Water Heater/Oil Burner Question
October 30, 2009 8:09 PM   Subscribe

How can I determine how much hot water my upstairs neighbors are using?

I rent a house with a totally separate apartment up on the top floor. When I moved in, my landlord told me the upstairs has its own hot water, so I'd need to take care of the entire oil burner bill myself. Then my oil burner failed...and, very interestingly, they didn't have hot water upstairs! So my landlord offered to contribute $20/month toward my oil bill to compensate for the upstairs hot water use (note...they have electric heat and no washer or dryer or dishwasher upstairs).

Problem is....there's a certain sound when the neighbors use hot water. And sometimes I notice that sound continuing for hours and hours. I have no idea what's up with that, but I'm wondering if they're using a lot more than $20 worth/month.

Is there any way to measure/track their hot water use versus my own, without installing expensive/fancy equipment? I don't need it exact, I just want to know if the $20 is going anywhere near to taking care of their share of the bill. I do have access to the oil burner/water heater.
posted by jimmyjimjim to Home & Garden (31 answers total)
Sorry, I left this part slightly ambiguous: the landlord concedes that the upstairs neighbors are definitely drawing hot water from my hot water heater......and insists that he did not know this until my oil burner failed. So my goal is to determine whether the $20 for their share is anywhere near equitable.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 8:11 PM on October 30, 2009

What's your bill? What's theirs?
posted by sanka at 8:15 PM on October 30, 2009

It won't be easy without separate meters. There isn't an exactly linear relationship between usage and energy costs, either. How many people are in each household? Are you sure that it's only the shower that's on your heater? If they have a separate one, where is it?

It would be more equitable for the landlord to cover the WH costs and just charge higher rent, but I'm not sure how much of a financial difference it would make to you.
posted by dhartung at 8:16 PM on October 30, 2009

sanka: I'm on a "budget" from the oil burner company, based on long term usage patterns, so that complicates further. They, obviously (??) don't get a bill because they are drawing hot water from my heater/burner.

dhartung: that's what I was afraid of. They are a family of two, using water only for sinks and showers. They do NOT have a separate heater. $20 seems seat-of-pants fair to me EXCEPT for the weird, unexplained sound of hours-long water use.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 8:23 PM on October 30, 2009

It seems fairly obvious that we need to know what YOUR share of the bill is, before we can tell you if $20 is fair. Does $20 equal 30% of the monthly bill? 50%?
posted by bengarland at 8:45 PM on October 30, 2009

bengarland, thanks, but I'm not asking you to tell me if $20 is fair, I'm looking for a way to, at least loosely, track usage. Seems like I can't. Oh well....
posted by jimmyjimjim at 8:59 PM on October 30, 2009

Well, If you seem to be paying ALL of the hot water, whats your bill? Halve it and send it to the landlord at minimum. If there's five people living up there, negotiate down.
posted by sanka at 9:00 PM on October 30, 2009

I think the only good way would be to install a rotometer in the line that goes from your water heater up to their apartment. Depending on the piping configuration, that could range from a small DIY project to a wall rip-out, entire length of pipe replacement, who-knows-what-else you damage in the process project. And it would involve turning off their water for the duration, so, not exactly covert.

Or maybe something like an ultrasonic flow meter but it seems like it's awful picky about what kind of pipe it likes to be attached to. The one experience I've had with the ultrasonic meters, they didn't work worth a damn. That was old milspec gear, though. Commercial ones might work better.
posted by ctmf at 9:29 PM on October 30, 2009

Holy moly! Six thousand dollars for the FD-7000. Uh, maybe the ultrasonic meter isn't practical either.
posted by ctmf at 9:36 PM on October 30, 2009

There's one other way, but you won't like it. Find the meter they use to read it, learn how to read it yourself, then don't use hot water at all for a full (typical) weekday and weekend day. It's not definitive, obviously, but it should give you something to ballpark whether you're overpaying or not.
posted by davejay at 9:58 PM on October 30, 2009

What state are you in? Massachusetts?

If you're in Massachusetts (here's hoping, anyway) then you're off the hook: your landlord cannot legally charge you or let you pay for the oil you use unless that oil is separately metered. See the bottom of page eleven of the Massachusetts state
sanitary code, chapter 2
The owner shall provide the oil used for heating and/or hot water in each dwelling unit unless such oil is provided through a separate oil tank which serves only that dwelling unit, provided however, that 105 CMR 410.000 shall only apply to tenancies created or renewed after July 1, 1994.
Even if you're not in Massachusetts, many states have laws requiring that this sort of thing be metered. We may as well check on the local law first, but the best thing to do will probably be to call the oil company and tell them that there's something skeezy going on with the way the oil use is being metered. I guarantee that they'll find that very interesting. And you shouldn't worry about doing that just because you're on a budget with them; that's just all the more reason to make sure you're not getting screwed, and I'm sure they'll understand that, especially since they're just as likely as you to get screwed through faulty metering.
posted by koeselitz at 10:06 PM on October 30, 2009

jimmyjimjim: bengarland, thanks, but I'm not asking you to tell me if $20 is fair, I'm looking for a way to, at least loosely, track usage. Seems like I can't. Oh well....

Seriously, don't waste your time trying to track usage. Tracking usage is the oil company's business. And trust me, they'll be very interested to hear that somebody seems to be pulling a fast one and not getting metered properly. They are generally required by most state laws to make sure everyone's properly metered anyhow.
posted by koeselitz at 10:08 PM on October 30, 2009

You don't really want to know how much hot water they are using. You want to know how much oil they are using. Is the water heater easily accessible, like in your kitchen or a closet? You can see how often the burner is running. For example when you hear the distinctive sound, does the burner run continuously? You might be able to get a handle on how much water they are using by how much time the burner is on when they use water compared to when you use water. Is the oil for the water heater separate from your room heat or are they combined? If combined it would make it a lot harder to figure out just the hot water.
posted by JackFlash at 10:13 PM on October 30, 2009

And a sneaking suspicion tells me you are in Massachusetts; because if you are, your landlord is likely being a pretty sneaky bastard in saying he "thought the neighbors were on a separate tank" until the oil went out. How convenient - by being wrong about that little fact, he got out of having to pay the oil bill and fobbed it off on you and your neighbors! And if this is the case, I would say further that they aren't really the ones to blame here, since nobody but the landlord should be paying for the gas.
posted by koeselitz at 10:13 PM on October 30, 2009

gas oil
posted by koeselitz at 10:14 PM on October 30, 2009

You need a bit of physics and a few numbers from other people (maybe others here can help).

- find out how much oil $20 buys (call the oil company?)
- find out the energy capacity of the oil (calorific value maybe?)
- guess the efficiency of your hot water heater

- estimate the temperate rise of your hot water (you heat it from maybe 17 C to 80 C ?)
- look up the heat capacity of water
- look up the formula to calculate the energy needed to heat say 1 gallon of that water

So each gallon of water need xxx joules to be heated.
$20 of oil can supply XXXXXX joules, adjusted down by the wastage of your heater (maybe 50%??).
So divide one by the other to get an estimate of how many gallons of water that $20 is capable of heating.

Then assess (guess) is that water usage reasonable for those 2 people?

For example - if it works out to be 100 gallons can be heated by $20, you're losing out. If it's 100000 gallons, you're making out!.

Good luck.
Can somebody else step in with better science than me please?
posted by Xhris at 10:25 PM on October 30, 2009

If you knew how many hours the water heater ran per day and what time of day/duration. Then you could compare heater run time vs. oil burned per hour vs. cost of oil.

I used to wire a regular clock to a water heater (120v), set clock to midnight. When the heater runs so does the clock, then you record the run time 2x a day or more and reset the clock to 12.

Compare sound vs run-time for estimate. Compare the day your not home vs run-time for estimate.

General warning: I am a solar plumber, But I am not your plumber. Don't set your house on fire etc...
posted by blink_left at 12:41 AM on October 31, 2009

I was going to suggest the same as davejay - if there is some sort of meter you can access (either oil or water) learn how to read it and then track it for at least a few typical days, while not using any of the oil or water yourself (go stay at a friend's place or something). Then do the same while you are there, using your typical amount.
But just logically if there are more people upstairs then down you should be splitting the bill in half at least.
posted by smartypantz at 4:23 AM on October 31, 2009

There is a chance that there is a pump that is plugged in, and not wired in to your house. If so, you could use an electricity meter to see when it is running. You could then estimate it based on fraction of hours, or more precisely what volume of water has been pumped if you know the flowrate.

There may be another electrical source that you could monitor to show when the burner is on/off, but that would not be quite as accurate as knowing when hot water is being pumped.

Failing that, some type of noise sensor to record the audio of when the burner is being fired?
Or measure the carbon dioxide levels in the exhaust flue.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 4:30 AM on October 31, 2009

oh, and perhaps a crude way to check the pump flowrate would be to fill a few buckets of known volume when the faucet is fully open, while you measure the time with a stopwatch.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 6:53 AM on October 31, 2009

Also, you are owed a lot of money for all the hot water you bought for your upstairs neighbors. $20 certainly doesn't cover the total you need for new charges and old.
posted by spaltavian at 7:17 AM on October 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, to be fair (ahem), you did ask the question, and you did say you want to know if $20 takes care of their share of the bill, which, to me, suggests that the reason you asked the question was to determine if their share of the bill vs their actual usage was fair. If you asked simply due to just-for-the-hell-of-it scientific inquiry, then I stand corrected.

Again, I think it would be appropriate for us to know what you've been paying for the hot water. If you're a single person, and there are 2+ people living upstairs, knowing the current costs born by both parties would help determine if they are "anywhere near taking care of their share of the bill".

At this point, your best bet would be to follow the suggestion of not using any hot water for a few days in a row and tracking the numbers on the oil meter and converting this to dollars. You should be able to get a rough estimate of their cost/day usage. If they are using more than 67 cents per day, then $20 a month is not enough.
posted by bengarland at 8:02 AM on October 31, 2009

I like the idea of installing a rotometer.

And I like even more the idea of not using oil for a while and then comparing the meter readings to weeks when I'm home (I'm often gone for a week at a time, so this is very feasible).

And I like best of all the idea of calling the oil company and seeing what they say.

Thanks, guys!
posted by jimmyjimjim at 8:21 AM on October 31, 2009

Crap, just thought of a problem with the second idea. My hot water heats my part of the house (upstairs is electric heat...or so the landlord says). Even if I turn my thermostat all the way down to 55 during the time I'm away, I'll still be using hot water (I'm in CT, and it's dipping under that this time of year).

I wonder if there's a way to turn off the heating system while I'm gone....in which case I need to do this damned quickly, 'cuz this isn't something I'd want to try when temps go down to freezing.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 8:25 AM on October 31, 2009

Even if you can turn off your heat, you can't turn off their hot water. Hot water has a fixed cost (keeping it warm when you don't use it) and a variable cost (heating it up when you do). Ideally, you should split the fixed cost, and your neighbors should pay their share of the variable cost. If you don't use the water for a few days, and use that as the basis of your calculations, you are ignoring your fixed cost.

In every place I've lived that had this setup, the landlord paid all of the cost and put it in our rent. My gas isn't metered, so it is "free" for me. Your landlord should suck it up.
posted by Monday at 12:11 PM on October 31, 2009

Okay, a couple of things, now knowing that you're in Connecticut:

(1) The oil bill should not be in your name. I don't know if it is, but if so, by Connecticut law it should actually be in your landlord's name. See this pamphlet released by The Legal Assistance Resource Center of Connecticut (LARCC):
When Your Utility Meter Covers More Than Your Utility Service

If your gas, electric or water utility meter covers service provided to other tenants or to areas shared with other tenants (such as lights in the basement or hallway or over a porch that leads to more than one apartment), the bill should be in your landlord's name, not in your name. In this situation, you have two choices:

1. You can ask the utility company to put the service in your landlord's name,
2. You can leave the utility service in your name and deduct from the rent a reasonable estimate of the cost of the portion of the service which is used by other tenants. The utility company can provide you with such an estimate. You should ask the utility company to provide this estimate in writing and you should save this written estimate in case you have to use it in court later.

There is less risk to you if you have the bill put into your landlord's name in this situation. If you leave the bill in your name and it gets to be more than you can afford, you may end up with a debt to the utility company that is difficult to pay. You also risk being evicted for not paying your rent and having to prove in court that you only deducted from the rent a reasonable estimate of the utility use of other tenants.
So there's that, first of all; I know you're struggling to pay back the oil company, but legally the bills from here on out shouldn't be in your name. That doesn't mean yo don't have a responsibility for past bills, and it doesn't mean your landlord can't charge you a portion for utilities; but it does mean that it's not under your name legally, and that's a good thing.

(2) You don't have to waste your time trying to figure out if the share is fair – the utility company is required to give you a close estimate. See in this connection this other pamphlet from the LARCC on The Rights Of Utility Customers:
High or Inaccurate Bills
Utility companies are responsible for the meters that measure the service you get...

Your bill could be high because your meter is connected to service in another apartment. This is not legal and the utility company can put the bill in your landlord's name or you can deduct a reasonable estimate of the cost of the service to other apartment(s) from your rent. The company can provide a reasonable estimate - you should not estimate on your own.
So the long and short of it is, you should do two things. First, call the utility company and have them put your utilities in your landlord's name rather than your own. They are required by law to comply. While you are on the phone with them, mention to them that you'd like a reasonable estimate of how much heating oil the family upstairs is using; they can deliver this far better than you can through various and sundry methods, and they might even send a guy out to take a look. Second, call your landlord and let him know you've done this. You'll need to make arrangements with him on how he's going to want the utilities paid from now on. Tell him that the utility company has provided or will provide a reasonable estimate of how much oil you owe for and how much oil your neighbors owe for.

Take it from me: don't waste time trying to do the math or measure through pipes or something like this when you are already paying people to do that for you. You've already gone above and beyond here; have the company take care of it, and that way it's out of your hands.
posted by koeselitz at 1:56 PM on October 31, 2009 [3 favorites]

posted by jimmyjimjim at 9:24 PM on October 31, 2009

Reading the pamphlet, the current situation is, in fact, legal. Per your #2, above,

"You can leave the utility service in your name and deduct from the rent a reasonable estimate of the cost of the portion of the service which is used by other tenants."

That is precisely how it now stands.....I'm reimbursed $20/month by landlord.

I definitely should have the oil company come out and do a formal estimate, however. Also, there needs to be consideration, per Monday's post, above, that landlord chip in on fixed as well as variable cost. But oil company can hopefully help with that as well.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 9:45 PM on October 31, 2009

Yeah. Just wanted to let you know your options; you're right that you can keep it how you want, but that's in your hands, not your landlord's. That's all.

Hope all works out nicely.
posted by koeselitz at 9:51 PM on October 31, 2009

Thanks very much, koeselitz, it was great info and much appreciated.

Re: my original question, though.....experts can estimate all they want, but I hear hot water going up for hours some mornings. I guess the thing to do is shut off my heating system, vacate for a few days, and compare usage (assuming I can figure out where the meter is and how to read it) when I'm there versus when I'm not....and try to factor in the fixed vs. variable costs. Yikes.

I may just need to suck it up.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 10:20 PM on October 31, 2009

Well, the pamphlet also says that if it's been a while since the meter was checked you can ask them to inspect it. If you get a guy to come out, you might be able to run through the difficulties with him and ask him what recourse you have.

Also, I was thinking about this today: you're allowed by law to go through the process of weatherizing and making your heating more environmentally friendly. You could tell your landlord that you're going to do that; that would probably give you enough access to the hard data to know a bit more about how much oil exactly your neighbors are using.
posted by koeselitz at 10:49 PM on October 31, 2009

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