To Fix a Leak, You Have to Know It's There

March 18 to 24 was Fix a Leak Week, a commendable effort by the US EPA’s WaterSense program to draw the attention of consumers and water suppliers to the simple steps that we can take to save water and money by finding and repairing leaks.  But to fix a leak, you have to know it’s there.  You might think that a rising water bill that was not otherwise explained would provide an early warning that a consumer has an unseen leak.  But you’d probably be wrong. 

There are over 80 million water meters across the country, yet only a handful of them are accurate enough to record low flows that are indicative of leakage in a home or business.  Of course, you’d notice if you had a ruptured pipe or other leak sending water across the floor or dripping from the ceiling.  Any property owner would move quickly to repair a leak like that, to minimize property damage and risk of injury.

But what about leaks that are captured by the drainage system and run “harmlessly” to the sewer, or run unseen outdoors?  These may run weeks, months, or even years, without notice, getting worse the longer they run.  Faucets may drip, buried piping for sprinklers or swimming pools may leak, and most likely of all, toilets often “run.”  It has been estimated that one out of every five toilets are leaking at any given time.  By the time a consumer notices the hissing sound or ripple effect of a running toilet, the leakage may be reaching 100 to 200 gallons per day.

What Does a Leak Actually Look Like in Gallons per Minute?

What can we do to prevent wasting an enormous amount of water?  For consumers, a good precaution is to periodically test your own toilet for leaks – say once a year on Earth Day, if that helps you remember.  Add a few drops of food coloring to the water in the tank and return 15 to 30 minutes later; any trace of color in the bowl would indicate a leak.  (Leaks that are not continuous may not be detected by this dye test.  If your toilet periodically starts running for short intervals and then stops, you have a non-continuous leak.  These are most noticeable at night when the house is quiet.)

For water utilities, more accurate water meters are a good line of defense against excessive leakage, and a long-overdue step to help combat the waste of water. The most common designs of water meters are known to lose accuracy at low levels of flow. Current industry standards set accuracy requirements at three rates of flow, the lowest being 1/4 gallon per minute for typical residential meters.  But tests of brand new meters have shown that accuracy often drops off dramatically at flow rates below this level, with some meters allowing 75 to 100 gallons per day of leakage to go virtually unrecorded.

To remedy this, NRDC has been working steadily over the last two years to develop revisions to national industry standards for the accuracy of water meters.  After numerous discussions with water utilities and meter manufacturers, my colleague Tracy Quinn and three utility partners have filed a proposal this week with the American Water Works Association to revise current industry standards to add an accuracy requirement at low rates of flow indicative of leakage.  The proposal was made to AWWA’s Standards Council, and will be referred to the Water Meter Standards Committee.  Tracy describes the proposal more fully here.

But wait a minute.  If I have a leak and it’s not showing up on my bill, don’t I benefit?  Well, in the short run, yes.  But just as certainly as there’s no such thing as a truly “free lunch,” there is no “free” water from a public water supplier.  The cost to pump, treat, and deliver the water that passes through my meter undetected still has to be paid by someone, and that someone is, well, everyone.  The cost of leaks actually get socialized, getting spread across all customers through higher rates and more frequent rate increases.  My neighbors are paying for the water lost to leaks at my house, even though I’m the only one with the authority to find and repair a leak on my property.

Water lost to leaks is a widespread phenomenon, throughout the US and abroad.  More accurate meters are but one step in what should become a more systematic effort to identify, report, and steadily reduce the amount of water lost to leaks on the utility’s side of the meter as well as on customer premises.  We often hear that protecting our natural resources involves painful of burdensome trade-offs of customer choice, consumer amenity, or even personal freedom. Finding and fixing water leaks involves none of that.  No one’s lifestyle is compromised by having fewer leaks.  On the contrary, both equity and efficiency are advanced by sensible steps to reduce leaks, starting with something as simple as a more accurate water meter.

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