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Bad Breaks; Homeowners might consider 'insurance'-type programs that protect them if a water supply line breaks

Five dollars a month for a water service line protection program could cover hundreds or thousands of dollars in unexpected repair bills if the line ever breaks.

Buffalo's Water Board recently began sending its customers information about a voluntary water service line repair or replacement program, offered through a private company. For $4.95 a month (billed annually at $59.40), the company covers all the costs of labor, materials and repairs if a leak springs in the section of line (from the house to the middle of the street) that is the homeowner's responsibility. Other firms also have been courting city property owners to purchase their plans with mailings.

For homeowners with older water systems or underground water lines near trees -- both more susceptible to breaking -- the program could be particularly beneficial.

But with an overall low rate of repairs, these warranties are often categorized among "insurance"-type plans that are unnecessary. They are often criticized around the country as scams, using alarming mailings to incite false concern in property owners, prompting them to buy plans they don't need.

But in Buffalo, a cracked water supply line is more likely, city officials said. In its older neighborhoods, aging pipes are easily 100 years old. And each year about 1,000 property owners pay as much as $1,000 to $8,000 repairing broken water lines.

City residents interested in the protection should be aware of what the program covers, whether they go with the city's recommendation or another company, said Jeff Miller, owner of T-J Mark Plumbing on Crestwood Avenue. He said water service-line repair programs often don't cover the entire portion of the line property owners are responsible for, so they may still pay high repair bills despite having the coverage. He said the part of the line located under the street, where leaks commonly occur, is the most expensive section to repair and is often not included.

"You have to know what's really being covered," Miller said. "Some of these policies are expensive, and 90 percent of them typically go from the curb valve and into the house. But you're responsible for your whole line."

>Not 'insurance'

Water companies offer these warranty programs around the country. Homeowners' insurance policies don't provide any coverage for water service lines, and protection programs are "service plans," not insurance, said Loretta L. Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute in New York City.

"One thing to keep in mind, this is not insurance," Worters said. "It is a service plan offered by an independent, private provider. The water district markets it to their customers, and provides billing along with water and sewer bills. Although it uses terms like 'deductible,' 'coverage' and 'exclusions,' the plan is not insurance; it promises to arrange for a contractor to repair your pipes, and guarantees their work for one year."

Worters added a notable difference from an insurance policy is the lack of state regulation, so property owners unhappy with their repairs are left without little recourse besides reporting a company to the Better Business Bureau or the attorney general's office in an egregious case.

Buffalo's program is with Dominion Products and Services. The company was vetted and selected last year by Veolia, the city's water operator. City officials said the program was created in response to the many requests from residents over the years for a water line protection plan.

"This is viewed as a tool to help our residents if they want to have it," said City Engineer Peter Merlo, adding it is being offered "to give people comfort."

With the protection plan, a private contractor is dispatched within 24 hours to fix or replace the damaged pipe. The work is done to the city's specifications and is later inspected.

"We think this program gives peace of mind to customers, who know they will avoid costly, unexpected repair bills," said Dan Donovan, director of media relations for Dominion Energy. Donovan said the coverage is for a single line to a single home or duplex, running from connection to the city's main water line to the first shutoff valve inside the residence. It doesn't apply to pre-existing conditions and coverage isn't available for lines more than 500 feet.

>Age matters

Donna Estrich, a member of the Water Board, said the age of the city's service lines makes leaks more likely because of the piping material used years ago.

"Older homes are more prone to having leaks than not," Estrich said. "The water system is just so old, the pipes just wear out." Pipes made out of copper are more durable and long-lasting, but older homes tend to have galvanized steel piping, which is more prone to bursting.

Some of the city's oldest water lines were installed in the mid-1800s, but most were installed in the late 1800s and in the 1920s. City residents are responsible for the maintenance and repair of the length of lines that run from their property to the city's water main.

Fixing a leak typically costs about $2,500 but can go as as high as $8,000, if the problem occurs in the middle of the street and requires a new line and repaving.

"It does happen," Miller said. "We've seen a few of those." From his experience, he said burst pipes are usually replaced, not repaired because of their condition. To avoid a second excavation and another round of costs, Merlo recommends getting new pipes over repair since faulty pipes tend to be so deteriorated.

While weather and tree roots can cause cracked pipes, Miller said leaks in Buffalo primarily are due to pipes being too old.

"Frost won't crack a copper pipe that's 10, 20 years old," he said. "But a 100-year-old pipe is a different story."

Signs of a leak include the appearance of water at surface level, low water pressure or hearing water running from your pipes when your faucets are not on. And if you're not aware of a leak, the city will let you know. Merlo said leaks are identified quickly through "visual detection" because the water rises to ground level and are usually discovered when other water issues are being addressed.

While the Water Board is recommending Dominion based on its research, Estrich said residents interested in the program are free to consider other providers.

>Know your property

The program might not be applicable to some residents. If you can't figure out the age of your lines or the material of your pipes, Estrich said give the Water Department a call at 847-1065. Relatively newer builds have the sturdier copper pipes, and in some cases the material is mixed. But if copper pipes were used for the portion entering the property, owners are still greatly protected from leaks.

"Look at the service coming into your home, and if you have copper service, you've got one of the best materials," said Merlo, whose home also has copper pipes. But he says he is still participating in the program.

"I'm a conservative person; I don't want to take any chances," he said. Merlo said he realizes the annual $59.40 bill could be a financial burden for some, but property owners should also know their risk level for leaks.

The city has a limited financial assistance program for low-income residents. Merlo said efforts are made to work with property owners to address the problem.

But leaks must be fixed immediately or service could be terminated when they compromise public safety, such as an above-ground leak in the winter that could lead to slips and falls.

"Once it becomes a hazard, a dangerous condition, that's when we tighten our reins," Merloadded.

But the water line protection was introduced to give property owners an alternative, a more affordable option, when faced with repairs.

"The more choices they have, the better," he said.


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