- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2003

Utility companies have begun to ask customers to pay a monthly fee as insurance in case the water pipes on customers' properties break.
Dominion Virginia Power, which provides electricity to about 614,000 customers in Alexandria and parts of Fairfax, Arlington, and Loudoun counties, is the first to solicit the fee. Other utilities in the Washington area are considering offering similar services.
Dominion's water-line-replacement program costs $3.25 a month and guarantees an owner's water line, up to 125 feet, for a single-family house.
If the line breaks, Dominion will repair it for free. Otherwise, the break is the homeowner's responsibility to fix, at a cost of at least $1,500.
Phone and electric companies have similar programs that insure lines inside a customer's home, which are the homeowner's responsibility.
"People like the peace of mind that we take care of contacting the plumbing company and they'll do the work within 24 hours," said Dan Donovan, spokesman for the Dominion affiliate offering the service.
The program is part of a series of insurance plans the company is rolling out.
"Dominion has done similar programs with electric lines going into customers' homes, so we figured: Why not water lines?" Mr. Donovan said.
While the response has been mixed, Mr. Donovan said he expected participation similar to the program's test in Richmond last year. Mr. Donovan would not say how many Richmond customers signed up.
Not all homeowners need the insurance, said Jim Hurt, a service manager and master plumber at My Plumber, a Manassas contractor.
"Anytime there's a transition from a hard freeze to warmer weather, you see the number of pipe breaks go up, but it's often the whim of the weather and pipe material," Mr. Hurt said. "I wouldn't buy it for my home."
The D.C. Sewer and Water Authority is monitoring the Dominion program and is planning a similar insurance plan to homeowners for sewage backups, Chief Financial Officer Paul Bender said.
"These sort of services give a homeowner peace of mind over something like sewage backups that happen each year simply because of the topography," he said.
However, city residents have less responsibility for their water lines than do suburban homeowners, Mr. Bender said.
"City residents tend to own very little of their home water lines because the line ownership is determined by the property lines," Mr. Bender said. "If the resident owns their home to the front door, it's not a big responsibility."
Jeanne Bailey, spokeswoman for Fairfax County Water Authority, said the measure would require additional approval from the state and was not an option the authority was considering.
The program must gain approval from the Virginia State Corporation Commission, the state's regulatory arm for public utilities.
Arlington County also has no plans for a water-pipe insurance program, spokeswoman Pamela Locke said.
But other utilities see the program as a timely service after a harsh winter caused a spike in the number of pipe bursts.
"It's an intriguing idea," said Liz Kalinowski, spokeswoman for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which supplies drinking water and sewage services to 1.6 million residents in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
The commission already has repaired 1,291 public water-pipe breaks from November to January. In an average year, the commission repairs 1,426 broken water lines.
"The number we've experienced this year gives you an idea that if it's this high for us, residents must be feeling the effects as well," Ms. Kalinowski said.
American Water Works, which provides water service to Alexandria and Hopewell, Va., residents, has a similar program in New Jersey, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Long Island, N.Y. The company may offer it locally in the future, spokeswoman Beverly Ingram said.

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