Many people become the victims of slow leaks, or small, steady streams of water dripping from faucets or showerheads when they are not in use.
Though the leaks are usually small, the financial burden they add is not: A single leaking faucet can waste up to 350 gallons of water a month, while a leaky irrigation system can potentially waste up to 15,000 gallons of water monthly.
"Customers are really shocked and don't understand where (the extra charges) are coming from," said Joyce Kinnear, manager of utility marketing services for the City of Palo Alto. "If the leak is really bad, the bill could be thousands of dollars. The bill will be higher depending on how fast the leak is."
According to Kinnear, dripping toilets and sinks are the most common cause of indoor leaks. One leaking toilet is capable of wasting up to 14 gallons of water daily, while a sink with even the smallest leak can waste up to nine gallons of water per day.
"A leaky toilet can easily double or triple the bill, while a leaky house sprinkler can increase the bill by 20 or 30 times," she said. Outdoors, leaky sprinkler systems are the main concern because they receive a lot of wear and tear and can be easily hidden in large yards by plants or yard decorations.
"People often don't even notice their sprinkler head is broken," Kinnear said. "Sometimes they are hidden under bushes or plants, so it's hard to see that they are damaged or even missing a head."
Leaks are often the result of aging water systems and pipes. Old pipe or irrigation systems can develop cracks or fractures that spew water or leak. As a result, water is released from the appliance even when it is not in use. Though many larger outdoor leaks are caused by cracks and holes in aging infrastructure, the age of the appliance itself can be blamed for causing smaller leaks in more common appliances like toilets and faucets. Errant water use may also be to blame: Keeping the faucet on while it is not in use wastes money.
In addition to denting your bank account, slow leaks can also cause significant damage to your home. Even a modest amount of leaking water can spill over and cause water damage to walls and floors, while broken pipes and sprinkler heads are likely to damage the water system itself.
"If the appliance leaks for long enough, the water can cause soil erosion and structural damage to the home itself," Kinnear added. "In some rare cases, a home may need to be re-foundationed to repair damage from a long-term leak."
If one finds a leak at home, the best thing to do is to call a specialist to assess the situation, she said.
"Unless you are a really handy person, you should call a plumber or gardener to take a look at your home or yard," Kinnear said. "They would have to diagnose the problem, then fix it."
The best way to avoid being struck with an astronomically high water bill is to regularly check the appliances in your home and yard, Kinnear said.
"Be aware of your home. If no one is using water and you hear it running, there is still water going through your water system," she said. "There are a variety of ways to fix leaks, but you have to be aware of them first."
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Check for leaks
If you receive an unusually high water bill, consider doing the following to check for leaks:
* Get color-changing tablets for toilet water tank and test
* Look for soggy or wet spots in yard
* Check under plants for broken sprinkler heads or torn, cracked hoses
* Be aware of running water sounds when appliances are not in use and random wet spots in your home
* Check for cracks and breaks in pipe and sprinkler systems
* Regularly check your water meter.