With more than 30 years’ experience in the residential and commercial water treatment space, Mark Nelson is a Class 1 Drinking-Water Operator and a CBWA (Canadian Bottled Water Association) Certified Plant Operator. As founder and president of Nelson Water in Ottawa, Mark focuses on dealing with challenging water treatment system designs for problem water. He also heads the largest water bottling plant in the city of Ottawa with a delivery network throughout the Valley.

If you’ve recently installed a water softener in your home, it’s natural to be confused by the recharging process. This is also known as regeneration and it’s the process that cleans the resin media to maintain efficiency. Many people wonder if they can use their shower, plumbing fixtures and water using appliances when this process is taking place. This will be the focus of this article, we will explain in more detail how this process works and this should help you to make informed decisions.

How Does My Water Softener Work?

Hard water contains elevated levels of dissolved mineral content that are added to the makeup as it passes through rocks, sand, soil and other materials. Water is an effective solvent and it can dissolve many materials that it comes into contact with. This mineral content makes your water hard and it can cause damage to your plumbing system and water using appliances. For this reason, many people install a water softener to make their incoming water soft and easier to use.

There are different ways to soften water, but the most effective is an ion-exchange system. The incoming water is passed through a resin media bed that is charged to remove the mineral ions and exchange them with sodium or potassium ions. These are both salts, they are more benign and they make the water softer. The hard water mineral ions are left behind on the resin media beads and gradually this buildup will lower their efficiency. The regeneration cycle is the cleaning process which rinses the mineral ions off the resin beads and into the drain.

To maintain the efficiency of your water softener, regular regeneration cycles are required. The frequency of the regeneration can vary depending on a few factors, including the volume of water used, the hardness of your water and more. The regeneration cycle uses a large volume of water to rinse the resin media clean, So you need to make sure that the system is optimized to meet the needs of your home. For this reason, we recommend that your local water treatment specialist optimizes the system for you.

What Happens During a Water Softener Regeneration Cycle?

Most single-tank  water softeners have a regeneration cycle that’s pre-set to run at night. The typical time is between 2am and 4am when most people are asleep and no water is required. As the regeneration takes place, the water softener is automatically placed into a bypass mode. At this time, the water softener allows the incoming hard water to enter your home, if a tap or fixture is turned on. This is an emergency measure if you need to get up and use water for some reason.

When the water softener has regenerated the system is automatically released from bypass mode. The system then moves to the default mode and the incoming water is directed to the resin media bed as normal. It’s important to understand that your water softener is a pressurized system and if you do use water during regeneration, it lowers the water pressure. This is very noticeable if more than one person attempts to run a tap when the regeneration is taking place. In fact, when water is used it will pull the incoming water away from the water softener.

Protect Your Hot Water Boiler

Taking a shower during the water softener regeneration cycle is, in theory, possible if you can endure a loss of pressure and you don’t mind using hard water. When you take a shower, it’s likely that you use warm water which is hot and cold water mixed together. The hot water may be stored in a hot water boiler tank if you don’t have an on-demand water heater. The water in the hot water tank will be soft because it was passed through the water softener before the regeneration cycle started. But, the cold water is coming into your home as the water softener is in bypass mode and it’s hard.

This may not seem like a big deal, but the main problem is that the hard water will be used to refill the hot water boiler tank. One of the harmful properties that hard water is known for is the creation of scale that can damage heating elements. This material coats the surface lowering the energy efficiency and ultimately it damages the unit beyond repair. So, if you need to take regular showers at times when the regeneration cycle is running it’s time to rethink your approach.

How Can I Make Regeneration Cycle Changes?

Many water softeners operate with a simple time-initiated system, which is basically a timer unit. The exact position and operation may differ depending on the make and model of your system. Essentially, they are pretty simple to operate. You set the regeneration time and at that time it will go through the process automatically. But, this type of system is becoming outdated in favor of demand-initiated systems.

A demand-initiated water softener only regenerates based on other criteria than time alone. This is usually the volume of water used and you can set your preferred regeneration times too. Many water treatment experts prefer this type of system because it’s easy to optimize and it’s extremely efficient. The only real drawback to a demand-initiated system is that a water treatment technician is needed to optimize the system for maximum efficiency gains. But, a water softener is a complex system and it requires regular annual maintenance from a technician anyway. Many people get their system optimized at the same time or they may request help if a major change occurs. This is typically someone moving into or out of the home which can significantly alter the volume of daily water usage.

In Conclusion

Yes, you can shower when your water softener is regenerating, but the pressure may be lower and you are putting your hot water boiler tank at risk (if you have one). It is possible to adjust a time-initiated control valve, but a demand-initiated system is better. In both cases, a local water treatment specialist can optimize the system to maximize the efficiency.