Weekend water outage raises concerns

A Palo Alto homeowner lost normal water service for the weekend due to a seemingly flawed Utilities Dept. repair process

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."


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Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 18, 2013 at 11:01 am

California Water Service notifies customers 2 or 3 days in advance of meter changes, via front door hang tag. I found one on my door once. It told me which day it would occur & suggested that I fill some containers ahead of time in case I needed water during the time the water'd be off.

No drama, no trauma. Can't PA do the same?

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Posted by Debby Ruskin
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 18, 2013 at 11:46 am

I live down the street from Joel, and while we're on the topic of UTILITIES, could someone please tell me why our neighborhood power was out from 12:30 to 3:30 on Saturday?

When people from the neighborhood got through to the city, they were told "We are aware of the problem..." and hung up. We were "in the dark" ... having no idea of the extent or cause of the outage.

Since we were having a dinner party for 8 that night, I was a bit nervous. All turned out well with the power back on at 3:30, but it would have been thoughtful to have some way of letting residents know what was going on.

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Posted by Utilities Smoking
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2013 at 11:54 am

There goes our lovely, bloated, overpaid, overstaffed, insensitive Utilities Department again. Not only do they reach deeper into our pockets for water than anyone else, they also inconvenience us more than other water providers do.

I'd love to see PA shutdown this bozo's game and outsource our water delivery to Mountain View or Redwood City.

PA Utilities sucks so hard, even the water pressure doesn't compare!

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Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 18, 2013 at 12:08 pm

I question the statement that Copper is not suitable for underground service.

Also, It seems to me that the professional thing to do is notify the resident that the Utilities Dept. is needing to do some work on Private Property.

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Posted by Sucky for sure
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 18, 2013 at 12:13 pm

We have an electric car, yet is costing us big-time to recharge it at night. We called PA utilities about this, and they claimed to have special rates for recharging electric cars at night, but they refused to say exactly how they go about doing this. It does not seem possible for the Utilities to know when someone is recharging an electric car at night with the meters we have now.

Also, they claim that there are recharging stations all over town, but we have found: two off Calif Ave ( always in use), three at City Hall ( also always in use), and two downtown ( again, always in use). Yet, they claim Palo Alto to be a Green City. By comparison, Berkeley has dozens of the charging stations and charges half-rates for ALL electrical use after 5:00pm. Santa Monica has hundreds of car chargers on their city streets, as do several places in New England, especially New Hampshire; and none of these places have as many electric cars as Palo Alto!

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Posted by stretch
a resident of another community
on Nov 18, 2013 at 12:16 pm

It seems as though no one is paying attention to the fact that the homeowner did landscaping that ended up with his water meter being four feet below ground level. When he did that, he should have notified utilities so that they could bring the meter and box up to ground level, or maybe he shouldn't have done it at all. I wonder how he was going to shut the water off in an emergency. And, about the copper pipes - that is the material used for City water services, period. I don't understand why Ms. Katz wouldn't know that. When a problem occurs and one house needs to be connected next door until the water can be repaired, it is a common occurance. I've never seen anyone complain about it, especially when no one is charged for the water usuage during that time. One time I had a woman tell me I couldn't dig up the street to repair a gas leak, because she had people coming over for dinner! Think, people, and be a little flexible and not so quick to complain.

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Posted by Andrew M
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 18, 2013 at 1:05 pm

This is a bit silly - if the meter repair crew realized that the meter they were repairing, was not in the state they thought it was in and noticed that the pipes connecting it were corroded, it would be VERY smart to not undertake that work on a Friday where the probabilities of something going wrong are a lot higher.

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a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 18, 2013 at 2:08 pm

JOEL HENNER is a registered user.

Stretch: Just to clarify for you about the landscaping we did: This landscaping was around the access to the water meter box, and did not involve the box itself. The meter box was at the same level it was at when we moved in 16 years ago, and the meter and piping were at the same level they were at when the house was built 55 years ago. We changed nothing. I'd point out to you that the article quotes Ms. Katz as saying that the crew arrived early on Friday morning prepared to deal with that. Ms. Katz is a very nice person and I appreciated speaking with her about this situation, but her quoted comment about the meter box and the landscaping is a bit of a red herring designed to offload some of the blame for this on me, and it looks like you took the bait. No worries, I understand how these things work. There was nothing we did that contributed to this situation. Stay tuned for an update from me about this incident. Thanks for you comment.

Andrew M: Your comment is not silly at all, and it is among several suggestions I have made to the city manager's office over the weekend.

Senor Blogger: You are correct, there is an issue of communication from the utility to the customers that needs to be addressed, and this is also covered in my comments to the city manager's office over the weekend.

Utilities Smoking: I understand your sentiments, but forgiveness is divine. These guys are out in front of my house today making the necessary repairs with great effort. Sure this should not have happened, but I hope there may be some good that comes from this if procedures and practices are revised.

Downtowner: Agree. Again, communication.

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Posted by stretch
a resident of another community
on Nov 18, 2013 at 2:13 pm

To Andrew M: how do you think the "repair crew" (actually, the meter exchange persons, as they were not there to repair) could see what was going on with a meter four feet below ground level? The pipes run outside the meter box (also four feet down, in this case), and the act of turning a wrench on the stop to turn off the water is what reveals that the pipe is unstable, when it breaks. Silly is right, that is, people going on about details about which they really don't know the first thing. Maybe Palo Alto utilities should stop working on Fridays altogether. That way, no unforseen circumstances can pop up to whine about.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 18, 2013 at 2:40 pm

@ Debby, I already asked this question on the first thread on the subject of the water meter debacle (started by Joel Henner) - about why the power was off for several hours on Sat. where I live - Duveneck St. Francis, and someone responded on that thread that it was a palm frond and I should have been on Twitter to know that.
I was concerned that the power might be off during the night also and it would be very cold and that would affect a member of my family.
For privacy reasons (a family member was hacked on Twitter) I am not on Twitter and it was a hassle to get to the correct spot on the City of PA website to report a power outage - message then said it was known, but no further details were forthcoming. While I am not a senior citizen and I AM on the city notification list for emergencies/local community notificiation, I received zero info about the power outage and in fact had to throw out some stuff from my fridge, and I would have appreciated some info and not a reprimand about how I "should be on Twitter."

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 18, 2013 at 2:42 pm

my comment about not being a senior citizen relates to the assumption some may make that I must be one if I am not on Twitter.
However, it is correct that there ARE senior citizens about who are likely not on Twitter and to only have info on that is offensive to me and could be dangerous to them in case of power or water outages or other situations in the City (related to our city utilities).
One more rant: the city of PA website is DREADFUL. It was DREADFUL before and it still is after lots of $$$ was paid for a remake.

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 18, 2013 at 3:35 pm

OK before the bashing gets out of hand. How many other times has this type of accident/issue happened in Palo Alto?


And then on a percentage basis - how many times has this mistake been made compared to the total number of meter repair or replacement projects undertaken in the last 12-months.

Certainly not scientific, but the fact is that we haven't seen any similar complaint/accident on this forum at all.

A mistake was made. They will fix it. It is not the end of the world.

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Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2013 at 4:13 pm

> A mistake was made. They will fix it. It is not the end of the world.

True. But when we end up paying the Utilties Director more than $200K a year, to oversee this operation that has a captive market, ian't there reason to expect service that includes:

1) use of email/automated voice mail to contact customers of work to be done on their property at least 48 hours ahead of time?

2) use of common sense to recognize that there might be problems with work to be done, theat might leave a customer without water for more than a few hours?

Note--it's a shame that this blog doesn't offer the ability to upload pictures so that people can make use of "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Mr. Henner, any chance you can take a picture of your meter box, uploading that picture to Flickr, or one of the other picture sharing sites, and post a link for su?

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a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 18, 2013 at 4:39 pm

JOEL HENNER is a registered user.

Today, Monday, November 18, 2013, at 8 AM, a work crew from the Palo Alto City Water Department arrived at my house to continue and complete the repair work that began last Friday. Apparently they were able to circumvent the 48-hour minimum wait period by doing hand digging instead of machine excavation. The project turned out to be far more complicated than either the original meter replacement work order or the subsequent repair project anticipated, primarily due to the extensive involvement of tree roots with the supply piping on either side of the original water meter. The crew worked from 8 AM until about 4 PM and normal municipal water service appears to have been re-established. The garden hose hookup is gone so my front walk is passable once again, and I understand from several sources that the tubing used for this purpose is clean and safe so that there was no danger from drinking or washing with water that passed through it.

I am grateful for the hard work the utility crew performed and I appreciate the department’s efforts restore full municipal water service to my house as quickly as possible. Thank you.

My water service was interrupted on Friday when a routine repair turned out to be anything but routine. This could have happened to anyone. Recognizing that there was nothing that could be done for several days to make my situation any better, and realizing that I was about to endure an extended period of inconvenience and physical hazard (real and perceived) I sought to inform my neighbors and others in the city (including other residents and Utility officials) about my predicament with the idea that no one else should have to endure what we were enduring at our house. If this had happened to one of my neighbors I would certainly want to know about it so I could take pre-emptive action to prevent it from happening to me. In my original communication to my neighbors I listed several steps I thought others could take to protect themselves based upon my experience in my situation. Furthermore, since I am a Block Preparedness Coordinator volunteer for my neighborhood, I have a duty and a responsibility, which I take seriously, for informing my neighbors about issues relating to emergency preparedness, crime, public safety and other matters affecting the neighborhood. It was in this spirit that I sought to get the word out about my predicament. The City’s citizens should be armed with information so that they can make informed decisions and take appropriate action to secure their quality of life.

I have received an overwhelming response from my neighbors, some known to me, many complete strangers, expressing their surprise at what we have had to go through at my house, empathy for our circumstances, and gratitude for being informed. I appreciate these supportive comments, and I encourage each of you to follow up independently, in whatever way feels right to you, with your own neighbors, the utility and the city about this. I have also received sincere apologies from the water department staff, acknowledgement that what happened to me should not have happened, and a commitment to evaluate what happened and take corrective action so that it does not happen to someone else. I have made some suggestions to them based upon this experience. The replacement of aging water meters is an appropriate and necessary function of the water department. I just think they can make some simple changes to the procedures and practices related to this function that will improve implementation in the future. There needs to be more communication with the utility customers about what they are doing, why, and how customers can help the utility do its job.

At the same time, I have also had a small amount of negative feedback from some people suggesting that I am being unreasonable in my expectations and that I was wrong to have sent “…an ‘alarming’ email to all his neighbors…” alerting them to the situation. Fair enough, I recognize that there are many opinions about what to do in these sorts of circumstances, and I respect the opinions of those who criticize my actions. Regardless, I would not have done anything differently.

Thanks again to the water department work crew who completed the job at my house today.

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Posted by oh kay
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 18, 2013 at 6:20 pm

[Post removed.]

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Posted by Terry
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 18, 2013 at 9:22 pm

For years I have been expressing an opinion that the Utility Department has grown grossly incompetent in the last 20 years. I personally can account for about 40K$ of rework due to City Utility worker mistakes.

I would like to propose that the City could take providing quality service to it's "customers" seriously. A formal means to file complaints about worker errors (or outstanding work commendations), and a manager to review the trends, could go a long way to improve performance. ....but I dream on, hum, maybe Mountain View could annex south Palo Alto.

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Posted by John
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 18, 2013 at 9:47 pm

Mr. Henner seems satisfied, so why is everyone else so upset?

If this happens to you, consider showering with your neighbor.

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Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 19, 2013 at 8:31 am

SteveU is a registered user.

I find it absurd USA applies the 48Hr rule to Emergency Excavations.
When a water main blows, do they need 48 hours notice before the repair can begin?
48 hr is for Scheduled construction work like new services.
A break resulting from a task that normally would not need excavation is an emergency . Fire them and get a new locator service.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 19, 2013 at 9:28 am

@ Crescent Park Dad, this situation sort of rings a bell not with past water meter change debacles - I didn't know about that previously - but I recall in the early days of PA Online and or PA Weekly, someone prominent - an older man from Barron Park - posted about a horrendous experience with sewage backing into the house and I sincerely recall this was the city's fault (not the homeowner's). SO - in view of the fact we have city utilities here, I personally appreciate having heads up of potential issues that can arise. Mention was made of tree roots - huge (city owned) street trees are known to cause a variety of issues, and these may indeed affect homeowners. Recently the crew from the contractor that looks into potential cross bores (between sewage/gas/water lines, apparently) arrived on my property - I never did hear the conclusion - some of us with newer homes appear to have OLDER "Fixtures" - meters, pipelines, and street tree roots, so awareness is the key to keeping us safe and not inconvenienced in an unnecessary way, either if repair or replacement or digging by the city or its contractors is necessary...

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Posted by businessdecision
a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 19, 2013 at 4:35 pm

About all I do on here now is scroll down to see if commenting is restricted or not.

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Posted by Debra Katz
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 20, 2013 at 1:49 pm

Forgive my personal remarks when posting in my professional capacity, but I must briefly express disappointment in those citizens whose hostile references to all Utilities operations and staff as "lazy, overpaid, incompetent" etc. undermine the morale of dedicated men and women who regularly endure physical hardship in all kinds of weather to provide superior, reliable service. The managers and persons such as myself who worked all weekend long to help address Mr. Henner's situation did so on on our own time and without pay.

Is there always room for improvement? Sure! But if you want to attract and keep talented, committed people in government work, you need to respect and value them. Constructive criticism is of course always welcome (thank you to those commentators who provided that!).

I can't address all the comments/questions above (feel free to email me directly if you have an issue I've missed) but here are a few points:

* the 48-hour policy of USA is because the utilities involved are often multiple--including cable TV, PG&E, City of Palo Alto,AT&T etc.---and all those agencies can't/won't be able to send a locator crew to the property immediately. Often, the locating is done in much less than 48-hours but USA can't promise that in advance. 48 hours is a "worst case" scenario.

*In an emergency, if there is not time for a full USA location, it is indeed possible to resort to hand-digging instead, which is what we ended up doing for Mr. Henner. This takes MUCH longer (3-4 times as long) and is hard to do safely as it gets dark, so the crews onsite judged that it would be safer and smarter to wait and install a temporary water supply system over the weekend. Doing so did not create a hazard to anyone, although it did cause some inconvenience for Mr. Henner. People can debate that decision, but it certainly was not made out negligence or lack of caring about customers.

*Safety is our top priority and the safety of the customers involved and the quality of the water they received was never compromised.

*Copper pipes ARE NOT normal for underground installation---they are normal inside homes, running through walls, under floors etc.---and crews would have no way of anticipating that pipes laying in soil were made of this material that easily corrodes and breaks when exposed to soil,

Again, I am happy to address any concerns but with many other duties to attend to I can't continuously monitor these forums,so please email me directly at

With best regards,

Debra Katz
Utilities Communications Manager
City of Palo Alto

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Posted by parishilton
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 27, 2014 at 8:40 am

Water main repairs in Sussex, Surrey, Kent, Hampshire and South London - Including underground leak detection, exterior pipe tracing and repairs and free replacements to burst exterior pipes using moling technology.

Web Link

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