DUARTE — Raymond Moreau was awakened recently by a noise he has learned to dread.
What sounded like water running behind a wall was actually the automatic ice maker in his refrigerator--but, he said, the incident is indicative of the stress he has been living under for the past six years.
"I only desire to live in comfort and without fear," said Moreau, one of at least 1,000 Duarte homeowners whose residences have been damaged by water leaking through tiny holes in their copper water pipes.
Homeowners say that the so-called "pinhole leaks" release only small amounts of water but that the steady drip, when undetected, adds up to enough water to cause serious damage.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, eight developers built 2,000 homes in Community Redevelopment Agency project areas. Since then, an estimated 57% of the homes have developed the leaks.
The developers blame California-American Water Co., which supplies water to Duarte. The water company faults the pipe used by the developers.
The city isn't taking sides.
Some of the developers paid for repairs of the damage caused by the leaks until they decided last year that the water company was at fault because of the chemical makeup of its well water. Cal-Am admits that its water is corrosive but suggests that the pipes may be defective.
Now that the homeowners have to pay for the repairs, they are frustrated and resentful.
Moreau had three leaks between 1980 and 1986 in his home, which was built by a developer who did not pay for any repairs. Moreau's first leak, which cost $1,000 to repair, and a second, which cost $1,600, were covered by insurance. Then, he said, his policy was canceled, and he paid the $1,800 cost of the third leak himself.
'Living on Time Bomb'
"The point is that it is not only a financial problem but I feel like I am living on a time bomb," he said. "I keep waiting to hear another leak. The water ruined my carpet and 50 pairs of shoes."
Ron Johnson, who has organized some of the residents into the Duarte Homeowners Assn., said the firm that developed his home repaired his first two leaks, but he fixed the last one himself.
"I am upset and all stressed out because there is no end to it," said Christina Sidrow, who had three leaks between 1981 and this March.
"I completely had the plumbing rerouted through the attic because I didn't want the foundation torn up like it was the first time. But there is no guarantee that even the new, thicker pipe will work. It just might take longer for the leaks to develop.
'I Have a Lemon'
"The emotional wear and tear is worse than spending the money," she said. "I have a lemon on my hands, and I feel I have no control over the situation."
City Manager Jess Duff said the City Council "has realized through the citizens that this is a widespread problem and somebody has to address it. This does not mean that the city is responsible for the problem, but the city does feel some responsibility in assisting the citizens in finding a solution."
The city, which had been trying to get the homeowners to work directly with the water company, has decided to hire an independent engineering firm to find a solution.
The project is going out to bid, and the report should be completed in four to six months, said Dominic Milano, director of community development.
He said most of the affected homes are north of Huntington Drive, adding that most of those that could be expected to develop the problem have already had at least one leak.
City Plans Mailers
"We don't know how many homes have been affected, but we plan to send mailers to all the homeowners so we can compile statistical information," Milano said.
While careful not to assess blame, Duff said: "There is a strong possibility that doing something to change the water can reduce the problem. This is not to say that water is the problem; it can be a combination of factors such as both the piping and the water. There is a theory that the way the pipe was installed has some bearing."
The city has formed a committee, informally called the Water Committee, to help pick the engineering firm and ensure that the study is impartial. The committee consists of the mayor, the city manager, the community development director, a representative of the water company and residents of each housing development built in the last 10 years.
Although the city in 1985 began requiring thicker copper pipe, Peg Kean of Kaufman and Broad Home Corp. does not think that is the solution.
Kean, who blames the water, said: "The question is how long you would stay without a hole if the water is the same. Even if thicker copper is used, it just takes longer for the leaks to develop.
'Top of Line' Pipe
"We use this type of pipe on a regular basis, and it is considered by the industry to be top of the line. We have had no problems in other cities, so we believe it is the water."