Irrigation Leak High Water Bill

Irrigation Leak?  Plumbing Leak?  High Water Bill?

Many of us have been there.  You may either receive an abnormally HIGH water bill or a notice from your water company about a suspected leak.  The main reason a water supplier may alert you is because your measured numbers were abnormally high (per the meter) and/or the timing/duration of use is abnormal - all of which means they are suspect a leak is on your side of the meter.  You may want to simply call a plumber or irrigation service now which is perfectly fine, but if you're the investigative type, here are some tips on how to proceed with possibly discovering the leak source prior to calling a service company.  Fixing it may still require calling someone, but this may help determine who to call.  Your situation may vary if you have multiple water meters (1 for irrigation and 1 for your home, or one for a pool set-up) but this will apply to most set-ups.  NOTE:  Traditionally, if a leak is on the supply/street side of a meter, it's the responsibility of the water supply company/municipality to resolve.  If a leak is on the property owner's side of the meter, it's their responsibility to resolve.  It should also be noted that some water suppliers will work with property owners on adjustments to a high bill if an affidavit is supplied stating a leak was discovered and repaired.

Let's take a few steps to see if you can discover the source of your leak.  Keep in mind that a leak will only "run" when it has water supplied to it, so if a valve of any sort turns water on and off to the leak location, it could only leak when the valve is on, so if anything is on timers or inside appliances the leak may vary with timing making it more difficult to find.  We'll attempt to find it regardless.

  • Locate Your Water Meter:  Prior to the following, ensure nobody else in your home is using water for anything.  Your water meter is usually in a concrete or metal valve box in your yard (or even within concrete surfaces in some locations) and is flush with your lawn.  This will most often be in a front yard close to the street, but can occur elsewhere.  Once found, you can usually either flip open the top door (sometimes metal) or remove the lid (it's heavy but just lifts off).  Now, look inside at your valve to see if you can see any sort of gauge.  It may have a flip-up cover over it.  Once discovered, you'll see either see digital numbers or rolling analog dials like older car odometers.  These numbers show your water consumption for billing purposes.  When water flows through the meter, the numbers change.  If the numbers are not moving at all... not even slightly... then there is no water flowing through the meter at that time which would indicate no full-time leak.  If they are moving, water is flowing through the meter.  A leak can make them move very slowly for slight leaks and very quickly for substantial leaks, so watch for enough time to be sure you can see evidence for even a slow leak.  There are different types of meters out there, so yours may have additional flow indicators that will assist in determining if there is flow and the rate.  Assuming you discovered moving numbers or an active flow indicator, let's proceed.  If you did not discover moving numbers, water is not leaking at a detectable rate at that time.

Now, let's see if we can separate your home from your irrigation system (this is assuming you're running everything through 1 water meter).

  • Locate Home's Main Shut-Off Valve:  The main shut off for your home is a valve that opens/closes the pipe that allows ALL water to come into your home for showers, sinks, toilets, etc.  Every homeowner should know where this is in the case of emergency.  If you don't know where yours is, now's a great time to find it.  It's often near a water heater because the supply line coming into your home directly feeds your water heater (plus more).  This valve could be one that you have to twist/turn/screw in (like your garden hose bib), or the more modern type which is a lever that simply turns 90 degrees.  If this type, you simply turn the valve handle so it's perpendicular to the pipe and the water is shut off.  What this does is isolates your entire home (assuming you only have 1 supply line) from your water supply line coming from the street.  Why is it important to use this valve method?  Because we want to be 100% sure that no water is running in your home.  It's easy to think none is, but with faucets, tubs, dishwashers, clothes washers, leaking toilets, ice makers, etc... it's hard to guarantee it, so this valve shuts off the entire home at once.  Now, that we're sure no water is running in your home, on to the next step.
  • Revisit Your Water Meter:  With the entire home turned off, let's return to your water meter out in the yard to take another look at the numbers.  If the numbers are still moving (and we're assuming nothing outside is running), then the leak is between the meter and your home because by shutting off your main valve for the home, we've eliminated areas actually IN your home, so water must be leaking elsewhere.  If the numbers have stopped moving, then the leak is most likely within your home and by turning off the main supply valve you essentially shut off the leak by not allowing water into your home.  You can confirm this by turning your main valve back on and returning to the meter yet again to check the numbers again to see that they're moving again.  Now, keep in mind that while doing this you will need to ensure that nothing automated or on timers is running (or not) because that could corrupt your test with things coming on and off automatically.  Here are some additional steps that depend on what you discovered.

If the meter numbers kept moving after you shut off the home's valve and you've concluded that the leak is OUTSIDE of your home, then here are some things to consider for leak sources:

  • A main supply line is routed from the meter to your home, so it is possible this is leaking.  This is the main supply line that provides all water to your home for all uses and was installed during the building of your home.  Most of this length is underground, but then will enter your crawl space (if you have one), or is routed under your slab if that's your construction type.  In most cases, this is a job for a plumber.
  • If you have an irrigation system, this too could be the possible source for the leak.  There are many ways for an irrigation system to be set up.  It will include a line that connects to your main water supply line and ends at your back-flow preventer (the large brass valve above ground) and a continuation of the supply line from the back-flow preventer to the rest of your irrigation system.  From this point, irrigation systems may have all your zone valves in one location (called a manifold), OR you may have a series of valve boxes (green tops) that are in-ground around your yard.  Each valve turns on/off to open the pipe allowing water to feed that zone of your yard/landscaping.  Your leak can occur in any of these pressured lines or from a failed valve not properly closing which allows a little water to flow through but not enough to engage the heads.  Some systems allow you to manually open/close valves, so it is possible that you can close each one to ensure it's closing properly and discontinuing the flow to help determine which one may be faulty.  In most cases and for most people, these scenarios are going to require a service person... and possibly one that has sonic equipment to "listen" for leaks using special equipment to minimize how much yard to dig up during repair.  You may even look for soft wet spots in your yard or other evidence of water running that may help direct you to the general area.

If the meter's numbers stopped moving when you shut off the home and you've concluded that the leak is INSIDE of your home, then here are some things to consider. 

  • First, there are a LOT of possible leak sources in your home.  Everything in your home that is connected to a water source has some sort of valve that turns it on/off.  This includes all faucets, shower valves, ice makers, clothes washers, dishwashers.  A failure of any seal or actual device can cause leaking.
  • Running toilets are one of the most common sources.  The seals in the bottom of the tanks often degrade.  The refill valves often degrade as well.  In most cases, you can hear the water running to refill the tank (because the leak is allowing tank water to run down the drain and not keep the proper level).  The good news is that these are easily and inexpensively repaired.  Cracked tanks are also possible, but less common than seal failure.  If you suspect a toilet, you can always turn off the supply line to the toilet (under the tank near the floor or wall) and then check your water meter again to see that the numbers have stopped moving (assuming you've turned the main supply to the home back on).
  • Ice makers and dishwashers also have small valves that can leak.  When in the proximity of hardwood floors, they can often result in water flowing under the hardwood causing it to swell and buckle (cup). Although some people may say that damage may relax back down, in my experience it usually does not fully and will require hardwood repair/replacement.
  • Clothes washer supply lines route from your wall to the back of your washer.  These occasionally can burst or include a small hole.  This is usually quickly evident with water on your floor, but in the event your washer sits in a pan (which may or may not be connected to a drain) be sure to check your pan for moisture.
  • General plumbing is also something to consider.  You may have a leak anywhere in your plumbing, so it could come down to a plumber examining your entire home for drips or signs of water having run over a period of time.  This could include anything in your crawl space, or under your slab if your home is built on a concrete slab.  Plumbing in a crawl space is usually easily resolved.  Plumbing under a slab will require floor removal and cutting the concrete for access and a repour as part of the repair.
  • Faucets and shower valves are also components to consider.  Usually faucets have voids under them (cabinets) where you can see leaking.  Shower valves are another story.  It is possible for these to leak and drip within a wall where they go unnoticed until something calls attention to it (like a bill or water damage).

Some of the home leaks can be fixed by an ambitious DYIer.  Toilet tank seals and valves are easily resolved with a trip to the home improvement store.  Some seals are even available in a higher grade than what originally ships, so that may be something to investigate to provide longevity.

Multiple Water Meters

This is going to be more the exception than the rule.  If you by chance have multiple water meters, then a similar approach will be used for each meter to isolate the area of the leak.  You' want to isolate each area while checking the meter's gauge for movement.  Why multiple meters?  In some areas, property owners are billed for water in and sewage out.  Sewage out is partially calculated on the water in.  They figure if water came into your home, then it went back out for processing too, so they charge accordingly and that may be about 50% of your bill.  As we all know, not all water goes back out the sewer line.  We water lawns, wash cars, kids may play in the sprinklers, but the water company cannot account for all of that for every single property owner, so their system simply assumes water in is sewer out, but they often offer an alternative.  That is to install a second water meter for purposes where the water is NOT going back out the sewer line such as in irrigation system.  When you run an irrigation system through a second dedicated meter, you are not billed for those gallons as sewer out.  It's not free though.  You'll pay a substantial connection fee (often a few thousand dollars) for the ability to connect.  Once done though, and if you're at that property for the long haul, the expense can wash out and result in a long term savings.

No mater which set-up you have, isolation of areas is the key to finding a leak's location.  By properly utilizing valves, you can narrow the location of your leak and better know which service person to contact for a repair.  As mentioned, be sure to ask your water supplier about options for adjustments to high water bills.  It should also be noted that if a home is new, the irrigation was set up by the installer, and a homeowner is new to using irrigation that homeowner may be initially surprised at their water bill... even if it is actually correct (leading them to believe they have a leak).  It's astonishing how much a properly watered lawn consumes, so irrigation systems are often dialed back to stay on budget.  Having a point of reference (like previous years' use) is a great way to determine if consumption is off the norm and if you possibly have a leak... which is what the water company is doing if they send you a notice.

All the luck with resolving any water issues.