Water softener newbie questions

john_vNovember 13, 2006

I've noticed lots of experts on this forum don't have a high opinion of pre-assembled box store water softeners. I bought one anyway, a Kenmore UltraSoft 400 with close to 40,000 grain capacity. Having done this, my question is, what should I now expect as a consequence of not having bought one of the more favored models (such as one from Gary's web site or the Fleck 5600 that I was considering from another web site)? In your experience (either owning or repairing) Kenmore softeners:

1) How long should I expect it to last?

2) When it does fail, what sorts of things are most likely to fail first?

3) How will I know? I.e., what are the symptoms for the most likely kinds of failure? (If it starts spilling water on the floor I think I'll notice. If it just gradually quits softening, that might be a more subtle change. I guess I'll eventually notice the spots reappearing on the shower stall. Is there a more sure-fire telltale sign?)

I wanted to cut to the chase and put my questions up front, but you are bound to be wondering why, having read your advice, I didn't take it. I don't want you to think I don't value your advice, so here's the story. First, I have now read lots of posts on water softeners at this site, and also looked at Gary's web site and others. I am impressed with the knowledge and helpfulness of Gary_PA, justalurker, and others. However, I didn't find this site before my purchase. So you see, I didn't read first and then ignore it.

I DID do a certain amount of research beforehand, and I did not set out to buy a Kenmore softener. I was going to buy a Fleck 5600 40,000 grain system at ~$500 from another web site and get someone to install it for me. The trouble was, nearly every plumber that I called in my local area was uninterested in installing a water softener! (This remains a real puzzle to me. I can understand that they may not have much call for that sort of work. Most folks in my county use municipally treated river water for their water supply. It is probably much softer than the water in my town, which uses a town well system, hardness about 15 grains/gallon. Still, what's the big deal? Don't these guys need work? I can't explain it. I just tell you what happened.)

Since this was to be a first time installation in a house not originally plumbed for a softener, a certain amount of re-routing of the main water line was needed. (The line was cut before it branched upstairs, about 15 ft of new 1" pipe was inserted to bring the supply line into my utility room, and the remaining cut end was capped. The rest of the job was a standard installation in the utility room.) I was only able to get two estimates. One, from the local plumber, was for $1245 for installation only--so about $1800 once I supply the softener. The other was from Sears, $675 for installation plus less than $300 for the above mentioned softener, a new but discontinued floor model on clearance.

So the bottom line was, the Sears softener was in effect "free." They did the plumbing and the softener for a few hundred $ less than the other guy would have done only the plumbing. I could just throw this brand new softener away, buy and install my own (now that the major plumbing is done I think I could DIY it), and still be way ahead...

...but I don't see any reason to do that. I might as well get as much use out of this softener as I can. This is the reason for my questions above. Why are folks down on the box store water softeners? What should I expect my experience to be like? How will I know when it's time to junk it and buy the one I'd have bought if I didn't have to buy the package deal?

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I don't sell water softeners so I have nothing to gain or lose in this conversation.

That said ... the negatives regarding the pre-built softeners are ...

Lower quality materials, mostly ABS which ages and becomes brittle. ABS does not do well with really hard water. On 3 gr hardness city water most any softener will give a decent service life BUT harder water than that seperates the pre-built box store softeners from the quality ones.

While all ion exchange water softeners use resin and "tanks" there's a big difference in the resin and resin "tanks". Again, the pre-built softeners do not use the top quality resin from companies like Purolite or Ionac and the materials their resin "tanks" are made of are not the same quality as the Structural brand (10 year warranty) resin tanks the top quality softeners come with.

Most of the parts are proprietary and available from limited sources and they tend to be expensive.

The pre-built softeners are "cabinet" (all-in-one) designs and are much harder to work on. The cabinet design puts the resin tank inside the brine tank. The routine cleaning of the brine tank is more difficult and takes a lot more time than a conventional design softener but the Sears type does take less floor space (the ONLY advantage in it's design).

The greatest falsehhood is that pre-built BOX store softeners are less expensive than the industry standard softeners.

The Sears softeners around 40000 hardness capacity generally run a little under $500. For $466 you can have a Fleck 5600SE electronic on demand metered softener delivered to your home including shipping. You'll need to assemble it (takes less than 30 minutes) and install it. You can have a plumber assemble it and install it (you'd need a plumber to install the Sears softener also or DIY).

You'll get a control valve that has proved it's reliability over 20+ years, is made of state of the art materials (Noryl) which does not turn brittle and is totally inert. You'll get a 5 year warranty on the control valve and ten year warranty on the resin tank. You can buy parts for the Fleck control valve locally (usually) or all over the internet. Complete parts and service/repair manuals are available for download and there is always someone everywhere who can service Fleck control valves as they are the long established industry standard AND they are as easy OR easier to program than the pre-built softeners. They tolerate the hardest water with no problem.

Real softeners generally last 20+ years EVEN on ludicrously hard water while the service life on a pre-built softener seems to be under 5 years (if you're lucky) on really hard water and lasting longer than that is a rare exception.

Sears, GE, Waterboss, North Star and the like are the most commonly complained about water softeners on this forum and all over the internet. The Fleck, Autotrol, and Clack water softeners just work and work and work and work and work.

IMO it's a simple choice. Spend uncounted hours cruising the internet reading up on how to fix your box store softener and having to do it often OR just walk over to the sink and have soft water. If you want to take the time to learn how to overcome the many design problems of the "cheap(?)" softeners and spend much more time on them when they need maintainence and repair that's your choice OR you can just have soft water and EZ minimal maintainence with a quality softener.

    Bookmark   November 13, 2006 at 10:25PM
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According to you, you heard the experts of this forum and went against the advice. Now you want their advice again? Good luck with the softner. lol

    Bookmark   November 13, 2006 at 10:54PM
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Thanks justalurker. What is ABS? Is this a material used in the valve mechanism? When people complain about the Sears, GE, Waterboss, etc. softeners, what failures do they most commonly complain about? Do they spring leaks? Valve mechanism freezes up? Electronics go bad? If I know what the most common problems are I can be more alert to them.

plumberty, I think you missed the point in my original post. I didn't hear the experts and go against their advice. I purchased the best deal on a retrofit of my house with a softener loop. It just so happened that this deal was offered by the Sears plumber, and only if I bought the Sears softener. Even if I value the Sears softener as worthless, his was still the better deal because he would do all the plumbing and throw in the softener for considerably less than the other guy would do the plumbing alone.

So I have the softener. It's a sunk cost. I could toss this brand new softener out and buy a better one, but that seems pointless. I might as well get whatever useful life I can out of it first.

    Bookmark   November 14, 2006 at 9:35AM
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There isn't enough time for me to list all the problems one can or might have with a pre-built Sears type softener. You can search this and other forums to find all the "trouble with my Sears softener" posts you care to read.

John, you made your choice and paid your money like any adult has the right to, now sit back and see what happens.

    Bookmark   November 14, 2006 at 9:43AM
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Thanks again justalurker. I appreciate your time.

    Bookmark   November 14, 2006 at 10:53AM
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Check your email

    Bookmark   November 14, 2006 at 1:10PM
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Well all these pro's can try to make you feel stupid, but I have been running a Sear Ultrasoft 400 for 5 years now, and not a lick of problems. I live in an area with very hard water, and it softens it like crazy.

And when you need to clean it, just use your wet/dry shop vac. Very simple, very easy.

Best advice I can give you: Keep so called "pro" plumbers out of your house because they have no clue what they are talking about 95% of the time.

I do all my own plumbing and never have a problem. The only issue is that I spend most of my time fixing what the "pro's" did when they built the house.

    Bookmark   December 17, 2006 at 4:53PM
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It is hard to tell why some many people disapprove of big box units. I once went to a friend's house. I walked through the guy's garage and noticed he was a big mountain biker with a number Cannondale and Trek bikes hanging over head. I love MBing so I apprecriated his interest and the quality of bikes he had.

I advised him on water treatment equipment, he asked me why certain company's prices were so high and said he could get three (big box) softeners for the same price.

I said true. But only a fool would buy something cheap they feel would breakdown and justify it by going out and buying two more of the same.

I asked him why he didn't buy a full suspension, disk-braked MB at WalMart for one fifth the price he paid for his bkes. He sat there and went into numerous reason--all great ones. I just raised my eyebrows and decided to leave him with his thoughts.

So there will also be Huffy and Murry customers and there will be Klein, Cannodale, Trek, Merlin (sorry, if I left yours out) customers (fans).

The cheaper models stay in business because they know there are those who don't care or don't understand water equipment. Big box units are often called 'landlord's specials'--"Now you got your softener, shut up and pay the rent."

When someone sells quality, price is the last thing mentioned; when someone sells price, quality is the last thing they WANT to talk about. With big box sales, nobody even is there to discuss quality outside the box.


    Bookmark   December 24, 2006 at 12:40PM
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It has been said that "the bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of low price is gone".

Another way to say it is "you get what you pay for", IF you do your homework. That was true when it was first said and it's still true today.

The are countless Sears-GE-Morton-North Star-et al softeners out there regenerating too often and wasting water and salt. Many having annoying service problems that reoccur with regularity due to poor design and less than top quality materials.

It doesn't surprise me that so many people buy box store softeners. It does amaze me that so many people think that box store softeners are cheaper than better designed, better manufactured, and made of better materials industry standard softeners. If these people looked around they'd quickly see that buying an industry standard softener is about as cost effective as a disposable one from the box store and in the long run, the industry standard sofener is more efficent and less costly to operate.

Andy, what about Gary Fisher and Terry (for the wife)?

    Bookmark   December 24, 2006 at 1:12PM
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Oh Yes, Gary Fisher, of course...the inventer of the mountain bike. Innovation is a key to many product advantages over those living on their laurels.

Keep the rubber side down.

    Bookmark   December 24, 2006 at 3:18PM
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