The household is asleep. Not a creature is stirring. One thing is moving, though: water. And the register on your water meter is flicking inexorably upward, clocking the gallons as they go galloping down the drain. You don't have a fountain. Not even an ice maker. What gives?
Leaks. A federal study of home water use showed that one out of five toilets leaks. Each of those constantly running toilets can be losing up to -- are you ready? -- 5,000 gallons of water a day, says Susan Inman-Hill of the Seattle Water Department.
Leaky faucets can also waste a lot of water. A slow, steady drip can add up to 75 gallons a week. A fast drip can waste hundreds of gallons of water in just 24 hours.
Water comes from the wild, either from surface lakes and streams or from aquifers, underground supplies. The more we take, the more damage we do to wildlife and to the environment. The more we use, the more money all of us spend -- both to get the water and to clean it up when we're done with it. As the world's population grows, the more water we'll need. It is far more economical to extend our current supply through conservation than to build new supply systems. And in many places, the current supply is all there is.
Fixing leaks is a painless and sensible way to save water. And the first step is to find them.
A leaky faucet is easy. It advertises its presence with its irritating drip drip drip. The culprit usually is a worn washer, and the hot water
faucet usually is the first to succumb. That's because hot water erodes the washer faster than cold.
If it is a hot water drip, and a rather quick one, you'll want to fix it right away. You're not only wasting water, but energy as well. If you are a do-it-yourselfer, consult a home repair guide. A quick trip to a plumbing supply store will outfit you. Otherwise, call a plumber.
If the drip is a small one, and you aren't inclined to try a little home plumbing, don't race to the phone. Plumbers are pricey. Set a jar under the faucet when not using it and collect the water for your plants. When you need a plumber for other reasons, have him or her fix your drip.
Toilets are the big-time water leakers. Does your toilet make a pleasant little streaming sound between flushes? Do you have to jiggle the handle to pacify it? Then it's leaking. Is your toilet silent and the water in the bowl serene? It may be leaking anyway. One out of five does. Here's where the detective work comes in: Find your water meter. It is probably under a steel plate in the parking strip in front of the house. If you cannot find it, call your water utility for help.
Make sure no water is running in the house. That is, turn off the ice maker, hose, etc. Write down the number on the water meter. Most meters register use in cubic feet (7.84 gallons equals one cubic foot), and reads from left to right like an odometer. Wait two hours -- don't run any water -- and read it again. If it has budged so much as a single digit, you have a leak.
Chances are good that one or more of your toilets is leaking.
Turn off the supply valve under the toilets, one at a time, and keep checking the meter. You'll soon turn up the culprit or even culprits. If you are a do-it-yourselfer, call your utility for advice on how to pinpoint the problem. Otherwise, call the plumber.
If you have a pre-1980 toilet, chances are it may be the water-guzzling, high-flush type. If it is leaking, consider taking the opportunity to replace it with a low-flush model. The July 1990 issue of Consumer Reports magazine can help you choose a good one.
If none of your toilets appears to be leaking, there may be a leak between the meter and your house. Find the main water supply valve in your basement and turn it off. If the meter moves at all, you have an underground leak outside. Fixing this is your responsibility and you will have to pay a plumber to do it. Call your water utility inspectors first, though. They can verify that the pipe is leaking, and they may give you a credit for the water they estimate was lost.
Run through this water-saving drill once a year, at least, and you may save yourself -- and all of us -- a lot of water.