The Mystery of the Runaway Water Bill

It’s kind of been a perfect storm around here. I was in the middle of a desperate blitz so to wrap up some DIY projects and a brief list of honey-do’s in time for some out-of-town visitors. It was all falling into place when all hell was unleashed upon my schedule,… and our bank account.

It all started at the Mailbox…

First, we received three letters form our homeowner’s association, “friendly reminders”. Two were not all that bad, trim the mesquite and remove a palm tree stump. Those caused delays, but not catastrophically. Done and done. The third,…I’ll talk about another time, when I’ve recovered.

The next item was a real treat, our monthly water bill. It freaking doubled. Doubled. A 100% increase will get one’s attention in a hurry*.

august-water-bill.jpg

Our city water bill includes water, weekly trash, quarterly bulk trash, recycling and sewer. Our summer bills are around $100. This one had climbed from from $93.20 in June to, $130.52 in July, to $198.66 in August.

august-water-usage-chart.jpg

*Note to dear readers: This is what’s known as “foreshadowing”. I’ll invite you to stay seated for impending, unimaginable horror. In other words, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet”.

Where is the Water Leak?

We’ve got a mystery on our hands Gang

I didn’t exactly leap into action, but I started poking around for the next few weeks. We did have a toilet that would get stuck running. The irrigation system had leaks again, but only when it’s was actually irrigating.

I started looking around the swimming pool and noticing moisture in the dirt, especially in the early mornings. Was it from our splash-filled adventures the evenings before? Surely it would dry up faster than that.

I noticed the swimming pool auto-filler seemed to run a bit more than usual too. I could hear water running to it since the piping is in the wall in my daughter’s closet. In fact, one time when we were swimming, the pool level was a little too high, while the auto filler kept running. I replaced the $13 toilet valve that runs it.

A Red Herring?

Because I am clearly a master sleuth, I had noticed that the moisture the around the pool seemed fresh, and possibly larger in the mornings, even when we hadn’t swam the nights before. Dammit. It had to be underground leaks in the pipes. That’s where our water was going. Clearly, it was leaking all night while the vacuum / circulation pump ran, seeping into the soil.

It could be worse

pool-pump-pipes.jpg

I my mind, it was somewhat good news. If I could find a leaking PVC pipe, it would be a super easy repair; It would be cheap. I’d dig it up, cut out the bad section and coupling in a new section with PVC glue. Quick and easy.

The fact that the moisture was only there in the morning meant that it was only leaking when there was water flowing through the pipes as the pump ran at night. If had been a leak in the pool itself, it seems the moisture would be there all the time. That kind of repair would be astronomically expensive and require professional assistance.

Since the ground seemed saturated, I turned off the pump and the auto-filler for two days to let the ground dry out. Late on a Friday night, I fired them both up again, hoping that one overnight cycle would show me fresh moisture ,where the source of the leak was. Smart eh?

Dig in

I got up super early on a Saturday morning, when it was still cool and laid out my weapons for battle.

Who’s up for a night dig?!!

Who’s up for a night dig?!!

I started where I’d seen the most water, right by the skimmer basket. The dirt was still slightly discolored where I’d dug into wet soil with my bare hand a few days earlier.

See that? The leak’s gotta be there.

See that? The leak’s gotta be there.

As the sun came up, I’d scraped the gravel back and dug a small pit, finding nothing. I was working slowly, trying to keep from waking the neighbors with digging noise.

Water must be traveling along some underground pipes here.

Water must be traveling along some underground pipes here.

The whole time I dug, I kept the pool filter running. Water was circulating through everything at high pressure. I knew there would be a Yosemite class geyser when I cleared soil from the hole.

I found pipes and conduits, but no leaks. Maybe there was some slight moisture, but not an actual drop of water. I could find nothing that could amount to a 100% increase in the bill.

I continued to dig holes and trenches, absolutely certain I could find a crack in one of the line or a break at a coupling. I was closing in, ready to unmask the brigand of the night.

I can dig it.

I can dig it.

Time passed. It was getting hot and I was striking out. Still #$%& nothing!

trench-by-the-pool.jpg

At most, I considered it almost moist in places, if I was being generous. In reality it was bone-dry. It was the greatest degree of, “almost moist” by the pool vacuum hookup area, but still no leak.

I’d ranged over the whole area where I had seen wet ground earlier, nearly the entire south and east sides of the pool, but come up completely empty handed.

Dejected, I went inside to get something to eat and drink. I’d let the pump run for several hours and check it in the afternoon.

The most, “almost moist” area.

The most, “almost moist” area.

From bad to worse


“I don’t know what’s wrong, but it probably can’t get much worse.”

-AZ DIY Guy to his Wife

“Hold my Beer.”

-The Universe to AZ DIY Guy


Some how, on that day, the very day I dipped my shovel into the dirt, the next water bill showed up. The mail arrived, just as we left on a quick grocery store run. We opened it at the mailbox. I don’t know what we were expecting, probably another double bill, around $200, but…

*insert your saltiest, most irreverent string of curse words here* !!!

Aaaaaghhhhhh!!!!

Aaaaaghhhhhh!!!!

It was like they drew a sky scraper on our water bill.

At the bottom of this post is a video I with from my Instagram stories posted live from that day. You can see I’m still in shock, within minutes of reading the bill.

It’s like the first high-rise just got built downtown.

It’s like the first high-rise just got built downtown.

A $583 water bill was really going to hurt. What in the world could cause that amount of loss?

After grocery shopping, I went back out to the pool and sat cross-legged on the cool-deck, tired and confused. The pump was running; the trench lines looked like Western Front in France, 1916 but dryer than ever. Why couldn’t I find the damn leak?

A mystery solved?

Blank-minded, with the sun baking the top of my head, I saw a clue. THE CLUE. It was right there, in front of me. The square, blue tiles at the waterline had a white crust all the way up their face. It’s something that gets left behind as the water evaporates and minerals build up into a pain-in-the-butt, crispy, ugly stuff. I was used to seeing it like that,..before we remodeled the pool.

I was on to something.

Before the remodel, I had to throw a hose in to refill. The pool level was always in a fluid state, somewhere between too-low and almost-overflowing. Evaporation was constant and the water level was ever changing. The crust used to be across the whole tile.

However, after the remodel, the auto-fill valve kept the water level constant. I didn’t use a hose anymore. There was a slight “crust-line” consistent at one elevation, right at the water’s edge, almost unnoticeable. Acceptable.

Now…

A crusty clue…

A crusty clue…

Good lord! Remember? I’d replaced the auto-fill valve already. What if I’d already fixed the problem?

What if there was no leak? Is it possible the pool had been simply over filling? Was the crust the evidence of slow evaporation as the valve intermittently began to fail, more and more over the course of 3 months? The ever escalating water bill could have been showing that growing failure in the valve.

It had taken $13 and 25 minutes (including the hardware store) to swap out the valve,…  the prior weekend .

It had taken $13 and 25 minutes (including the hardware store) to swap out the valve,… the prior weekend.

But Where was the water going then?

Thinking back, to when we’d had the pool remodeled, one of the items they had fixed was that the top “beam” or heavy concrete edge at ground level was attached to the deck in one, monolithic, re-bar reinforced piece. It didn’t allow the deck to “float” or expand and contract separately from the pool. It was wrong.

With that torn out and fixed, the new deck sits as a separate piece from the pool itself. I think there is even a plastic sheet separating the two pieces if I remember correctly. It’s an expansion and contraction thing. Science.

The beam, before the deck was poured.

The beam, before the deck was poured.

It’s possible that the pool had been periodically over-filling and water had been seeping out, just under the deck. The weather is so dry here that it would be soaked into the soil, spreading out fairly quickly. That would explain the wet ground around the edges and the slight residual dampness I’d found underneath the deck.

It’s just a theorY, but Am I on the right track?

When I called The City of Phoenix, they had told me we averaged 13-15 “units” of water use each month. The crazy bill was 114 units. According to the bill, each “unit” is 748 gallons. In a 15 unit month, we’d used 11,220 gallons. In the month-of-horror, we’d let 85,272 gallons loose. The City couldn’t give me an immediate read, so I’d have to wait a month to get the next bill to confirm if I was right. They couldn’t help with reducing the bill, but they would let us pay it off over time if we wanted to.

I went out to the water meter when no water was running in the house and could see that there was no flow. (There’s a little, spinning blue wheel on ours that indicates flow). I turned on the swimming pool pump system for an hour. Still, there was no flow registering unless someone flushed a toilet or used a sink.

I allowed myself to cautiously think it was a good sign.

Not  the final resting place of the Lost Ark of the Covenant

Not the final resting place of the Lost Ark of the Covenant

Over the course of the following 5 days, I took readings from the meter. I was pretty sure the dark numbers on the dials were fractional units, the 10th’s and 100th’s.

Ahhh,… so a “unit” is a cubic foot.

Ahhh,… so a “unit” is a cubic foot.

Every morning, right before leaving for work, I snapped another photo.

I’m not just a pretty-looking DIY, hammer-head. I can also do some light math, without taking off my shoes to count over 10.

“Math is hard.”  -  Kevin Malone

“Math is hard.” - Kevin Malone

It appeared I was on the right track. Either, I’d solved the problem (without knowing it at the time I’d replaced the valve) or whoever was stopping by our house to fill up seventeen, 18-wheeler tanker trucks with our hose just hadn’t popped in for their monthly visit yet.

Well? Did I Fix it?

A Month Later, The next bill arrives…

My hands were shaking as I slit the envelope and pulled out the sheet of neatly folded paper. Our budget just couldn’t take another hit like the prior month. I didn’t know where to look next to find a problem. I’d have to hire a plumber.

So…

So it was done. The nightmare is over. My theory was right.

It’s an odd sensation to celebrate something not happening. Everything was back to normal, despite the fact that we were out more than $600 in abnormal, runaway water bills. I had spent the better part of a day needlessly destroying our backyard with trenches when I could have done something else. But it was over. We’d vanquished the thief, a stupid, inexpensive and easy to replace valve.

Back to normal.

Back to normal.

So I’d done it. I’d repaired the leak, before I started looking for it. I’d killed myself digging up my back yard for nothing. I can’t believed I never noticed how full the pool was when it was overfilling. I’d actually kneeled down and dug into the wet soil one early morning, with my back mere inches from what must have been a seriously over-full pool. Idiot.

Still. I’m not upset at all that extra work and mess. Even though those big bills were a kick in the gut and I’m sick about it, I’m just so freaking happy it’s resolved.

I’m going to replace the valve each time I do the filter maintenance now, probably twice a year. I’m going to keep an extra one on hand at all times.