Why Installing a Water Softener in an Older Home is Asking for Trouble

We knew the twenty year old mobile home had plumbing trouble and a water softener. We’d asked for neither; the place was simply an obvious choice…and we’d closed the deal before realizing there was any plumbing difficulty whatsoever.

Oops.

Still, not a whit of buyer’s remorse tainted the air. With several acres, a couple of great porches, a storage shed, and local wildlife to enjoy, a few clogged pipes weren’t enough to make it a bad purchase. We’d gotten the home for a mere two thirds of what it was worth. It would be flipped immediately to friends moving from Tennessee to our desert country in Cochise County, Arizona. All we (meaning I, as my wife is disabled) had to do was solve the plumbing problem…and an issue with the roof…and the front door framing which would have caved in to a cranky kick from a three year old.

And do it in less than a week. The owners-to-be were already on the road with the self-described “maladjusted Vietnam vet”, his wife, and their teenaged daughter. The U-Haul was hammering westward.

No pressure, Ghost.

The plumbing problem didn’t fully define itself until Day Three, by which time we’d learned the following:

    1. I’d thought there was a separate valve for the bathrooms that simply needed to be turned on. Nope. Turned out that most of the cold water outlets either didn’t run at all (as was the case with both toilets) or at best produced a dribble.

    2. There were no hidden valves. The water was “on” for every faucet, every toilet.

    3. A neighbor who’d “house sat” (as he put it) for the previous owners had repeatedly dealt with the home’s plumbing. “I’d clean out the valves,” he explained, “and find these white flakes. Two weeks later, there’d be the same problem again. Strange thing is, it’s the only home (of seven on the Duke Ranch Well) that’s ever had this problem.”

    4. I’d replied, “Sounds like undissolved water softener salts to me.”

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I was almost right. The ancient electric hot water heater, 23 years of age (three years older than the home in which it had been installed), didn’t work at all. When I drained it into a stock pot (just let it run and overflow), there was quite a bit of salt that showed up in the bottom of the pot when all was said and done. I even tasted it to make sure it was salt.

However, that wasn’t the whole story. The evening after the neighbor and I had that little conversation, I researched the pros and cons of water softeners on the Internet. Unsurprisingly, there are some real downsides to water softeners. Softened water, despite what Culligan and the rest of them will tell you, is not a good thing to be drinking. The salts, when discharged into the earth, do the soil no favors. But the real problem–which I had to intuit from various writings that described the process yet amazingly missed the point–is that salt is just too good at what it does.

In a nutshell, it works like this:

–The salt chemically reacts with the scale minerals, especially calcium and magnesium, that often line the inside of plumbing pipes in hard water areas. There’s an ion exchange, and new salts (calcium salts, magnesium salts, whatever) are produced in profusion.

–If all that could be done to perfection, that would be one thing…but much of these calcium/magnesium (lime) pipe linings get nasty about it. Instead of politely dissolving entirely and being held in suspension, they produce lots of flakes that simply aren’t exposed to enough salt. They become little floating islands, little lime-bergs, the calcium/magnesium home version equivalent of oceangoing icebergs…and, following the natural flow of the pressurized water, they head straight for the faucets and toilets, accumulating and congregating at the choke points until nothing, not a drop of water, reaches the sink or toilet bowl.

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UPDATE: One Week Later.

The situation is worse than we’d initially thought. The second bathroom, positioned at the south end of the mobile home and by far the closest to the inlet pipe, is up and running beautifully on all cylinders. My first move was to disconnect and bypass the soft water (Culligan) unit sitting right outside the structure. Culligan picked up their junk a few days ago. All valves in the (2nd) bathroom have been cleaned, the toilet valve was replaced not once but twice, and the toilet tank was removed at one point to allow the flush valve and gasket to be replaced. (The gasket had failed and was leaking with every flush.)

Forward of that position, however, things are not pretty. A brand new hot water heater is up and running nicely, so that’s good–but none of the other cold water outlets are working right. Several of them, including the toilet supply in the master suite and the left hand sink in the master suite, are letting no water through whatsoever.

The flakes are winning the battle. Not the war, you understand…but the battle, yes.

So…what might these scaly little mineral monsters look like, you ask? Well, some of them are shown in the header photo. These huge things, many of them 1/4″ or more in length, are common at the far end of the home, pushed forward by water through more than 70 feet of under-trailer piping.

In the following photos, two types of flakes are shown. The larger flakes came from the same toilet supply hose as those shown above. The smaller, grainier bits with more of a blue (think copper) tint were found in the second bathroom, the one closest to the inlet pipe.

A one-quart freezer storage bag with mineral flakes collected from two toilet fill pipes.

A one-quart freezer storage bag with mineral flakes collected from two toilet fill pipes.

Close-up of mineral flakes collected from toilet water supply.

Close-up of mineral flakes collected from toilet water supply.

Not clear enough? Okay, then, how about a photo of the master suite’s toilet shutoff valve (left side) and connector hose (right side)? Here you go.

Toilet tank shutoff valve and fill supply hose, both completely clogged by mineral flakes loosened from pipe walls by a Culligan water softener.

Toilet tank shutoff valve and fill supply hose, both completely clogged by mineral flakes loosened from pipe walls by a Culligan water softener.

No wonder the toilet wasn’t filling, eh?

After force-flushing these hoses and even the pipe below the shutoff valve, the master suite toilet did fill faster than it had before…for a few flushes. Within a day or two of usage, however, it was completely clogged once more.

So I connected a garden hose (via duct tape, no less) to the toilet tank supply pipe and tried to do a more thorough “cleanout”. It didn’t work. The flow through that pipe was so restricted that despite plenty of pump pressure being applied and the pipe being completely open at the end (valve removed), all we got was a slow, anemic flow. Four pails full of water were run through the hose. No increase in flow resulted, but more flakes did come through; they can be seen as the whitish sediment in the following picture.

Normal pump pressure is barely able to push any water through the garden hose due to the extreme blockage in the mobile home's piping.  The whitish sediment is a continuing accumulation of mineral flakes popping out of the pipe.

Normal pump pressure is barely able to push any water through the garden hose due to the extreme blockage in the mobile home’s piping. The whitish sediment is a continuing accumulation of mineral flakes popping out of the pipe.

In, the end, there was only one thing to do: Give up and admit that much of the cold water piping (and perhaps a part of the hot water piping) must be and will be replaced. The new homeowners are already living in the home, but I’ll be working on this project (plus a few others) until everything is shipshape.

Summary: Doing the work myself, I can make the plumbing fix happen for a few hundred dollars in supplies. It will, however, require many man hours of my time. That’s okay for us, but if you were to hire a plumber to tackle this job, you’d be looking at thousands upon thousands of dollars out of pocket. Plus, I can figure a way to make it happen with minimal disruption to the home life of the residents. Most commercial plumbers, I am convinced, could not do that.

Moral of the story: If you have an older home where mineral deposits may well have accumulated as scale inside of the pipes, beware the water softener. The budget you save may be your own.

Final note: I’ll detail the plumbing fix in a future post, but it may take a while. For now, I hear a shovel and a spud bar calling my name.

8 thoughts on “Why Installing a Water Softener in an Older Home is Asking for Trouble

  1. Geez, Ghost! At first glance I thought the first picture was a spoonful of spaetzel! Holy Mackerel! Thankfully, I don’t have a water softener in my home. Is the mobile home you’re talking about the one you’ve been clearing of storage for the past few weeks?

  2. Nope; it’s one we purchased for resale. It’s a great home, too, but the level of plumbing pipe dysfunction was a bit of a surprise. I will admit I’d never seen one this mucked up.

    Truth be told, though, I’m looking forward to the hard work of fixing it. Figure it’s time to do some of that–which will include 100 feet or so of trenching by hand–in order to, you know, keep in shape.

  3. Interesting information. I did not realize what caused the problem with the salt. The cold water in the master shower does not work now. I found out the hard way.

  4. OUCH! Well, I’ll be getting after the task as of Thursday and figure to keep at it till we get it fixed. Hate to see you limited to using the other shower, so that will be the 2nd fix, right after the master toilet. I did have one of those “sudden awakenings” myself, just yesterday, when Pam used my toilet while I was in the shower…and flushed. YEE-HAW!

  5. Thanks, Matt. It’s always good to see a reader get a chuckle out of one of these situations. Silver lining: Now I know!

  6. Update on this plumbing problem. I have had to have Rodger clean out the washer hose a couple of times, but no other problems for over a year.

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