How to Inspect Your Water Meter for Leaks

Mariel Loveland
Written by Mariel Loveland
Updated November 29, 2021
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Photo: Drobot Dean / Adobe Stock

Inspecting your water meter can keep unexpected costs from leaking onto your utility bill

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Life’s filled with a lot of great surprises, but an unexpected water bill isn’t one of them. If you’ve experienced an unusual water bill, inspecting your water meter can find the root cause—whether it’s a leak, faulty equipment, or an inaccurate estimate from the water company. This checklist can help.

Water Meter Inspection Checklist

You might only feel prompted to inspect your water meter if you get an unusually high bill, but it’s a good idea to read your meter every single month—especially if you have a mechanical meter that doesn’t report your daily usage. It’s a great way to keep an eye on your water consumption and make sure there aren’t any sneaky leaks potentially wreaking havoc in your home. Use this water meter inspection checklist:

  • Check your water company’s regulations

  • Locate your water meter

  • Familiarize yourself with the type of water meter

  • Read your water meter (and match it against your bill)

  • Check your plumbing for leaks

  • Test your water meter for accuracy

Check Your Water Company’s Regulations

Most water companies encourage residents to read their own meter. It helps prevent surprise bills and confused customer service calls. Some companies, however, do not allow residents to open or tamper with meters. This prevents fraud and water theft. You might be able to read your meter without opening the box, but check with your water company before you start tampering with anything.

Locate Your Water Meter

Water meters are small, round devices connected to your home’s main water line that track your water usage. Water usage is measured in gallons or cubic feet. One foot is equal to roughly 7.5 gallons. So how do you find your water meter? It’s usually hiding somewhere near your main water line. Your water meter may be located:

Some water meters are enclosed in a box labeled “water.” Sometimes the box is transparent so you can get a reading without tampering with the box. If you can’t find your meter, contact your water company.

Familiarize Yourself With the Type of Water Meter

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American family uses about 300 gallons a day. However much you use, the type of meter in your home determines how the water company will create your monthly bill. There are two types of water meters:

  • Digital water meters: Many new homes have digital water meters with automated metering technology (also known as smart meters). This type of meter automatically reports your water usage to the water company. In turn, you get a precise bill for the exact amount of water you’ve used. Most people with digital meters can track their daily water consumption using a mobile app or the water company’s website.

  • Mechanical water meters: Mechanical water meters, or traditional water meters, are typically found in older homes. These are not usually equipped with automated metering technology, and residents will pay an estimated water bill every month. Every few weeks, the water company will send someone to your home to read your meter, then adjust your bills based on the reading. If you’ve used less than the initial estimate, you’ll get a credit. If you’ve used more, you’ll have to pay the difference.

How do you tell the difference between both types? Digital meters have a digital screen that clearly displays your water usage. Mechanical meters either use an analog flip counter (these are known as straight-reading meters) or a series of dials (these are known as round-reading meters).

Read Your Water Meter (and Match It Against Your Bill)

Before you can inspect your water meter, you need to know how to read it. Digital water meters are straightforward, whereas older mechanical water meters require a little know-how.

How to Read a Digital Water Meter

  • Locate the front of the water meter (this may require opening the top of the box)

  • Look at the small screen, and your water usage should be clearly displayed 

  • If there’s a solar panel below the screen, you may need to shine a flashlight on the panel so the numbers light up and you can read them

How to Read a Straight-Reading Water Meter

  • Locate the front of the water meter (this may require opening the top of the box)

  • Check the flip counter on the front of the meter

How to Read a Round-Reading Water Meter

  • Locate the front of the water meter (this may require opening the top of the box)

  • Look at the six dials labeled 100,000, 10,000, 1,000, 100, 10, and 1 cubic foot

  • Each dial has an indicator needle that’s pointing to a number

  • Start at the 100,000 dial, look at where the indicator needle is pointing, and record the number

  • Move to the 10,000 dial, look at where the indicator needle is pointing, and record the number

  • Continue moving clockwise, reading each dial and recording each number

  • Stop at the cubic foot dial, which has no numbers

  • Put your recorded numbers together to get your water usage

For example, if your dials read 0, 0, 4, 3, 5, 2 then your water usage is 4,352 cubic feet. Regardless of the type of meter, you can get your total monthly water usage by subtracting your current reading from the previous month’s reading (providing you read your meter every month). Use this figure to check your monthly bill.

Check Your Plumbing for Leaks

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Photo: Florian Villesèche / Adobe Stock

According to the EPA, leaks are responsible for 12% of water use in the U.S. Catching leaks can help you conserve water and lower your utility bills, so it's important to look for leaks during your water meter inspection. Some meters have a leak indicator, which makes it easy. Others don’t.

On digital meters, the leak indicator is a small icon or circle that flashes when there is a leak. On mechanical meters, the indicator is a small triangular or star-shaped wheel that spins when there is a leak. Check for a leak using the following instructions:

  • Turn off all the taps in your home

  • Unplug or turn off all appliances that use water (think: sprinkler systems, ice makers, your HVAC system)

  • Do not turn off your main water valve (you want water to be able to flow)

  • Look at your water meter

  • If the leak indicator is blinking or spinning, you probably have a leak

  • If you have a round-reading mechanical meter and the cubic foot dial is moving, you also probably have a leak

Alternatively, you can read your water meter, then check back in two to four hours (at minimum) to see if the reading has changed. Your reading should be the same as long as your taps and appliances are still turned off (and no one snuck in a quick shower). If the reading is different, you probably have a leak and should hire a professional plumber to fix the issue.

Test the Accuracy of Your Water Meter

Like all technology, water meters can break. It’s not common, but it’s still worth checking that your water meter is giving an accurate reading. You don’t have to do this monthly, but you may want to do it annually or if you notice an unusual bill and can’t find a leak. To check the accuracy of your water meter:

  • Start with a gallon container and 5-gallon bucket

  • Use the gallon container to fill your bucket with 5 gallons of water

  • Mark the level of water with a permanent marker (this ensures accuracy during the test)

  • Dump out the water and start the test

  • Turn off all your taps

  • Make sure all your water-using appliances are turned off (including things like dishwashers, ice makers, sprinklers, and your HVAC system)

  • Read your meter

  • Go to a tap and fill your bucket to the previously marked line

  • Once the bucket is full, turn off the tap

  • Read your meter

  • If your meter is working properly, it will show that you’ve used 5 gallons or 0.67 cubic feet of water

If your meter hasn’t accurately recorded your water use, it’s time to call your water company. They can diagnose the issue and replace or repair your water meter as needed. A repair or replacement is usually free as long as you didn’t illegally tamper with the meter.

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