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GE SmartWater Water Softener GXSF30H

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Hard water is something of a nuisance – it can fur your pipes, make you itch, cause your dishwasher to become the frequent recipient of profanity and physical abuse, prompt your faucets and fittings to corrode and increase your consumption of soap. Fortunately, it’s not something you really have to put up with.

While a complete understanding of the insidious nature of hard water would require that we’d all stayed awake during high school chemistry – ya, right – it’s arguably worth noting that its hardness derives from calcium, magnesium and other ions in your water. A water softener exchanges these troublesome little beasts with sodium ions, resulting in a cheerful splash of water from your household plumbing that’s responsible for none of the above. Soft water is a guilty pleasure.

Should you reside in an area with hard water – which is just about everywhere, to some extent – you can crack it about the ears and teach it to behave by installing a water softener between wherever your water emanates from and your plumbing. A water softener consists of a source of sodium – this being a big tank of salt pellets – and some tricky hardware to persuade the hard ions in your water to dance with it.

It’s probably worth noting that a water softener exchanges ions in your water – it doesn’t actually add salt to it.

Early water softeners suffered from major salt gluttony. They worked well enough, but they had no idea how much water they were being asked to soften, and as such, how much salt to get through. A 20-kilogram bag of salt per week was as nothing to these machines, making them both somewhat expensive and seriously back-breaking to operate.

The GE SmartWater water softener is… well, smarter. Its tricky hardware includes a water meter, such that it can tailor its salt consumption to the volume of water it’s asked to treat. In our case, this reduced our salt consumption from a bag every week or so to three or four bags per year.

The SmartWater softener also manages to combine the traditional separate brine tank and resin chamber – where all the sneaky chemistry happens in a water softener – into a single cylinder, reducing its footprint somewhat. It has a digital interface to allow its salt consumption and other adjustable parameters to be fine-tuned without recourse to a box of wrenches. Its even fairly easy to install.

It all sounds so cool… you’ll no doubt be wondering why there’s such a dearth of stars in the ratings chart at the top of this review.

The GE SmartWater water softener is a genuinely clever bit of technology when it’s working, but keeping it in this state can be a challenge. It’s somewhat maintenance intensive, and performing that maintenance may leave you with a set of dents in your basement wall shaped pretty much like your forehead.

The first issue you’re likely to encounter in keeping a SmartWater softener on line is its hitherto-mentioned water meter. The SmartWater softener maintains a plastic turbine in its water intake, which contains two small magnets. The magnets trigger sensors affixed to the outside of the turbine housing as the turbine spins, and the softener’s on-board computer counts the sensor hits to determine the volume of water that’s passing through the system.

The catch in all this is that most water contains iron, and even the most somnolent of high school chemistry students will no doubt recall that iron is attracted to magnets. After a few months, the turbine magnets can grow substantial iron beards, which will eventually seize the turbine. This results in a sudden drop in water pressure, and it makes the water softener think that no water is passing through it. Thus confused, it stops backwashing its resin tank, and all water softening ceases.

The turbine isn’t unworkably difficult to clean, but you’ll need to remember to do so about twice a year. Accessing it entails disassembling the intake valve assembly of the SmartWater softener, which is held in place by two somewhat funky plastic clips. It’s a profoundly good idea to buy a handful of spare clips before you need to clean the turbine, as they’re easy to break.

If you install a SmartWater water softener, you’ll unquestionably want to make the acquaintance of www.softnerparts.com, purveyors of all the weird little plastic accoutrements of water softeners, early on.

The second common maintenance issue that besets SmartWater softeners is a bit more nettlesome. Rather than pump water into the softener’s brine tank, a SmartWater softener uses a vacuum chamber and a venturi… and you really don’t want to know the fiddly details of how this works. Like the metering turbine, however, it requires periodic disassembly and cleaning. It has a lot of small, relatively fragile parts.

In order to work, the SmartWater’s vacuum chamber requires that it be flawlessly sealed, something that grows increasingly difficult after it’s been dismantled several times for cleaning. Even a microscopic leak is sufficient to prevent it from transferring water to the softener’s brine tank, and as such, to prevent the softener from functioning.

Once again, it’s really good idea to buy a spare vacuum chamber well before you need one.

The really disturbing hole in the sky for the SmartWater softener, however, isn’t the machine itself. The softener comes with an anorexically thin manual, most of which is devoted to installing the system. It offers terse, largely unhelpful assistance with maintaining the works, and even less input should your water softener take an unexpected vacation for no apparent reason.

The largest issue in maintaining a SmartWater softener is in knowing how some of its more exotic technology is supposed to work when it ceases to do so… an issue that its owner’s manual doesn’t come within a light-year of.

Having exhausted the minimal advice in the owner’s manual for our SmartWater softener, I tried contacting GE for a complete service manual. I was told that service manuals are only available to General Electric’s authorized service technicians, and that I could “consult your local or state consumer affairs office or your state’s Attorney General” if this wasn’t satisfactory.

Needless to say, Canada doesn’t have any states…

Calling in the professionals didn’t prove to be an option either. At least where we live, General Electric appears to have delegated its service issues to a third-party service company. The service company’s web page presented us with three service shops in our area. Two of them didn’t want anything to do with water softeners, and the remaining one offered only voice mail, and they declined to return our calls for help.

Should you be considering a SmartWater softener, it’s a profoundly good idea to ensure that there’s someone within driving distance of your house who’s prepared to show up and fix it before you crush your plastic.

Several years ago, when we initially sprung for our SmartWater softener, it was pretty much the only metered water softener we could track down. As I write this, a number of promising competitors have manifested themselves.

You can always spot the pioneers… they’re the ones with the arrows in their backs.

A metered water softener is a worthwhile addition to any home’s plumbing, but you might want to consider carefully whether the GE SmartWater softener is ideally suited to your needs. Not so much an appliance as an occasional hobby, a SmartWater softener will likely prove to be an ongoing source of work, frustration, expense… or periodic hard water, which arguably defeats the purpose of owning one of these things.

Comments (2)

Kirk PoschmanNovember 7th, 2011 at 10:45 am

Have you considered the WaterBoss brand of softners? They are compact and efficient. I don’t have iron in my water, just a lot of calcium and some sand, so a whole house water filter keeps that particulate stuff out of the softner. I’ve had one since 2003 and the only maintenance is to add salt and wipe dust off the cover.

Gene MurphyDecember 16th, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Great review and article. I have had this model for 6 years and have had some problems with seals. Now the pressure is awful so the comments on the turbine are very helpful.
GE tells me that the resin only has a life of 5 to 6 years in Florida. Maybe alligator scales decrease the life from the 8 to 10 years it should get.

I am now going to look at other flow monitoring water softeners.