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As I wrote earlier this week, high rises would be exempt from the City Council’s proposed ordinance to require individual water meters to be installed when apartments replace their plumbing.

Wondering why?

It’s because of the way pipes are installed in skyscrapers. Instead of having a single pipe that delivers water to a single unit, a high rise might have one pipe that delivers water to every kitchen in the building and another pipe that sends water to every bathroom. The buildings are often designed with kitchens and bathrooms stacked atop one another, and the single pipe for each can stretch the length of the building.

Alan Pentico, spokesman for the San Diego County Apartment Association, told me technology exists that could address that. It’s called a “point of use meter.” Instead of being installed outside a unit where the pipe goes in, they’re installed where water is used: At kitchen and bathroom faucets, for example.

One problem: They’re not accurate enough for California to permit their use, Pentico said.

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So why don’t apartments have individual meters already? Robert Vallera, a real estate advisor and longtime apartment owner, explained the reason to me in an e-mail:

We would love to have our units individually metered for water. You are right, having a master water meter for the entire complex makes it hard to get a handle on irresponsible water use by individual tenants.
It is an unfortunate reality that apartments typically have water lines entering the unit from multiple locations. There is usually no single point in the plumbing lines where a meter can be installed to track water usage.
Between 1960 and 1989, when most of San Diego’s existing apartments were constructed, water was cheap and abundant. The cost of labor and materials for plumbing has always been expensive, so the water lines were routed to minimize the amount of plumbing within the walls.
It is ironic that installing the extra plumbing lines that would now allow sub-metering would have been considered a wasteful use of resources at the time when most of San Diego’s apartments were constructed.

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And finally, just how much of a financial incentive would an apartment dweller have to save water if they were directly billed for it?

As one reader noted, not a whole lot.

A small user in the city pays a disproportionate amount of their water bill to cover fixed costs — costs that stay the same no matter how much they use.

Mike Rook sent me the breakdown of his water bill and took issue with my suggestion that using less water would save money for an apartment dweller.

“Frankly, I don’t give a damn about water conservation,” Rook told me. “I don’t give a rat’s butt about saving water, and furthermore it doesn’t save me a gosh darn dime.”

Here’s the breakdown of his water/sewer bill:

Water Bill (Mailed Feb 22 2010):
Water Base Fee: $35.36 (3/4″ Meter)
Water used: $9.63 (3 HCF)
Sewer Base Fee: $30.42
Reversal of Sewer Base Fee Settlement Increase: -$1.78
Sewer Service Charge: $14.29
Reversal of Sewer Service Charge Settlement Increase: -$0.83
Sewer Settlement Credit: -$6.50
Storm Drain Fee: $1.90
Current Charges: $82.48 (including credits)
Water use = $9.63/82.48 = 11.7 percent of total controllable fees

It should be noted that the sewer service charge is also dependent on how much water is used. Including that would bring water-use-related charges to $23.92 of an $82.48 bill, or 29 percent.

Correction: This post has been updated to indicate that existing high-rises are exempt from adding water meters when replacing their plumbing. New complexes aren’t exempt from the proposed rule. We regret the error.

— ROB DAVIS

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