Water chief: Play it safe, shut it off

SALEM – Utilities Superintendent Don Weingart is urging homeowners to turn their water off at the water meter if they’re going to be away for more than a couple days.

If they’re going south for the winter or a home will be vacant, he suggested shutting the water off completely and having the meter disconnected.

The topic came up Tuesday when a woman came to the Utilities Commission meeting asking for assistance with a high water and sewer bill which resulted when pipes froze and caused a leak in her vacant Salem home.

“This is an unfortunate condition brought to the Utilities Department a few weeks ago,” Weingart said.

The spike occurred on the February bill for usage in January, showing a cost of $573 for water consumption and $961 for the sewer portion. He said the sad part about it was that there was no consumption on the water side since January 2010.

The woman has been caring for an elderly relative since then and living with them, but didn’t have the water shut off.

The commission routinely requires customers to pay the water portion of a high bill caused by a mechanical problem or other situation because the water has been used, but waives the excess sewer charge if it’s determined that clean water went through the system and there’s a hardship. In those cases, the customer is asked to pay the total of their average sewer bill.

In this case, Weingart noted that the water portion would have to be paid, but he suggested the commission split the sewer side in half. In the end, the total bill to be paid would be $1,053.

The commission tabled any action on the bill, with commission member Ben Funderburg saying he wanted more time to think about it and wanted to see the damage to the house. Weingart explained that in this case, there was no way to determine how much water went into the system, with evidence that some went outside and some remained in the house, causing extensive damage. Even if the water is clean, the city still has a cost when the water goes through the sewage treatment plant.

Funderburg said even at half the cost, he still felt that was going to be an enormous hardship on the woman. The water is now shut off to the residence. Commission Chairman Bob Hodgson recused himself from any vote related to the bill because he knows her. For now, the bill is on hold until the commission makes a decision, possibly at the March 11 meeting.

Weingart described the situation as a cautionary tale. As a precaution, he said it’s good to shut off the water at the meter before leaving for a couple days or a short vacation and to shut the water off and disconnect the meter if leaving for an extended period, especially if the home’s going to be vacant for a long time. He said the home should be winterized, especially if it’s during the colder months, all windows should be checked to make sure they are shut so cold air can’t get inside.

Both Weingart and Hodgson said they’ve been told if a home is vacant more than 30 days, insurance companies won’t cover any damages from a water leak.

The commission has been working on cases like this on a case-by-case basis, but the utilities department staff members have been working on a written procedure to follow.

“There’s got to be some personal responsibility with some of the situations we’ve been seeing lately,” Hodgson said.

The department notices when water or sewage usage is unusually high and makes an effort to contact the homeowner to see what’s wrong. Anyone with questions regarding what they should do if leaving for an extended period should call the utilities department.