The Case of the Missing Water
10,000 gallons of water gone missing. Detective Jim Hodgson, Comedy Writer, reporting for duty.
If water is so great, how come there is so much of it hiding in urine? You’ve wondered that many times. I have too. Rather than Google for medical advice, though, I asked my actual doctor, who said, and I quote, “Get out of my office.”
Those important thoughts aside, it is tough to run a household of 4 relatively large human beings without water, though I have both seen it done and lived that way myself. And even though there is a river made mostly of water not a mile from our house, it costs a little money to clean the water up, scrape the fish and snakes out, and pump it over here.
Our country, the United States, is, according to these numbers anyway, third overall in yearly global water usage, and 7th in per capita water usage. Our house uses about 4000 gallons of water per year. Yet the US per capita daily figure is 3794 liters/day or around 1000 gallons per person per day. Where does all that water go? The same place all American resources go, of course: businesses none of us have heard of.
By the figures above our house is barely even sipping at the water supply. We’ve got to get our numbers up. These are rookie numbers.
The Bill Comes Due
My embarrassment at our rookie numbers is why I reacted with some satisfaction when my queen, whom I live to serve, showed me our water bill from November, when our house managed to use 13,600 gallons of water. It’s a significant improvement. Granted, we are still nowhere close to our yearly per capita allotment in the neighborhood of 365,000gal/year, but progress is progress.
Just as I was reveling in this much-needed feeling of achievement, though, I cast my eye across the part of the water bill which lists the amount due: $72.23. My queen and I then took turns screeching, birdlike, in surprise.
We are a comedy writer and a nurse. The nurse is in school for an advanced degree. There are no unclaimed bundles of $70 flopping around the house waiting for an application. Nor, for that matter, bundles of $2 or even $0.23.
You’re probably wondering whether the fee schedule for our water is multi-tiered for maximum what-the-hellification. You bet your sweet ass it is. But let’s stick to the water usage.
As you can see, the month of November is… Well, I’ll call it what my middle school guidance counselor used to call me: a statistical anomaly.
Because most modern water meters are, as far as I know, read wirelessly, there probably wasn’t a mistake on the county’s end. So, our house must have used the water in one of three ways:
Theory 1: Water Thieves
Someone could have backed a truck up to our house while we were traveling for Thanksgiving, filled it up with water, and then absconded with it. Since our house wasn’t broken into, they’d have to have used the outside spigot, which has a flow rate of about 1.5 gallons per minute, which means the caper would have taken around 4.6 days with water going nonstop.
Sure, it seems complicated, but water thieves will stop at nothing.
But the possibility of someone parking a big truck in our driveway for days on end without one of our neighbors getting unreasonably upset about it? No chance.
Theory 2: Someone Left the Kitchen Sink On
Since our kitchen sink can put out more like 2 gallons per minute, it would only have taken around 3.4 days for 10,000gal to go down our sink. We were away for a couple of days over Thanksgiving. But the sink wasn’t running when we got home. We are a forgetful bunch, but not that forgetful.
The clear suspect in this case is our cat, Minerva, probably working on contract for the water thieves.
Theory 3: Water is Leaking Underground, Creating a Massive Subterranean Doom Cave Into Which Our House, and Thus Our Entire Financial Future, Will Soon Tumble
My pal Bob — who does pipeline engineering for a living — considered this possibility unlikely. He said that if there is a leak somewhere out in the yard we’d have noticed 10,000 gallons bubbling up out of the ground. He seemed dubious about the possibility of a house-swallowing doom cave. But I don’t let a little thing like fact-based expertise dissuade me from my feelings. This is America.
I set out to discover the missing water, positive that whatever the problem might be the solution would cost us a devastating amount of money. This is America.
I decided to start by locating our water meter. I had no idea where it might be or what it might look like, but after some night time hunting around I decided to start with a metal cover in our front yard that says, “WATER.”
Underneath this cover was a hole in the ground full of wet earth. I dug some of the dirt out but found nothing underneath except more wet dirt.
I proudly gave up, and came back the next day with some digging implements. With these I had more success. The hole was so deep I had to lie flat on my belly in our front yard to reach the bottom.
At great length I uncovered what seemed to be some sort of valve. It had no readable face on it, just what appeared to be maybe a 1” nut surrounded by what felt like a plastic box. I expected to find a shutoff valve of some kind, but also a gauge.
I figured, though, if water meters are read wirelessly there might not be a gauge face. Faceless bastards!
I reported my findings to some friends. Their opinion was this buried doodad might not be my water meter. Clearly, this cover and hole was put there by the county as a red herring to not only throw me off the trail of the real water cave but also to embarrass me by tricking me into lying down in our front yard arranged as if inviting everyone in the street to drive their car right up my clacker.
The Plot Thicc-ens
I had already walked around the house looking for something that might be another water meter and found diddley squirts. Of course, I’ve walked around the yard a thousand times when mowing it in the summertime, an operation which must be performed between three and four times a day in the peak season. I had seen nothing.
Luckily, our street is a modern-art canvas for people with engineering jobs and spray paint cans on sticks. I can’t read any of the arcane markings they leave behind, but there did seem to be a cluster of them near a few ominous depressions in the ground. It was a clue!
I was about to unearth either our real water meter or the remains of someone’s yapyap dog.
After quite a lot of digging I unearthed what looked to me like a water meter with a gauge. And the best part was, the gauge was not moving.
Say what you will about massive growing underground water caves, they don’t create themselves without the meter knowing about it. So, a stationary needle was great news. It meant no leaks.
Out of an abundance of caution, I walked back up to the house and turned the outside spigot on, then plodded back over to the meter. Of course the needle would be moving when I got there, because the water was on.
It was dead still. I compared the reading on this gauge with the one on our bill and they were very different. Son of a monkey. Those devious people down at the county water office planted yet another red herring! The very nerve.
I threw my digging trowel down in disgust, where it made a peculiarly un-ground-like clunking noise. Yes. There was yet another, even more obscure, water meter crypt and this one was by far — and of course — the most buried of all.
It took me quite a while to unearth it. I didn’t even bother digging it out completely, just enough to get a look at the face. Once I could read it, though, I verified that the gauge reading was in the ballpark of the water bill reading. It was. I then tried the outside spigot trick again. The needle moved. I turned off the spigot. The needle stopped.
I had found our water meter at last and it was not moving when everything in the house was off which meant no leaks and no water cave.
So where the hell did that 10,000 gallons go?
As you can see, the gauge is scratched to hell right over the important part: the numbers. My guess is this is because nobody ever digs the thing out fully, they just uncover the gauge face and then scratch at it with a grubby finger until they can read the numbers. That’s my guess because that’s precisely what I did.
Over the years of this scratching, the face gets scarred all to hell, and it becomes hard to read. I compared the numbers on the gauge and, sure enough, someone had accidentally read 233,000 gallons since the gauge was installed rather than 232,000, which is what it actually says.
I called the water people, explained the situation, and they were not only understanding but helpful. “Oh no,” the lady told me, “Our water meters aren’t wireless in your area.”
I rejoiced. I had solved the case. But my rejoicing was interrupted when I heard a voice ask, “Are you okay?”
It was my neighbor. She’d stepped out for a walk and probably wasn’t familiar with water detectives. She probably just saw a filthy middle aged man digging holes in his wife’s property like a determined but insane retriever. “Yes,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“Oh, good.” She said. “Because I saw you face down in the yard before and I thought you’d had a heart attack or something.”
Not this time. Just a water detective closing another case.