How to Read a Water Meter

By Debbie Wolfe

A water meter measures the amount of water being used in your home and helps detect if a water leak is present. Keep reading to understand where to find your water meter and how to read it.

How to locate your water meter

Water meters in residential areas are typically located near the curb or sidewalk outside of a home and are generally by a main water line. They’re housed in a concrete box usually marked “water” or in a meter pit with a cast iron lid. In cold climates, water meters may be located inside the home, usually in the basement.

Types of water meters

The two basic types of meters are displacement and velocity meters.

1. Displacement water meter

More commonly referred to as a positive displacement meter, this is the most common water meter for residential water and small commercial properties. Displacement meters contain mechanical parts that are displaced as water flows through the meter’s main chamber. The water physically moves the piston or disk to measure how much water is occupying a given space.

2. Velocity water meter

This water meter measures the speed at which the water moves through the meter’s known volume. Most velocity meters can be calibrated for accuracy. Velocity meters are divided into three main methods of measuring water flow:

  • Electromagnetic and ultrasonic—This type of meter uses magnetic fields or sound waves to determine the water flow velocity. It’s extremely accurate and has a wide flow measurement ranges.
  • Single and multiple-jet—This velocity water meter uses an impeller and rotation speed and is very accurate at low-flow rates.
  • Turbine—This meter uses a turbine to measure water flow and is best for high-volume flow rates. Turbine meters are recommended for large commercial users, fire protection, and as master meters for the water distribution system.

How to read your water meter

Not all water meters are uniform, but their layouts are roughly the same. Home water meters are either straight-reading meters or round-reading meters. The meter will have a numeric display on the face of the meter that looks similar to an odometer in a car. 

The biggest variations revolve around the units of measurement for each meter. Typical units of measurements are gallons, cubic feet, HCF (Hundred Cubic Feet) or cubic meters (outside the U.S.). Water meters in the U.S. typically measure volume in gallons or cubic feet:

  • One cubic foot = 7.48 gallons
  • 100 cubic feet = 748 gallons. 

Note: Water charges are typically based on 100 cubic feet or on 1000-gallon units.

Important water heater terms

Before reading your water meter, it might be helpful to understand the anatomy of your water heater.

  • Water meter reading units—These units of measurement will be indicated on the face of the display. 
  • Water meter reading format—Water meters can measure up to a thousandth of a gallon/cubic foot. Remember: every number to the right of a decimal point is less than one (tenths, hundredths, thousandths). 
  • Large sweep hand—Some water meters have a rotating red sweep hand (similar to a hand on an analog clock). It measures each cubic foot per gallon of water as it passes through the meter. A complete turn on this dial indicates that one cubic foot per gallon of water has passed through the meter. 
  • Leak detection indicator—Some analog meters have a small triangle on the face. This leak detection indicator will rotate anytime water is flowing. Continuous movement means you need to check for leaks.

How to read an analog meter

  1. Locate your water meter—If your meter is housed in a concrete box, you’ll need to use a long screwdriver to remove the lid.
  2. Clean the face—Wipe the face of the meter with a microfiber cloth to remove any debris.
  3. Read the numbers—Note the decimal number on the face of the watch. On most analog displays, the decimal numbers are indicated with a dark background (they’re usually red). Those to the left of them are white or light-colored. You only need to record the numbers to the left of the decimal (the light color).
  4. Determine water usage—To know your water consumption amount, subtract the previous reading from the current reading.

How to read a digital meter

  1. Shine a light—On digital displays, there’s a small solar panel located around the digital readout. If you read the meter on a cloudy day, you may need to shine a flashlight on the meter’s face to activate it.
  2. Read the meter—Similar to an analog display, note the unit of measurement and read only the numbers to the left of the decimal. The screen will flash between the current reading and the rate of flow per minute. If no water is flowing, the rate will be zero.

Similar to an analog water, some digital meters will have an icon for leak indication. It will flash if an intermittent small leak is found and will stay on if there’s a continuous leak.

How to monitor water usage at home

Monitoring your water usage at home will help you keep track of how much water you use in a month and help pinpoint any leaks. Knowing your monthly water usage can help with water conservation, thus lowering your monthly utility bills.

Once you get a sense of how much water you use on average, you can make small changes to your water consumption habits. Try taking shorter showers and doing full loads of laundry to reduce your water usage. 

Check your water meter monthly and compare the usage with your water bill. If there are large discrepancies, contact the utility company for an audit. Additionally, if your monthly usage is higher than average, this may indicate a leak. Inspect all the faucets and water pipes in and around your home and property for leaks.


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