Home & Garden

Sneaky leaks can be draining, Placer County homeowner finds

While diagnosing the recent, inexplicable high water usage at Judy Henry’s Newcastle property, technician Bret Turner of the Placer County Water Agency found that valves from an irrigation system installed in September were gurgling away excess water.
While diagnosing the recent, inexplicable high water usage at Judy Henry’s Newcastle property, technician Bret Turner of the Placer County Water Agency found that valves from an irrigation system installed in September were gurgling away excess water. rpench@sacbee.com

Judy Henry knew she couldn’t be using that much water. She was gone more than she was home most of December, yet her water meter kept spinning and her bill kept rising. Her water use spiked so much, it got the attention of the Placer County Water Agency, too.

Local residential water use went down in December, because – thanks to winter storms – Mother Nature took care of most irrigation needs. So, when PCWA noticed her home’s increased water use during that very wet month, the Newcastle resident received an official warning letter, friendly in tone yet still alarming.

“I don’t want to get fined – or go to jail,” said Henry, who found the notice tacked to her front door. “We’re in a drought!”

That last point is what local water providers want residents to remember: California’s epic drought is definitely not over, although December storms refreshed landscapes and filled backyard ponds. January’s bone-dry forecast has put local water providers on high alert.

“People are trying to save water,” noted Amy Talbot, water-efficiency program manager for the Regional Water Authority, the umbrella organization that coordinates the Sacramento area’s 20-plus water districts. “We need to save more. We don’t know what the weather will bring this year.”

Local residents are making great strides, she added. In the Sacramento region, the average use in December was 81 gallons per person per day, down 21 percent from the same month a year ago. The city of Sacramento averaged 73 gallons per capita daily use in November.

While summer conservation efforts focus on landscaping, winter water conservation is targeted indoors, Talbot said.

“It’s a different kind of savings,” she said. “Outdoors, you can turn off your irrigation one day a week and save a lot of water all at once. Indoors, it’s lots of little things like taking shorter showers or doing fewer loads of laundry. But those little actions around the house do add up over time to significant savings.”

Leaks – often undetected – rank as the biggest water-waster for residential users. According to water agency research, an average household can waste more than 10,000 gallons a year through leaks. That’s enough water to wash 270 loads of laundry.

Nationwide, these little leaks add up to more than 1 trillion gallons down the drain every year – enough water to supply more than 11 million homes for a year.

An estimated 10 percent of all homes have leaks that waste more than 90 gallons a day, enough to fill a bathtub three times over. Those leaks may go unnoticed by residents, but not by water district professionals. They’re keeping a sharp eye on water use in hopes of plugging those unwanted leaks.

That led the PCWA to notify Henry. She followed her water agency’s suggestion and got a free “Water-Wise House Call.” Offered by water districts throughout the Sacramento area, this service tries to pinpoint leaks big and small while also offering advice on ways to save more.

“I’m sort of a water detective,” said Bret Turner, a PCWA technician and water conservation expert. “Like Inspector Clouseau, I’ve got lots of questions.”

On a recent morning, Turner spent more than two hours at Henry’s home. Often accompanied by Henry’s retriever, Bristol, Turner crawled under her redwood deck to check irrigation valves. He inspected her pool’s equipment and surveyed the sprinklers. To monitor the home’s water meter, he repeatedly trekked up a steep hill on her 5-acre property.

“That’s a perk of my job,” he joked. “I get a lot of exercise.

“My job is to isolate the problem,” Turner said. “So, I shut off the valves one by one. If the meter is still running, you know the problem still hasn’t been eliminated.”

Indoors, Turner dropped telltale blue dye into plumbing fixtures and listened carefully. The dye may make a leak visible, but often, Turner relies on his ears when searching for clues.

“Hear that?” he whispered in an upstairs bathroom. “That’s water running, and it shouldn’t be.”

By his process of elimination, Turner found the water-wasting culprits: All three toilets had leaks. When turned on, the irrigation system’s valves gurgled away excess water, too.

The toilets and irrigation valves all were victims of debris in the plumbing. Installation of a new sprinkler system in September had allowed dirt and bits of gravel to wash into the system. That grit lodged in the toilets’ fill-and-flush valves as well as stuck up the irrigation valves. To solve the problem, all those valves needed to be flushed.

Inside the bathrooms, the toilet leaks were barely audible. But each toilet was wasting 3 gallons or more an hour.

“Just the toilet leaks add up to 240 gallons a day,” Turner explained. “If that water was pooling on the floor, you’d fix the problem immediately. You couldn’t ignore it. But you don’t see it; that water just goes down the drain.”

Henry was relieved he found the problem – and surprised.

“I thought my bills were too high,” she said. “I tried to solve it myself. I got this letter from the PCWA saying they’d seen a ‘considerable increase.’ They said, ‘call us,’ and I did.

“I couldn’t hear (those leaks),” she added. “I had no idea.”

In his role with the PCWA, Turner has helped residents conserve water for 12 years. Toilets often are to blame for unseen leaks. “A leaky toilet can waste 2 to 22 gallons an hour,” Turner said. “That really adds up quickly.”

How do you know if you have a leak? Get to know your water bill and (where applicable) your meter. Most Sacramento households use less than 12,000 gallons a month in winter. If your water use is much higher, suspect a leak.

Or try this test: Check your meter before and after a two-hour time period when no one in your household is using water (no toilet flushes, no laundry, etc.). If your pool or pond has an auto-fill valve, turn it off, too. At the end of two hours, your meter should read exactly the same. If it doesn’t, there’s a leak.

Toilets account for 25 percent of household use and often are the source of leaks. Most of those leaks can be fixed inexpensively.

“I’d say one out of four homes I see have a toilet leak,” Turner said. “Often, (residents) will hear something (such as the toilet running) and just ignore it. One house I went to, they said (the toilet) was so loud, they had to keep the bathroom door shut. Nooooooooo!”

The other common problem: Auto-fill pumps on pools and ponds.

“In summer, a pool can lose 100 gallons a day to evaporation,” Turner said. “But in winter, your pool shouldn’t be losing much water at all.”

Pools and ponds often can be problematic. Turner offered recent examples.

“One customer had a large estate property,” he said. “They were using 259 gallons an hour. Their (bi-monthly) water bill was more than $1,500.”

The Water-Wise House Call isolated the problem at poolside: a small break in a 3/4-inch pipe. “They fixed the pipe and their bill dropped to $150,” Turner said.

Another problem pool had a leak in a lighting fixture, he said. “That ‘little’ leak was 3,800 gallons a day, probably right into the ground. The homeowner never knew.”

Smaller water features can leak big, too. A stuck auto-fill valve on an Auburn koi pond wasted 700 gallons a day; again, it was unseen – until found by House Call.

Homeowners usually are glad to hear the results of this detective work, and fix these problems quickly. In the long run, they save money as well as water.

“I’m actually grateful, even though it might end up costing me money,” Henry said of Turner’s free visit. “I’m grateful I now know what I need to do – and I’ll stop wasting more water.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie

Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.


▪ Local water districts provide free Water-Wise House Calls to residents. By appointment, a water-efficiency expert will check your home for possible water leaks as well as make suggestions on ways to save water such as high-efficiency toilets and faucet aerators. Most house calls also offer a few perks, such as a new high-efficiency showerhead.

To get your house call, contact your water provider. Not sure who? Find your provider at http://bewatersmart.info/find-your-water-provider/.

▪  Find links to rebates for high-efficiency toilets and clothes washers as well as other water-conservation services (such as Water-Wise House Calls) at http://bewatersmart.info/rebates-services/.