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From the Field: Common Service Problems with Big Box Softeners

by Apr 13, 2011

big box water softener service

“Big Box” stores like Walmart and Sears can be a 1 stop shop for just about everything you need: tires, lunch meat, underwear, and even water softeners.

Many of the water softener systems sold at these “Box Stores” have similar (in some cases identical) designs and components. As a result, they tend to have similar service requirements.

Being a “Full Service” water treatment dealer means we support every system we sell.

It also means that we repair, and carry parts for just about every other brand of water softener as well.

This article will look at the most frequent service problems our technicians encounter in the field with these “Big Box Water Softeners”.

Basic Water Softener Components and Functions

First, let’s cover the basic functions of a softener.

Water softeners use small plastic beads called resin to remove dissolved rock, aka “hard minerals” from water. To continue functioning, resin needs periodic cleaning (regeneration) with sodium or potassium. If the resin isn’t thoroughly cleaned, it will become damaged, and eventually the softening process will stop.

So let’s review the basic components that make the softening and regeneration process happen:

Controller – The brains of the unit that tells the water softener valve when and how to regenerate.

Valve – The engine and transmission that controls the different “cycles” or stages of the regeneration process.

Resin Tank – A fiberglass, steel, or plastic tank that contains the resin.

Resin –Plastic beads that are roughly the same size as a grain of sand. Ion exchange resin removes dissolved Calcium, Magnesium, and Iron to soften the water.

Brine Tank – The tank that holds the salt/potassium that is used to regenerate, or clean the resin beads inside the water softener.

Salt Bridges and 1 Piece Softeners

Salt Bridge
Ground water temperatures in the Twin Cities range from 48-51 degrees. Temperatures in mechanical rooms are usually between 70-75 degrees.

Much like a glass of cold water on a warm summer day, a resin tank full of cold water will begin to sweat.

“Big Box” softeners are built by placing the resin tank in the middle of the brine tank where dry salt is stored.

As moisture from the resin tank spreads into the dry salt, the salt begins to solidify and form a Salt Bridge. (picture from Kenmore Water Softener manual)

If a salt bridge is not broken up, the softener will be unable to regenerate with salt, and resin will become permanently damaged.

“If you think you have a salt bridge, fill a 3-5 gallon bucket with hot water and slowly pour it over the salt. If the salt doesn’t appear to move, take a broomstick handle and poke it down into the salt. Large, solid bridges may require a hammer to break up – just be careful not to break anything!”

Salt bridge problems are almost completely eliminated by separating the resin tank and brine tank into (2) separate free standing units. This is one reason why virtually all professional grade water softeners use individual tanks.

Clogged Venturi Assemblies

During regeneration, there are two cleaning cycles that are absolutely critical:

  1. Water must be dispensed into the brine tank to dissolve salt and create a brine solution.
  2. The brine solution must be completely drawn up to regenerate and clean the resin.

This group of softeners uses a Venturi Assembly to complete both of these critical steps. (picture from GE Water Softener manual)

This parts layout shows the complex group of parts that includes several small screens, plugs, and gaskets. All of these are prone to clogging up with scale and iron and must be kept clean.

If the Venturi Assembly becomes plugged, the softener will no longer be able to put water into the brine tank, or draw it back out for regeneration. Once again, the resin will become permanently damaged.

“Twist the grey cap counter clockwise on the Venturi Assembly to reveal the main screen inside the system. If the screen is discolored or plugged, you will need to take each piece out and soak them in a strong cleaning solution like citric acid or CLR. After you replace all the parts, manually regenerate the system to see if the Venturi was the only problem in the system.”

Rotary Disc Damage

Last on our list is the “Rotary Disc” softener valve.

A rotary disc is just what it sounds like: a large plastic disc that rotates or spins inside the system during regeneration.

As it spins, the disc diverts water to different ports inside the valve body to operate each cleaning cycle.

If you remove about 13 screws, you’ll see this flat disc sandwiched in between the top and bottom of the valve body. (picture from Whirlpool Water Softener manual)

Water in suburbs like Chanhassen, Minnetonka, and Plymouth is 4-5x harder than the national average. Essentially, it’s like liquid sandpaper – very gritty, and very abrasive.

It’s easy to see how problems arise when you couple the large amount of surface area this design has with such extremely hard water.

These discs create so much friction that they begin to grind themselves away. Eventually, enough hard water scale builds up that these discs often freeze in place.

When this happens, you can experience any of the following:

  • Water runs at the drain and never shuts off
  • Water overflows the brine tank and floods the basement
  • Water becomes salty-tasting from inadequate rinsing
  • Softener stops using salt
“Water in the Twin Cities is 4-5x harder than the national average, and as a result, it is common for Rotary Disc Valves to fail in 5-7 years. When this happens, many of the other springs, gaskets, plugs, and seals also become damaged which ends up requiring a complete valve rebuild. At this point, most people recycle the old machine and look for a more robust replacement instead of continuing this 5-7 year replacement cycle.”

Water softeners that use a piston-driven valve are far less prone to service. Well engineered designs have fewer moving parts, and both less friction and less travel in the moving parts.


Every water softener is a mechanical device, and in fairness to the systems mentioned in this article, they all may require service at some point.

We hope the tips in this article were helpful, and that you enjoyed learning more about these systems.

If your system doesn’t appear to be working, and you’re not sure what’s wrong, we offer a FREE SERVICE INSPECTION to help you determine if your system needs a repair. We can also be reached at (952) 479-4553 for more information.

Lastly, without too strong of a strong sales pitch, we carry water softeners with far more robust designs that eliminate 99% of the problems listed in this article 🙂

About Us

Premier Water is a local, family-owned water treatment company based in Chanhassen, MN. Since 1978, Premier Water has provided Award Winning Service for Residential and Commercial Water Softeners, Iron Filters, and Reverse Osmosis systems.

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