Who foots the bill for smart water meter mishaps?

October 11, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Seven On Your Side has been reporting about a huge project to install smart water meters at every home in San Francisco. The work has caused water mains to burst at dozens of homes so far, and many homeowners have to pay big money for the damage.

Our stories uncovered a growing controversy. Many homeowners find out the meter installation broke their pipes, yet the homeowner is stuck with the bill for expensive repairs. Our stories caught the attention of an online newspaper which asked its readers: Is this fair?

"They said they had broken the pipe and I would have to get a plumber out," says Helen McGuigan after a city contractor installed a new wireless water meter outside her house. She had no water and had to pay $4,200 for repairs.

Dianne Zinky had the same problem and it cost her $3,000 to fix.

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

John Lubimir says the same thing happened at his rental house and he suddenly had to come up with $5,800 for his repair.

The breaks happened during a project by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. It's installing new wireless water meters at all 177,000 homes in the city. The work can cause pipes to burst and the PUC says it's happened at 45 homes so far. Those homeowners must come up with big money for repairs and then try to get reimbursed."

"And you have to have that money up front and I think that that is, especially in these financial times, that's a real concern," says Eve Batey, editor of the online newspaper "San Francisco Appeal." She says 7 On Your Side's stories raised an issue about who should be responsible to pay. So it conducted a reader poll. The question posed: Should the city compensate homeowners whose pipes burst?

Batey says the issue isn't so simple. Homeowners contend their pipes were fine before the meter swaps. Even the PUC acknowledges the work can break a pipe.

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

However, the PUC also says that only poorly maintained pipes tend to burst. If a pipe breaks because it's old and brittle, the PUC says the homeowner has to pay.

"The pipe break doesn't always mean the city broke a pipe," says Suzanne Gautier with the PUC.

The city's contractor, which recently changed its name to Grid One Solutions, has assumed liability for damages and it decides whether to pay claims. Grid One Solutions says, "It is our policy to respond to each and every claim that is forwarded to us from SFPUC and we have a well-established process in place to do so. Each claim is unique and is investigated individually."

Batey says letting the contractor decide claims puts homeowners in a tough spot.

"Who's making the decision on if it's their fault or not, that it is the person who may be at fault," she says.

And her readers? They side with homeowners almost 3-1. Out of 84 votes, 71 percent say the city should pay for repairs, 18 percent say not if pipes were old, and another 11 percent say, 'Why do we need these meters anyway?'

Batey says she hopes we follow up on this.

"I'm always a fan of the stuff that you guys do, that investigative stuff because there isn't as much out there as there used to be," she says.

So far eight homeowners have filed claims for broken pipes; five were paid and two rejected so far.

So do you think homeowners should have to foot the bill? Tell us what you think and if you have a meter problem let us know about that, too.

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