Delilah Ahadi thought the pinhole water leak above her garage early this year was an isolated incident. Then she and her husband were out walking the dog and noticed three plumbing repair trucks within a couple of blocks of their house on Rockport Drive.
She learned by asking one of the workers that some of her neighbors’ ceilings were caving in from water damage, leaving bills running $10,000 and up, often with insurance covering only a small portion of the total cost.
Three weeks later, another leak appeared in Ahadi’s garage two feet away from the first. Her plumber advised her to start saving for a total re-piping of her house.
“Thank goodness we didn’t patch up the drywall,” said Ahadi, who with her husband bought the 1995 home four years ago. “We’re anticipating another (leak).”
Since about January, home after home in northwest Bakersfield’s RiverLakes Ranch has suffered damage from thin copper pipes suddenly rupturing only about a quarter-century after construction.
Her neighbor Pamela Ritchie around the corner on Sealion Lane has had the ceiling collapse in her spare room twice lately. She can’t afford to have all her plumbing replaced, and though her son has replaced whole sections of pipe, the drywall repairs aren’t cheap.
“We just don’t know what we’re going to come to,” she said. “I’m listening for drips.”
Copper pipes eventually fail. What’s striking in the case of RiverLakes is that the rate of pinholes opening in copper pipes appear to have jumped abruptly in a concentrated area.
No firm numbers were available, but homeowners and people working in the area say leaks have recently become a regular occurrence there, affecting what some neighbors estimate to be dozens of homes.
RiverLakes homeowners have developed theories about what may have caused the rash of leaks. Meanwhile, no consensus has emerged on what can affordably be done to address it.
Homebuilders — several were active in the neighborhood in the mid-1990s — are generally liable for such problems for only 10 years after construction.
Insurance policies typically cover damage associated with individual plumbing accidents in the home, but they don’t usually pay to fix the root problem. Plus, deductibles on damage can be prohibitively expensive, leaving homeowners to shoulder most of the cost for short- and long-term solutions.
The problem appears to be the pipes themselves. Copper plumbing is usually expected to last twice to three times as long before failing as many have in RiverLakes.
Some homeowners have speculated the pipes were defective imports with walls thinner than called for by U.S. specifications. Others say copper ruptured faster than expected because of the chemical composition of the area’s drinking water.
Bakersfield plumber Owen Garrett said he has done a lot of whole-house re-piping jobs in RiverLakes lately — he called the situation there “a phenomenon” — and that he suspects the chemical composition of the pipes themselves.
The owner of Garrett’s Plumbing Co. Inc. said the problem doesn’t seem to be at the joints but in 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 copper pipes used in RiverLakes had relatively thin walls, but no thinner than the plumbing in many other homes around Bakersfield that are faring better.
The homebuilder wouldn’t be to blame, nor the plumbers who did the installation, he said, because they would have bought whatever product was being promoted by the local supplier that “may have been maybe not the best, not the cleanest manufacturing.”
Association manager Shannon Holloway at Unity Inc., which runs the RiverLakes Ranch Master Association homeowners group, said she feels terrible for people suffering through the ordeal. But she doesn’t have much help to offer them.
The problems seem to have centered north of Hageman Road near the intersection of Riverlakes and Southshore drives, Holloway said. She’s able to waive parking rules to accommodate people whose lives are being disrupted by the situation, but beyond that, she’s at a loss.
“You would love for somebody to be accountable,” she said, “but I don’t know who that would be at this point.”
RiverLakes homeowner Carlos “Charlie” Yzabal said he’s hoping someone files a class-action lawsuit, having spent $15,000 to have his house re-piped after three separate leaks since February. Only, he’s not sure whether the target should be the homebuilder or the pipe manufacturer.
His insurer paid about $1,000, covering only the direct damage. “It really hit us pretty hard,” he said.
Corey “CJ” Van Winkle on Sealion Lane said he heard water running that he thought was a leaky toilet. When it wasn’t, he felt around until his finger went through a bubble in a wall of the master bedroom closet.
That was three months ago; he has since found three more leaks, repairing each one himself rather than pay a $1,000 deductible just to fix the damage.
Van Winkle said he’s not ready to pay for re-piping the whole house, and his insurance company refuses, so these days he walks around the house looking for signs of a new leak.
Homeowner Denney Evans on Rockport Drive counts himself lucky for having spotted water coming through the exhaust fan in his master bath.
The repair was cheap, about $150, but after seeing plumbing repair trucks frequenting his neighborhood, he paid to replace all his overhead pipes but not the vertical ones in the walls, which would have cost a lot more to re-pipe.
The leak in Sandy Spray’s house on Sealion Lane came through the light over her kitchen bar. She noticed it March 12.
Since then she said about 10 homes on her street have experienced leaks. It makes her wonder about the rest of her pipes.
“The nerve-wracking thing is,” she said, “when’s the next one going to happen?”