Water line protection plan splits fans, foes

When the water line on Laura Battle's property burst last year, the scene was not pretty.

"Water was bubbling up through the driveway like a fountain," she said. "It was just like the Beverly Hillbillies, except it wasn't oil."

To fix it, a plumbing contractor came in with a back hoe, dug up their yard to locate the pipe, which was several feet below ground, replaced it and reconnected it to the main water line.

Then came the $1,500 bill.

The repairs, it turns out, were not covered by her homeowner's insurance. Nor would the water company pay for it, since the line was on her property.

Now, even though she has a new line installed, Battle plans to enroll in American Water Resources' water line protection program. Should a homeowner have a water leak due to normal wear and tear, the company will pay for repairs to the "customer-owned water line," the line from a home to the water company's main line, usually at the street.

The cost: $5 per month.

"Having lived through that nightmare, it's worth it to me," Battle said.

The plan, available to owners of single-family homes, "covers normal wear and tear," said Clifford Groh, director of business development for New Jersey-based American Water Resources.

"So far thousands have signed up for the program," Groh said. "We've been very pleased with the response."

Selling in Illinois

But Ronda Craig of Champaign isn't sold on the idea.

"On the one hand, it's not much, but how often does this happen?" Craig asked. "Driving around town, how many times have I seen the destruction of a front yard due to construction on the water line?"

Groh declined to say how often the company has handled repair claims in other states.

Eddy Tartar, owner of Urbana Plumbing & Heating, said he repairs about 10 to 12 water lines on residential properties each year. He is also not a fan of the plan.

"It's just another way for the water company to get some of your money," Tartar said.

According to the Illinois Commerce Commission, American Water Resources is "an unregulated affiliate" of Illinois American Water Co., said commission spokeswoman Beth Bosch.

American Water Resources is a subsidiary of American Water, of which Illinois American Water is also a subsidiary. American Water is a subsidiary of the German utility company RWE Group.

In 2002, Illinois American Water requested the Illinois Commerce Commission's permission to market the water line protection plan using Illinois American Water's logo and letterhead. The commission denied the request in September 2003.

According to the commission's final order, "it is not in the public interest to allow (Illinois American Water Co.) to lend its name and assistance in marketing the (water line protection plan) to Illinois rate payers."

The commission's order also said that members were "troubled by the lack of any analysis justifying the offering of the (water line protection plan) to Illinois rate payers."

Two and a half months later, American Water Resources started mailing promotional fliers to Illinois American Water Co. customers.

In their testimony to the Illinois Commerce Commission, the Citizens Utility Board and Illinois Attorney General's Office contended that the use of Illinois American Water Co. letterhead to promote the interests of its affiliate "was likely to generate customer confusion," according to the final order.

When she received the flyer in the mail, Craig thought it was from the water company.

"It looks like it's from the water company," she said.

She called her insurance agent, the water company and consulted with her husband about whether or not the program was worth buying.

"I opted not to get it," she said.

According to David Kolata, director of policy and governmental affairs with the utility board, "a vast majority" of water company customers "would never benefit from the program. You're buying insurance against the possibility that the water lines under your property will leak from normal wear and tear, but most water lines never leak from normal wear and tear," he said.

Program vs. policy

Tartar said the majority of water lines break or leak due to old age.

"The galvanized pipes installed in the '30s and '40s corrode and break. Homes in the older parts of town are most susceptible," he said.

Repair costs can run about $1,500 to $2,000. But he said costs can vary widely depending on whether pipes need to be repaired or new ones installed, or if things like tree roots will be disturbed during the repair.

Breaks and leaks don't always happen in old pipes, Groh said. Due to soil acidity, how carefully and deep the lines were installed and whether the soil is rocky or not, plastic or copper lines can also corrode, leak or break, Groh said.

The water line protection program is a program, not an insurance policy or contract.

American Water Resources will not pay for all repairs to the customer-owned water line. For example, it will not pay for damages to the line caused by a homeowner. Should you accidentally puncture the line while digging, the company won't pay for repairs, Groh said.

Or should lightning strike your line or an earthquake occur and the line burst, the company won't cover costs, he added.

Neither does the plan cover repair costs to any extra connections or extensions of the line to devices like sprinklers.

And the maximum amount the company will pay for repairs is $4,000.

State Farm Insurance spokesman Joe Johnson said homeowner policies will cover da- mages to a homeowner's water line because it is on the homeowner's property and is considered an extension of the home.

However, the policy will cover only damages to the line caused by acts of nature, such as freezing, but it won't cover normal wear and tear, such as clogging, he said.

Cathy Oloffson, spokeswoman for Country Insurance & Financial Services in Bloomington, said a homeowner policy with Country typically doesn't provide coverage for damages to underground pipes due to wear and tear.

"It would be rare that we would have claims involving underground pipes that would be covered," she said.

To find out more information on what your homeowner's insurance covers, check with your agent, Oloffson said.

You can reach Christine des Garennes at (217) 351-5388 or via e-mail at cgarenne@news-gazette.com

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