October 2015 Vol. 70 No. 10


My $3,100 Water Bill

by Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, Art Director, Underground Construction

Halloween is fast approaching. I’ve given it some thought and I’ve decided I’ll be a comma. Yes, I’m going to dress up as punctuation. Why a comma? Because, while commas can bring much joy — like if you win the lottery with two commas in the winning number — they can also send you recoiling in fear and terror. It’s true. If you ever get a water bill with a comma in it, you’ll understand. It’s scarier than Donald Trump’s hair. And, whatever your political leanings, I think we all can agree the hair of The Donald is a fascinating and frightening thing.

The Tale of the Gushing Water and the Big Water Bill
Let’s start at the beginning, The journey of the comma started five years ago. One fine summer day I stepped out and saw a neighbor, two doors down, talking on the phone to someone about the copious amount of water gushing up from under his driveway. No doubt he was talking to the city public works department, since the water was gushing at the end of his driveway and was very likely the city’s problem.

A couple weeks later I got a water bill for $256. Considering, at the time, the water bill was usually $25, a $256 bill was a bit much, wouldn’t you say? I did the drill – turned off the main to the house and checked the city meter. The dial was not moving. I called the public works department, they suggested a toilet leak or some other little leak might be lurking within the walls. It would have to have been a really big leak to warrant a $256 water bill. I then relayed the story, in four part harmony, about the neighbor with the gushing water. In the end, I was advised to pay the bill, so I did.

The next month the water bill came with a credit of $230. I never received any explanation about the bill, but I assumed it was a result of the neighbor’s gushy water.

The Return of the Gushing Water and the Big Water Bill
Fast forward to this past April. The water bill arrives, the amount due is around $250 for 11,000 gallons of water use. I repeated the drill of turning off the main, marched out to the city meter, except I didn’t see the meter. No meter. My knucklehead neighbor covered up the water meter when he put in a new lawn. It can never be easy, can it?

I dug up the meter to find the red dial spinning out of control, an indication of a leak. There was, however, no evidence of any water on the side of the house. Considering the household water usage is, on average, two thousand gallons, that meant 9,000 gallons of water was leaking out somewhere. That’s a lot of water. I saw none, not even slightly wet ground.

Given the water bill saga of five years ago, I walked down the block looking for any indication of a line break. I opened the meter of the neighbor two doors down and the meter was submerged in water. All the other meters on the block were bone dry, including mine.

I called the city, challenged the bill and told them the story, in four part harmony and with feeling,  about the gushing water five years ago and the big bill and how I got credit for what seemed like an eternity. The city promptly sent out a water tech guy. It was surprisingly fast.

He looked at the meter, saw the spinning dial, checked the side of the house, saw no water, then concluded the meter was probably broken. He scheduled someone to come out and check the meter, he also advised not to pay the bill, only pay what was normally owed — these days that’s $35 on average. I thought, ok, that’s cool. I heard nothing more, assumed everything was taken care of and I could resume my ridiculously normal life. Then I got the May bill.

The May bill was close to $1,300 total. The water usage for May was 27 thousand gallons of water. You see how scary that comma is now? And where was all this water? The meter dial was spinning like crazy town, but still no indication of water on the side of the house. Again, not even damp ground.

I called the city and challenged the bill. I recalled the gushing-water-high-bill story and told them I saw no water anywhere. I think it’s reasonable to assume that 25 thousand gallons of water would show itself in some way or another. A work ticket was drawn up, someone from the city would determine if the leak was theirs or mine. I heard nothing. Crickets, chirp chirp. Then the June bill arrived.

In June the water bill totaled $2,569. June’s water usage was 61 thousand gallons. Still no indication of water on the side of the house. Called the city again. Retold the gushy water story. Heard nothing back. In July the total reached $3,133. July’s water usage was 82 thousand gallons!

By this time, the horror story of the water bill reached a frantic peak. By mid July, there was still no indication of water. This was a LOT of water, 82 thousands gallons of water had to show up sometime, right? It finally did.

My $3,100 water bill: finding the water

The Big Reveal
On July 24th, I walked out to see wet, soggy ground around the fence and trees on the side of the house. Water traveled along the cracks in the driveway. The leak was on my side. Yippee.

I decided to do some digging in an attempt to find the leak. No, I did not call 811. I know, I know, you should always call before you dig. Know what’s below! If you don’t know what’s below, you need to call, but I did know what was below and it was gushing huge amounts of water as each minute ticked by. Time was of the essence.

After a couple hours, I found the pipe but not the leak. As I pushed mud around I saw the direction the water was coming from. Unfortunately, it was coming from the line of trees along the driveway. This meant the break was under a line of huge, thirty year old pine trees. Time to call a plumber.

I combed Angie’s List for a plumber with a good rep. I don’t use Angie’s List a lot, but it’s really handy when you need it. I chose Wedgeworth Plumbing, here in Houston. They had all kinds of stars and good grades. The plumber arrived quickly and promptly started digging in and around the water and mud. For $81/hour, I crossed my fingers he would find something quickly.

Bill Boughey of USA Leak Detection listens to the concrete and beyondMy hard labor paid off, and probably saved me a couple hundred dollars, after 20 minutes he realized he couldn’t find the leak. He scheduled a leak detector to come out and find the source of the leak. I design and layout pages almost every month with stories about leak detection and detection equipment, and now I was going to have a leak detector come out to my house to find a very, very expensive leak. That was kind of cool in a decidedly uncool sort of way.

Leak Detection!
Towards the end of the day, Bill Boughey of USA Leak Detection showed up with his grandson, Brett. Bill is passing on the leak detection torch to Brett, which is certainly heart warming, and they’re such nice guys too. But enough of that, there was a leak to be found. I could hear the ‘cha-ching’ of the money meter with each passing moment.

Brett puts his “ears” on the ground and listened for the whooshing of air through the pipe. Bill transformed into the concrete whisperer, getting a sense of where the leak was, while explaining to me the nuanced art of discovering a leak. It does seem more like a discovery, and every leak has a tale to tell. This leak’s tale was entitled, “Don’t plant big trees over a water line,” by U.R. Dumb.USA Leak Detection find the source!

After about twenty minutes, Brett marked the spot of the leak. It was not good, but I had no delusions it would be good. The leak was under the concrete, the pipe had been pushed out by thirty years of tree growth.

Bill did a search of the water line to find its path but hit a road block. Apparently part of the pipe had been fixed with PVC pipe which made it prohibitive to find the actual path of the line. But, we all came to the conclusion that it was parallel to the driveway and directly under the trees.

Bill and Brett finished up and were on their way. If you are in the Houston area and are in need of leak detection services, I highly recommend USA Leak Detection. They were great, very professional and, they found the leak, the most important part. I only wish it was in a different spot. But, if you’re going to have a story where nothing goes right, might as well make it a grand story where nothing goes right.

Return of the Plumber
With the leak discovered, the plumber returned with a couple suggestions. One, they could cut through the concrete where the leak existed and fix the leak at the source. Two, they could reroute the water line under the driveway and around the trees. After some consternation, I decided the best thing to do in the long run was reroute the line to the tune of $3,100.

So let’s total this up. I had a $3,100 water bill and a $3,100 plumbing bill. I do like symmetry.

Cutting up the drivewayDigging Up the Driveway
The concrete cutters arrived. Keep in mind, this was the end of July, in Houston, TX. It was crazy hot. It took them a couple days to get through the concrete and dig the trench for the new water line. Once it was done, I had a mini version of the Panama Canal happening in my front yard. Look at all that water. That’s my water bill right there.

After the driveway was dug up, the plumber returned to put the new water line in. Also, he put a valve at the city meter so if something happens in the future, I can simply cut the water off at the source and stop the meter. That would have been nice a few months ago. Then again, my ridiculous water bill would not have been so high if the city had acted sooner.

After everything was put back together, I filled out a form for leak assistance. I sent in the plumbing bill and hoped for the best. The city knocked off $1,300 from the bill minus some of the extra money paid along the way. That leaves me with a $1,600 water bill.

And a comma.

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