Homeowners battle city over water pipe repair bills

September 23, 2011 10:50:35 PM PDT
Dozens of San Francisco homeowners are getting stuck with huge repair bills for damage they didn't cause. The city is installing new wireless water meters and sometimes the work causes old, brittle pipes to burst. 7 On Your Side has been following the plight of some very angry homeowners.

We first reported about this when a San Francisco woman was told her water line broke during the city's project and she had to pay for repairs. We helped her get her $4,200 back, but now more homeowners are in the same fight.

Dianne Zinky thought nothing of it when a city contractor showed up to replace her water meter -- until the knock on her door.

"There was a crack in the pipe, so now there's a leak," said Zinky.

Zinky found out the water line to her house broke during the meter installation. She had no water, and since the pipe was on her property, she had to pay for repairs -- $3,000 worth.

"I said, 'but I didn't have a leak before and now I do and so I think you should fix it,'" said Zinky. 'He said, 'No.'"

Zinky filed a claim with the city which handed the case off to its contractor, VSI Meter Services. The contractor directed her back to the city.

"They were kind of playing hot potato -- let's see if those guys will take it, let's see if those guys will take it," she said.

That's when Zinky got serious. She had her plumbers document all repairs and the cause of damage on video tape.

John Lubimir had a similar catastrophe at his San Francisco rental home..

"Two men were out front and were making an attempt to replace the water meter," said Lubimir. "One man put a tool in there and started to turn it and the other man said, 'No, no, turn it the other way,' and what happened, I don't know, other than it busted the pipe."

Lubimir says his tenants watched water flowing down the street .

"Prior to that gentleman showing up we didn't see any leakage whatsoever," said tenant Diana Gurnari.

Lubimir paid $5,800 for a new pipe and concrete, then filed a claim with the city. Again, the city turned over his case to the contractor.

"I think it's unreasonable to say that it's not their fault and that we should stand the entire cost," said Lubimir.

"If damage occurred during an install of any meter there is an evaluation on a case by case basis of what was the cause," said Suzanne Gautier of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). She says pipe breaks are rare.

However, there are now 45 reported cases of pipes breaking during installations since the project began a year ago. That is up from 36 cases reported to us in July, but still less than 1 percent of the 58,000 homes that have received new meters so far.

The water department acknowledges that the installations can cause breaks.

"What tends to happen is, as you shut off the water it causes a slight ripple or a shock in the system," said Tyrone Jue with the SFPUC.

VSI Meter Services would not sit down and talk to us about the claims or the project saying, "It is our practice not to comment regarding individual claims. We treat claims very seriously and have a well-established process in place to respond to each and every claim."

However, the water department says homeowners will have to pay for any damages to a pipe on their property unless the contractor did something wrong. It say pipes tend to burst only if they are in poor condition.

"We have to look at every single case to see whether it's the homeowner's responsibility or whether or not the contractor is at fault," said Jue.

So, how likely are you to get reimbursed if your plumbing breaks?

"He was very astonished about the fact that I had documented so carefully," said Zinky.

After Zinky presented her 15 minutes of videotape to VSI, the company did reimburse her $3,000. However, VSI rejected Lubimir's claim. The department tells us it's because the leak was already there before the new meter was installed.

"The pipe break doesn't always mean the city broke a pipe," said Gautier.

Lubimir says it seems a little too coincidental.

"They just came in, did it, it busted, these people without water and I got a $5,800 bill," said Lubimir.

The contractor, VSI, has accepted liability for any damage it causes. The SFPUC says it can't discuss those cases, but it did say eight homeowners have filed claims for pipe breaks so far and five have been paid. Several others have filed claims for other damage.

If you have a problem with a new meter, let us know about it. Send us an email here.


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