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Metro Detroit

July 10, 2013

There’s no such thing as a little leak

By Sara Kandel
C & G Staff Writer

Keep track of usage to conserve

Knowing the average amount of water your household uses in a billing cycle makes abnormalities or changes in usage more noticeable and helps lead to conservation. 

Keep track of usage by noting the number of units used in each billing cycle for one year.  Average water usage tends to vary at different times of the year for most households, so it’s important to know average usage in each season.

Knowing doesn’t do anything specific to help households conserve, but Macomb Township Water and Sewer Supervisor Ron Steinbrink said that households that pay attention to water usage tend to use less.

“Once you start paying attention to your usage, you’ll think about it every time you turn on the water,” Steinbrink said.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency and WaterSense, an EPA Partnership Program, the average family of four can use 400 gallons of water per day.

For more information on how to conserve water in your home, visit www.epa.gov/WaterSense.

A large percentage of the human body is made up of it, and an even larger percentage of the Earth is covered by it, but water isn’t cheap and anyone who has ever had a leaky faucet or running toilet knows just how fast each drop can add up.

Many leaks are easily identified and, when responded to quickly, won’t cost too much, but unfortunately, this is not always the case; an unnoticed leak can send quite a bit of money down the drain.

Macomb Township Water and Sewer Supervisor Ron Steinbrink has seen firsthand just how costly even the tiniest leaks can be.

“I’ve had homeowners go to Florida in the fall and come back in the spring to a $1,400-$1,500 water bill,” said Steinbrink. “A one-sixteenth inch hole will give out 24,000 gallons of water in just three months.”

That’s approximately 3,200 cubic feet from a hole about the size of the lead inside a pencil. But the bigger the hole, the bigger the problem.

“A one-eighth inch hole will, in three months, leak 296,000 gallons of water, or about 39,400 cubic feet,” Steinbrink said. “A one-fourth inch hole, which is roughly the size of a No. 2 pencil, will leak 1,181,500 gallons, or about 158,000 cubic feet, in three months.”

Leaks can occur throughout a home in various places depending on the age and type of fixtures and appliances, and not all leaks are visible or audible.

“Anything with a drain — toilet, sink, bathtub, even some hot water heaters — has to be maintained to prevent leaks,” said Marty Ladd, the Water Department supervisor in Eastpointe.

Luckily, most water meters have a built-in leak indicator, and confirming the presence of a leak takes only minutes.

“If you’re not using water anywhere in the house, the leak detector shouldn’t be moving; if it is, you have a leak somewhere,” Ladd said.

Leak indicators only confirm the presence of a leak; they don’t indicate where the leak is located.

When investigating an elusive leak, the first place to start is the toilet.

“There’s two things that happen a lot with toilets,” Ladd said. “The ballcock assembly can slip, and the flapper can get dried out, and water will keep running into the bowl.”

If the ballcock assembly slips, the toilet will run constantly. If the flapper loses its seal, water will run into the toilet bowl and when enough water fills the bowl, it will attempt to force itself to flush — most likely in the middle of the night when the toilet hasn’t been used in awhile.

To find out if a bad flapper is pulling at the purse strings, both Steinbrink and Ladd suggest the same thing: the food-coloring test.

“Put a couple drops in the back of a tank at the end of the day, when you aren’t going to be using the bathroom again,” Ladd said. “If, when you wake up, there is any color in the bowl, you have a leak.”

Next, check the faucets. If the faucet is dripping even a small amount, the cost can add up.

“You should repair drips on your faucet almost the minute you realize you have it,” Steinbrink said. “Just one small drop per second wastes 2,400 gallons of water per year.”

Old faucets have washers that need to be replaced regularly to avoid leaks and drips. When a newer faucet gets drippy, replace the cartridge. If that doesn’t do the trick, it might be time to buy a new faucet.

If the source of the leak isn’t from a toilet or faucet, Steinbrink has his guys look at the appliances in the home.

“A lot of times, we’ll find the leak is from a water-powered backup sump pump or a power humidifier on the furnace,” Steinbrink said. “If the unit malfunctions and the electronic flow switch isn’t working, it will keep drawing water, and the water will keep flowing right out to the drain — a lot of times without anyone noticing because it’s in a hose.”

Steinbrink recommends that anyone running these devices who plans to be out of town for long periods of time have a family member or friend come and check on the home regularly.

Automatic sprinkler systems are another big culprit of unknown leaks.

“We find in the wintertime, if the pipes aren’t blown out properly, the line will freeze and crack or break,” Steinbrink said.

With cracks or holes in automatic sprinkler lines, sometimes it’s the bigger, the better. Big holes and cracks will leak massive amounts of water underground, turning part or all of the ground mushy and wet within days. Smaller leaks are harder to detect and can shoot out a steady stream of water for weeks without anyone noticing.

Once detected, the smaller the better, though. Small sprinkler line leaks are easier to fix.

“It’s just a matter of placing a repair clamp on the line,” Steinbrink said. “Unless the line has a split along the plastic seam, then you have to replace the whole thing, but you can still do it. You can repair just about anything if you have a little know-how.”

It’s not about who does the repair — a homeowner or a professional — it’s about getting the repair done well and as quickly as possible because, when it comes to residential water, no drop is free.

“The key to water is you only want to get and to pay for what you use, because it is expensive,” Ladd said.