Help me lower my monthly water bill, please.
July 24, 2013 12:21 PM   Subscribe

Moving in to a new house in San Diego. Records show an average water bill of ~$175 a month. This seems exceptionally high (or is it?). Automatic lawn sprinklers and 2 adults who take quick showers. Looking for ways to lower this usage, please.

We are life-long renters, so paying for water is a foreign concept.

- We take very quick daily showers
- Have always hand-washed the dishes though the new place has an efficient dishwasher
- Laundry usually 2 loads a week. House has VERY old washing machine (we will replace next year)
- Backyard has a sprinkler system covering about 3000 square feet. All grass.
- Replacing the underground sprinkler system and xeroscaping seems like a huge immediate cost
- All toilets are 'low flow' and we are comfortable with the 'yellow let it mellow' credo
- Home Inspection revealed no leaks or water being wasted.

is there a way to see how much water usage is solely for the lawn without hiring a specialist?

As said above, we aren't crazy about the grass in the backyard and will be, eventually, xeroscaping, how do we best figure out the investment cash out of pocket vs. savings?

We cannot, for the life of us, figure out why the water bill is so high. Is it all lawn sprinkling? Or is this pretty average for a detached house with a yard?

Thanks in advance!
posted by BlerpityBloop to Home & Garden (40 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are you sure it is $175 per month as opposed to per billing cycle? Water is usually paid every two months.
posted by Wavelet at 12:26 PM on July 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

s there a way to see how much water usage is solely for the lawn without hiring a specialist?

I had rainbird design a system for my house, and one of the inputs was pressure and rate measurements at a faucet near the main - mine was something like 90psi at 11gallons per minute. The system was then divided such that it pretty much uses 11gpm per branch while it's on. You could in theory figure out how many heads of what type are on each branch and then multiply that by what volume your feed is capable of. Or you could just get an estimate by figuring out the rate at the faucet (use a 5gallon bucket with some graduated lines (sharpie FTW) and a timer), then multiply that by how many minutes total it runs.

Here's a hint: It's a lot. But mine only runs half the year (if that) because we get rain in the winter here in NorCal and that keeps it greenish without running the sprinklers.
posted by Big_B at 12:27 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sprinklers? Grass? I bet that's your culprit. Get rid of the sprinklers, and get rid of the lawn, and put in a permaculture landscape.

Facebook for San Diego Permaculture. They have meetups.
posted by Miko at 12:27 PM on July 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Is $175 a month what it is now that you're living in the space? Or is $175 a month what the records show, back when people who are not you were living in the space?

Because while I don't know where $175/month is on the average-cost-of-water scale, it's entirely possible that the previous occupants were 30 minute luxurious shower people, had a kid or two, ran the sprinkler more often than necessary, left the water running while brushing their teeth people.

As a data point, I know that for the property I live in (apartment building, 15-20 people living there, a number of them kids) the water bill is approximately $150 a month total. This is in Chicago.
posted by phunniemee at 12:28 PM on July 24, 2013

is there a way to see how much water usage is solely for the lawn without hiring a specialist?

When the sprinklers come on, put a kiddie pool or bucket or something in front of one of them to catch the water for the full cycle. Measure the amount of water using gallon milk jugs or something similar. Multiply by number of sprinkler heads, and then number of waterings per month. You'll have approximate water usage for the sprinklers.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 12:28 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @wavelet, yep, billed every two months. Summer bill is $400, Winter bill is $300-ish, average monthly cost of $175 or so.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 12:28 PM on July 24, 2013

Are you watering your lawn daily - and does your lawn need it? What times is it watering the lawn at? Could you do three days a week with a slightly longer soak, late at night to reduce evaporation?
posted by mdonley at 12:30 PM on July 24, 2013

You can check for a leak using the method described in this handy pdf from the city of San Diego titled "Is your bill unusually high? Here's what to do." Basically, turn everything off, look at your meter, come back in 15 minutes and see if it has moved.

But yeah, lawns in deserts use an insane amount of water.
posted by juliapangolin at 12:31 PM on July 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

If it were me, since you said it's the backyard that gets watered, I'd just cut the sprinklers immediately and let the grass die. If you plan on xeriscaping eventually anyway. why waste the money watering grass that you're actively planning to remove?
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:38 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Miko, we will, eventually, get rid of the grass and watering system, but as you can imagine with buying a new house and all the costs associated with it cash is a little tight.

So we are prioritizing, is $175 a normal monthly water bill vs the (whatever it takes to lower the lawscaping/watering) costs. If replacing the sprinkler system costs $1000 but only saves us $20 a month, that's 50 months of unnecessary out of pocket expenses (if that makes sense).

The previous tenants were a couple, no idea on their shower time but the automatic sprinkler system has been watering, daily, for the past 3 years. We can obviously reduce that to once every two days, but how much would that save? We would have to wait 2 months to find out, right?

So I guess this question has morphed in to: How do I find out how much my lawn sprinkler system costs me? Maybe. Or, as another poster above stated, their apartment bill was $150, so is the lawn really negligible?
posted by BlerpityBloop at 12:42 PM on July 24, 2013

to figure out how much your lawn sprinkler costs:

1. before it turns on, look at your water meter.
2. don't use any other water while its on.
3. when it turns off, look at your water meter.
4. use information from your bill or the rates here to do multiplication.
posted by juliapangolin at 12:45 PM on July 24, 2013 [7 favorites]

A couple of queries

1. On your bill, is there an availability charge and a usage charge listed separately? Does it tell you how many kilo litres - sorry gallons you are using over the month? Can you tell us? 200 litres per person per day is average to high nowadays in Australia since demand management. Sorry about the metric, but a calculator that may help is

2. Is your house a brand new house or is it new to you?

3. Can you install rain water tanks?

4. Is your water meter accessible ? You may be able to read it and watch the increase. If you dont have access to the readings, see if you can hear it ticking over when you are running a tap. If so turn everything off and see if you can still hear it? On preview juliapagolin nailed it.
posted by insomniax at 12:46 PM on July 24, 2013

3. Can you install rain water tanks?

These will not be particularly useful in San Diego.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 12:51 PM on July 24, 2013 [6 favorites]

Yeah, have you actually seen the bill? In Los Angeles water is billed along with electric, and there are other charges on there, too, like sewer and trash. So are you sure the water part is actually $175?
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:55 PM on July 24, 2013

Response by poster: I talked to the water bill people today, it's a separate department from SDGE (gas + electric).

Bill is $175 a month, average, just for water.

We live in an extremely low rain area. Inland san diego. When it rains (for 20 minutes, 7 times a year) it's a major news event.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 12:58 PM on July 24, 2013

1. get a soil moisture sensor for the sprinkler system. It will only water when necessary.
2. get a rain barrel for other watering uses.
3. convert to grey water for the sprinkler system. (uses grey water from clothes washer)
4. ask the city about installing a separate meter for the sprinkler system so that you don't get a sewer bill for water that does not go down the drain.
5. be sure the shower heads are low-flow.
6. be sure the toilet is low consumption type.
posted by Gungho at 1:04 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

This looks like a good breakdown of how much water you would save switching to three times a week watering schedule.
posted by Wavelet at 1:05 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Based on the rate table juliapangolin linked to above, it looks like you're using about 4300 cubic feet per month. This is about 120 kiloliters, for comparison to insomiax's numbers. Equal to a daily use of 2000 liters per person per day. Over 530 gallons per day per person, or nearly 1100 gallons total.

So what do the sprinklers use? Lowe's suggests 125 gallons per 1000 square feet per day. If this is how you're watering, you should only be using 375 gallons per day on your lawn; a significant percentage of your total use, but nowhere near the majority. Are you sure you're not overwatering?

Someone check my math.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:05 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is having a well installed for your sprinklers a possibility?

The house we purchased had one on the property but it was in disrepair. The fix only cost a couple hundred dollars but it dropped out water usage by two thirds.

Unless your water table is extremely low I wouldn't imagine it costing too much.
posted by alamedarchy at 1:06 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @alamedarchy, wells in San Diego are virtually non-existant. While there is a water table (i assume), it's not really a thing home-owners access...ever.

Absolutely NO idea if we are over-watering. In fact, I have no idea what to do with this sprinkler system. Never having a yard before, I'm used to sporadically watering the plants on my balcony, at best. How much water does a lawn need? I have no idea.

Everyone here seems to be focusing on the sprinkler system, and that is totally fine, as i asked for ways to gauge its usage. If that is the major culprit in our water bill I will take all suggestions and either rip everything out or reduce the schedule....eventually.

I guess the easier question would have been 'hey guys, does $175 a month seem like a somewhat normal water bill for a detached house with a yard'?

Every answer has been excellent, just kind of freaking out about this unexpected water bill.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 1:23 PM on July 24, 2013

We are two people in an old house in Atlanta and we pay about $50 per month, or $100 per cycle.

Half of the bill is for sewer, which is a rip because if you use water in your landscaping, it's going in the ground, not the sewer. Don't bother calling the water department though, they don't want to hear it.

You may have a leak in your house. You can hire a plumber to do leak detection.

You can work this backwards, here is our cost for water, you can see it's different rates at different usage tiers. There are also standard monthly fees.

Google your county's watershed authority and see how these rates compare. (We rent our water from Alabama...long story.) Either your county charges 4X the cost, or there is something seriously wrong there.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:28 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I guess the easier question would have been 'hey guys, does $175 a month seem like a somewhat normal water bill for a detached house with a yard'?

Only other folks in the San Diego area can offer a meaningful answer.

I mean, biscotti and I live in a detached house and take whatever showers we feel like and water whenever we want to and use the dishwasher when we feel like it and generally just Don't. Think. About. It. And because our water authority just pulls water out of Lake Erie, our water-and-sewer bills are usually $75-100 per quarter.

But googling for "average water bill san diego" says you are indeed paying substantially more than average, which casual googling suggests is $60-80/month for a detached home in San Diego.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:36 PM on July 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just as a point of (possibly not helpful) reference, I just paid my water bill. Portland-metro area, average 4 person house, minimal outside watering. The bill was $160 for a 2 month cycle. That's about normal for us. The vast majority of the bill is sewer, which is figured separately from the water usage.
posted by Cloudberry Sky at 1:37 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Holy crap. Watering daily? We are on drought restrictions and are only allowed to water once a week, and that still seems like a waste of water.

Like others have said, if you are going to get rid of the grass anyway, might as well stop watering it. Not watering it isn't going to cost you a dime.
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:40 PM on July 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

That seems excessive, but I don't know how much water costs in San Diego. I would expect that it would be more expensive there than here in Chicago. I think a standard bill is more like a third or quarter of that for a single family home. My 12 unit condo building pays about $250 a month for water + sewer.

Test for leaks this way: before going to bed, check the water meter. Check it again before waking up. It should not have moved, since nothing should be using water at night.

If there are no obvious leaks, check the water meter before the sprinklers turn on, then once they turn off. Subtract out any other water usage (1.6 gallons per flush, etc.) to get how much water the sprinkler system uses.

Another thing to check is whether the meter works correctly. Read the meter, run five gallons, read the meter again. It should match up. (After you convert gallons to cubic feet.)

Lastly, make sure you are double checking the meter reads. Figure out what day of the month they bill you off of, and then manually keep track of your water usage. Something could be screwed up in the reading process, whether it is manual or electronic.
posted by gjc at 1:42 PM on July 24, 2013

You said you talked to the water department people, but did you ask if they have a rebate program for landscaping? Google tells me that should have info, it's not loading right now for me, but this two year old advertising-ish blog entry suggests that you may be able to get about $2600 in subsidies for low water landscaping.

My Northern California town provides substantial material help for replacing lawns: Cardboard and yards of topsoil and wood chips for sheet mulching, quite a bit of materials for irrigation systems, and a few plants.

In fact the place that program really lacks is the plants.

But if you can save a hundred bucks a month, that's about the mortgage payment on sixteen thousand dollars. Don't be afraid of figuring a way to scrape together some extra bucks to get rid of that lawn.
posted by straw at 1:44 PM on July 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

As a point of reference, we are a three person household (2 adults and one baby) and have a sprinkler system covering 2/3 of an acre. During the winter when we do not sprinklers on because we live in CT, our water bill is 50-60 per quarter. During the summer, we run our sprinkler system daily for 20 minutes per zone (6 zones across the yard so it runs water for TWO HOURS) and our bill is usually $500 for the quarter. Expensive but our lawn looks fabulous even in a heat wave. The sprinklers are probably a big chunk of your bill.

I couldn't tell you how long you need to water. Maybe cut back and see how the lawn looks?
posted by polkadot at 2:20 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

My mom lives in east county San Diego and has a bi-monthly water bill of ~$75, with a xeriscaped yard that has drip sprinklers for the front, on about a 40x70 lot. Low flow faucets, toilets and showerheads.

And folks, we get around 10" of rain a year, almost exclusively from October to May. Ain't no wells happening either.
posted by LionIndex at 2:37 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Wait, are you saying your two-month bill is $350?

We're in Mira Mesa, two adults, dead lawn/never run sprinklers/do not water, washing machine, lower-flow toilets but not two-phase, dishwasher + hand-wash pots and pans, no icemaker or mister or other water-consuming thing, except dogs who drink it. We don't take especially short showers, though we also have incredibly shitty water pressure so it's low-tech low-flow. Our 7/9 bill was $120, our 5/9 bill was $131. Again, that's for two months every bill.

It's free to have the water company come out and do an audit. You might could get a lawn service to come out and give you a free recommended watering schedule, or pay a small amount for a basic consult. (You might also get watering recommendations from the water company, though, so do that first.)

Also, the base rates for single family homes - make sure you're getting billed the right rates:

Single-Family Residential Customer
3/1/12 Rate
Base Sewer Fee for Two Months $30.66
Sewer (rate per HCF*) $3.5983
New Customer Fee: Base + Sewer ** $95.43
Maximum Fee: Base + Sewer (fee capped at 20 HCF/month) $174.59

* HCF (One Hundred Cubic Feet) = 748 Gallons.

** The "New Customer Fee" is charged to single-family residential customers that have not established a winter month's water-use history in their current place of residence. It is based on the average single-family residential usage of 9 HCF/month.

But yes, you are overwatering. Here's a really fantastic UC document (PDF) on measuring your sprinkler outflow and calculating a sprinkler schedule. You should be able to google grasses until you decide which kind you have.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:43 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

$175 is a lot, yes. I lived in a big house, took baths, watered my front garden (but left my back yard be) and paid about $85 in the hottest months. This was in Atlanta.

Depending on your style, dishwashers can be more efficient than hand washing, but I agree with everyone that you really need to ween your grass off so much water. I think you'll see a significant change.
posted by stormygrey at 2:45 PM on July 24, 2013

Response by poster: Lyn Never, thanks, that's excellent info. Yes, historically (as we haven't moved in to the house yet but have water bill records) our water bill seems to be double yours with similar usage. Something else is going on as we live a mile south of you. That can't be all lawn sprinkling, or maybe it is?

Ok, so, thanks mefi. sincerely. outside of the lawn sprinklers our bill is high, way high. Something else is amiss.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 2:51 PM on July 24, 2013

It is theoretically possible to over-sprinkle that much, and if it was running not just every day but too long every day, that could do it. The "tuna-can" method in that PDF is really good for a ballpark idea of output. Given that the carpet isn't wet and you haven't noticed, you know, a shower that has never been turned off, it pretty much has to be the sprinkler or a leak that somehow isn't manifesting as wet inside the house or coming out of the lawn.

The last time I had bills that high, there was a leak in the trunk to the house from the street. It became unmistakable when the thing in the ground where the meter is was filling with water. If you haven't visually inspected yours, plus there may be an additional ground hole port thing near your sprinkler housing, pop the cap and check. Do the water-off meter test. Definitely get the water company out for an actual inspection, but I'd stick a can in the yard at least once before then so you can show the auditor how much your sprinklers are watering per day.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:02 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh - also, your sewer charge goes up with your water usage, so not every penny of that is pure water running out somewhere. But most of it is.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:04 PM on July 24, 2013

We've lived in various places around the county, all coastal. We're renters, so I can't opine about sprinklers, but that is over 2 times higher than the super-high anomaly bill we got one month, and that included trash.
posted by moira at 3:36 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

(If it helps: we're a couple with one child.)
posted by moira at 3:38 PM on July 24, 2013

Do you by chance have a leak in the sprinklers? If the sprinkler line has a hole then perhaps you are not seeing the leak especially if it is exceptionally dry where you are or you have very sandy soil. Everything else looks very standard use for such a high bill. Unless you have toilets constantly running that you are not aware of?
posted by polkadot at 4:45 PM on July 24, 2013

So, your bi-monthly $350 water bill.
  • Since you are a new owner, your sewer bill should be $96, which is the default amount they charge before the first winter.
  • Then you have a $39 base charge for water,
  • Then the first 28 HCF (hundred cubic feet) cost you $106
  • Which leaves us with $110 at the highest rate of $4.398/HCF, for 25 HCF.
So you would be paying for 28 + 25 = 53 HCF = 150 m3 = 2.5 m3/d = 660 gallons/d.

This seems high, especially given the relatively high efficiency of your home. You can use this San Diego app to compute your ideal watering schedule (according to the city, which has an obvious interest in reducing your consumption).

So 2nding the "let it die" opinion; you don't have to kill it all; you could make a plan for your future landscaping that includes an area where you can replace the grass relatively cheaply, and kill it this year, then replace the rest as funds become available.

For the rest of it, maybe a better timer + aeration, or just reprogramming, knowing the long-term health of your grass isn't a huge concern?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:25 PM on July 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh and your sewer bill depends on your winter water bill, so be super-careful during the sweep period. You can also take advantage of some incentives to lower the financial pain.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:39 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

If I was in your situation, there are 3 things I would do, all involving your water meter. I'm not in the US, but this website gives info on finding and reading your meter in San Diego.

1) check for leaks - make sure nothing is using water in your house and then look at your meter. It should not be moving, if it is, something is using water you don't know about or you have a leak. Probably time to call a plumber.

2) check how much water the sprinklers use. The sprinkler system should have a manual run option, note down your meter reading, run the sprinkler for 15 minutes, check your meter again. You should be able to get a decent idea of the usage per month and based on unit costs on the bill, the monthly cost of the sprinklers. Or at least an idea of how much of your water usage is the sprinklers.

If this is the culprit, I would look at reducing the number of days you water. We have water restrictions in Western Australia during Summer, of 2 days watering per week, and lawns seem to survive this ok. Try possibly try every second day, or 3 days a week and keep an eye on the grass, it will take a while of underwatering before you truly kill it off. Also if the sprinkler numbers seem high, possibly you have a leak in the watering system somewhere, if you can't visually inspect the pipes, check for any subsidence of lawn or dirt, or sprinklers in certain areas not spraying with as much pressure.

3) check how much your average daily use is. Turn the sprinkler off altogether for 2-4 days (your lawn should be ok with this as long as it not super hot). Note the meter reading at the start or end of each day. You should then be able to work out aprox. costs, and more importantly if your usage is similar to the previous inhabitants. Some people love long showers, some people do a lot of washing, usage can vary greatly and possibly the previous tenants were mad for water.

If your usage is similar I would contact your water people and see if these amounts are normal for a 2 person home of your size.
posted by lrobertjones at 10:30 PM on July 24, 2013

Additional note: Up here, 500 miles north with 26" annual rainfall, the sewer rate baseline is calculated on water usage in the winter, because it's assumed that you'll be irrigating less (if at all), both because that's when we get our rain and because that's when it's cooler.

In practice, this means that water used in the winter during the is 3x more expensive than water in the summer. So as others have noted, figure out what your sewer baseline is and when it's calculated and make sure you focus your conservation efforts on that time period.
posted by straw at 9:24 AM on July 25, 2013

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