In my last column, I discussed several methods to regenerate a water softener. These included both manual and automatic procedures. In this column, I’m going to discuss more modern control valves, one of which appeared to be the real answer but, in fact, was not. I’ll also discuss the successful valves being used in 2018.
You will recall if you read my last column that I discussed problems with early automatic control valves. In the later years of the 20th century, there appeared a valve that was simplicity itself. This unit had no solenoids or pistons that moved by water pressure. It used flapper valves to control the regeneration cycles and these valves were opened by a slow moving camshaft — I believe they closed by water pressure. In addition, this valve had no brine valve in the brine tank — just a straight plastic tube to the bottom. This valve looked like the ultimate control, as I said before. What could be simpler? The answer was maybe not so much.
One of the first problems that came to light and caused myself, at least, a large number of service calls was failure of the timer. This timer consisted of a small electrical motor that, through many gear reductions, slowly turned the camshaft that operated the flapper valves exactly one revolution during the regeneration. The timer was, in my opinion, under engineered in that the gears would break, the cam did not turn and the owner was left with hard water. Changing the timer to a new one was really simple and only took a few minutes but, as an installer, you had to deal with an upset owner and had many miles on your pickup. I don’t believe a good timer was ever developed, but I could be wrong.
The real problem with this valve was how it handled brine. The amount of brine developed in each regeneration, which would be used in the next regeneration, was controlled by time and a flow control. In other words, X gallons per minute for Y minutes equals Z gallons of water into the brine tank. Z gallons of water will dissolve a definite amount of salt. Rinsing at the end of the brining cycle was accomplished with what I would call an air check. This design had a small rubber ball in a plastic enclosure. Brine came in at the top as sucked from the brine tank until it went empty, and then the ball fell to a seat and the rinsing process began. This part of the valve worked quite well.
The huge problem was that the brine injector on this valve tended to get plugged up. When this happened, no brine was pulled from the brine tank into the mineral tank. Worse yet, when it was time to refill the brine tank, the valve could not think and would add a second batch of water to what had not been pulled from the brine tank. After several failed cycles like this, the owner had a brine tank full of water and the water had dissolved many, many pounds of salt. Hopefully, an overflow line had been installed on the brine tank. But, as a dealer, you had a very upset customer and you had to bail the brine tank dry with buckets and dispose of the semi-salty water where it would not harm things. As a service man, you cleaned the brine injector and everything worked fine until the next time. Perhaps, if we had installed a filter ahead of these softeners, we would have had less trouble. But, running by themselves, they were a lot of trouble and a real pain. They were such a pain that I stopped selling softeners for a time.
This brings me to the late 1990s and into the 21st century. My choice of units is one that uses a single piston driven through strong gears by the typical small electric motor. The piston is moved back and forth into assorted positions, which accomplishes the regeneration. This piston does move through several rubber seals and what might be called round cages. Now, this valve is not perfection either, as the seals and perhaps even the pistons, on occasion, have to be changed. The service man has to have special tools to do this, and I do have them. The process to repair the valve is not really hard but, like those double-piston models of 50 years ago, a bit tricky.
I have to say that, in my opinion, this valve is the best design available in 2018. I have one of these units in my own home, and it has been as trouble-free as any water softener valve can be. I know there are other control valves on the market, and each has its proponents. I attended a seminar some months back where a manufacturer demonstrated their valve and it seemed well thought out but, again, seemed to me to be quite tricky to repair. You need a special wrench to repair this valve, too, and attendees were all given one of these wrenches. It did look like a good design and, perhaps with some experience, I would be pleased with it. It did have the advantage of being completely nonmetallic.
You now have my thoughts on the designs, pluses and minuses of water softener control valves. While they are the major problem when it comes to servicing water softeners, in my opinion, I believe that these problems are considerably less if nice clear water is going into the softener. It is even better if the water is iron free, at least in our part of the country, and next time I will discuss iron filters.
I heard on television this morning that we have had five days over 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Michigan this September. As I write this mid-month, it sure does not seem like fall. We have also had high humidity. As a result, my famous — or infamous — lawn keeps on growing right along, and I’m using generous amounts of gasoline and diesel to keep it looking good. Two days ago, the news said we were seven weeks from the ski lodges starting to make snow, and I’m not sure if that is good or bad. Hope all of you readers and your loved ones are doing well.
For more John Schmitt columns, visit www.thedriller.com/schmitt.