Delilah Ahadi thought the small water leak above her garage earlier this year was an isolated incident. Then she and her husband were walking the dog and noticed three plumber’s repair trucks just a few blocks from their home on Rockport Drive.
When she asked one of the workers, she learned that water damage had caused some of her neighbors’ ceilings to collapse, leaving bills of $10,000+, with insurance often covering only a small portion of the total cost.
Three weeks later, another leak appeared in Ahadi’s garage two feet from the first. Her plumber advised her to save up for a complete re-plumbing of her house.
“Thank God we didn’t mend the dry stone walls,” says Ahadi, who bought the house in 1995 with her husband four years ago. “We expect another (leak).”
Since about January, house after house at RiverLakes Ranch in northwest Bakersfield has suffered damage from thin copper tubing that suddenly ruptured just about a quarter of a century after construction.
Around the corner from her neighbor Pamela Ritchie on Sealion Lane, the ceiling in her guest bedroom has collapsed twice recently. She can’t afford to have all of her plumbing replaced, and although her son has replaced entire sections of pipe, the drywall repairs don’t come cheap.
“We just don’t know what we’re going to achieve,” she said. “I listen for drops.”
Copper tubing eventually fails. What is striking in the case of RiverLakes is that the rate of pinholes opening in copper tubing appears to have increased abruptly in a concentrated area.
No firm numbers were available, but homeowners and people working in the area say leaks have been a regular occurrence there lately, impacting what some neighbors estimate are dozens of homes.
RiverLakes homeowners have developed theories as to what may have caused the leaks to erupt. In the meantime, no consensus has emerged on what can be done cheaply to address it.
Builders – several were active in the neighborhood in the mid-1990s – are usually only liable for such problems for 10 years after construction.
Insurance policies typically cover damage related to an individual plumbing accident in the home, but typically don’t pay to fix the root problem. Additionally, damage deductibles can be prohibitively expensive, leaving homeowners to shoulder most of the cost for short- and long-term solutions.
The problem seems to be the tubes themselves. Copper plumbing is typically expected to last two to three times longer before failing, as many did at RiverLakes.
Some homeowners have speculated that the pipes were faulty imports with thinner walls than US specifications called for. Others say copper broke faster than expected due to the chemistry of the region’s drinking water.
Bakersfield plumber Owen Garrett said he’s been doing a lot of plumbing work around the house at RiverLakes lately – he called the situation there “a phenomenon” – and he suspects the chemistry of the pipes themselves.
The owner of Garrett’s Plumbing Co. Inc. said the problem does not appear to be with the joints but with the straight sections of pipe.
“It just seems like it has something to do with the impurities in the metal,” he said. He added that the copper pipes used in RiverLakes have relatively thin walls, but no thinner than the pipes in many other better-off homes in the Bakersfield area.
It’s not the fault of the builder or the plumbers who did the installation, he said, because they bought every product advertised by the local supplier that “may not have been the best, not the cleanest manufacture.”
Association manager Shannon Holloway of Unity Inc., who runs the RiverLakes Ranch Master Association homeowners group, said she feels terrible for the people suffering the ordeal. But she can’t help them much.
The problems appear to have been concentrated north of Hageman Road near the intersection of Riverlakes and Southshore Drives, Holloway said. She can forego parking rules to accommodate people whose lives are being disrupted by the situation, but beyond that she is at a loss.
“They would love for someone to be held accountable,” she said, “but I don’t know who that would be at this point.”
RiverLakes homeowner Carlos “Charlie” Yzabal said he hopes someone will file a class action lawsuit after spending $15,000 to re-pipe his home after three separate leaks since February. But he’s not sure whether it should be the house builder or the pipe manufacturer.
His insurer paid about $1,000 and only covered direct damage. “It really hit us pretty hard,” he said.
Corey “CJ” Van Winkle at Sealion Lane said he heard water running which he assumed was a leaking toilet. When it wasn’t, he fumbled until his finger slipped through a blister in a wall of the master bedroom closet.
That was three months ago; He’s since found three more leaks and repaired each one himself rather than paying a $1,000 deductible just to fix the damage.
Van Winkle said he wasn’t willing to pay for the whole house to be re-piped and his insurance company is refusing, so these days he’s walking around the house looking for signs of a new leak.
Homeowner Denney Evans on Rockport Drive is fortunate to see water coming out of the exhaust fan in his master bath.
The repair was cheap, about $150, but after seeing plumbing repair trucks cruising around his neighborhood, he paid to have all of his overhead piping replaced, but not the vertical ones in the walls, which would have cost a lot more to re-pipe.
The leak at Sandy Spray’s home on Sealion Lane came through the light above her kitchen bar. She noticed it on March 12th.
Since then, leaks have appeared in about 10 houses on her street, she said. She wonders about the rest of her whistles.
“The nerve-wracking thing is,” she said, “when is the next one going to happen?”