Friday, September 17, 2010

Flushing it down the toilet

If you live in St. Louis County, did you know how your sewer bill is calculated?

We do now.

And a word of advice: don't have plumbing issues in the winter. Ever. Or you will pay more for them than you think.

Sometime last year, we ran into a string of what I thought was bad luck or severe disorganization. Don't be fooled by any clean, shiny kitchen countertops you might see in my house: I'm a master of sweeping all the junk to the side when guests come over. In any case, there were a couple of months in a row where it seemed like we missed paying our water bill. Disorganized as my husband and I can be, we are typically very good about paying all bills on time, not carrying debt, not screwing around with our money.

So it was extremely frustrating to get a bill that says "Due upon receipt", meaning "You didn't pay us". 
Especially since 1) we use every auto-bill-pay service offered and 2) I would swear that we were paying our bills. At the time, I called the water company and made sure we were up to date, and found out that they don't bill us monthly. They bill quarterly (ish). And we didn't have any auto-pay set up with them. It was the sewer bill that was auto-withdrawn monthly. No wonder I was confused.

Fast forward to this summer, and I actually receive a water bill and a sewer bill at the same time, and dared to compare the two. MSD was billing us $88 for a single month. Missouri American Water was billing us $60 for THREE months of fresh water. Now that was way out of whack. How can we owe four times more money to flush the toilet than we were paying for the water in the first place?

I asked a couple of friends who live in our neighborhood, with similar size families and similar size houses how much they were paying for their sewer bills. Both paid around the $20-30 range. And their water bills were comparable to ours.

So I called MSD, and got some generally helpful email messages in response, detailing how our bill is calculated.

In St. Louis County, where all houses have a water meter, MSD gets the water meter reading for the quarter that runs from November through February. They have a formula based on your average water usage. They choose that winter quarter because it does not include the summer grass-watering season, so its supposed to more accurately reflect how much water actually goes into the sewer system. Great. Fine. Makes sense. But I still didn't get how they came up with such a large number for us, when our friends (with similar water usage) were paying so much less.

So I called Missouri American water. They were also helpful, and emailed me a table detailing our water meter readings and usage for the past few years.

It just happened that for the quarter ending in February of 2009 (the reading that sets our sewer bill for most of 2010), that our usage was nearly 10 times our normal amount. 125 vs 15 for the May 2010 quarter. I checked our bank records, and that giant number matched up with a giant bill that we paid. (Around the time of the late bills and "due upon receipt", so I probably didn't catch that the huge bill was huge because of usage)

Yikes. Hubby and I tried to remember what was going on in Winter 2008/2009 in our house. I have a vague recollection of running toilets--I think the flappers have an expiration date because every toilet in our house needed a replacement at one point (we had to buy a "contractor pack" of replacements). And we did have an outdoor irrigation system on a timer that got left on (and created us a nice little ice sculpture before we figured out the mistake). That was also around the time we had a lot of water in our back yard, so maybe that outdoor irrigation system was leakier than we realized. Our best guess is that those things killed our water bill for that quarter, and subsequently jacked up our sewer bill for the rest of the year.

The moral of this story is that if you have any plumbing problems, get them fixed right away. Leaky pipes, running toilets, outdoor spigot problems. Whatever. Especially in the winter. Or you will pay for them over and over and over again.

In that communication with MSD this summer, they did give us good news. In the winter quarter ending February 2010, our water usage was fairly normal (around that 15 mark), so our monthly sewer bill from September 2010 until August 2011 will be in the $20-30 range. Right where it should be.

And we will be checking every toilet and sink this fall, and shutting off the outside water spigots just in case.

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