I was stretched out in the maximum recline position of my Barcalounger, when I saw a story in the newspaper that threw me into a panic. Water and sewer rates, it said, had gone up by an average of 16.4 percent.
The story didn't say why rates in the city and in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll counties went up. I presumed it was because the water guys wanted to buy new trucks.
Of all the vehicles that visit our alley, the trucks the water guys ride in are the coolest. The trucks of Baltimore Gas and Electric workers may have more exciting accessories, like the lift that carries linemen up to a street light, but the water trucks have better paint jobs, and they have more seats. The cab on a water truck is like a small clubhouse. It has enough room to accommodate a card game, or a sleep-over.
Which is the way it should be. When the water guys show up in the middle of the night to stem the flow of mysterious brown liquids, I want them to be happy in their work.
Nonetheless, the news that water rates had increased made me feel that I had to get out of my chair and stop money from going down my household drains. I began an investigation into the murky matter of my family's water use.
The first step was finding the house water meter. It showed up in the back yard, covered with a metal lid that was about the size of frying pan. Getting the lid off was a little tricky. It was held in place with a five-sided nut. I didn't have the nifty tool that the water guys have for removing lids. Their tool enables the water guys to take the lid off without bending over. I had to get down on my knees, and make do with a pair of channel-lock pliers.
After moving the nut around, I eventually found the position that freed the lid. I lifted the lid off, and there was the water meter. It wasn't much to look at, a bulging piece of pipe with a dial on it. As water in the main line runs through the meter and into the house, the meter is supposed to keep track of how much water is used. Every 90 days or so a meter reader comes by, flips off the lid and records the numbers.
Before I met my meter, I was suspicious of its work. I thought it might be leaking or generating faulty numbers. But as I lay on the ground and watched my meter perform, my opinion changed.
Nothing was dripping. There was some condensation on the meter, a result, I think of rainwater that had found its way into the water meter hole. But after I wiped the moisture off the meter with my hand, no new droplets appeared.
Moreover, the numbers on the meter weren't moving. This was a good sign. Especially since I didn't have any water faucets turned on inside the house.
If there had been some hidden water-swallower in my house, a leaky faucet or "singing" toilet, the meter would have told me about it. But none of the numbers on the meter twitched, and I was assured that all was quiet inside the house walls.
Once the meter and plumbing fixtures were cleared of watery wrongdoing, I directed my suspicions toward my family. According to our water bill, we used an average of 252 gallons of water a day. I thought this was high. I regard it as clear evidence that we were gushers, that our lifestyle was entirely too free-flowing.
Then I compared my family's water bill with those of four other families of four. Like many researchers, I gathered a lot of numbers. As I worked my way through the bills, I became fascinated with minutia. But overall, my comparison of water bills cleared my family of charges. It showed that when you have two kids, a dishwasher, and a constantly running washing machine, you use between 200 and 300 gallons of water a day. The water guys tell me they figure that the average person uses 65-70 gallons a day in the city. In the suburbs, where lawns are bigger, the average use is about 80 gallons per person per day. My examination of water bills showed that the peak season of water use did seem to vary with the age of the family's children. A family with two teen-agers used a lot of water in the dead of winter, peak shower season. While the families with younger kids hit the tap the hardest in the summer. In our house, the warm weather months are known as "hose season."
And so after comparing bills and fondling my water meter, I concluded my work. Having investigated the matter thoroughly, I recommended that two courses of action be taken. First we should pay the our new, higher water bill before the penalty period for late payment kicks in. Secondly, I should return to the Barcalounger.
The next time the water guys show up in our neighborhood to make yet another repair on the aging pipes, I am going to make it a point to say something friendly to them. Something like like, "Nice truck."