March 17, 2010

Down the drain


— By

Staff Writer

Portland's $61 million plan to keep sewage from spilling into Casco Bay during rainstorms is expected to increase sewer bills 21 percent over the next five years.

That's $104 more each year for the average Portland household.

Or not. There is a simple way to escape the extra cost, and maybe even lower your bill instead: Use less water.

Both sewer bills and water bills are based on water consumption, and cutting charges 21 percent or more may be as painless as fixing leaks, changing a few habits and installing water-saving devices such as faucet aerators and low-flow shower heads.

''It's definitely doable for the average home-owner,'' said Michelle Clements, spokeswoman for the Portland Water District.

Conserving can save money for anyone who pays water and sewer bills, whether in Portland or not. A typical family can save $170 a year by making a few simple changes, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

As a bonus, you'll also reduce your carbon footprint. Letting a faucet run for five minutes uses about as much energy as leaving a 60-watt lightbulb on for 14 hours, according to the EPA.

The typical Portland household has three occupants and uses 5,400 gallons of water a month, or 180 gallons a day. That translates into a monthly water bill of $18.47 and a Portland sewer bill of $48.51, Clements said.

To reduce those bills 21 percent, that family of three has to save about 38 gallons a day. That's more than a drop in the bucket but not as much as you might think, according to the experts.

''It's dead easy,'' said Dudley Greeley, head of the sustainability office at the University of Southern Maine. The school captures rainwater to flush some of its toilets, although homeowners don't have to be nearly that creative, he said.

The first step toward household water conservation hasn't changed since your mother told you not to let the water run while you brush your teeth. With faucets accounting for about 28 gallons a day in the typical Portland household, not running the water while brushing, shaving and washing dishes can easily save more than 10 gallons a day.

Shorter showers can save another five to 10 gallons a day, and washing only full loads of laundry -- and skipping one load a week -- can save about six gallons per day.

The top users of water inside most homes are the toilets, which account for 48 gallons a day in our typical Portland household. Each unnecessary flush is another 1.6 gallons to five gallons down the drain, depending on the age of the fixture.

The bigger problem with many toilets is that they can leak without the homeowner ever knowing it, potentially wasting as much as 200 gallons a day.

To test a toilet, drop some food coloring into the tank and wait to see if the color leaks into the bowl. Cleaning, adjusting or replacing components in the tank can usually stop the leaks.

Watering lawns is a huge residential water waster, experts say. Lawns that go dormant in dry periods are actually healthier and may soon be considered truly ''green,'' they say.

Changing habits and fixing leaks may well reduce water use 21 percent or more without costing a dime. But there also are a lot of gadgets and plumbing fixtures on the market today that can help.

Replacing an older toilet that has a 3.5- or 5-gallon flush is guaranted to make a big difference. New toilets -- including dual flush models -- use as little as 1 gallon per flush, but it can cost $200 or more for one that really works, experts say.

Less expensive upgrades include faucet areators and low-flow shower heads that can cost as little as a few dollars. The shower heads are especially popular these days because they also mean less work for the furnace or water heater.

''A lot of parents come in here and want help because their teenagers take really long showers,'' said Hillary Shende, who works at F.W. Horch Sustainable Goods and Supplies in Brunswick. The store sells a $17 low-flow shower head with an areator that reduces the water demand of a six-minute shower from as much as 39 gallons to 10.5 gallons.

The connection between hot water and energy use is obvious. But even cold water requires a lot of energy to disinfect.

''There's energy embedded in all water use,'' said Amy Vickers, a Massachussets-based engineer who wrote ''Handbook of Water Use and Conservation: Homes, Landscapes, Businesses, Industries, Farms.''

The growing desire to reduce energy use, as well as save money, has a lot more people paying attention to their faucets and toilets, Vickers said.

''I think people are starting to appreciate the importance of saving water,'' she said.

As sewer rates climb here, that may soon be true for a lot of Portlanders, too.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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