A routine replacement of an old water meter at a Palo Alto home conducted by the Utilities Department on Friday, Nov. 15, turned into a broken supply line that left the homeowner without his own water supply for the weekend.
Joel Henner, who lives in the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, relied on his neighbor's water for the weekend, supplied via a garden hose connected to the neighbor's outdoor water spigot.
Though he had water for most of the weekend, the situation exposed what Henner said was a break in best practices for the Utilities Department. He said he wasn't notified that work would be completed on his property and that the crews started work on a Friday, which carries the risk of a lengthy repair process because of mandated wait periods for excavation work.
A Utilities Department crew arrived at Henner's home on Friday morning, unannounced, he said.
"We did not request this, nor were we given any advance notice of this work," he wrote in a Town Square post on Palo Alto Online.
Debra Katz, communications manager for the Utilities Department, said that Utilities does not send out advance notifications for changing meters, a relatively quick and routine process.
"Normally the work takes under an hour and the resident, if home, is notified before the crew starts that water will be off for a brief period," she said.
That was the case with Henner, whose property was on a list of places where the Utilities Department knew old meters were a priority for being changed out, Katz said.
A crew -- which routinely changes out meters but does not do water line repairs -- followed normal procedure for replacing meters. They alerted Henner upon arrival about the replacement process and that the repair meant disconnecting his water supply, changing out the old meter for the new and turning the water back on within about an hour or less.
Katz said the crew did not know that Henner's meter, four feet below ground level due to landscaping he had done, would be difficult to reach, but arrived early on a Friday morning prepared to deal with that. What the crew didn't know was that the water pipe connected to the meter was "corroded and in bad condition" due to the fact that it's a copper pipe, a material that would normally be used for pipes within walls rather than underground, Katz said.
In the process of replacing the meter, the copper pipe cracked.
"The original work was something we do all the time, which is change out old meters that are not working correctly or in danger of not working correctly, if it's been there for many decades," Katz said. "We go around doing that frequently. Sometimes when the meter is very old, there's no way to remove it without the water line being broken."
The ensuing extent of the repairs also meant a special water service field crew needed to be called in to assess the situation. This crew, on a job at the time, arrived at Henner's house several hours later and determined that repairing the now-broken line would mean digging up the street and reconnecting to the main line. Any excavation requires alerting USA North, the Underground Service Alert, which locates all underground utilities beforehand so none are hit or damaged, Katz said. This notification comes with a 48-hour wait period (after USA North is alerted), which does not include weekends or legal holidays.
"They cannot begin until 48 hours after decision is made," Henner said. "The clock started ticking at noon on Friday. Sadly for us, now, that clock doesn't run over the weekend. Forty-eight hours turns into 96 hours over the weekend."
This would potentially leave him without normal water service until noon on Tuesday, he said.
The crew used a hose to construct a temporary water line from Henner's neighbor's outdoor water spigot to his house so he would not be without water for the weekend, also a routine process.
"It's not the first time that a crew has set up a situation like this," Katz said. "It's a routine way of dealing with getting emergency water … These are clean, new hoses that the Utilities Department buys and keeps specifically for this purpose."
However, the neighbor was not properly notified. Katz said in these cases, it is the Utilities Department policy to alert someone if they're home and if not, to leave a printed notice about the temporary use of their water service, which they are not charged for.
"It looks like there might have been glitch," Katz said, who has yet to speak to the crew member responsible for notifying Henner's neighbor.
Katz said that she and Henner spoke late on Friday afternoon. Because he did have a water supply, though temporary, and no one else in the neighborhood was impacted, she said it wasn't an emergency situation. She said she felt that the problem could be better dealt with on Monday.
"Certainly Utilities a has very strong policy of notifying people to work on their property, Katz said, explaining that the department usually gives seven-day notices as well as the night before work is to be conducted. "There were lot of things that didn't seem right about his situation … I told him I would get back to him Monday morning and let him know what I could find out."
Henner said he woke up on Sunday morning "to a house with virtually no water."
"The faucets are running at a trickle and there are drops only coming out of the shower head," he wrote in an email.
He called the Utilities emergency line, but by the time the emergency responder arrived, water was flowing again, he said. The responder determined the water pressure was "up to specification" and that Henner's low supply was due to him and his neighbor taking a shower at the same time.
The department's water supervisor, Brian Schmidt, called Henner about an hour later to let him know that a crew will be at his house on Monday to make the necessary repairs to replace his water meter and provide him with normal water service. The crew will hand dig instead of using a machine to circumvent USA North's 48-hour wait requirement. The repairs are expected to take about four to five hours, Henner said.
"Of course, since it is possible to do this Monday morning, it would have been possible to do it on Friday afternoon, and that is the decision that should have been made," Henner wrote in an email. "Instead, they left me hanging, presumably until Tuesday evening before the work would be completed. If the proper decision had been made at noon on Friday, when there was plenty of workday left on the clock, then I would not have been in my situation for the weekend."
Katz said that hand digging takes much longer than using a machine to dig, which is why the option was not considered on Friday afternoon.
Henner said he wondered if this had happened "at the house of one of our city's more prominent citizens -- famous, wealthy, well-connected," if they would have received a different response from the city.
"I think this would have been handled and completed by Friday evening for one of the A-List people, and without the expenditure of time and energy I put into communicating my situation to my neighbors and the city. That is a sad thought."
"Better communication definitely could have happened," Katz said. "But if I had to say, one key point in my mind at least, (is that) there was never an unsafe or unreliable water situation. That certainly has to be the crew's top priority. Does everybody have water? Is it clean and safe to drink? Will it last until we have to do repairs? And the answer (was) absolutely yes."