An outdoor water faucet leaking and creating a puddle on the side of the house, indicating phantom leakage and a higher water bill.

It’s been said that U.S. water and sewer bills rise faster than inflation. But, at the same time, most consumers remain unaware of their water usage.

I’m hyper-aware of the need to conserve water in every way possible. Energy and water efficiency top my building sustainability goals. Having moved to Florida for our first net-zero solar home renovation, I’ve been shocked by the high cost of water in the state.

Maybe I was just lucky before that, to live in places where water bills weren’t very high. But it’s encouraged me to find out more about U.S. water bills in general.

In this article, I’m going to explore several reasons why your water bill might be high. I’ve done a whole lot of research, and I’m going to suggest some easy fixes.

I have to be honest; this topic is a minefield. With so many variables, it’s difficult to decipher. But I’m going to dive in and give it a try.

What’s really scary is that when there’s a leak or malfunction with equipment, water can flow like a river through your system and you’re going to be charged for every drop. I’m going to help you avoid this happening to you.

Water Rate Increases

Water rates do increase from time to time. While we can’t control this, you should keep track of any new hikes in rates. When utility companies do increase rates, it can make a big difference to your water bill.

According to a Bluefield Research report released in July 2019, water and sewer bills across the country surged 31% from 2012, outpacing inflation. On average, they increased 3.6% in 2018 alone. But it’s not quite that simple.

Of the top 50 U.S. metropolitan areas that Bluefield Research analyzed, only 35 increased their rates. The other 15 kept rates constant or even decreased them. The biggest rate increase in 2018 was 33.3% in El Paso, Texas, while rates declined by 22% in Riverside, California. The lowest combined water and wastewater bills were in Memphis, Tennessee, and the highest bills were in Seattle, Washington.

Graph from Bluefield Research showing the increase in combined sewer and water bills between 2012 and 2019.
Utility Water & Wastewater Bills for 50 U.S. Cities, 2019 Source: Bluefield Research

Closer to home (for me), the Water Service Corporation, Utilities, Inc. of Florida, increased its rates recently (effective from 15 May 2021), citing significant investment in upgrading water and sewer infrastructure as a primary reason. 

Utilities, Inc delivers water to 10 Florida counties, including Lee County where I live. But I currently get my water from the City of Cape Coral that last increased its water rates in 2014. 

Nevertheless, water is currently the highest bill for my net-zero solar home. So, I’m going to dedicate a future article to Florida water cost per gallon issues and water bills Florida residents face. 

But for now, let’s look at the official government viewpoint about water usage in general. Then I’ll run through 12 of the most common reasons for high residential water bills, and I’ll share ways that you can fix the problems.

What the EPA Says About Water Usage

Not surprisingly, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that we need to be smart about how we use this vital resource. As it says, in the U.S. we are very lucky to have access to treated water that is safe and healthy.

According to the EPA, the average U.S. family uses more than 300-350 gallons at home every single day. About 70% of this is for water used indoors, mainly for cooking and cleaning. How much it costs depends on the local rate charged.

The EPA urges consumers to understand how much water they use and why. Only then will we be able to determine how much water we can save. Of course, this will also mean we will save money. But other issues cloud the situation.

For instance, continued population growth increases the need for water resources. Also, the country’s aging water infrastructure urgently needs to be updated. And, of course, different utilities vary in terms of billing procedures and costs. 

America’s Aging Water Infrastructure

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, there is a water main break every two minutes. This results in about 6 billion gallons of treated water being lost each day. That’s enough water to fill more than 9,000 swimming pools!

Seven years ago, as detailed in a 2014 report on U.S. freshwater, 40 states told the U.S. Government Accountability Office they expected to have water shortages not related to drought during the following decade.

The Infrastructure Report talks about the thousands of miles of new water pipes to be replaced, but we’re already paying the price in many ways, including:

  • Higher water prices to ensure a safe, reliable supply of water (e.g., Florida’s most recent 2021 rates increase)
  • Increased water restriction in summer because of shortages

Despite all of this, we can all save water immediately, by using WaterSense-labeled products, by fixing leaks, and by simply not leaving our taps on for longer than necessary, says the EPA. I think that they are right.

WaterSense Products

EPA WaterSense label indicating that appliances are certified to use at least 20% less water helping control water bills.

WaterSense is a voluntary program that is sponsored by the EPA. All WaterSense-labeled products meet EPA criteria for performance and efficiency and are certified to use at least 20% less water than regular models. They also save energy.

Simply replacing old equipment, fixtures and fittings can save a huge volume of water.

Common Causes of High Water Bills

I believe that half the problem is that we take access to water for granted. We look at our water bills and often wonder why they are so high. But we don’t understand, or even try to understand, the issues of water usage behind the high water bills.

As consumers, we can’t fix the infrastructure or control spiraling utility rates. But there are other ways that we can take action. I think you’ll be surprised at some of the easy fixes that will help to bring your water bills down.

Leaks are a common cause of high water bills. According to the EPA, 5-10% of U.S. homes have easy-to-fix leaks that drip away, wasting 90 gallons a day or more.

So, let’s start with leaks in general. Then we will look at more specific problems (including leaks) in the list below.

An outdoor water faucet leaking and creating a puddle on the side of the house, indicating phantom leakage and a higher water bill.
A leaky outside faucet on our latest net-zero project house. With our Florida water bills already high, this will definitely be one of the first repairs!

What to Do if You Think You Have a Leak

If your water bill is suddenly higher than normal, unless there has been a rate increase, you’ve probably got a leak. In this situation, you need to take action immediately.

If you can locate the shut-off valve near your meter, shut the water off. Also, shut down all the appliances and equipment that use water. If water continues to move through the meter, you’ve got a leak. If you’re not sure, call a plumber.

Here’s where you will normally find individual shut-off valves for appliances and fixtures:

  • Toilets Usually at the back at the bottom of the fixture.
  • Dishwasher Usually under the sink.
  • Clothes washer There are two valves (hot and cold) usually behind the washer or in a recessed box in the wall nearby.
  • Boilers and water heaters Usually on the pipe that delivers water to the tank.
  • Water dispenser and ice maker At the back of the refrigerator where the appliance connects to the water supply.
  • Water softeners There are three valves, for cold water, hot water, and a main shut-off valve, that you’ll find behind the device.
  • Showers and faucets Most don’t have one, but if they do, it’s likely to be behind the wall or in a panel you can access.
  • Hose bibs for garden hoses It might be inside the hose bib or in a wall or panel.
  • Irrigation systems Usually in a pit outside.

Now let’s get back to some of the most common causes of high water bills. You will see that some of them correspond with what I have already mentioned.

1. Changes in Water Use

This isn’t rocket science. In fact, this reason is so obvious that it often goes unnoticed.

Simple things like having family or friends to stay, refilling your swimming pool, watering new grass or newly planted shrubs and trees, and even installing a new appliance can all impact your water bill.

How to fix it 

Be aware of changes in your lifestyle and activities that can have an impact on your water use.

2. Water-Wasting Habits

There are lots of bad habits that waste water, like running the faucet while brushing teeth or shaving and washing in a full bath rather than showering.

Doing partial loads in a washing machine or dishwasher that doesn’t have a half-load function is another one. Top-loading washing machines use up to 200% more water than newer front-loading machines. Washing dishes by hand under running water uses 4-5 times more water than a dishwasher will use.

How to fix it 

Change those old water-wasting habits.

3. Equipment That Consumes More Water

Outdated fixtures inevitably use more water than modern appliances that limit water use. There are two issues here. Old, inefficient equipment will use more water and cost you more, also impacting the environment.

The second factor relates to new appliances. Most new equipment needs to be set on an “eco mode” to ensure that it saves water. If you use a standard model, it could run for double the length of time as eco mode, wasting water and electricity.

How to fix it 

If your appliances are old, the seals that should prevent water from leaking from them might have decomposed. You might be able to replace the refrigerator, dishwasher, and washing machine seals, but if a water heater is leaking, you’ll probably have to replace it.

In any case, if you’ve got problems with old equipment, consider upgrading. It’s usually worth it. But be sure to select “high-efficiency” appliances and equipment and/or items that are marked with the WaterSense logo. If you’ve just upgraded and your water bills are still high, check that you are using the new equipment in eco mode.

4. Old Plumbing Fittings

Old fittings waste water. That’s a fact. The EPA urges consumers to replace old fittings with Water-Sense labeled versions:

  • Replacing your old showerhead can save 4 gallons of water every time you shower.
  • Replacing faucets and aerators can save 700 gallons of water per year.
  • Installing water-efficient faucets and/or aerators on existing bathroom fittings will improve water efficiency by about 30%.
  • Replacing old irrigation clock controllers with efficient irrigation controllers can save you as much as 15,000 gallons a year.

How to fix it 

Save water and save your hard-earned cash by replacing old, inefficient fittings with efficient WaterSense-labeled fittings.

A before and after image of the kitchen in our first net-zero home renovation. Replacing all the old plumbing was one way to guard against high water bills.
Renovating the kitchen in our first net-zero home included replacing all the plumbing, including the fittings under the sink and the faucet as well.

5. Dripping Faucets

A dripping faucet might seem minor, but you could be wasting more than 1,000 gallons of water every year if three of them were dripping.

How to fix it 

Check that all your faucets are tightly closed. If they continue to drip, there’s a good chance the washer is worn and needs to be replaced. Better still, if they are old, replace your faucets.

6. Running or Leaky Toilets

When you flush your toilet you’ll hear a whooshing sound as the water from the cistern flushes the system. If it takes more than 20 seconds to stop whooshing, chances are you have running toilet water. If you hear a hissing sound close to the toilet, this may also indicate a leak.

How to fix it 

The most common toilet leak is caused by deteriorated flush valves. If the flapper at the bottom of the toilet tank doesn’t seal tightly, water will leak into the toilet bowl. If you’re not sure, try the dye test.

Flush the toilet and wait for the tank to refill. Take the lid off the tank and put a few drops of food coloring into the tank. If any of the dye leaks into the toilet bowl, you’ve got a leak. But it could take 20-30 minutes for it to show. If you’ve got a leak, you’ll need to replace the faulty part or get a professional plumber to do it for you.

You might also consider replacing your old toilet with one that is certified by WaterSense.

7. Faulty HVAC Equipment

Malfunctioning furnace humidifiers, leaking water heaters, and other faulty heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) equipment can add a significant amount to your water bill. There’s a lot that can go wrong, from disconnected ducts to incorrect thermostat connections, and plain old lack of maintenance.

How to fix it 

Get faulty equipment repaired, or replace it. You’ll have to pay out either way, but it’s going to impact your water bill (and the environment) in a good way.

8. Faulty Water Softener Systems

Householders with water softeners sometimes have higher water bills caused by the backwash cycle that is pre-set to regenerate regularly. The system can get stuck and cycle continuously, wasting a lot of water. The tank may even overfill and fail to empty.

How to fix it 

If it’s plugged in and the bypass valve is open, your system should be working. If the tank is overfilling, the float valve may not be working. If water isn’t going into the tank, the float switch may be stuck. Otherwise, the motor may be faulty. Try to identify the problem before you call a pro to help you fix it.

9. Water Line Leaks

Cracked or broken water pipes can result in the most serious, and most expensive, leaks. Even when you are not using water, it’s slipping through the cracks!

The causes of cracks and breaks in water lines range from old age to tree roots and animals that burrow underground.

How to fix it 

This isn’t something you’re going to be able to fix yourself, but you can check to see if it’s the likely problem. Shut off all the water following the process described above (see What to Do if You Think You Have a Leak). If your meter continues to run, chances are you have a water line or irrigation line leak.

10. Irrigation Systems

The EPA estimates that outdoor water use in the U.S. accounts for around 9 billion gallons of water every day. Most of this is used for landscape irrigation and it doesn’t take leaks into account.

If an irrigation line is leaking, you will follow the same procedure described for water line leaks. But irrigation systems sometimes have other problems that waste water. Sprinkler heads can break and sprinkler valves can stick. Maybe your irrigation timer isn’t properly programmed causing the sprinklers to come on too often and/or for too long. 

How to fix it 

Check all the working parts of your irrigation system and replace anything that’s broken. If necessary, reprogram the timer.

11. Water Powered Sump Pumps

Sump pumps with water-powered backup are considered by some to be a must-have if you have a basement and a high water table. It’s what you use to keep the basement free from groundwater. The problem is that they waste a lot of water and are not always strong enough to power the pump.

How to fix it 

Use a battery backup electric pump instead.  

12. Faulty Meters

Water meters can be faulty. In 2017, Florida Today reported that Hollywood was going to have to replace more than $8 million worth of failing water meters less than a decade after they were installed. So, if you’ve checked for leaks and other problems, and don’t think there are any, your next assumption might be that your meter is faulty.

Photo of a residential water meter. Faulty water meters can be a cause of otherwise unexplained high water bills.
A faulty meter could be the culprit if your high water bills are otherwise unexplained. Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

How to fix it 

Your meter is the responsibility of your water company. If you doubt its accuracy, get them to inspect it. Otherwise, consult with a professional technician that can perform a meter test for you.

Our Verdict

High water bills have many causes, some of which we never determine.

Leaks can waste hundreds of gallons of water before they are detected. And water-related equipment, including appliances, fixtures, and various household fittings, gets old and worn out, just like the U.S. water infrastructure. We need to maintain, fix, and replace stuff when it starts to cost us money unnecessarily – in the form of high water bills. 

Even if you don’t have an unusually high water bill, it’s a good idea to do regular checks for leaks. It should be a routine part of your home maintenance program. If and when you find them, it’s a no-brainer to fix them.

If you get an unusually high water bill, question it. Do some digging and use our list of common causes of high water bills to see if you can identify the culprit.

If you can’t find the cause, report the problem to your utility company or apply to your city for a high-water-use credit. If specific conditions are met, most cities will reduce water bills based on past usage.

Also, be aware that utility companies confirm that many consumers pay unusually high water bills and don’t bother to contest them. They don’t want to be cut off and they know that they don’t have a choice in terms of supplier. This approach will make you a victim! You don’t need to be one.

As I said at the beginning, this topic is a tricky one and there’s a lot to absorb. I hope my take on it will help you solve issues that cause your water bill to be so high.

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