Palisades Highlands homeowner Tony Alden realized something was very wrong one morning last month when he peered out the front door to find his lawn under water.
"His whole front yard was under six inches of water," said Alden's neighbor, Steve Siegel. "You could have put goldfish in there, and they could have swum around."
Alden later determined that the 60-foot plastic pipe running from the water meter at the curb to his home on Avenida de Cortez had burst, sending hundreds of gallons of water into his yard and nearby property. He also learned that many of his neighbors had similar problems with bursting water lines and leaky sprinkler heads.
Alden and a group of other homeowners in the Pacific Highlands suspect that a significant increase in water pressure caused the damage.
The increase occurred over 20 days in June when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power slowly began filling a new 1-million-gallon tank at the upper end of Palisades Drive to serve new development, water department engineer Jerry Gewe said.
Water pressure in the highlands increased from 220 to 320 pounds per square inch in the lower elevations and from 60 to 160 pounds in the upper elevations, Gewe said last week.
The water department had begun raising the pressure in March but stopped because of reports of broken water lines, he said. The department then mailed registered letters warning Highlands residents to install pressure regulators as a precaution against plumbing damage. But the letter did not mention the possibility of ruptures in the pipes connecting the street meters to the houses.
Residents contend that the water department should have warned them to install pressure regulators at the water meters or required regulators when the houses were built more than 10 years ago.
They also say the city should have realized that an increase in water pressure would be necessary to bring water to newly constructed houses at higher elevations. They contend that the city should pay for the thousands of dollars in plumbing repairs.
"From where I sit, I blame the city," said Hyman H. Haves, chairman of the 13 homeowner associations in the Palisades Highlands. "The city building code is the one that allows plastic lines to go in. It's much cheaper than copper, but at the same time, I've yet to hear of a copper pipe blowing out."
Haves said he is polling the homeowner groups to determine the extent of plumbing damage that has occured since June. Association presidents are scheduled to discuss their concerns with a representative of Mayor Tom Bradley at 7:45 p.m. Monday in the recreation center on Palisades Circle.
DWP 'Not Liable'
But the water department told Haves in a May 8 letter that the utility is blameless.
"The department's control and responsibility ends at its shut-off valve or meter," said Ronald A. McCoy, engineer in charge of the water operating division of the water department. The utility is not liable for damage caused by "open faucets, burst pipes or faulty fixtures or appliances on the premises."
Although the Los Angeles building code requires pressure regulators on pipes going into houses when water pressure exceeds 80 pounds per square inch, it does not require regulators on outdoor systems, including sprinklers, McCoy said in the letter. Nevertheless, he recommended regulators on sprinkler systems when the water pressure exceeds 150 pounds per square inch.
The regulators reduce the possibility of pipe breakage and rapid wear of valves and sprinkler heads, he said.
Although the department's own experiences with plastic piping have been "very poor," Gewe said he had no reason to assume that the outdoor water lines would burst with the pressure increase. Plastic pipes installed when the houses were built still meet building code regulations, he said.
The extent of damage in the neighborhood is unknown, but Hercules Rossilli, owner of Palisades Plumbing, said he has worked on a dozen pipeline breaks and installed or replaced an estimated 100 pressure regulators since the pressure increase.
"Any weak lines or plastic underground is going to be greatly affected," said Rossilli, adding that he has replaced plastic, galvanized steel and copper pipes.
"I could tell you horror stories from things we've found underground, but I would attribute that to handymen," he said. Avenida de Cortez resident Rolf Raima, whose plastic waterline ruptured and needed replacing, said homeowners have been paying $600 to $1,800 for the installation of regulators and new pipes, depending on the plumber and extent of damage.
"Almost every day you walk down the street and you see water emanating from somewhere else," said Siegel, who lives near Raima.
But Bob Picott, chief of the mechanical bureau for the city Building and Safety Department, said his inspectors would not have approved plastic piping had they known pressures would be increased to 300 pounds per square inch. The department could not have known during the construction of the first homes more than 13 years ago that the water department would raise water pressure that much, Picott said.
W. Charles Chastain, president of Headland Properties Inc., the developer of the Highlands, said the community now has a population of about 3,300 people in 1,100 units, including 425 houses and the rest, condominiums. The first houses were completed in 1972.
The Highlands is expected to have 1,800 units at its scheduled completion in 1990, Chastain said.