The chart below recently caught my attention (1). It shows the changes in prices over time of residential “utilities,” that is, electricity, natural gas, water and sewage, and telephones. My attention normally goes directly to the familiar energy utilities, electricity and natural gas. But wait! Water and sewage prices—they are typically billed together—have outstripped all others. The prices for water and sewage have been climbing so rapidly that water-related expenditures now exceed those for natural gas and are about one third as large as the electricity bill. We can expect water costs to grow faster than energy because natural gas prices are declining while our decrepit water infrastructure is demanding huge new investments to chase smaller amounts of water (thanks to droughts and climate change).
So perhaps it’s time to redefine “weatherization” to include conserving water in homes. Most measures to save water heating energy already reduce water consumption, yet this is mostly a side benefit and not taken seriously. But saving water is a very different beast. Here are some reasons.
The institutions are different. There are about 50,000 water utilities in the USA—that’s fifteen times more than electric utilities—and most are operated by municipal authorities, each with its own peculiar regulations, tariffs, and water situations. And 15% of all homes are “off the grid,” that is, they rely on private wells and septic tanks. One example of the difference between energy and water: an individual customer’s water consumption is often public information. That’s why the City of Austin was able to publish a list of its top ten residential water consumers. This name-and-shame policy identified Lance Armstrong as the largest user. Many apartments and rental units include water and sewage in the rent, so there’s less incentive for the occupants to conserve water than for energy. Avoiding this landlord-tenant problem is why New York City replaced millions of high-flush toilets with low-flow models.
Water and energy consumption are different. First, residential water use is less than 10% of national water consumption. Farmers, power plants, and factories are the big players. Most energy use takes place inside the home but in many regions and neighborhoods, exterior water use is larger than interior use. Unfamiliar factors such as yard area, climate, presence of grass, and swimming pools determine water use. Consumers still pay sewage bills for that outside water use. Some clever Florida homeowners install a separate well for exterior irrigation; that way they avoid paying sewage charges on the outside water use. Is that a sensible water conservation strategy? This confusing situation means that it’s much more difficult to create consistent national strategies to save water.
An important step is to create a collection of documented studies of residential water conservation. Can inefficient water use be attacked in the same way that weatherization did with natural gas? Does it make sense to create a water-conservation retrofit package? How much can be saved and what are the payback times? How often do homes with high energy bills also have high water bills?
Water bills are not the only utility cost far outpacing energy. The price increases for garbage collection and – you guessed it – cable/satellite TV access are almost the same. When I figure out a way to conserve on my cable bill, I’ll write about it.
1. See: Beecher J., Trends in Consumer Prices (CPI) for Utilities Through 2011 and Consumer Expenditures on Utilities in 2010, Institute of Public Utilities, Michigan State University. March 2012. Available at ipu.msu.edu.