Thursday, February 28, 2013

Where does the water go?

When I see articles in the Dollar Stretcher, or any other newsletter, about how to save on your water bill, I usually ignore them. For one thing, the advice in them is generally stuff that I've known pretty much all my life, like "don't run the water while brushing your teeth," or "don't water your lawn every day." I wouldn't dream of doing these things in any case; in fact, as far as the lawn goes, I'd be hard pressed to think of a reason for watering it on any day. (Why encourage the grass to grow faster if we'll just have to cut it more often?) But also, I've generally assumed that even if I did, by chance, come across a tip I hadn't seen before, I couldn't possibly save a dime by it, because in Highland Park, we don't pay for our water by the gallon. Instead, the quarterly water bill is in one of three "tiers": $48.73 for usage under 800 cubic feet, $62.96 for 800 to 999 cubic feet, and $77.70 for 1000 cubic feet or more. And when we first started paying water bills, our water use tended to stay firmly in the bottom tier--between 500 and 700 gallons. So cutting our water use wouldn't save us any money, and saving water for the sake of the environment in general isn't usually an issue in high-rainfall New Jersey.

In the past few years, however, our water usage has somehow started to creep up. In 2010, we had one water bill that was in the second tier rather than the bottom tier. In 2011, two of our four bills were in the second tier. And now our last three water bills in a row—the last two of 2012 and the first for 2013—have all been in that middle tier. Now, I realize the difference between the two isn't huge—$14.23 for three months—and maybe it isn't really worth worrying about, but what really bothers me is that I can't figure out why our water usage has gone up. It's not as if we'd added a lot of thirsty plants to our landscape, or started bathing a lot more frequently, or acquired a swimming pool. And yet, by crunching some numbers on the water bills, I find that our average daily water use hovered around 50 gallons until early 2010, then jumped suddenly to about 57 gallons, and from there has slowly crept up to nearly 69 gallons.

So where are we putting it all? Is it my fault for lingering too long in the shower? No, I don't see how that can be it—at 2.5 gallons per minute, I'd have had to extend my shower by 17 minutes every single day to account for that kind of increase. (Also, the rise in our water bill hasn't been attended by a corresponding rise in our gas bill, so I think that it's probably cold water that we're using more of.) More loads of laundry? Well, if a large load of laundry uses 40 gallons of water, then one extra load per week could account for an extra 5.7 gallons per day—but that's still only about half of the difference, and anyway, I've generally been doing more frequent smaller loads, so that should work out to fewer gallons per load. And I don't think it can be the garden that's to blame, because then why would our water usage remain so high in the wintertime, when nothing's growing out there?

Ultimately, I guess, the real question is not so much why our water bill has gone up, but what we can do to get it back down again. But that just brings me back to my original problem: when I Google "save water at home," I get a bunch of "no kidding" advice that I've been following for years. We don't have any leaky faucets; we already have low-flow showerheads in both bathrooms, and a water-saving toilet in one of them, and a water-saving valve on the other toilet; we don't leave water running when brushing teeth or washing dishes or any of those other "well, duh" things. In other words, we've already harvested all the low-hanging fruit.

We could, of course, go for some harder-to-reach fruit, like upgrading to a front-loading washer—but spending $800 or more to save less than $5 a month on our water bill doesn't seem like the best possible investment. We could, much more cheaply, build a rain barrel for the garden—but even if we fill it up to its 55-gallon capacity before the growing season starts, and then use the entire amount over the course of one dry month, that 55-gallon savings isn't going to be enough to bump us back down to the bottom tier. It seems to me like the only way we're ever going to get our water usage back down to where it used to be—or at least down to a level that keeps us consistently below the 800-cubic-foot cutoff—is to figure out what caused it to rise above that level in the first place, and then stop doing it. Anyone have any ideas I've overlooked?
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