Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Your Water Bill and You

Most of us don't think about our water bill very often.  However it is an expense than can add up.

I never much thought about my water bill until I retired.   It was just another bill you had to pay, and compared to the mortgage and the light bill, it seemed pretty trivial.   And we used a lot of water when we lived in Virginia - having a swimming pool, sprinkler system, and drip irrigation.   We used a lot of water and never gave the bill much thought.

But $10 here, $100 there, it can add up.   And in recent years, water "shortages" (which are often artificial, due to policies more than actual drought) have driven water bills up.   In the Atlanta area during the last "drought" (which was caused in part by diverting a huge portion of water to Florida and Alabama) some homeowners were shocked to discover their water bills topped $1000 a month or more.  Suddenly, water is a thing.

In the old days, you paid a few dollars a month for your water, and never gave it much thought.  Today, things are a little different.   And a few dollars turns into hundreds and thousands over a lifetime.

What exactly is in your water bill?  Do you ever read it and really understand it?   Do you even know when it is due?   Back in the day, I used to throw the water bill in a pile of bills and pay it "whenever" often incurring late fees.   I was pretty stupid.

Our water bill today has three parts.  There is a bill for the water, which is read by a meter in our back yard.  The second part is the sewer bill, which is based on the water bill, with the assumption that every drop of water that comes through the meter ends up going out into the sewer.   More on that later.  The third part is our trash bill, which pays for our trash and recycling pickup via Waste Management.   And we'll address recycling in another posting.   Needless to say, we pay for this service, and very little of what goes into the can other than aluminum and cardboard, gets recycled.  Yes, you can carefully wash and rinse all the bottles you want, they often end up getting thrown away at the recycling center.

As an example, our water bill last month was for 10,090 gallons of water which cost $30.59 or about 1/3 cent per gallon.  If we have an older toilet of, say 3.5 gallons, then each flush is costing me about a penny a flush.  Not too bad.  But considering the minimum charge for just being connected is $9.33 (for 0 gallons) the cost may actually be less.  On the sewer side, we paid $44.96 or about .4 cents per gallon.  The total cost is about 3/4 cents per gallon, which means each toilet flush is sending three pennies down the drain.  There is, of course, a minimum sewer fee of 7.83 even if you use zero gallons, so that affects the calculation somewhat.

If you figure you use the toilet five times a day, for two people, you are talking 37 cents a day just for flushing toilets or about $136 a year (didn't see that coming).   But of course, the big-ticket items are the washing machine, watering, car washing, and showering, which make up the bulk of our water usage.

This site provides some round numbers on water usage for various tasks and appliances:

Bath40 gallons
5-minute shower 10 gallons
5-minute power shower 20 gallons
Brushing teeth with tap running 2 gallons/min
Brushing teeth with tap off .25 gallon
One toilet flush 3 gallons
Other water use (drinking, cooking, etc.) 7 gallons
Washing machine 40 gallons
Dishwasher 10 gallons
Washing car with bucket 3 gallons
Hose/sprinkler 140 gallons/hour

Assuming we run one load of laundry every day and take one shower each, that's 120 gallons of water a day or $327 a year in water usage.  It certainly adds up!
As I noted above, there is also a minimum monthly charge for water in sewer, at least in our district.  I found this out when I shut the water off when we went away.   The meter reading for that month was zero, but we still got a bill for about $50 - half of which was garbage pickup (which you pay for even if you have no garbage) and half for the baseline fee for being connected to water and sewer.  So even if you don't use any water at all, you have to payAnd in most jurisdictions, you have to have the water and electric hooked up in order to occupy a dwelling.

The sewer charge, on our bill, is actually higher than the water charge.  And one reason for this is we have plenty of water (wells pump from an aquifer that extends far into mainland Georgia) but running a sewage treatment plant is an expensive proposition.   For this reason, it is advantageous not to pay sewer tax on water that isn't going into the sewer, and there are a number of ways to go about this.

In Virginia, we were sent a form every year asking us how much water we put into the pool.   I could never figure out exactly how much, of course, but would guesstimate so many gallons, and they would deduct that from the sewer bill.   Here on the island, there are two alternatives.   You can have a separate meter installed for "water only" for things like garden hoses and sprinkler systems.   You pay for the water from this meter, but don't pay a corresponding sewer bill.   The standard meter for your house is used to meter water that ends up going down the sewer.

Many homeowners here dig shallow water wells for sprinkling, which can be expensive, but pays for itself within a year or two, in reduced sewer and water bills.   The only problem is these shallow water wells are very hard, and the sprinklers will turn your driveway or the wall of your house brown over time.   My neighbor complained to me that the wall of my house was an "eyesore" because of all the brown staining.   I pointed out to him that the staining was from his sprinkler system, and he re-aimed his sprinklers accordingly.   $10 of Lime-A-Way liquid from the Dollar Tree and some scrubbing removed the brown staining.

Of course, another alternative is to water less.   I found that watering only about five minutes a day, twice a day, is more than enough to keep your grass alive.   And even inexpensive battery-powered sprinkler timers can be had with rain sensors, to shut off watering when it is raining.   It is funny to me, but many folks here will water for a half-hour to an hour, even in the rain.   Most of that water is merely carried off or soaks into the ground, often taking nutrients with it.

We might consider the shallow-water well thing down the road, but I am in no hurry to add complexity and cost to my life right now.   The ice maker, now 12 years old, (close to the design life of most appliances) seems to have given up the ghost, so my next project is to fix it or find a new one, and I am finding out that new ones are staggeringly expensive.

A house is just a place to live - and a thing that costs money.  A lot of money, over time.