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Water Softener Rebuild

When we moved in two years ago, occasionally, there were some white deposits on some of the faucets, sink, etc. When we tested the water, the hardness was about 3 ppm – which is a little on the hard side, but fine.

Over the last 60 days, it has gotten much much worse – glasses are spotted, even the counter has white stains if tap water stands on it for very long. Retested the water, and it looked like it was around 8-10 ppm. As no settings had changed on the softener, and it was backwashing per the schedule, it seemed logical that something was wrong with the softening process itself.

As I had no clue on how this whole thing worked, I need to surf around on the net. The specifics of the model I had were generally vague, the concepts behind are pretty easy.

The system is composed of a tank which holds about 1-2 cubic feet of a ion-exchange resin, a switch/timer/value setup at the top of that, and next to it, a plastic tank which holds about 200 pounds of salt pellets.

The general idea is that water normally flows into the resin tank, where the resin – a cross linked polystyrene set of 1-2 mm amber colored beads — binds to the magnesium and calcium ions in the water. In turn, it releases sodium ions naturally bound to the resin. The chalky white stuff is magnesium and calcium, so the net effect is that the white deposits are left in the resin tank. The cross linking draws the process out a little bit, but eventually (on the order of hours to days) the resin becomes saturated, in that it cannot take up any more of the magnesium and calcium.

So, periodically, the system bypasses the water, and flushes a salt (sodium chloride) through the resin, replacing the magnesium/calcium with sodium again – and the effluent is flushed through a drain line. After sufficient recharge time, the backwash stops, and the bypass disable. Presto, fresh resin.

Now, in this particular case, the resin was 20+ years old – and like anything, it degrades over time. The softnener was beyond anything that Culligan wanted to have anything to do with, and I didn’t want to drop the 3K they wanted for a new system. Even more, the only thing that I thought was wrong was essentially a consumable item; albeit it takes 20 years to be fully consumed.

New Resin

New Resin

Here a photo comparison of new vs. used:

Used Resin

Used Resin

I found an online resource, Ohio Pure Water, that would provide replacement media for about 70-80 bucks delivered.

Once it showed up, the replacement project started. This has the probability of being extremely messy, with the side benefit of the resin being extremely slick – as I found out when I spilt some on the floor.

Culligan Water Softener

Culligan Water Softener

The first step was to unplug the softener, and bypass the system. This is actually pretty easy; there’s a sliding valve assembly in the back, red cap on one end, and blue on the other. Just push the red cap to the left, and the entire system is essentially isolated.

The next thing to do was to disconnect the brine feed, and the drain line. One requires a crescent, and the other was a hose clamp  – so it took about 10 minutes to accomplish both of these.

The next step was to actually separate the tank from the piping system. This is pretty easy too, simply unbolt the four bolts to the manifold and gently pull the tank away.

The tank weighs quite a bit, so I found rolling it gingerly on a edge, and moving it away from the wall (and just about anything else) allowed me to start to disassemble.

Culligan Mark 50 Rear View

Culligan Mark 49 Rear View

If you look at the photo, there are two plastic sleeves (red) which slide up and down. To remove the valve, slide up the sleeve, and push the entire assembly to the left. The valves sit on top of these funky brass wedge fitting, which are pretty cool. I’m sure there’s a name for them, I just don’t know what it is.

Once the valve assembly is off to the side, then there is a plastic diverter – sort of a mini strainer inside one of the holes. Just pull it out.

The next step is the fun one – lots of opportunity for mess and damage. The idea is to remove the 40+ pounds of water and resin without it ending up everywhere. The most effective way to remove it, is also the messiest – water flush.

So in the fitting that didn’t have the strainer, I attached a garden hose, and flushed out the old resin. It was extremely dark, and not a little rust colored. This took a couple of hours, because the old resin sometimes would settle, and stop moving out – so I had to shake it about, reverse flush, etc. Eventually, it was empty. There was also a little bit of gravel at the bottom, which was unexpected. What it turned out that when the resin tanks are above a certain size, there is a small (4-6″) bed of gravel under the resin.

So, I replaced it with fish tank gravel, and then using a funnel and a water hose, filled the resin. It is somewhat adhesive, so mixing a cup with some water, and swirling it down seemed to be the most efficient way to get it in. This took about 20 minutes, with two people.

I then cleaned the fittings, repositioned the tank, and turned my attention to the valve assembly. I was going to leave it alone, but I was thinking that the “software” – gaskets, seal, strainers, etc – were also 20 years old. So it was worth looking at.

Valve Fittings for a Culligan Mark 50 Water Softener

Valve Fittings for a Culligan Mark 50 Water Softener

Here’s what I found:

A white gasket, pretty chewed up

A plastic valve cup

A very rusty strainer

I cleaned the cup, the brass top and the strainer with Naval Jelly, and it came back good as new. The gasket was a little more problematic, I couldn’t find one for sale, it needed to be suitable for water treatment – so I bought the material online, and then cut my own.

I reassembled the valve assembly; and then replaced it on the wedge valve fittings. This was a bit tricky, it was easier to remove than to put on – duh – so it just took care, and I applied as little force as I needed, and eventually it went back together.

Although I could put it into service, I might as well do a thorough job, and go through the salt tank, clean it out, and restore it to service.

Culligan Salt Tank

Culligan Salt Tank

The top just pops off, and there isn’t really a lot which is immediately obvious – a pile of salt, and a black plastic tube. The tube contains the values and piping that allows water to flow into the tank, and saline to flow back out. The trick of it is that the salt pellets, when the become wet, can bind into a solid mass – known as a salt bridge – at the bottom, and can essentially limit the amount of saline that goes back to the resin. The only easy way I have found to deal with this is to get a long object, like a nylon rod, and jam it into the salt pile. There’s too much salt to stir it up, but at least you can break up any solid mass. I try and shift it around about once a month. After I cleaned the tank, I just put the lid back on.

The next step is to properly program this beast. Each softener is different, this is a Culligan Mark 49, so although some of this is unique to the particular unit – the general principles are not usually hugely different.

Programming the Softener

Programming the Softener

The cover in front of the valve assembly comes off, and there’s a nice diagram with some instructions. They are a little esoteric, so here’s what I did

1 – Set the time. The black/white dial in the upper right is the timer, and it is set by pulling it out, and turning it so the blue hand is pointing to the correct time.

2 – Set the recycle time. Same dial, but the orange hand is moved to the time you want the recharge. I figured 3:00 AM is pretty good.

4- Set the salt load. I think that this is the amount of salt that is consumed per set of cycles, ranges from 6 – 20 pounds. This is the white dial with the orange center, located at the center bottom. You need a smallish phillips head to loosen it, and then you turn it. My water is middlin hard, so I set it to 8 – the orange hand points to the setting. There’s a chart in the instructions, with consumption plotted against hardness, which works pretty well.

Close up of Setting Gear

Close up of Setting Gear

5 – Set the backwash time – same time but set slightly differently. Ranges from 5 – 20 minutes, moved the blue tab to the low end and then tightened the phillips head screw.

6 – Days of week recycle – This is a funky little blue dial, with a white center on the upper left, it has these seven little metal clip-like objects. Basically, each one of these corresponds to a day of the week – so if you want the unit to backwash one day a week, just pull out one and leave the rest depressed. I pulled out all seven, taking the water usage and the rest of the settings into account.

Putting the cover back on, connecting the drain and saline piping, and plugging the unit in was all that was left. I then ran the unit through a forced regeneration cycle. This is accomplished by pushing on the orange lever in the control unit (requiring removal of the cover again), and will force a flush. I came back after half an hour and did another one for good measure, figuring that there was some loose stuff that may have needed to be flushed out.

After that, a quick hardness test was in order. I had purchased some strips from Amazon, for about 10 bucks, which give a general hardness check – similar to a chlorine test kit you would use for a pool or jacuzzi. It came back at .2 ppm, which was perfect.

Net out of pocket

  • 75 bucks for resin
  • 25 bucks for new salt (which I would have to have purchased anyway)
  • 9 bucks for new gasket material
  • 10 dollars for hardness test kit

125 dollar and about 4 hours instead of the $3500 unit for a new one seemed like a bargain. It was messy and labour intensive, but in my situation it worked out pretty well.

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