Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Doesn't hold water.

I have a small book called “Gumpisms” which is a collection of sayings by the movie character Forrest Gump. My favorite Gumpism (sanitized by me for your protection) says “Keep your B.S. detector in good working order.” That's good advice, particularly when reading the propaganda being put forth by our private utility companies of late. I've written about PG&E's B.S. in the past, and now it's time to take on Cal-Am, our water company.

An insert in our latest water bill attempts to explain away a sudden rash in inexplicably high water bills that some customers are getting. We're talking about bills that suddenly jump from under $50 to a couple thousand dollars with no detectable explanation. Cal-Am is blowing these spikes off as unrepaired leaks, even when licensed plumbers can find no leaks. One likely culprit, according to this flyer, is toilet leaks. Here's what they said:
“By far, the most common source of lost water in a home results from a leaky toilet. And unlike a broken irrigation line, it rarely leaves a trace. That's because all the water leaks back down into the drain unnoticed and can waste more than three gallons a minute. This can add up quickly.

“Let's say you have a modest leak at one gallon per minute. That's 1,440 gallons per day and more than 43,000 gallons a month. Add that to the water you're already using and you could be facing a very high water bill as a result. There's no puddle, no water damage and worst of all, toilet leaks are often intermittent which means they may be overlooked by a plumber.”
This sounds plausible because there is an element of truth to this. Toilet leaks are indeed very common. Chances are very good that you've had one within the past couple of years. Most likely someone on your block has a toilet leak right now, though it's not costing thousands of dollars.

But when they say that toilet leaks leave no trace, their logic starts to get murky. This is true only of the oldest toilets still in use. With old toilets, if water trickles out of the tank, the fill valve would open ever so slightly and refill the tank at the same slow rate, making no noise. But modern water-saving toilets, those made in the last 25 years and which nearly all of us have by now, are designed to alert us to leaks. The fill valve opens up only after the water level in the tank drops an inch or so, thus turning on the water full blast so you can hear it running. If you hear the toilet running and you haven't flushed it, that's the alert signal that you have a leak. So unless you have an very old toilet, leaks do, in fact, leave an audible trace that all but the hard of hearing can detect.

As we read on, Cal-Am's numbers on toilet leaks start to venture into fantasyland. Typical toilet leaks release a few gallons per day, an amount that won't add more than a few dollars to your monthly bill, as it has done to ours from time to time. The one gallon per minute leak in Cal-Am's example is not “modest” by any means. Unless you're on vacation, you'd notice it pretty quickly because you'd not only hear your toilet running almost constantly, you'd probably see the water running into the bowl as well. Furthermore, you'd notice that your toilet won't always flush properly because the tank would be half empty half the time. At three gallons per minute (a gallon every twenty seconds) water would be rapidly rushing through the bowl. You'd have to be blind, deaf, and thoroughly stupid to let that run more than a minute, much less a full month!

Finally, Cal-Am insults the plumbing profession by asserting that they will overlook intermittent leaks. This sounds like an excuse to dismiss reports that plumbers have inspected the homes of people with spiked bills and found no leaks. An experienced plumber would certainly consider this possibility and provide dye tablets to their customers to place in the toilet tank. If the dye shows up in the bowl without flushing, even after the plumber has left, you'll know you have a toilet leak. You can also do this yourself with dye tablets from the hardware store, or just ordinary food coloring.

So when Cal-Am tells customers that thousand-dollar water bills are caused by toilet leaks, their argument just doesn't hold water.