If you are the kind of person that appreciates a green lawn in the summer, no doubt you have been burned with an outrageous water bill during the dry periods of the year. Water bills can get to be outrageous, as much as $500 per month in hottest periods of the year for an average-sized lawn.
So what are your options to mitigate your water costs? In this article, we will review the 3 most common types of alternative water sources available, their initial investment, ROI [Return on Investment], and pros and cons of each so you can make an informed decision on your option.
Separate Water Meter
The simplest and most widely available option is to install an additional water meter for your irrigation needs. By doing so, you will save the sewer charges on your water bill, as the water dept. will not charge you the sewer expense on the water use recorded on the 2nd meter. This will save you at least 50% over watering with the domestic meter (the same meter that supplies your home with water).
There are a few caveats to consider if you are considering this route. First, many utility companies offer a summer sewer credit, meaning they will calculate an average of the amount of sewer cost you incur during the winter months and credit you back the difference for the peak sewer costs you incur during the hot summer months. If this is the case with your water dept., then the ROI of installing a separate meter is essentially negated.
Another point to consider is the initial installation cost and how long it will take to recover your investment. Typically a separate meter will cost $2k-$4, and the process for installing one is different with most water departments. Most municipalities will perform the installation for you and charge you the quoted amount; some will only sell the meter hardware itself and require you to contract an approved plumber to set the tap and install the meter. Call your water dept. to confirm their procedure and associated costs. In most cases, you will need a 1/2” to 3/4” meter for an average lot size of 10,000 sq. ft– 50,000 sq. ft. Based on my experience of consulting hundreds of homeowners, typically a separate water meter will require 2-4 years to recover the initial investment.
A well is a more costly initial investment; however, it is what I recommend for homeowners in most cases because the water is free, forever! Ok, you will have to pay the electricity for the well to operate, but that will be a fraction of what the water would cost. You can also share the expense of a well with a neighbor by drilling it near your property line, and both parties can bear the initial investment. I have seen 3 and 4 households work out a suitable schedule for sharing share the same well, which made it a highly cost-effective water source for irrigation.
However, there are drawbacks to drilling a well, and installing one can be a nightmare if things don’t go optimally. The initial investment can be cost prohibitive, as the average irrigation well runs $5k-$10K for the drilling, pump, and turnkey setup. These cost will be about 50% less if you reside in a coastal area, as the water table is shallow in these areas, and the well will not have to be as deep. Another scary concern is that there are no guarantees that you will hit water when drilling a well, especially if you live inland. I have consulted homeowners on several occasions when a well was drilled but ultimately not producing enough water to properly supply the irrigation system. When this happens, there are two options: cut your losses, or keep drilling deeper and deeper. I’ve been involved in a project where the homeowner gave up at $15,000 and 600’ deep. This is worst-case scenario; however, you must weigh the risks. Interview well drillers in your area, as well as your neighbors that have wells; this will provide you with informative insights to evaluate if drilling a well is your best option. In most cases, it will take 3-5 years to recover the investment cost of a well system.
Rainwater recovery system
Rainwater recovery is an ancient practice and can be a possible alternative with its own set of associated limitations. While it can be as a simple as placing a barrel at the bottom of a gutter drain, the reality is that to adequately irrigate with recycled rainwater, you’ll need to invest in a professional automated system including catch basins, underground storage tanks, and pumps. Turnkey rain water recovery systems will require an investment of $3k-$6k. In most cases, a water recovery system is cost-prohibitive, given the more suitable alternatives. One of the biggest drawbacks is the lack of availability of water when you need to water the most. I have consulted with many homeowners frustrated by having made the initial investment in a complex system, that requires ongoing maintenance, and then not be able to utilize it during the hottest, driest periods of the year. Domestic water will have to be used as a stop-gap source when the water storage tanks run dry in the summer.
The advantages of a rainwater harvesting system are that it demonstrates a commitment to sustainability and is also a solid way to obtain LEED certification credits. I have consulted clients that had an admirable, unwavering environmental mindset and were willing to deal with the drawbacks of rainwater recycling, as a tradeoff to better stewardship of the environment. These are the dynamics to consider when looking at rainwater recycling as a water source for irrigation.
Regardless of which option you select, investing in an alternate water source can result in smart use of your money if you plan on living in your home for over 5 years, can lessen your impact on the environment, and allow you to enjoy a guilt free green lawn throughout the summer.
Bryan Clayton is a 15 year Green Industry veteran, founding and exiting Peach Tree Landscapes and currently co-founder at GreenPal.