By Karen R. Smith

When my own water softener developed a noxious odor, I knew just what to do: run to the phone and call WC&P’s Technical Review Committee members! Of course, other homeowners don’t have that particular option and apparently, there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Dealers, this is an area for both marketing and customer retention efforts!

Many do-it-yourselfers turn to different sites on the Internet where they can post questions to so-called experts; then there are blogs where registered users can type in a problem and solicit responses. Either way, it’s often not a trained residential water treatment professional giving the answers.

Best-case scenario
Bob Vila’s website ( hosts a Fix-it Forum that includes a message board. One user asked for help with a dormant water softener. The previous homeowner had disconnected the appliance at least a year earlier, without draining it. The new owner was concerned about the stagnant water it contained and wondered whether the unit was salvageable, or if she should ensure her family’s health by buying a new softener.

A water treatment dealer responded and explained that adding bleach to the water in the brine tank and then performing a manual regeneration could sanitize the softener. He noted that if there was no water in the bottom of the brine tank, more bleach should be used and instructed that the parts should be rinsed with clean water afterwards.

That response elicited a slew of additional questions from the homeowner: whether the bleach solution would and should enter the rest of the house’s plumbing system; what specifically he’d meant by rinse. At that point, another homeowner wrote in to offer that the manufacturer’s documentation would most likely contain sanitizing information and suggested contacting them or their website to obtain same.

That was one lucky homeowner – both respondents provided excellent information. Others aren’t nearly as fortunate!

Scary situations
Plumbing, remodeling, home improvement and other websites end up with softener questions in their advice forums. One described a vacation home with an automatic regenerating softener, left on when the family departed for weeks. During their absence the system ran out of salt; by the time they returned the water from all their taps had unpleasant odors. This homeowner was considering cleaning the resin with bleach and was getting advice from other visitors to the site that ranged from draining his water heater to adding mineral oil.

Summer homes
Vacation homes, second homes, winter retreats, lake houses – more people than ever before have multiple dwellings. Full-time residents reap the sanitation benefits of long-term daily use when it comes to their water treatment systems: reduced bacteria growth and no stagnation. But these secondary and tertiary dwellings may be unused for weeks and even months on end.

As there is little actual research to rely upon, there are no statistics on which system can last for how long in these situations. It is vital for dealers to educate their customers, as they may be the only source of accurate information who can instruct the homeowner. Perhaps tape vacation instructions to the unit itself, or include a printed sheet of ‘when you’re away’ directions with all the other literature you are presenting to them at install. For those on your salt route, include a flyer offering ‘close house – open house’ service to care for their softener when they will be away for an extended period of time.

Several plumbers recommend disinfecting the whole water system, including water treatment devices, after a prolonged period of non-use. If you advise your customers to go with this route, be sure to instruct them to remove devices that would be negatively affected by the amount of chlorine (or other disinfectants) that the homeowner may employ if they elect to follow this advice (RO units, softeners and even filter cartridges).

Many of these second homes are on well water. The CDC and just about every state maintain directions for well sanitation on their websites; the US EPA regional offices can be reached by phone (check WC&P Buyer’s Guide for a complete listing). Some of the clearest instructions are available from The Oregon Well Water Program of Oregon State University ( Consider using them with specific modifications each individual customer.

Recreational vehicles (RVs)
The rising number of folks traversing the country in RVs of one sort or another has led to a host of websites and blogs where they exchange information and tips. According to one RV dealership in Arizona, some owners install standard RO units, as the water they encounter in their travels can be unpredictable in a host of ways, but the vast majority do not. Many rely on packaged products, notably powdered or liquid water softening compounds, usually a form of sodium hexametaphosphate.

This too is an opportunity for the enterprising dealer: consider offering to speak to RVers at campgrounds in your area on water safety and treatment alternatives.

Sanitizing a water softener
While each manufacturer’s specific instructions may vary, the Water Quality Association recommendations have included chlorine (sodium hypochlorite, usually household bleach) and hydrogen peroxide. A search of manufacturer instructions proved those two the most suggested; but iodine, peracetic acid and quaternary ammonium can be used as well.

Generally speaking, the disinfecting solution is added to the brine tank and the softener is run through a regeneration; one of our technical reviewers suggested stopping the regeneration before the final rinse and letting the softener stand for several hours, which would allow the disinfectant to maintain contact over a longer period. Either way, once the regeneration cycle is finished, run a backwash cycle to flush the disinfectant out.


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