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Utility Rates and The Economy - Home Effinomics, or Effin' Around the House [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Home Effinomics, or Effin' Around the House

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Utility Rates and The Economy [Jan. 14th, 2012|02:27 pm]
Home Effinomics, or Effin' Around the House


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One of the chief reasons I started this forum was that I was reared with a variation on the Mel Brooks maxim, "Hope for the best; expect the worst." Therefore, we should all simultaneously look forward to our bright and shiny futures . . . while making preparations for the darker days ahead. Utility rates are a perfect example of the best intentions gone horribly awry.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, most of our utilities rely on the steady fall of snow to provide the populace with potable water. Note that I said "snow," not rain. When it rains in the mountains, the snow pack is often washed away, sometimes earlier than the utility planners anticipated. These small surprise snow packs prompt emergency calls for conservation. Most comply. Sadly, after most manage to reduce water consumption by sometimes herculean effort, the utilities reward their community spirit by raising rates. Too little consumption hurts the bottom line, don't ya know.

Other factors hurt that bottom line. How about a dysfunctional economy? As an example, I've spent the last few days copying almost ten years worth of utility bills into my computer and playing with the results. Here's a graphical history of my water bill, for example:

Engrandize the Size

The two bottom-most factors, the Base Charge and Garbage, are billed (I think) the same in each household. The two upper factors, Water and Sewer, depend upon how much water we use in the billing period (we enjoy two month billing cycles around here). That Base Charge gets my goat. No matter how small the garbage can we choose, no matter that we use no water at all, that charge is unavoidable. I suppose this is necessary to balance the books at the utility; should too many conserve, they can make up the difference with increased base charges. Still, it's a grrrr-making number.

Some notable trends. The bills have increased in size, no denying that, more than doubling in 9 years. Some of that is our fault. Here's a breakdown of our water use in almost the same time period:

Not that it needs to be larger, but. . . .

(Water and sewer bills are tied to a meter that reads CCF, or cubic centi-foot. Imagine a square pool ten feet by ten feet filled with a foot of water. That's 748 gallons. It's a rough metric that leads to lots of spiking in the data, but it's the best measure we've got.)

You can see where we replaced the old toilet that came with the house; where the washers started failing before we noticed them; what time of year The Wife's™ family would visit; all the miscellaneous happenings that affect consumption. My goal, as stated in this forum, is not to worry about the use but try to devise strategies to make that use more and more affordable over time. Still, one can easily see how the increases and decreases in the consumption directly affected the two bill elements tied to consumption.

Today I finished graphing the other metric we need to explain the first graph of cost: the water rates over time. (Since the Base and Garbage charges aren't calculated based on any consumption rate, I didn't bother tracking them separately.)


As you can see, until recently both water and sewer rose pretty much with inflation. Water rates shifted regularly in the summer months (June through September); but the base Winter and Summer rates remained constant for quite some time. All that went to hell with the economy. That's where you can see the increased bumpy-ness in the water rate starting in 2009. That spike in sewer hits there as well. (By the way, water rates are set by the Seattle PUD; sewer piping and treatment is provided by King County.) One of the big increases was the hit to diesel in mid-2008; this would explain the huge jump in garbage collection and the base rate in early 2009 in the first graph. They put off raising the rates as long as they could, it seems, probably hoping the price of fuel would stabilize. It still runs ahead of inflation.

So, can I gather any conclusions from all this graphical goofing? First, no matter what you personally do at home, it looks like the cost of pouring, flushing and throwing away will increase. Which sucks if your income doesn't.

This leads to the second conclusion, that figuring out how much of an increase one can expect (answer: Who knows?) is vital to calculating the return on future home improvements that will reduce future consumption and thus these costs.

I've come up with a scheme (dashed only by the extreme freeze that hit us here four winters ago). I should soon have a description and pictures. Until then.

[User Picture]From: evilref
2012-01-16 09:49 am (UTC)
We're not in the Pacific Northwest, we're in Ireland -- which means it also rains.

Our water comes entirely off the roof: we have three 1000-litre tanks piped together, a cheap camping submersible pump (and a couple of spares in a box) which pumps water through a filter and UV steriliser into the header tank in the loft.

The filter and UV steriliser come on when a float-switch in the header tank calls for water. There is a 30-second delay to allow the UV tube to come up before the pump starts.

The whole system (pump, filter, steriliser, circuit for delay, float-switch) cost less than 300 euros, and costs about 30 euros a year in consumables (filter cartridge, UV tube). It all runs of 12v since we are off grid.

The water is of good enough quality to satisfy my microbiologist wife -- which the water that comes out of our neighbours' taps isn't.

Last winter (when the temperature got down to -18C) we had to break the ice every morning, and take the flexible pipe off the submersible pump and thaw it out in a pot of boiling water on the kitchen range.

Our neighbours had no water for three weeks.

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[User Picture]From: peristaltor
2012-01-16 09:17 pm (UTC)

I've been planning a water system of some kind now for years, but got sidetracked by a freeze that hit us. Our neighbors discovered they had a sprinkler system installed in their over-grown yard only when it froze hard and long enough for the entire feed pipe to freeze and bust the valve . . . for the first time in 50 years. My plans called for a pump house, but I figured no way to isolate the pump from freezing conditions, so I put that plan on hold.

I'm curious. What kind of pressure do you have from your header tank? That's one limitation living where we are; not much space to build things like elevated tanks and main tank farms. Three thousand liters of storage would eat up half my yard. I have a solution in mind, but need to run some more numbers and make some more tests.
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From: maineshark
2012-01-17 01:25 am (UTC)
0.4335 psi per foot of head.

So, if you have a tank in your attic that's five feet tall, and the water level is a foot below the top, and you have a shower head that's two feet below the base of the tank, you'll have 2.6psi. A shower head on the floor below might have almost 7 psi. You need an appreciable rise to make "real" water pressure.

One option would be to use a pump and pressure tank, as standard. Doesn't take much of a pump to make 20-30psi, if it only has to produce enough flow for a shower or two. The low-pressure side is enough for bulk-flow systems like toilets (as long as the right fill valve is used), so the pressure pump could be sized to only supplying pressure to showers and such.

Another option is to use a whole-house pressure pump, like a Grundfos SQE. Even if you have high enough demand to justify a 3/4hp pump, the SQE pumps soft-start (spin up slowly from zero, rather than trying to jump immediately to thousands of RPM), so they don't draw the kind of current that other pumps do.

Just designed a system for a neighbor. He has a 1250-gallon Roth septic tank (Roth "multi-tanks" are potable-safe), which actually holds over 1400 gallons, since he's not limited to leaving septic air space. The tanks can be buried, or installed above-ground in a basement or mechanical room (51"x62"x177", HxWxL). The tank is filled by a conventional well pump that runs on solar power, only when the sun is shining (so the battery system does not need to account for starting/running that pump), and the house is pressurized by a Grundfos SQE that is submerged in the tank. The batteries can easily run the SQE. The result is that inexpensive water replaces a lot of additional, expensive batteries that would otherwise be needed to run the well pump when the sun isn't shining. If money is no object, the first well pump could also be replaced with a high-efficiency unit, which would allow it to run on dedicated panels with a small inverter, rather than having to draw through the main inverter.
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[User Picture]From: peristaltor
2012-01-17 10:00 pm (UTC)
I've neither a solar system nor a need for low-pressure water. I do have a Grundfox pump ready for installation, though. All I need are the reservoir and some pipes.

That Roth looks about 2 times too big for my house. 1400 would work, but that would take a lot of space, unless I buried it. A possibility. I would have to see how much the budget allows. Probably much less than a dollar/gallon. Much.
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From: maineshark
2012-01-17 10:07 pm (UTC)
It's not that there might be a "need" for low-pressure water. It's just that you can do certain things, like fill toilets, without having to waste a lot of energy getting the same sort of pressures that are used for comfortable showers.

There are a variety of other sizes: http://www.roth-usa.com/PDF_Download_Files/RGP_Brochure_Combined.pdf
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[User Picture]From: evilref
2012-01-18 10:22 am (UTC)
Probably much less than a dollar/gallon

We bought 1000 litre tanks like these:-


(Not that we're in Australia, but the same design of tank is used the world over.)

They cost us 75 euros each, delivered, and had been used to ship soft drink syrup (so they are food grade). They're recycled packaging.

Each tank has an outlet at the bottom, and came with a screw cap. I drilled the screw cap and fitted a 3/4" tank fitting to each, then plumbed them together to make one 3000 litre store.

Since they're square and stackable, boxing them in should be easy enough. And since they're metal-framed, the foundation is a stand for each corner -- and where the tanks are next to each other, one stand can be shared by two or more tanks.

3000 litres for 225 euros is 7 1/2 cents per litre, or about 28 cents per US gallon. I guess that's less than half a dollar per gallon. :-)

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[User Picture]From: evilref
2012-01-17 09:30 am (UTC)
Our system is designed to freeze without injury. The pump and external tube are both soft plastic, and there is an air-valve above the UV steriliser so the system drains back when the pump goes off. In very cold weather the pipe is cold in the morning and the water freezes the first time the pump comes on, but the flexible pipe is easily removed and put in a pan of hot water on the range. It's a 10-minute chore at breakfast time.

The external tanks don't freeze solid, because they're big. I am planning to box them in with polyurethane board, but with the high winds over Christmas I didn't get a chance.

The pressure is low: the header tank is on a bit of a platform in the loft, but it's only a single-storey cottage. We knew this would be the case, and bought plumbing fittings accordingly. The shower is a thermostatic mixer system that works down to 0.1 bar (1 1/2 psi). I would think we have double that when the tank is full. The header tank is a 250 litre (65 US gallon) affair, since the filter, pump and steriliser deliver less than 4 litres (1 gallon) per minute.

But all our hot taps have thermostatic mixers because our hot water comes from a solid fuel range. The heating comes on before the range properly boils (12v again -- the pump came from a yacht store) but with boiling hot water and a three-year-old, my wife wanted thermostatic mixers for safety.

When we plumb the bathroom (it's going to be in the as-yet-unbuilt extension) we'll be using 3/4 inch pipe to get a decent flow rate. The shower and the sinks are plumbed with 1/2" pipe, which is adequate.

Gravity fed hot water systems are quite common in Ireland and the UK, so appropriate plumbing fittings are available.

Edited at 2012-01-17 09:31 am (UTC)
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