Anyone have a non-backwashing water softener?
October 31, 2014 9:27 AM   Subscribe

I have conflicting contractor opinions about whether I need to dig a dry well or get a new water softener. Can people who know a lot about water softeners or have recently purchased one help?

I talked to a septic company about digging me a drywell because currently, my water softener drains to my septic tank, which isn't good for it. The septic guy suggested getting a new water softener, which he said would need much less salt than an old one, and not need backwashing, eliminating the need for a dry well, which saves me a lot of money. I had a guy who specializes in wells and filtration systems come out because my water has been super sulfurous and rusty looking. He says that our current water softener is fine and there is no point to replacing it because water softeners that don't need backwashing don't work, so we actually do need to get a dry well dug. I know nothing about this stuff. I don't even really know what backwashing means. Anyone have any idea what should be done here?
posted by treehorn+bunny to Home & Garden (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Backwashing is when the softener "recharges" itself.

Water softeners can last a really long time. We replaced ours because even though it worked fine, it required flushing/recharging every day. The new one we got was much better in that regard - better sensors and better tech meant that it would only recharge once a week or so, depending on usage.

So, it is entirely possible that you could improve on things just by replacing your softener. How often does your current one run it's recharge cycle ? If it is every night, you can definitely improve on things. We saw about a 30% reduction in the amount of water used, and we also used far, far less salt, too.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:28 AM on October 31, 2014

I believe that the only non-backwashing systems are "electric water softeners" (I.e. non-salt based) for your future searching. If your water is only negligibly hard, you might be able to use one relatively successfully; I don't remember the number from when I did my research; I only remember that even the electric water softener manufacturers claim that they're inappropriate for water in my area (25 grains).

One can get more efficient water softeners; when we moved to a new house in the area and had to get a new water softener we switched from about 3 bags of salt a month to about 1 every 5 weeks. We only got the mid-range efficiency model and saw that drastic salt reduction. In theory it also backwashes less, but I'm not on a well, so I don't monitor that, nor remember if the expected percentage difference for water consumption.

One can research how much various models of water softeners backwash (how much water it consumes on a recharge cycle is probably closer to the terminology I remember in the product info), but unless your water is 0-7 grains of hardness, I wouldn't consider an electric water softener system and look at getting a drywell dug if even the very efficient models backwash too much. I'm surprised the septic people advised you not giving them work re: digging a dry well.
posted by nobeagle at 10:29 AM on October 31, 2014

Depending on your level of DIY comfort (and how easy/difficult it might be in your area to dig a great big hole without mechanical assistance) installing your own dry well is actually pretty straightforward; it's just a gravity-fed catch basin that to lets water collect and slowly drain underground instead of puddling on the surface. Assuming you can have the softener's backwash outflow pipe plumbed somewhere outside your house, you can do the rest with stuff from any home improvement store. This guide (PDF link) is pretty good, but there are others out there too.

(Usual caveat: I am not a plumber/water softener/septic guy and have no idea if there tend to be any local municipal regulations around the construction or placement of dry wells. FWIW none of the DIY sites I came across when looking into it myself made any warnings to that effect, mostly just saying to put them away from your foundation.)
posted by usonian at 11:15 AM on October 31, 2014

The new water softener we just put into a (new-to-us) house is 1/3 the size of the one it replaced, and in an area with high iron concentration in the water, only recharges once a week. It discharges to a septic tank, but so did the old one - with no damage to the system. You might want to check with a water conditioning company or two and get their take on what would work best - even if you put it in yourself, as we did.
posted by summerstorm at 7:12 PM on October 31, 2014

My parents just got a brand new, allegedly top-of-the-line softening system installed, and it backwashes ("recharges").

How often it actually does that depends on the amount of water used, though. In theory, this is supposed to make it better for the septic: the system only backwashes when they have used a lot of water, which means there should be enough volume going into the septic to dilute the backwashed brine and keep it from harming the system. Such is the theory, anyway. They have not had it for long enough to tell. Theirs seem to recharge about every two weeks.

They live in an area with very hard water, and nearly everyone has wells, so softeners are very common. They had to have theirs plumbed into the septic because there wasn't an easy way to get the backwash line to "daylight" so it could discharge any other place. But a lot of people just have it discharge outside somewhere. (Very often not into a drywell, I don't think, just... under a deck somewhere.)

Had the installer been able to run the line outside, the plan was just to tie it into the exterior French drain that the gutters go into. If your house has one, and if it doesn't discharge into a flowerbed or something (i.e. it disposes of the water via drain tile) that might work. You'd probably want to test it with an equivalent volume of fresh water first, though.

All depends on how much water you use, how often the system recharges, how much water it uses when it recharges, and what your soil is like.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:24 AM on November 1, 2014

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