When it comes to homeownership, we hate surprises, and we recently got a series of unpleasant surprises in our water bill as it spiked and kept going up! So in this write-up, I wanted to go through our particular homeowner headache concerning our recent water usage anomaly and share what we could have done to avoid getting dinged about $600 more than what we were used to paying (and then some)!
Finding Out About Our Water Usage Anomaly… The Hard Way
Upon first seeing the spike in our water bill (which was double our normal rate), we presumed that maybe we took too many epsom salt baths.
After all, at the time, we were fighting various colds and infections (none of which were COVID-19, by the way), and perhaps the spike in our water usage had something to do with this change of behavior.
We also blamed our daughter, who seemed to always run the water in the bathtub even when it was full (so a lot of the water went right into the overflow drain)!
Or perhaps, the utility rates for water had increased alongside all of that?
After all, we had been paying around $80 per bill at the time (give or take), but the spike brought our bill up to about $190!
When we saw a second bill spike (which had tripled by this point to about $250), we thought maybe we should turn off our sprinklers and drip irrigation system thinking that maybe there was a leak in the garden plumbing somewhere.
Besides, we were getting some atmospheric river rains so the yard and garden didn’t need the assistance from our garden plumbing.
But when we got the third spiked bill (which had more than quadrupled by this point to over $340), we knew that something was really wrong.
Was there a mistake in the bill? Is someone tapping into our water? What on earth was going on?
It was at that point that we had to act on the hypothesis that something was leaking or running water profusely, and we had to intervene quickly to stop the bleeding, so to speak.
After all, if something’s running crazy like that, could there also be unseen damage going on that’s going to really blow up our cost?
Identifying The Root Cause Of The Issue
At this point, I started Googling what you should do in a situation like this, and the first thing that came up was to examine the water meter.
Remembering that this meter tends to be somewhere in the front yard with a small concrete cover over it, I went out there to see what was going on.
Trying not to mind the spider webs (not sure if a black widow was hiding in there) as well as cockroaches that also like the cool and dark space, I examined the meter and saw that it was definitely spinning.
This was despite the fact that we weren’t running any water (at least not knowingly) as we didn’t run the sinks, we didn’t flush the toilet, we didn’t run the dishwasher, and we didn’t run the shower.
Then, I turned off the water main, which was a lever that sat near one of our garden hoses that we could pull on to prevent water from running through the pipes in the house.
When I did that, the water meter stopped turning, and that at least told us that the leak was definitely happening in the house (and not the municipal water supply or the piping between the meter and the shut-off lever).
So then I looked around the house for any signs of leakage (e.g. water stains in the drywall or ceiling, puddles where the copper piping was, dark and damp spots in the garden and lawn, and wetness around toilets, sinks, and showers.
None of those things came up, and they had better not because it wasn’t that long ago (a little over 8 years) that we had re-piped the house before moving in.
When I turned the water back on (leaving one faucet on so there wouldn’t be so much surge pressure to burst a pipe), we quickly turned that off, and then I started noticing the sounds of the water softener running.
Using process of elimination, I suspected that it was the water softener running up our water bill (it had been running non-stop all these months?!?), and Google searching again seemed to confirm my suspicions.
As a matter of fact, I examined the water softener more and it had said that there wasn’t any flow, but yet our usage for the day kept going up!
I thought to myself, how is it that the water softener is still going when we’re not running water? And where does all that excess water go?
Does it have an overflow drain for the treated water to go if it kept pumping? And where is this unseen overflow drain anyways (assuming that it wasn’t going to the rest of the house due to lack of demand)?
We started looking at the owner’s manual, and it seemed to be a complicated set of pictures and text about how to set the device in service mode (primarily for repair technicians).
We did see one big push lever for “bypass”, but I couldn’t push it, and I was afraid that if I screwed up, we might have an even bigger problem on our hands.
Doing Something About The Issue
So the water softener kept running for a few more days non-stop, and by now, we definitely knew our water bill spiking had something to do with this unit behaving this way!
However, we weren’t totally sure what would cause the water softener to act in this manner or if there was an unseen leak.
Thus, we contacted our plumber while at the same time we also tried to call the water softening company (Ecowater) for our next steps.
Before we had scheduled for a plumber scheduled to come out, Julie finally spoke to someone from Ecowater who had her go through various steps.
First, she was told to check the settings which didn’t turn up anything out of the ordinary (in fact, it didn’t seem to respond to us trying to manually schedule the salt recharging).
Then, she was told to unplug the unit from the electrical socket, but that didn’t do anything to stop the water softener running.
Finally, the lady told her to set the water softener in bypass mode (something I personally tried earlier), but Julie had just as much trouble as I did trying to do that as the lever was stuck.
Ultimately, Julie figured out to use a mallet to give a little more force to the bypass valve (while trying not to break it), and she eventually succeeded.
Only once that was done, the water softener finally stopped running, and we could finally see that the water meter also stopped moving.
As a result, we finally stopped the bleeding of money through our water bill and we called off our plumber coming out.
Of course, we now have to deal with hard water until Ecowater could send out a technician to service the unit and apparently replace a worn out O-ring (assuming that was the issue), and that happened to be 2.5 weeks away.
In any case, we could already feel the effects of not having softened water as the hard water was already leaving deposits on wet surfaces (e.g. shower door, faucets, sink basins, tiles, and shower stalls).
Meanwhile, we could feel that the water was more “filmy” as well as having a stronger chlorinated smell.
So that reminded us of what living with hard water was like again, but at least we momentarily stopped our water bill from spiking as a result of the Ecowater unit running nonstop.
Eventually, the technician from Ecowater came out, serviced the unit, and then gave us a couple of options to move forward, which were the following:
- Replace the faulty part (some chipped plastic “disk”) that was apparently causing the leak
- Take the unit in for servicing for not just parts replacement but also maintenance (i.e. “re-bedding” and cleaning)
Having gone through enough homeowner headaches over the years, we knew that if we were going to get something done, we have to get it done right the first time (even though it meant paying more in the short term).
Besides, we didn’t want to replace the faulty part only to have to call out the Ecowater technician again (each callout costed $150) to replace the same part when other aspects of the unit needed maintenance.
Thus, we opted for option 2, and we had to be without our unit for another 2 more weeks so it would be yet an extension of the period of time to deal with the deposits left behind by the hard water..
Moreover, we were going to lose a lot of the salt that was already in the unit as well as a $900 repair bill.
And this was on top of the $150 call-out bill just for a technician to come out and investigate the issue as well as the $600 water bill spike that made this a homeowner headache issue in the first place!
So you can see the unexpected costs were mounting quickly!
Of course, we knew the repair costs were needed to keep using soft water without running up the water bill!
Hopefully after this intervention by the company that makes (or maintains) these soft water units, we’ll finally be back to enjoying soft water as well as having a stabilized water bill again.
That said, we did wonder what could we have done to prevent this from happening again.
After all, we care about long term fixes and behaviors as opposed to short-term temporary fixes that don’t address the root cause of the problems!
What We Should Have Done Differently
Taking stock of how much money we have bled out so far, we knew that we had lost at least $600 in our spiked water bill over a span of about 4 months along with $150 for the service technician call-out and another $900 to fix the unit.
Thus, we naturally asked ourselves what should we have done differently so we don’t lose that kind of money again?
And which of these unexpected costs were preventable as opposed to inevitable?
I guess to make a long story short, we didn’t suspect the water softener soon enough, and we were too hesitant to push the bypass valve to stop water from going through that unit (even when it felt stuck).
Indeed, this was a classic case of what you don’t know DOES HURT YOU!
However, the moment we saw the first water bill jumping the way it did, we could have reasoned that there was no way we had tripled our water usage in such a short amount of time.
In hindsight, we should have done the troubleshooting back then, and “turned off” (i.e. bypassed) the water softener at that time!
That would have at least saved us over $500 over the course of the next two billing cycles.
But what about preventing the unit from breaking in the first place?
Well, we learned from this experience that our water softener unit is just like any other home appliance that requires a deal of care and maintenance.
The technician taught us that we could put 1 cup of a specific cleaner called ResCare into the “brine wall” (i.e. the cylindrical drum of our Ecowater unit) every 3-4 months, which is a sustainable routine since we have to add salt periodically anyway.
Nevertheless, it was not at all obvious that we had to do this in the first place since no one said anything about it until now!
So this was yet another instance of how ignorance is not bliss when it comes to homeownership.
As we learned the hard way, failure to do preventative maintenance on our water softener meant that calcified gunk was building up in the pipes in and around that O-ring, and it eventually cracked.
By the way, if we didn’t have soft water, then this calcification would be happening throughout the rest of the plumbing inside the house, and the resulting plumbing issues would become more widespread.
Indeed, while the maintenance of the unit was inevitable, the preventative care might have reduced the frequency of servicing it.
Therefore, we wouldn’t have to be paying over $1000 in troubleshooting and repair after not even 9 years of use!
So our water bill anomaly was a painful lesson learned where we paid dearly for procrastinating or not going hard at troubleshooting with urgency!
We also learned that the water softener needed preventative care and maintenance to further reduce the cost of repair in the long term.
It costed us $600 over our normal water bill payments for not acting soon enough, and our call-out and repair costed us over $1000 so we’d definitely want to do what we can to reduce the frequency of the unit failing on us.
It goes to show you that kicking the can down the road always forces you to pay the price (and then some)!
I guess we didn’t take our own advice (which we have shared throughout this website), and we had ourselves a homeowner headache.
And we also owe our daughter an apology for blaming her about the jump in water use (though that still doesn’t excuse her for running the bathwater into the overflow drain while she’s bathing)!
I hope you found this anecdote helpful if you run into a homeowner headache that suddenly surprises you like this.
Have any stories of your own? Or have comments or questions about this write-up?
Please leave them in the comment box below.