Over the many years I have written this column, I have covered a lot of different parts of the groundwater industry. I’ve talked about drilling machines, pump types, water tanks, pipe material and many other topics. Quite often, I have exhausted a topic or subject, only to realize before I write the next column that I missed some parts of it. In last month’s column, I said I would be discussing iron filters this month. However, I realize I failed to cover one rather special type of softener and, also, how the regeneration cycles of automatic softeners are accomplished. 

Most all water softeners consist of a mineral tank, which contains the softening mineral, and a brine tank that holds the brine for regeneration. Some models are two tanks standing side-by-side, and others are one large tank that contains the salt and brine with a smaller mineral tank inside. If space for the unit is limited, this second type is the way to go. In my opinion, these tanks inside of tanks are more difficult to service, but they do work. They have the same components as a side-by-side unit. Though I have sold a number of these single-tank units in my career, I really prefer the separate mineral tank and brine tank to a standalone model.

Another Tank Option

The somewhat special type of unit I want to discuss is one that has two mineral tanks and a free-standing brine tank. The big advantage of this arrangement is that there is always soft water available. I have sold a few of these to customers who wanted soft water 24/7. They work very well. I can see that if a commercial unit was installed at a restaurant, for instance, and the restaurant was open 24 hours a day, this would be the way to go. The restaurant would never be out of soft water as long as the brine tank had salt in it. These three-tank units are really no different from a more standard two-tank unit, except that they have an extra tank. They are no harder to install than a two-tank unit and no more difficult to service.

One of the supposed advantages of a three-tank unit is that regeneration is accomplished with soft water. In other words, the regeneration water softened in tank A is used to regenerate tank B while also providing soft water to the taps at the same time. We have a local water conditioning specialist that really promotes these three-tank units, and claims to have a far better regeneration compared to softeners that use hard water to regenerate. Manufacturer personnel in the water conditioning industry whom I greatly respect say there is no great advantage to using soft water to regenerate, and that it’s a talking point. These three-tank units are more expensive than two-tank models, and I could see some affluent customers wanting them so they could brag to neighbors about having soft water 24/7. If you get the idea that I’m not a big fan of three-tank units, you’re right. 

In recent past columns, I have discussed several types of softener control valves. The regeneration action of these has to be controlled in some manner. If we go way back to the manual control valves of softeners made many years ago, the owner merely waited until hard water came from the tap and then did a regeneration. I don’t think many consumers today would put up with that type of operation. I know that if severe extra water usage pushes my own unit beyond its cycle capacity, our hot water is hard and it seems to take days to get soft hot water again. Of course, I could drain the water heater, but I never seem to have time for that.

From Manual to Automatic

As the industry progressed from manual regeneration to automatic, the simple time clock became the ruling part of the regeneration cycle. These time clocks are simple clocks with a frequency wheel. The clocks are simply set, as the control mechanism has an arrow that reads “time of day.” The user rotates the clock to read the preferred time of day and the softener will regenerate then. For example, if needed, the user could set it for 2 a.m. 

The frequency wheel usually has 12 little pins or fingers. By adjusting the pins and fingers, the installer selects how many times the unit will regenerate in a 12-day period. It can be anywhere from once all the way up to 12 times. Years ago, I sold some units that had a day-of-the-week frequency wheel Sunday to Saturday, but I haven’t seen one of those in a long time. Frequency is determined by the softening capacity of the unit, the hardness of the water and the number of people using the soft water. In simple math, calculate the number of gallons going through a unit in a day assuming the average person uses X gallons per day. Some folks are rather stingy water users, and go to the local coin laundry for washing clothes. Others use water rather plentifully. Assuming both these groups have the same hardness of water, typical installations have some variance in regeneration frequency. The downside of too few regenerations is that the consumer may experience hard water, which will be unpleasant for them. Regenerating too frequently just wastes salt, and that is to be avoided also. In any event, changing the frequency is simple and will keep the unit working at its best efficiency. Next time, I will write about another way to initiate water softener regeneration, as well as the effects of power outages and guests coming to stay.

As I write this near the end of October, in southern Michigan, we have had cool weather with nighttime temperatures right at or slightly below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. We keep getting a good amount of rain and my infamous lawn needs mowing again as I write this. Usually, I mow right into the first week of November and then the mower deck comes off the tractor and the snow blade goes on. Until next time, I hope I didn’t confuse you with this column about softener timers. Keep working hard, but enjoy life too.

For more John Schmitt columns, visit www.thedriller.com/schmitt.