Monday, January 2, 2023

Water, Water, Everywhere

Turn off the water when you go on vacation - particularly Winter vacation!

The big freeze is letting up (it is a balmy 65 degrees here on Jekyll).  We lost a few outdoor plants, or at least they have lost leaves - split-leaf philodendrons, ferns, and such, what are houseplants to people in the North.  We've had no broken pipes or anything, but some folks in Atlanta had pipes break and their houses flood.  Folks in other parts of the country, who went off to see "family" at Christmas, had their houses filled with ice, when the power went off, the pipes froze and cracked, and the entire house flooded with freezing water.  Turn off your water when you go away for a week or more.  If you don't know how to do this, or your water shutoff valve is so corroded it won't turn, call a plumber and have a new one installed.

For us, water is a different issue.  We leave for weeks at a time in the summer and our aging pipes, which run through the slab could break and flood underneath the foundation - leading to a $1500 water bill, as happened to a friend of mine.   The price of water, everywhere, is going up, and the price of sewer treatment is going up as well.  One reason my friend's water bill was so high was that the sewer charge is based on water usage - water in, sewage out.  You can actually have a secondary water meter installed for sprinklers and hoses, ( which is not billed for sewer usage) although it costs a few hundred dollars to do so.  You can also dig a shallow well for your sprinkler, but the water is very hard - it will turn your sidewalk orange, and your car, if you park it next to a sprinkler head.

I digress a bit, but  a year back, I noticed the travertine marble in the fancy shower they installed (it was the style at the time) was looking a bit dingy after 15 years.  We cleaned it regularly, but the lime was about the same brown color as the marble.  I looked at it more closely and tried to scrub it away with a brush and lime-a-way gel with no success.  I finally took a razor blade and scraped off sheets of lime accumulation and then scrubbed off the remainder with lime-a-way.  I was shocked at how much it had accumulated over the years.  I used some marble polish on the walls and it looked great.  I have to remind myself to do this every few years or so - rust never sleeps!   Gee, owning a house is so much fun, ain't it?

We live on an island, but our "aquifer" extends out from the shore and goes underneath the sandy part we live on.  Drill down deep enough and you tap into an aquifer that brings water from many miles inland.  It is fairly hard water, but pretty decent. One worry with waterfront properties is that if you pull enough water from the aquifer, you may get salt water ingress from the ocean.  When this happens, you have to abandon the well and drill a new one somewhere else.  You hope this never happens.  It has happened, in other places, though, where the wells were not as deep and they were basically pumping rainwater that had settled into the sand.  Hopefully, it won't happen to us.  Hopefully.

Last Christmas Eve, I got a notice from "Ginny" our friendly water lady, who said we might have a leak as our bill was very high.  I went out to the meter and sure enough, it was leaking there.  I called the water department, figuring no one would answer, and left a message.  It could wait until after Christmas, or even the new year.  To my surprise, they sent someone out right away and installed a new meter.  How about that!   Last week, they sent a guy out again, as Ginny noted our usage went up pretty dramatically when we got back from vacation.  But the meter was fine and it showed no water being used, so no leaks.  The system is set up to show increases in usage, which is helpful (we now have RF meters which "phone home" to the water department with their readings).

With the gentrification of our island - new hotels and condos going up - water usage has increased, and over time, our water and sewer bills have increased as well.  I suspect the water department is keeping a closer eye on usage as well as leakage - and in any water system there will be leakage.

This got me to thinking, while washing dishes, how much water costs per second or per minute, if you leave the sink running while washing dishes, or shaving, or just running it while waiting to get hot water.   It might be more than we think!

Complicating this is how we are billed for water, sewer, and trash.  We pay a minimum fee now for sewer and water even if there is no usage.  Then there is a usage charge on top of that, based on the gallons used.  Looking at my last water bill, we paid about 0.7 cents per gallon for the water and sewer charges on top of the minimum monthly fee.  According to the Internets, a standard kitchen faucet uses about 2 gallons per minute.

So, do the math.  I washed out the breakfast dishes this morning and left the tap running for two minutes.  That equates to four gallons of water, which I have to pay 2.8 cents for both the water usage and sewer fees.  Not a lot of water, but if I did this three times a day for each meal, times 365 days, it works out to about $30 a year.  OK, that is chump change.  But add in the two or three (or more) minutes I might leave the tap open while shaving or brushing my teeth, (times two people) and now you have a hundred bucks or more.

The worst offenders, though, are the higher-flow taps.  Our shower is located far away from the hot water heater, so you have to "run" it for a minute or two to get hot water.  Modern showerheads are designed to run at 2.5 gpm by Federal mandate so add in another 5 gallons (at least) per shower, or another hundred bucks a year (probably more as our shower heads are older).   I installed under-cabinet hot water heaters in the master bathroom, so we don't have to run water for minutes at a time to get hot water.  Instant hot water is a nice luxury!  But then again, the heaters were $100 each or so and do use electricity.  We are thinking of adding a propane-powered instant hot water heater on the outside wall of the shower - it would cost money to buy, install, and run, but it would save water, which might offset the cost.

The other big water waster is sprinkling.   I noted before that I am not a big fan of lawns, and over the years we have lived here, I have learned to care less and less about my lawn.   I never installed a sprinkler system, but I did put in a drip irrigation system to water a few of our plants.  At one time, I had some sprinklers and timers and hoses to water the lawn, but I gave up on that, over time, and funny thing, the lawn looks about the same.  My neighbors planted "perfect" lawns then moved away.  The new neighbors never run the sprinklers and the lawn looks about the same.  What drives the "perfect" lawn people nuts is there is always a dead spot on every perfect lawn, and no matter how much they fertilize or insecticide or water or whatever (even putting in new sod) these dead zones seem to persist.

It is easier to just give up.   The saddest lawns are the ones where people water like mad and their lawn still looks like a sand pile - worse than mine!    Maybe they are over-watering, I don't know.

But getting back to cost - if a sprinkler system runs at say, 5gpm for 30 minutes, that works out to a buck a water.   If you do that year-round, it comes to $365.  So you understand why people dig these shallow-water wells, even if they cost a grand or more - they pay back in about three years.  But then you have to buy gallons of lime-away to get the rust stains off your house, driveway, sidewalk, and car.

And speaking of cars, car washing uses quite a bit of water, as does pressure-washing sidewalks.  In drier climates where water issues are even more dear (such as California) people have taken to using dust cloths to clean the dust off their cars, as opposed to using a hose and sponge.  I suspect pressure-washing is not needed as much in dry areas - they don't have the mildew that turns sidewalks black every year, as we do.

A penny-and-a-half-a-minute to run the kitchen sink tap might not seem like a lot of money, but then again, these little things add up.  And I am sure that in other parts of the country, the costs are much higher - and will get higher everywhere, as we continue to increase the population while water becomes more scarce.