You Can’t Manage What You Don’t Measure

By Kathleen Ferris

Some U.S. cities and towns still don’t use water meters. Instead, the overall cost of delivering water and sewer services is tallied every month and divided by the number of customers. A homeowner may be using half the amount of water as his neighbor, but each pays the same flat monthly rate.

Arizona’s desert cities have long understood the need to measure the water used by homeowners and businesses. In the 1930s, the City of Tempe started to install meters to measure how much water its customers used. Tucson began installing meters in 1923.

Murphy with MeterMost recently, many Phoenix Metropolitan Area cities have installed – or are on their way to installing – more sophisticated electronic meter reading systems. These systems allow city meter readers to remain in their cars and read individual water meters as they drive by a house.  The systems reduce costs, improve accuracy, and provide the cities with better data. In the City of Avondale all water meters are read electronically. In the City of Phoenix, 89 percent of meters have been converted to electronic reading and the city expects to reach 100 percent by 2017.

Cities also dedicate time and money to ensure meters are in good working condition. For example, the City of Phoenix examines large commercial water meters annually and, when necessary, replaces or repairs them. Through this careful monitoring, the city’s water managers can anticipate replacing these commercial-sized meters every three to five years.

Water managers estimate that residential meters need to be replaced every 14 years, but estimates are no longer good enough. In January, Phoenix began a program to gather better data by annually checking 1,200 residential meters for accuracy. The city expects to have the data it needs to begin a more precise replacement schedule by this time next year.

There are three main reasons why AMWUA member cities spend time and money to install, regularly maintain, and upgrade their water meters.

Revenue: City water departments are required to pay for themselves. Water managers must charge customers enough to cover their costs. Costs include buying water, treating it to drinking water standards, and delivering it to homes and businesses. Then the cities must collect the wastewater their customers generate and treat it to reuse for irrigation, generating power, or storage underground for the future. These responsibilities take a massive amount of infrastructure. As meters age they can slow down and fail to capture 100 percent of the water used by a customer. That means not everyone is paying their fair share and that could eventually lead to financial losses and higher water rates.

Planning: City water managers don’t like surprises. Arizona cities rely on meters to continually tally water used by every sector of the community – schools and parks, manufacturers and retailers, single family homes and apartment complexes – to help them manage water supplies and plan for the future. Water managers can determine now what new infrastructure projects they may need in the next decade and beyond, such as treatment plants or wells, and what standards are necessary, such as pipe sizes. Managers also can determine how much water supply they will need for growth and to protect against drought and shortages, and what conservation programs may need to expand.

Conservation: When cities know how much water their customers use monthly, they can determine how much water they may be losing between treatment plants and delivery and, then, make repairs. Cities can lose water through leaking pipes, a main water line break, fire hydrants that aren’t tightly closed after use, or theft.  Cities also can help their residential, commercial and business customers save water.  Here are a few examples of conservation efforts that are possible when cities carefully measure customer water use.

  • Tiered rate structure: A tiered rate structure means the less water a customer uses, the lower the price per gallon. This billing structure creates an incentive to save.
  • Stop leaks: Many cities review water meter data to find month-to-month discrepancies in customers’ bills. That way they can alert customers to possible leaks or repair a broken meter before big losses add up.
  • Target conservation programs: When cities know where the water goes they can create water conservation programs designed specifically for the needs of their community.  For example, a city may focus on helping older HOAs with large turf areas to reduce water use. With meter data, cities can determine the highest water users and work with them to develop strategies and track progress.
  • Measure conservation impact: Cities track and review water use data to evaluate and improve their conservation programs and to measure progress over time. Customers also can track their personal water use and watch their monthly bills decrease after replacing turf with desert plants or upgrading fixtures.

In 2014, the Associated Press reported that California communities without water meters used more water per person each day than the state average. The authors of a 1923 Tucson water management report knew this nearly 100 years ago. They encouraged the city to quickly finish the job of installing water meters because,  “A metered customer pays for exactly what he uses and he will take particular pains to avoid wasting water and will give immediate attention to leaks.” Exactly, how do you manage what you don’t measure? 

For 46 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.

Water Bill Too High? Cities Offer Free Water Audits

By Kathleen Ferris

Homeowners are quick to blame water meters when their water bills escalate.

Water meters can malfunction, but an overcharge is rare. Water meters usually slow down with age. That means a faulty meter is more likely to undercharge, not overcharge, homeowners for the water they’ve used. That’s why cities keep water meters working and replace them as quickly as possible when they malfunction. So, maybe your water bill is higher because your city upgraded your water meter and it is more accurate.

Then, again, you may have graduated to a new water rate. Many cities in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area use a tiered rate structure. This means the more water you use, the more you pay per gallon. If you’ve hosted guests, added to your family, or are watering new landscaping, you may move into a tier that kicks up your costs.

Nothing unusual? Then you may want to check with your city. Sometimes the mystery can be solved with a phone call. If you need more help, many of the AMWUA member cities offer homeowners free water audits. For example, the Town of Gilbert’s water conservation professionals conduct an average of 250 residential audits a year. These experts come prepared with knowledge, experience and your water-use history.

A water auditor is most likely to start by examining your water meter to make sure it is working properly. If the water-using fixtures are off in your home and the meter is not turning, the issue is likely in the irrigation system. In Gilbert, 95 percent of problems are found in irrigation systems. Here are a few common ones:

  • Irrigation controller: A water auditor will help you understand your controller and examine its programs to make sure it is watering when, where and for how long you think it is. Sometimes a homeowner or landscaper can accidentally restart a June watering program in the middle of November. Auditors also come prepared with guides that help you determine when and how long to water your particular plants and trees.
  • Irrigation lines: A leak in a buried pipe can be hidden under a block fence, thick gravel or a hedge. An auditor knows what to look for and where to look.
  • Drip emitters: Expect an auditor to examine your drip emitters. Some are labeled as one-gallon-per hour emitters. If they are dripping at a consistent rate, they probably are using about a gallon or two each hour. If they are streaming, that same emitter is using 8 to 9 gallons per hour. Some emitters can quietly malfunction and go from dripping to streaming without you noticing, particularly if you water when you are not home or during the night.

If the water-using fixtures are off in your home, but the meter continues to run, the problem is likely inside your home or with a pool or spa. Here are some common interior problems.

  • Toilet: When it comes to interior leaks, your toilet is the most likely suspect. The auditor will drop a dye tablet in a toilet’s tank and turn the water blue. If the blue water then appears in the bowl, your toilet is leaking. The main culprits: flappers and fill valves. The flapper valve is a rubber piece that seals the tank shut and opens when you pull the handle to flush. If it gets warped or isn’t sealing properly, the tank leaks. Then there is the fill valve in your tank that keeps the water level constant. If the fill valve malfunctions, the water level increases and extra water goes down an overflow tube and into the toilet bowl instead of onto your bathroom floor. While you are avoiding a flood, you are paying for water that does nothing but flow into the toilet and out your sewer line.
  • Water softener: The auditor will check for signs that the recharge valve on your water softener has malfunctioned and the system is recharging far too often or continually. Once again, that means you are paying for water flowing in and out of your home without serving any purpose. Your recharge system uses about one gallon per minute. If it runs non-stop for thirty days that can raise your water use by 43,200 gallons.
  • Reverse Osmosis: A failed RO valve also continually dumps unused potable water directly into your sewer connection. A malfunction in these under-the-sink systems can waste up to 4,000 gallons per month.

For some homeowners, it may be difficult to find the time to schedule a visit. AMWUA has another option: The Smart Home Water Guide.

This mobile online site, hosted by AMWUA’s #SmartPig, is a step-by-step guide that allows you to conduct your own water audit. The guide is easy to use on your phone or tablet and you can check out one system at a time when it’s convenient for you. A 24-page Smart Home Water Guide booklet also is available – in English or Spanish – from your city’s water conservation office.

So is a free water audit by your city worth the time? The Town of Gilbert measures the amount of water used at a home the year before an audit and then compares it to the amount of water used at the same home a year after the audit. The average savings per home is 40,000 gallons. You tell me if it’s worth it.

For 46 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.

Watering: Every Desert Landscape’s Beauty Secrets Revealed

By Kathleen Ferris

So you’ve selected desert-adapted plants and trees and installed a beautiful water-saving landscape.

The key to maintaining your landscape’s health, beauty, and longevity is watering correctly. Getting the watering wrong is the most common cause of plant failure in the desert. Not surprising, really. Watering desert landscaping is a bit of a mystery.

We have the solution.

image.cidLandscape Watering by the Numbers is an interactive website that completes the trio of gardening guides that include Landscape Plants for the Arizona Desert and Landscaping with Style created for Valley homeowners, nurseries, and landscapers. (Find all three guides along with additional resources, demonstration gardens, free classes, professional assistance, and rebate information available at amwua.org/landscape.)

Here are some of the questions the watering site can answer:

  • How many gallons of water does a tree, shrub, ground cover or cactus need and how often does it need it? (Hint: There’s a simple chart.)
  • How do I know if I’ve watered a plant deeply enough? (Hint: A piece of rebar or a long screwdriver grasscan tell you.)
  • Where do I place the drip emitter? (Hint: Don’t water at a tree’s trunk, the roots stretch as far as the canopy and beyond.)
  • How long should I water to make sure a plant or tree is not over or under watered? (Hint: There’s an online calculator that will do the math for you.)

Want more details? Check the upper right corner of the pages of Landscape Watering by the Numbers. There is a long and helpful menu of frequently asked questions that gives you more tips. Here are a few examples:

  • Water outdoor potted plants more frequently because they have less soil and a restricted root system.
  • Leach salt from your soil to avoid leaf burn by watering twice as long as needed two times each summer.
  • If water is running away from your plant, water only half the calculated time. Then wait an hour before finishing the cycle.

In the mid 1990s, AMWUA developed a postcard-size plastic chart to place inside an irrigation control box. It was a rough outline for setting watering times.

Water conservation experts from the cities of Mesa and Scottsdale led a team that created the 18-page book. More than 900,000 copies have been printed since it was published in 2002. Two years later, Landscape Watering by the Numbers became an interactive online site on Water—Use It Wisely. Water—Use It Wisely is a water awareness campaign initiated by the City of Mesa and supported by AMWUA and other partners across the state. You’ll also find a guide to wisely watering your lawn. You can get a free copy of the watering guide from your city’s water conservation office or at many local nurseries.

Now, here’s the last key thing to remember about desert landscaping and why the information offered by Landscape Watering by the Numbers is so important: It’s not the desert garden that saves water, it’s the desert gardener.

For 46 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.

Design: Here’s Your Guide To A Car-Stopping Landscape

By Kathleen Ferris

We’ve all seen desert yards where three or four cactus plants are scattered across a sea of gravel. (We may see one when we look out our windows.) Then we’ve seen those dramatic desert yards with the height, depth, color and texture of a painting.

Photo: Linda Enger, Linda Enger Photography for Landscaping with Style

Photo: Linda Enger, Linda Enger Photography for Landscaping with Style

Many car-stopping yards are by professional landscape designers that a lot of us can’t afford. AMWUA has a design tool that gives you the secrets to creating a yard that gets closer to that professional wow.

Landscaping with Style is an online site that translates landscape professional know-how into a useable, step-by-step guide for the rest of us. It was first published in 2000 as a 72-page book developed by a team of local experts, including botanists, landscape architects, and water conservation experts.

It is a site rich in visuals that goes deep into usable details to help design, install and maintain an attractive, functional landscape that will thrive in the desert. (Note that the site is not yet designed for easy use on smart phones.) Print

The site is one of a trio of go-to gardening guides that include Landscape Plants for the Arizona Desert and Landscape Watering by the Numbers. You can find all three guides along with additional resources, demonstration gardens, free classes, professional assistance, and rebate information at amwua.org/landscape. Print

Landscaping with Style starts with a plan. Before turning over a shovel of dirt, completing a plan will help you stay focused and avoid frustrating, costly mistakes.

Design the landscape that fits both your budget and your wishes, and think long term. To get the yard you want you may need to put elements together over time, such as adding a tree or a grouping of plants, laying down a sidewalk, or putting in a drip system. Ask yourself what functions you want your yard to serve, and create a wish list. For example:

  • Do you need a small turf play area?
  • Do you want to attract wildlife?
  • Do you want color and shade?
  • What do you want to see from your windows?

Here are other examples of what you’ll learn on the Landscaping With Style site:

  • How to draw a diagram of the yard and the elements you plan to include to help guide you to a finished product.
  • How to select and place plants for the best effect and to avoid common mistakes.
  • How to group plants and design your irrigation system so that plants with similar water needs are on the same valve.
  • When and how to prune plants so they stay healthy.
  • How to maintain your irrigation system.
  • How to hire the right professional for the tasks you don’t want to tackle.

This is a useful guide to review even if you are using a professional to help you design your yard. Knowing how it is done and what to expect makes you a wiser consumer.

However you create a new yard, don’t forget to take photos. Photos help you to appreciate the time, energy and money you’ve invested in a garden’s creation. And they could inspire others. Share your photos on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #LandscapeWithStyle and your landscape could be included in our online gallery.

For 46 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.

New Plant Site: Colorful, Mobile, Useful and Inspiring

By Kathleen Ferris

AMWUA has been the go-to source for desert landscaping guides since desert landscaping was a novelty. Plant selection information remains the runaway favorite destination on our website.

Photo: Greg Corman

Photo: Greg Corman

This month AMWUA introduces its new and much improved searchable site to help you take the guesswork out of finding the right plants and trees for your yard. Here is what to expect from the latest improvements to Landscape Plants for the Arizona Desert Online:

  • The site is as easy to use on a tablet or phone as it is on a desktop computer.
  • There is more – and more easily accessible –  information in one place. The detail page for each plant gives you the practical information you need at a glance, such as if the plant stays green all year, attracts wildlife, or creates litter. If it tolerates full sun or prefers shade and when it flowers and the color of its blooms. You will know how fast or slow a plant grows and if it grows tall and thin to six feet or remains short and spreads to three-feet wide.
  • Dig a little deeper, and the site will help you understand botanical names, the meaning of growth form, size, color, texture, and offer pruning guidance. It will list all plants that attract wildlife or are pool friendly.
  • The “plant combinations” link offers inspirational photos designed to help a gardener put plants together that will complement each other in size, shape, color and texture.
  • A “wish list” feature allows you to choose and save the trees and plants you are considering. Finding plants you’re interested in at a nursery or demonstration garden is as easy as tapping your phone to see the wish list you’ve created.
  • In a hurry? The “advanced search” allows you to filter through the site quickly, pulling up just the information you need and want to see.
  • At the bottom of each page there are links to AMWUA’s other landscape guides, conservation pros, and information on rebates and classes.

This site is the latest generation in a long line of AMWUA plant guides. The Arizona Groundwater Management Act of 1980 established conservation requirements for municipal water providers in the most populous areas of the state. Conservation staff from AMWUA member cities pooled their expertise and resources to launch a coordinated regional effort to save water. A Phoenix-area household may use as much as 70 percent of its water outside. So, it made sense to start looking for ways to help people save water in their yards.

Photo: Charles Mann, Charles Mann Photography,  Landscaping with Style

Photo: Charles Mann, Charles Mann Photography, Landscaping with Style

This was the early 1980s, an era when homeowners assumed a desert yard consisted of gravel with a couple of cactus. Naturally, many preferred more familiar lawns, citrus trees and colorful annuals. AMWUA conservation experts decided their priority was to demonstrate that desert landscapes could be attractive, shady, flowering—even lush—and use far less water.

AMWUA’s first pamphlet was called More Green for the Gallon and had a few photos of landscapes and a list of desert-adapted, low-water-use plants. It was something so new that it garnered press coverage.

In 1991, working with landscape and nursery professionals, AMWUA recreated that simple pamphlet as a 30-page booklet, filled with photos and useful details. Plants for the Desert Southwest soon became known as Arizona’s “bible” of desert adapted plants. It was redesigned and expanded again in 2003 to include more than 200 plants and was renamed Landscape Plants for the Arizona Desert. To date, more than 1.5 million copies of these plant guides have been published and handed out at nurseries, mailed from city conservation offices and picked up at landscape fairs and conferences.

In 2007, the book was developed into the familiar and popular searchable database on the AMWUA website. The improvements introduced this month will give homeowners even more help and information.

Landscape Plants for the Arizona Desert is the first of a trio of guides that include Landscaping with Style and Landscape Watering by the Numbers

For more than thirty years, the AMWUA member cities have championed the beauty and utility of desert-adapted trees and plants. Look around. The payoff is impressive.

For 46 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.