Drip, drip, drip…the steady beat of the water leak

I was almost asleep when I heard it. Or did I hear it? I wasn’t sure, but suddenly I became more awake. A few minutes later, my heightened awareness was rewarded. Yes, I HAD heard the toilet kick on in the bathroom beside our bedroom – just for a quick couple seconds – but it kicked on. Water was running when it should NOT be running.

I got myself out of bed, hoping a quick toilet handle jiggle would be all that was needed to reset the flapper seal in the tank. Yet, when I looked in the bowl, I couldn’t make out any discernable water movement – if there was a leak, I couldn’t see it. Suddenly annoyed and not wanting to sit in my bathroom while a warm bed waited, I reached behind the toilet and pulled the tab that shut off water flow to the toilet. No leak can happen if no water is running!

Water leaks are not a particularly exciting topic to talk about, but in the world of water conservation, detecting and fixing water leaks in one’s residence is one of the easiest things an individual can do to save both water and money. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average household leaks upwards of 10,000 gallons a year from leaky faucets, toilets, irrigation systems, and other plumbing. That is no insignificant amount, and while it is a boring adult thing to track, doing a quick water audit of your residence every once in a while is never a bad idea. Given that this week is actually “National Fix A Leak Week” as well, take it as a sign that if you have noticed a running toilet or drippy faucet – it’s time to take care of it and save yourself some money that is literally going down the drain.

How do I do a quick water audit?

Your residence has a water meter. The water meter tracks the number of gallons (in real-time!) that has moved through your water pipes since the meter was installed. If you live in a single residence house in a cold climate like Minnesota, your water meter is likely installed in your basement, probably a few feet off the floor. If you live in an apartment, you’ll likely need to contact your building manager to locate your specific water meter.

Our water meter. My daughter was excited to locate it with me (or maybe she was just stoked to use a flashlight).

To conduct a quick water audit, turn off everything in your residence that uses water. All faucets should be off, dishwasher or washing machine shouldn’t be running, no irrigation or water softener recharge event – everything should be OFF. Then, simply write down the number currently displayed on your water meter and then wait two hours. Go for a walk, run errands, or even just sit and read a book, but DO NOT turn on any water during that 2 hour period.

If you come back and the number is still the same on the water meter, hooray! You don’t have any water leaks. If the number is different, then you likely DO have a water leak and need to put on your detective cap to figure out where the leak is.

Playing water leak detective

Thankfully, my midnight toilet leak didn’t end up needing anything more the next morning than wiping down the underside of the flapper to remove buildup. BOOM. No more leaking. But the only reason I even knew it was an issue was because I HEARD the toilet run intermittently – essentially topping itself off every few minutes. Seeing and hearing water dripping and running are the two easiest ways to discern where leaks are happening.

Check all your faucets and sinks – are they all tightly off and without drip evidence in the sink? Do you see any water running in your toilet bowl(s)? Showerheads? Bath tub faucets? Any evidence of leaky or damaged valves in your dishwasher or washing machine? Take some time to truly look and listen to see if you’ve got a problem.

Handy tip: If you suspect your toilet is leaking, drop some food coloring in the toilet tank. Wait a few minutes, and if you see the color starting to appear in your toilet bowl, you have a leak!

Checking irrigation systems can be more problematic, but look for dribbling sprinkler heads, ponding, or even more lush, taller green grass around one particular sprinkler head versus another. Installing a smart controller for your irrigation system is a great way to prevent leaks – the system will alert you if it notices unexpected or unusually high water use.

Fixing water leaks

Many residential water leaks can be cheaply and easily fixed with a trip to your local hardware store and a quick YouTube tutorial search for your specific type of plumbing. Toilet leaks are generally due to a worn out flapper, and faucet leaks generally are a worn out washer or O-ring. Fixing appliances like your dishwasher and washing machine can get more involved and require more expertise but need to happen to prevent further water damage to your house.

Checking for water leaks definitely is not going to be on your top 10 list of things to do, but being aware of the signs and sounds of water leaks and knowing how to check your water meter will not only save you money, but help us conserve our water resources!