Dear Angie: I have well water for my residential water and use a water softener for it. I have not had the water softener system serviced for the past 21/2 years. How often should I have it serviced? What should an inspection/service include, and how much will it cost? What can happen if I don't have it serviced? — S.P., Fair Lawn, N.J.
Answer: Most water softeners are fully automatic; provided they are properly sized and installed, they can operate for years with minimal maintenance.
The most important routine maintenance is, of course, adding the right kind of water-softener salt to the system as it's needed. This typically can be done on a quarterly basis by the homeowner or by a water-conditioning company qualified to work on your equipment. As always, it's important to follow the specifications set forth by the product manufacturer.
There are certainly instances, though, when your softener could require periodic service. For example, it's time to have it professionally inspected if you notice changes in water quality; the softener salt levels stay the same from day to day (a sign that it's not consuming the salt as it should; it's not going through the regeneration cycle or it gets stuck in that cycle); or you notice hard water symptoms (spots on your dishes and laundry; clothes, hair and skin are not as soft as they normally are with conditioned water).
Because most home owners with water softeners are quick to notice if their water gets hard, they don't have the softener inspected on a regular schedule other than having a water- conditioning company deliver salt and spot-check the unit for general function. If you are replenishing your salt, do a visual inspection for leaks and other out-of-the- ordinary things with each replenishing.
If you'd rather not deal with the upkeep yourself, most water- conditioning companies offer some sort of maintenance program. I know of a company in New Jersey that offers quarterly inspections. For about $250 a year, the customer gets four visits, which include a technician inspecting the unit and adding salt. If the technician suspects an issue, he or she might take a water sample for further testing.
If you're concerned about the quality of the water in your well, experts recommend having a comprehensive water test performed by a state- certified laboratory. Some well water is of good quality, but some, either because of natural occurrences or accidentally introduced contaminants, would benefit from testing and treatment. Many companies that install water softeners will test the water for free or a nominal fee. Depending on the results, you might need to enlist the help of a reputable, experienced water-conditioning company for recommendations to correct water-quality problems.