Irrigation meters can save money

Lawn-watering can lead to high water bills, but installing an irrigation meter could bring long-term savings.

With scorching summers, salty air and sandy soil, the Charleston area’s not the most friendly place for grass lawns, and those who are determined to have a yard that looks like a green carpet often spend lots of money on watering it.

Even people who are simply trying to keep their grass and plants alive, or establish new plantings, might pour thousands of gallons of drinking water on the ground. The money question is, does it make sense for a homeowner to have a second water meter installed just for irrigation?

Without an irrigation meter, every gallon used is counted for both water and sewer charges, and the “wastewater” portion of a water bill is typically the most expensive part. With an irrigation meter, there are no sewer charges.

On the other hand, there’s a substantial cost to installing a water meter, beginning with utility charges. Charleston Water System charges $530, and Mount Pleasant Waterworks charges $630.

Next, there are plumbing costs to extend a water line from the meter, install a required backflow preventer, and have that device tested yearly. And there are monthly charges for having the second meter, even when no water is used.

As with many home improvements, there’s a payback period that will depend on an individual’s upfront costs and expected savings. The savings would depend on local water and sewer rates and policies, and water use.

If you regularly water with a sprinkler system, you would probably save money over the long term. If you only water sometimes, during particularly dry spells or to establish new plantings, the cost of installing an irrigation meter may be greater than the savings, or it would take a very long time to recoup the cost.

Charleston Water System, the area’s largest water and sewer provider, estimates most customers who install irrigation meters save enough in four or fiveyears to cover their up-front costs. The utility will provide customer-specific estimates (call 843-727-6800).

The Charleston area has lots of water and sewer providers, so it’s important to check with yours for details.

Some of the water and sewer districts have a flat charge for sewer service. Customers would see no benefit to installing an irrigation meter, because it wouldn’t reduce the sewer bill.

Other water systems charge a hefty impact fee for installing an irrigation meter, which makes the cost-benefit equation less appealing.

In Mount Pleasant, it used to be cost-prohibitive to install an irrigation meter. The payback period became much more attractive in mid-2014 when Mount Pleasant Waterworks eliminated a $2,000 impact fee that it was charging for irrigation meters, and even more so when the utility instituted a “excessive use” wastewater charge in 2016. So, excessive water use without an irrigation meter became more expensive, while installing one became less expensive.

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The water system eliminated the costly impact fee so that installing an irrigation meter would be competitive with another option, which is having a well drilled for about $1,000, a utility official told a Mount Pleasant committee in 2014.

The change was also made, utility officials said, because customers with irrigation meters pay an additional $8 monthly charge, and their billable water use tends to increase.

Rain barrels are a good and inexpensive way of capturing water for irrigation, with no ongoing costs, but there’s only so much irrigation you can do with 50 gallons. It would take less than 4 minutes for that amount of water to flow through an irrigation meter.

Another path toward long-term water bill savings is to reduce the amount of watering that needs to be done, by planting drought-tolerant ground cover and plants. Then, consider using a drip irrigation system (which can be as simple as a hose with holes in it) to direct water where it needs to go, instead of spraying it all over the place.

The takeaway is, people who regularly water their lawns should be able to save money over the long term by having an irrigation meter installed, but don’t overlook ways to reduce the amount of water that’s needed.