Sunday, April 21, 2013

A lesson in soft water

We live in a corner of Minnesota where well water has a lot of dissolved limestone in it.  The upside is that it's delicious and plants love it.  The downside is that unless you remove these dissolved "impurities," you may as well not shower, wash clothes or dishes, and certainly not the car.  As a result, water "softeners" are a common piece of the house's hardware.  Cities like Minneapolis soften their municipal water and other places like Duluth gets its water from Lake Superior which is nearly as soft as rainwater.  So water softeners aren't everywhere but in plenty of places.  You can tell when you are in such a locale because salt is sold at gas stations, convenience, and grocery stores.  I live in one of those places.

Our 58-year-old house came with a water softener that dates from the 1970s.  It has mechanical controls which are pretty cool to set.  Last Tuesday, I heard it start its flush / recharge cycle.  Went to bed.  Woke up about six hours later and it was still running.  NOT good.  So I went down to see what might be wrong and discover it is out of salt.  My bad.  I didn't check it often enough—which was especially stupid considering I had no experience with this bit of hardware.  So I shut down the water supply and go shopping for salt.  I come home with 160# (73 kg.) of it.  Load the salt and restart the water flow.  Three hours later I have decided the shut-off problem had not been solved.

Time to call the folks at Culligan because they made my softener.  Not surprisingly, they have an outlet store in my little town.  They scoffed at the idea of fixing my softener  I was told that they had ceased making spare parts in the mid 1980s and stopped stocking them in early 1990s.  I had an obsolete piece of machinery.  I was assured that this was a very common way for my softener to die—and for the modest sum of $2000 they would haul it out and bolt in a new one.  Oof.

That seemed a lot for such a simple appliance.  So I stopped by my nearest big box building supply store and they had a perfectly acceptable softener for $400 + $60 for the parts to hook it into my plumbing.  I went home to take inventory of the tools I had on hand—pipe cutter, propane torch, solder, flux, teflon tape, etc.—and sort of resigned myself to a minimally tough DIY job.

Since we have a Sears appliance store in town, I decided to take a look at what they were selling before I committed to a purchase.  Went online and bless them, they had a downloadable .pdf instruction file.  It was complete and well illustrated.  It was written in good old midwestern (Hoffman Estates, Illinois) English.  And on around page 18 there were instructions for if you ran out of salt—replace the salt and push the Recharge Now button.

Oops!  I had replaced the salt in my softener but then I had simply restored the water flow.  Major facepalm!  My softener had gotten "stuck" in its cycle when the salt ran out and even after I had replaced the salt, it was still confused as to what to do next.  It needed to be rebooted.  It needed a fresh start.  And while this is the FIRST thing you would do to a computer or a softener with electronic controls, it turns out that even (or especially) mechanical controls need to know where to begin too.

I pushed the Recharge Now button and an hour and a half later, I was back in business.  I hadn't spent $2000 OR $460.  I hadn't had to figure out how to dispose of an appliance (another $50).  I hadn't had to hump an 80# (36 kg.) load up and down a flight of steps.  And I didn't need to make fussy modifications to the house's water supply with the possibility it would leak if done wrong.

All this was made possible because someone at Sears had written a good instruction manual and because I so admired its comprehensive approach, I had read it even though I wasn't at all sure I wanted to buy their softener (although after this experience, it will be my first choice whenever the day comes that my softener actually dies.)

Maybe the instruction manual for my softener is still available somewhere but I could not find it in the house.  And given the response the Culligan people gave my dilemma, who knows if the important instruction is in there anyway.  Sounds like they were replacing a bunch of perfectly good parts over the years and selling new (overpriced) softeners to folks with good appliances when the parts ran out.

There were some fine lessons to be learned here.  1) Even if something is designed to be easily serviced, it doesn't help much unless spare parts are available AND the manufacturer is committed to a maintenance culture.  2) It never hurts to read instruction manuals—who knows what gems are contained therein.  3) The landfills of the nation are probably full of perfectly good stuff because folks give up on problems way too soon.

There are probably other lessons.  But the big rewards of this experience were personal.  I saved a bunch of work and money.  I found I was ready to take on simple plumbing jobs.  But mostly, it was fun to solve a problem.


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