general upkeep, special water softener salts need to be added periodically. So what happens when life gets in the way, and we forget to add salt?

Salt (or sodium) is added to water softeners to enable a process that works by exchanging sodium for the minerals on the resin bed. Failure to add salt generally makes the water softener less effective over time, and its ability to remove minerals diminishes to the point where it stops working after the salt in the resin gets depleted.

Some people might think that adding salt is not mandatory and counterintuitive because salt contains minerals.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in chemistry to understand that if you put salt in water and let the water evaporate, you will see a white buildup.

That prompts people to ask some very valid questions:

Why would I add salt?

Doesn’t salt have minerals in it?

Aren’t water softeners supposed to remove minerals?

Anyone asking those questions is on the right line of thinking! So let’s take some time to go a bit deeper into understanding how water softeners work.

Water softeners function through the use of a resin bed that removes minerals. Adding salt to the water softener creates an ion exchange process that exchanges sodium on the resin bed for minerals in the water. Because these minerals are strongly attracted to the resin and bind more tightly than sodium. After the exchange takes place, they are then flushed down the drain.

What Happens If You Forgot to Put salt in the Water Softener?

Most people have forgotten to add salt to the water softener at some point, and that’s understandable because water softeners are quite low-maintenance machines.

What might start to happen are signs that maybe the machine has stopped working, like:

  • Mineral buildup on dishes, utensils and plumbing fixtures – main sign
  • Water starts tasting different
  • Drier skin and hair

These are signs that the water softener is no longer working at its optimum capacity. What’s happening is that the minerals are not being exchanged for the sodium. Instead of being flushed away, they are showing up on your pipes, fixtures, dishes, utensils, and skin.

But is that all that’s happening? Does this mean that the water softener is now broken?

Will Running The Water Softener Without Salt Ruin It?

Have no fear, I have some good news for you!

Your fixtures might suffer, your hair and skin might feel rougher, but have no worries, the water softener machine is not being affected in any way. Unless it is an ongoing issue.

All that’s happening is that the efficiency of your water softener is decreasing until the salt is entirely exhausted. After that, the softener will not soften water anymore.

When you don’t add salt, the minerals are not being exchanged for sodium, leaving you with a tank full of resin.

It’s kind of like running a washing machine without soap and not having clean clothes. Nothing terrible is happening to the washing machine when you don’t add soap. In the same way, nothing bad is happening to your water softener machine when you don’t add salt.

The real problem can happen when you have iron in the water. It can start to build up and make a brown sludge inside the softener salt tank.

This can damage your softener over time, but I hope no one would forget to add salt for more than a week.

If this starts to happen, make sure you clean the tank properly before you add salt to it.

Can You Use Table Salt If You Don’t Have Softener Salt?

Some people may be tempted to just grab a bunch of table salts for a quick fix… but be careful!

Not all salts are the same…

When in essence, the salt is still the same. The difference, however, is in the format of the salt used.

Water softener manufacturers do not recommend table salt for use in water softeners. The issue is, table salt is made of much smaller crystals than water softener salts.

Let’s go back to the way water softeners work to understand why…

Sodium is being exchanged for minerals on the resin bed. If you use the wrong kind of salt in the water softener, then they won’t adhere properly to the resin bed.

If the sodium doesn’t adhere properly, then the exchange for the minerals will not occur as it should. Instead of flushing the minerals away, the salt will build up inside the tank and form a slushy mixture.

To further illustrate, this salt mushing process occurs when the salt doesn’t dissolve properly. When this happens, it can clog the water intake valve at the bottom of the salt tank of the water softener machine.

It’s kind of like adding the wrong type of oil to your car. If you added olive oil instead of motor oil to your vehicle, the engine would work a little bit, but after a while is permanently damaged.

Luckily, adding table salt doesn’t have such a fatal impact on the softener.

So having said that, table salt belongs on the table, and water softener salt belongs in the water softener!

If you see this salt mush at the bottom of the salt tank, then please refer to the water softener owner’s manual for cleaning instructions.

How Often Do You Need To Add Salt?

Since all water softeners come in different types and sizes, the best answer to this question is found in the owner’s manual.

A good rule of thumb to follow is to check the softener’s brine tank at least once each month to make sure there is enough salt.

The amount of salt required depends on the manufacturer of the water softener, the size and age of the machine, local water treatment variables (like valve settings), and the level of water hardness.

A general rule for most manufacturers is to fill the tank about half-way. However, it’s a good idea to refer to the owner’s manual for exact directions.

A good habit is to check the brine tank once per week in the beginning, but once you get to know the consumption, you can adjust to that.

Final Words

There are lots of great health benefits to owning a water softener because they remove the minerals that damage pipes and appliances in addition to producing water that is better for showering and cleaning our clothes.

But for all their benefits, water softeners require some maintenance to work correctly.

Adding salt is required to enable the ion exchange process needed to get rid of hardness minerals.

Regular table salt doesn’t cut it because it has a different structure than water softener salt. Checking the tank and adding salt regularly will do the trick to keep your softener working efficiently.

So having said all that, I’d love to hear some of your stories in the comments below.

  • Have you ever forgotten to add salt to your water softener?
  • How did you find out that your water softener needed salt?
  • Did you ever try adding table salt? What happened?

I’d love to hear your experiences, so don’t hesitate to let me know below!

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2 thoughts on “What Happens If My Softener Runs Out of Salt?”

  1. Hi, I have a water softener with a 1″ Control Valve Series Model: WS1. Recently the water pressure in the house started dropping greatly when the softener is in service. When I put the softener in Bypass mode, the pressure is good in the house in all faucets and shower heads. What may be the reason for this problem? How can I fix it. Please let me know, if you have a solution.


  2. I thought our softener water was broken or something but it turned out to be just a matter of running out of salt. Your article helped us figure out why our water has been showing deposits recently, thank you for writing this!

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