When Cera Alber and her husband, Cameron, bought a home in the Wild Acres lake community in 2014, their monthly water bill was usually $45 to $55. Suddenly, the bills became “astronomical.”
A technician from the Pennsylvania American Water Company (PAWC), a private utility, found the problem: a leak in the 100-foot line that ran from the meter on the street to their house. The water was turned off to keep their bills from escalating. Within a week, the line was patched.
“We were astonished that we would be responsible for paying the cost of the lost unused water,” Cera Alber said. But she said PAWC told her, “Someone has to pay for the water” -- even though they’d been paying a $7-a-month insurance policy covering water line repairs. The Albers later learned that the insurance company, American Water Resources, was not connected to PAWC. So they set up a monthly installment plan to pay the huge bill.
In May 2017, the Albers saw water seeping up from the ground, right where the line had been patched. Cera Alber called PAWC, and a plumber came out to their house. “The plumber called the company and pleaded to have the line completely replaced,” she said.
A few days later, the line was fixed, again. But PAWC refused to replace the line.
Two months later, the Albers discovered a third leak. They were already juggling two separate payment plans. They had no water during those hot summer days as they waited for repairs. Again, PAWC denied them a line replacement.
The Albers have a a toddler with multiple chronic illnesses, including early onset celiac disease and gastroparesis. Cera has an autoimmune disease. She works full time as an early childhood educator. Her husband is in active military service and law enforcement.
“I called and spoke to multiple representatives about the dire need to replace the main water line,” Cera said. “We could barely afford the current monthly payments on a payment plan, and now with a third leak, the amount was escalating.” Their payments had tripled, and repairs were delayed. “I was without water in my home with a young child with medical needs during this time,” she said.
PAWC did not care, she said. “Instead,” she said, “I received threatening voicemails and emails that my water, which I was already without, would be turned off and not restored.”
The Albers then filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Utility Commission. “They agreed this was ridiculous and causing our family unnecessary hardship,” Cera said. “We were then granted a full replacement of the main water line, and PAWC agreed to pay a percentage of the cost for the water that was lost due to the leak.”
In the end, the Albers still had to pay $1,670 over 18 months just for the excess water.
“Our front lawn was ripped up to replace the water line, and we had to argue to have them come back out to return the lawn to its original condition,” Cera Alber said. “They did eventually come back and fix the lawn, but that was another ordeal.”
She said they’d never missed a monthly payment. “My daughter’s pediatrician wrote a letter on our behalf saying we can’t be without water because of my daughter’s medical conditions,” Cera said. “Only then did they agree not to shut off the water. I am completely scarred from this whole experience and was shocked to learn that others in our community had gone through similar ordeals.”
Alicia Barbieri, manager of corporate communications for PAWC, said in an email to the Courier that the company could not respond in detail in order to protect customer privacy. “Pennsylvania American Water is in the process of reaching out to each of the customers directly to privately discuss their individual accounts,” she said.
Arona Kohn and her husband, Alexander J. Takacs III, moved to Wild Acres two and a half years ago. PAWC offered them, as they did the Albers, a $7-a-month water line insurance policy.
In March 2019, less than a year after they moved in, a leak sprung at their house. Kohn called PAWC.
“The bill was $872,” she said. “They told me I was responsible for the bill that was close to $1,000 for the water that leaked into the ground. The leak was repaired, but not the driveway,” under which the water line runs.
Last month, PAWC told them they had another leak on the main line to their house. It was gushing at least three gallons of water a minute. They thought they could use the insurance they’d gotten through PAWC.
“I asked if there would be any forgiveness for the large amount of water that never was used,” Kohn said. “They promptly informed me I would still be responsible for the full bill. I asked why the insurance didn’t cover forgiveness of excessive water use when clearly the water was never used.”
The same crew that fixed their water line in 2019 returned. Kohn asked PAWC for a new water main while the work crew was at their place. They were denied. PAWC told her the previous homeowner had six prior repairs on the same main line.
Their driveway, which runs up a steep slope, was becoming difficult to navigate. Kohn has Crohn’s disease and needs a reliable water source. Her husband is a retired Army veteran and works as a paramedic.
Kohn mistakenly thought their insurance would cover all costs associated with the broken line. And PAWC was unwilling to negotiate the bill down to something manageable. Kohn said the plumbers working at their house told her it is unusual to have water meters located near the street rather than at the house. Kohn and Takacs said their neighbors, 30-year residents who live across the street, told them PAWC moved their meters from their house to the street.
Barbieri said that when PAWC acquired Wild Acres in the mid-90s, “meters were situated in unheated crawl spaces, inside the homes and moved to pits in the late-90s. This relocation of meters allowed for easier access to the meter and helps to prevent meters from freezing.”
Tom Becker, former longtime water commissioner for the Village of Chester in nearby Orange County, N.Y., said water meters located at the street level are problematic because they can fill with water, and can potentially cross-contaminate with the main line if the fire company hooks up to them.
Kohn said, “It is obvious the PAWC is more concerned about ripping people off when a leak occurs. Sure they offer insurance to save you on the cost of repair, but the relocated meters on the street allow them to charge you high prices for water that never made it to your home. It seems to me that this is a bit of a scheme to get extra money out of people in a rural mountainous region.”
Kohn said PAWC knows there’s a problem at Wild Acres because they have been changing out the lines on the main streets, but not the lines from the main to individual homes. ”Everyone in the community is complaining, and no one is stepping up,” she said. She filed a complaint with the Public Utility Commission, who said they would investigate.
Barbieri said customers having trouble paying their bills can get help through PAWC’s H2O Help to Others Program by visiting amwater.com/paaw/customer-service-billing/customer-assistance-programs or calling 1-800-565-7292.
“We explained multiple times we could not afford the proposed monthly payment plan, our need for water due to medical conditions, that we have a young child, and we are experiencing financial hardship. They did not care. Instead, I received threatening voicemails and emails that my water, which I was already without, would be turned off and not restored.” --Cera Alber