Last year, when the city of Phoenix told residents in the north Phoenix neighborhood of Sunnyslope that they'd be getting a new water main and service lines, it seemed like a decent deal.
"These infrastructure improvements will provide you with better water service due to continued main breaks of the existing rear main," said a letter from Phoenix's Water Services Department that went out to residents in spring 2018. The project area stretched from Mountain View Road to Peoria Avenue, between Seventh and 15th avenues, and covered 140 homes.
"The cost for this relocation work will be paid by the City of Phoenix," the letter added. "THERE IS NO COST TO YOU."
Not exactly, several residents in the project area soon realized. The more-attentive ones watched in horror from the beginning as workers from contractor RKS Plumbing & Mechanical Inc. dug ditches in slapdash fashion for the requisite new water service lines, which connected the plumbing in their houses to the water mains that had been moved from alleyways to streets.
A selection of the damages: Workers cracked at least one concrete driveway, dug ditches perilously close to at least two trees (resulting in the demise of at least one), tossed their trash in said ditches, and — most alarmingly — backfilled them with unsifted dirt littered with pebbles, fist-sized rocks, and chunks of asphalt, in an apparent violation of plumbing code.
These hard, sharp objects went directly onto soft, bare copper pipe that is susceptible to pricks and leaks. At two properties, these pipes were laid shallower than the required depth of 18 inches, as Phoenix New Times viewed. Some residents said they couldn't get cold water in the summer; the depth of their water lines is unknown.
Now, residents like Pam Jimenez fear that they, the homeowners, could soon be on the hook for thousands of dollars in repairs for anything from leaks to breaks, all because of shoddy work done by a city contractor, paid in taxpayer dollars. Water line repairs are the responsibility of homeowners, while the city covers water mains.
The city contracted with a different company to replace the water mains in the project area.
According to the city, the area's water infrastructure was aging, and these repairs were necessary.
Water Services Department spokesperson Stephanie Bracken said via email that the previous water mains in the area, the ones that ran through alleys behind homes, were three-inch, substandard mains that likely dated to the pre-1950s. They didn't meet current fire-protection requirements of six-inch mains, and they had "hit their expected life term," Bracken wrote.
She acknowledged that one of the residents' issues "raises concerns" for the city.
How Not to Lay a Copper Pipe
Workers from RKS spent nearly a week at Pam Jimenez's house in May 2018 to dig the ditch for the new water line. They cut right through several pipes of her irrigation system and veered directly alongside a tree that she had asked them to keep away from.
Photos she took of the work show a ditch backfilled with dirt and stones, with a copper pipe jutting up out of the ditch.
The sloppy work appeared to be a flagrant violation of International Plumbing Code, which the city of Phoenix must follow. Section 306 of the 2018 Code states that "backfill shall be free from discarded construction material and debris." It adds, "Loose earth free from rocks, broken concrete and frozen chunks shall be placed in the trench."
It also states that in digging the trench, any rock encountered "shall be removed to not less than three inches below the installation level of the bottom of the pipe," and the trench backfilled "with sand tamped in place."
"The pipe, including the joints, shall not rest on rock at any point," it says.
"We live in an alluvial plain in the mountains," Randy Kashmark, Jimenez's neighbor, pointed out. The yards for most homes in the area, which sits in the shadow of North Mountain, are filled with sharp, jagged rocks.
"If there's rocky soil, the trench needs to be over-excavated [and] backfilled with a neutral material like pea gravel or sand," said Kashmark, who worked in plumbing in the 1980s.
"They didn't do any of that," he said. At his house, Kashmark ended up doing or redoing certain parts of the job himself, like the hookup to the house, but parts of the copper pipe at his house are still resting on rock, he said.
He said, and the city confirmed, that the water service line pipe is supposed to be buried at least 18 inches deep.
Other residents who were similarly handy or experienced in plumbing and construction also took matters into their own hands, either pre-emptively or because they had problems soon after the line was done.
Noe Fernandez saw workers dumping trash into the service-line ditch. After they backfilled it, he watched the ground above the trench sink, and concluded it was "really bad work," his son Aldair said, interpreting from his father's Spanish. Asked how deep the pipe was buried, Fernandez held up his hands about 12 inches apart.
Fernandez also did not trust that the old water line, the one that had been hooked up to the water main in the alley, had been properly capped off. If it wasn't, it could leak, and so, he did it himself, along with other work like filling in the trench with sand, removing paving stones, and returning them.
Two houses down, a homeowner named Alejandro Gomez said that the workers from RKS cracked the pipe that connected the water service line to his house. It was leaking, so Gomez, who is a roofer by trade, fixed it himself.
"I'm pretty sure they didn't do it right," he said.
Next door to Gomez, Don Zamarripas said he saw workers lay copper pipe and throw rocks on top of it. In August 2018, the city turned on the new water main. A few weeks later, Zamarripas noticed a leak. He went to Home Depot, bought some pipe, and redid the job, something he didn't expect to have to do.
"I figured the city knew what it was doing," he said of the project.
The City's Oversight
To test homeowners' claims of code violations, New Times randomly selected spots in Jimenez's yard and that of her next-door neighbor, Debra Podjed. Kashmark dug carefully, to avoid damaging the pipe.
From Podjed's yard, out came a softball-sized chunk of asphalt, among other, smaller clumps and numerous rocks. Clearly, the dirt had not been sifted.
Podjed's water line was also no more than 15 inches deep — three inches short of the required 18 inches.
Fewer rocks emerged from above Jimenez's water line, which was about 14 inches deep.
Mike Lewis, the foreman from RKS Plumbing, told New Times that residents who were unhappy needed to take it up with the city. "We put everything in according to the city," he said. "We only get paid for what we're paid to do."
The job was "dig a ditch, put a one-inch copper pipe in, and backfill," he said. Asked why at least two water lines were not 18 inches deep, he said, "I couldn't answer that," then suggested that in the year since the pipe had been laid, perhaps activities such as landscaping had caused the pipe's depth to change.
"Anything's possible," Lewis said.
A message left at RKS for the project supervisor, Justin Farrar, was not returned.
Bracken, the water department spokesperson, said that staff from the city's Water Engineering Division had been on-site during the installation, "to ensure this minimum depth [of 18 inches] was met," with officials from the Planning and Development Department doing a final verification and inspection.
Upon being sent photographs of Jimenez and Podjed's shallowly buried water lines, Bracken said that the city was "willing to come out and meet with the resident to verify the situation and to develop an appropriate resolution to the issues."
Asked how water service lines could be too shallow if city inspectors were on-site during their installation, Bracken wrote, "When I spoke to staff, I verified with them that the installation for a project like this was approximately 18 inches. If you can provide me an address, I can look into this further and see if the city has more information that can help answer your question."
She added, "We do not have anything in our record noting any differentiation."
Bracken also said that the photograph of chunks of asphalt unearthed from above Podjed's water line "raises concerns," and that the city would be "willing to meet with this resident to further investigate this matter."
RKS' $375,000 contract with the city required it to finish the job "in a good and workmanlike and substantial manner and to the satisfaction of [the City of Phoenix]."
Another aspect of the project that disturbed Jimenez, Podjed, and Kashmark was a one-year warranty they think they signed last year, as part of an authorization form allowing workers to access their property in order to install the water lines.
But they never got copies of the form, which they mailed back to the city or handed in person to its representative, and so they couldn't remember the terms of the warranty. All three remembered it as a one-year warranty, a length of time they all scoffed at. Earlier this year, Podjed and Jimenez took a trip downtown to the Water Services Department, in an effort to meet with the people who managed the project, voice their complaints, and get a copy of the mystery warranty.
They never got to meet those people, Ben Green and Matthew Woodland, at City Hall. "There wasn't enough advance notice to accommodate their request," Bracken said. She said that both men had previously spoken with Jimenez, and Green with Podjed, and that RKS had "addressed all of the residents’ concerns, as well as later concerns that were directly related to the project."
"The residents continued to raise additional concerns. At a certain point, the requested items and concerns continued, but were no longer related to the plumbing work completed by the city," she said.
Bracken provided New Times with a copy of the authorization form, which indeed mentions a warranty — by the contractor, for a year starting with the date of the new water connection. It also states that the contractor would "restore disturbed surface areas and landscaping to a like, or better condition."
Beyond that, the form offers sparse details about the warranty.
"I'd never have signed a one-year warranty on this kind of work," Podjed said.
She knew that the dirt used to backfill her service-line trench had not been sifted, despite RKS's claims, because her husband, John Hinton, was home that day and watched them work.
Podjed was concerned, too, that the old water line, which runs into the alley behind their house, had not been properly capped off. She began saving paper copies of her water bills, so that if they inexplicably increase, she'll know to suspect a leak.
Podjed questioned whether the contractors had done everything they were supposed to.
"I feel like there's a lot of disrespect for the people," she added.
After the work on her water line was finished, Jimenez began receiving notices from Service Line Warranties of America with the city of Phoenix's logo on them. The notices urged her to purchase voluntary water service line coverage from the company, "who has partnered with the City of Phoenix to offer this coverage."
A breakdown could cost her "thousands of dollars in unplanned expenses," the letters warned. Elsewhere in Arizona, residents have questioned SLWA and its partnership with local governments, calling it a scam.
Jimenez ignored the letters. Podjed purchased service-line coverage through her homeowners' insurance with State Farm. They, along with Kashmark, filed complaints against RKS with the state's Registrar of Contractors, which dismissed them.
All they want now, they say, is a 15- to 20-year warranty from the city, to cover any service-line breaks or leaks that they see as being the fault of shoddy workmanship done by a city-hired contractor.
Bracken said that because the city provides a one-year warranty, residents who had concerns beyond that period who believed the city was at fault "can file a claim through the Finance Department's Risk Management Division."
Miguel and Maribel Rosales moved into their home in Sunnyslope last December, so they missed the shenanigans that their neighbors dealt with. But they did notice that, this past summer, their new home had no cold water.
Another resident, who declined to be named, had the same problem. She said she had lived in her house, which is down the street from the Rosales', since the 1970s.
Before the new water mains and water service lines went in, she used to get cold water in the summer.
"When we shower, we don't need the hot water," she said. "In the summertime, my cold water is hot."