Waukesha: Should You Keep Your Water Softener?

September 10, 2023
Photo via Adobe Waukesha residents must decide what to do with their water softeners as they transition to Lake Michigan water starting the week of September 18, 2023.

Water Transition Date Delayed to October 9, 2023

With the upcoming transition to Lake Michigan water beginning October 9, 2023 (delayed from the original plan of September 14 – 18), City of Waukesha residents are preparing to see what happens next. One big decision is whether to optimize your water softener, bypass it at least temporarily to see how things go, or remove and dispose of it. So, how do you decide?

Option 1: Bypass and Decide Later

The city’s advice has been to bypass your softener for a month or two and then decide whether you want to continue with a softener that has been optimized to align with the new water softness or remove it due to the higher quality water coming from Lake Michigan. The city states that Lake Michigan water is 60% softer than Waukesha’s current water supply and most people served by Lake Michigan water do not use a softener.

Bypassing your water softener is likely the most cautious approach, to take it one step at a time, wait and see what happens and then decide what to do later. Most homeowners will likely take this approach, unless they have experience living with Lake Michigan water in the past and found a softener unnecessary. For those residents, it’s likely that a lot of softeners will be hitting the curb in the next few weeks. 

To bypass your water softener, it should require only the flip of a valve (or several valves) on your softener. If it’s not obvious from looking at your softener (e.g., a valve clearly labeled “bypass” with an arrow), then you may need to look up your softener model for directions or consult a plumber or water softener supplier. However, those providers are likely to be booked solid with only a few days left until the transition. 

Option 2: Keep it and Optimize it

If you choose to keep your softener, you’ll need to have it optimized to work with the new water. This is not optional. According to the City of Waukesha, the reasons and rules for optimization are: 

“Your City of Waukesha Clean Water Plant is required by the State of Wisconsin to reduce chlorides, which can be harmful to fish and other aquatic life. Most of the chlorides come from water softener salt, which is discharged to the sanitary sewer and ends up at our treatment plant. Treatment plants are designed to remove solids and break down organic wastes, but chlorides cannot be removed by normal treatment processes. Therefore, each softener must be adjusted (optimized) to reach its maximum salt efficiency.

“For continued use after the lake water switch, your softener must be adjusted (optimized) for salt efficiency by an approved optimizer company.  High-volume water users were sent letters in early 2023 and must have their softeners optimized by 9/1/23.  Regardless of water usage, all softeners must be optimized by 1/1/25.  If your softener was already optimized before the lake water switch, then the source water hardness setting must still be changed to that of Lake Michigan. This will significantly further reduce salt usage.”

Option 3: Kick (or Carry) the Water Softener to the Curb

If you choose option 3, which is to eliminate the softener, there are two choices to dispose of your system, according to the city’s special website page regarding softeners:  

  1. Curbside Pickup: Softeners can be disposed of via curbside pickup at your household. You will need to call Waste Management at 262-369-6040 to schedule the pickup, which is typically on Tuesdays. 
  2. City Drop-Off Center: Softener systems can be brought to the City’s Drop-Off Center at 750 Sentry Drive in Waukesha. Standard trash disposal charges apply, which are posted on the Center’s website.

The next question is, of course, how do I remove the softener system? If you have a water company that has been servicing your home, it may be easiest to hire them or your plumber to remove your softener system for you. If, however, you want to save some money and do it yourself (or with a skilled friend/family member), we consulted the always-handy experts who provide such DIY tips on their blogs and YouTube channels for a few suggestions. Our search came up with thisthisthis and this that may be helpful to you, but of course, this is not an endorsement – you’ll have to sort out the right advice yourself. Here are the key takeaways we learned: 

  1. Shut off your water supply or bypass it using the valve we referenced earlier. 
  2. Unplug the system.
  3. Drain it. 
  4. Remove the resin and salt and dispose of them in the trash bin. 
  5. Disconnect pipes, lines, bolts and other hardware.
  6. Haul everything upstairs and either to your vehicle or curb, depending upon your disposal choice. 

If you have an old softener or even older plumbing, we definitely suggest proceeding with caution and having at least one experienced person on hand to help if something goes wrong. 

Other Tips for the Water Transition

The City Water Utility has provided residents with numerous instructions to prepare for the transition, with advice including: 

  • Remove water filters in your refrigerator, on your kitchen sink or reverse osmosis system during the transition.
  • Do all your laundry BEFORE October 8th, as the water may be discolored for a few days and could discolor your clothes. If you do wash clothes and discolor them, DO NOT put them in the dryer or it will set in the discoloration. To correct any discoloration, the city advises to use “Red-B-Gone or Iron Out, from local hardware stores or online.” 
  • Do not make ice or use the icemaker on your refrigerator until the water clears. The city advises that the water will be safe to drink throughout the transition, but funky looking or smelling ice cubes are best avoided. 
  • Plan to flush your pipes with cold water through all your faucets, shower heads and refrigerator water valves just as you would when the city flushes the water mains occasionally. 
  • Kidney dialysis patients – work with your doctor to modify your machine and treatment.
  • Fish tank owners – prepare to treat tank water and remove chloramines from the water.

In addition to the city’s advice, you may want to pick up some extra bottled water in case it takes a few days for your home’s faucets to clear up, so your water looks and smells normal, assuming you want to avoid drinking it or filling your pets’ water bowls with it. 

If you have additional questions about the water transition, these city resources should help:

  1. https://waukesha-water.com/downloads/Water-Bill-Insert-in-English.pdf
  2. https://waukesha-water.com
  3. https://www.waukesha-wi.gov/government/departments/softener-salt-program.php
  4. https://greatwateralliance.com

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated for the second time on September 14, based on the City of Waukesha’s revised water transition schedule moving the transition date to October 9.