Leaky pipes flood budgets

Area homeowners annoyed and worried about frequent breaks

April 16, 2000|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Amy Pelsinski's quarterly water bill jumped from $70 to $500 in January. The statement showed that Pelsinski and her husband had increased consumption by 114,000 gallons.

"I knew we must have a leak, and the irony was the bill had `possible leak' written on it," said Pelsinski, who moved to the Carrolltowne community in South Carroll a year ago. "They found a leak outside, but they could not find out why it happened."

It cost the couple $3,500 to replace 130 feet of pipe at their Eldersburg home. They also had to pay the costs of repaving their driveway and replacing their lawn.

In Carrolltowne and several other South Carroll communities, leaking pipes are wreaking havoc on lawns, homes and family budgets. Copper pipes are springing pinhole-size leaks, spilling thousands of gallons of water into the ground. About 100 homes have been affected, and for some, repair costs are in the thousands of dollars.

Nearly 7,000 homes in South Carroll are hooked into the public water system, which draws from Liberty Reservoir. The increasing frequency of the leaks has raised questions about water quality and water pressure. Fearful residents are avoiding their tap water and instead drinking bottled water.

"The problem seems to be everywhere in South Carroll," said Randy Holland, president of the Carrolltowne Homeowners Association. "Pipes are bursting between the county water main and the house. This shouldn't be happening to homes that are only 10 to 15 years old. If water is corroding the pipes this quickly, what is it doing to us?"

The Maryland Department of the Environment is monitoring the situation, said agency spokesman Richard J. McIntire.

"We have a bona fide mystery on our hands," McIntire said. "There is no clear-cut answer as to what's causing this. The county is fully in compliance with the lead and copper standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency."

In the past year, homes along the Liberty Road corridor at Carroll Square, Carrolltowne and Clipper Hill have had major leaks. At least a dozen Carrolltowne homeowners have replaced exterior water lines, Holland said.

"You see the backhoes on the front lawn and you know what is happening," Holland said.

After conducting several tests and reviewing routinely collected data, county officials found no corrosive elements in the water and no systemic cause of the problem. At a public information session with residents last month, many took advantage of an offer for free water tests. No corrosive elements were found in the samples, officials said.

A corrosion consultant could perform an independent study for $20,000, a cost the county commissioners called prohibitive and refused to pay. That decision has angered residents.

"I almost invited the commissioners to a groundbreaking party this week," said Carol Brown, president of the Carroll Square Homeowners Association. "I had a 75-foot trench dug in my yard so plumbers could replace pipe because of a leak in the main line exterior."

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said the county has not put the problem on the back burner and is keeping a record of all reported complaints.

"I think we have to do testing to make sure everything is OK," said Gouge. "If there is something there that we don't know about, we need to do further testing. We are not sitting still."

A survey by residents of 185 homes in Carroll Square determined about 25 percent have experienced problems with water pipes, both inside and outside their homes.

"The county is just not taking this problem seriously," Brown said. "Many of us have stopped drinking the water. Emotions are running high, and the level of trust in government is low."

For many such as Brown, a saturated lawn was the first sign of trouble. The county conducted a test that determined a leak existed. Brown said she interviewed several plumbers who all had different diagnoses of the problem. All said the pipes had to be replaced, a frequent problem in homes more than 25 years old like hers, she was told.

Residents are reviewing the county's most recent water quality report, sending water and pipe samples to independent labs and looking to the county for advice.

"These are not old houses. We have good copper pipes and this should not be happening," said Pelsinski.

The county continues to investigate, said Gary Horst, director of enterprise and recreation services. It has studied the water pressure and collected samples from the water treatment plant, as well as at random locations and pipes in homes with leaks. Horst has also met with the county's plumbing advisory board.

"Our testing data revealed nothing wrong with the water and we are testing continuously, both outside the plant and at dozens of locations throughout the system," said Horst. "We don't know why. It could be simply the age of the piping or the quality put in originally."

Tests measured acidity, temperature, alkalines and conductivity; all were within acceptable levels, said Horst. The state has also reviewed the data and reached similar conclusions, officials said.

"At this point, we can't rule anything out," said McIntire. "We may even have to look at the quality and craftsmanship of the pipes."

Staff writer Brenda J. Buote contributed to this article.

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