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Speaking Out

Plumbing the Depths as Assn. President

August 08, 1993|JULIE KIBBLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Kibbler is a West Hollywood free-lance writer. and

Some women are born to greatness, some achieve greatness and others have greatness thrust upon 'em. I fall into the latter category. Except I didn't fall. I was pushed.

I'd better explain. For the past two years, I had the dubious honor of the job of president of my West Hollywood condominium homeowners association. This venture included one of the biggest jobs any building or home can endure: replacing all water pipes throughout the building.

Our three-story, 18-unit building was constructed in 1974. The contractor must have been schizophrenic, as the work and materials vary throughout the building from good quality to atrocious. Enter our old plumbing. Korean or Japanese (depending on the plumber examining it) galvanized steel pipe was used. The projected life of this material is just about 12 to 14 years. Which, as of late 1991, put our pipes about five years over the limit.

The horizontal pipes hanging over the cars in the underground parking garage had mineral deposits hanging like icicles from various points. Each week brought a new surprise from the garage. The Turkish sauna. The car wash. The drip irrigation. The Chinese water torture on a new Cadillac or Toyota. Life was never dull in those days. The management company's phone number was transferred to my automatic dialer. We developed a close, personal relationship. But little did we know what lay ahead.

The board's first step was to convince the homeowners of an ugly two-part reality. Part one: the plumbing emergencies are costing three times more than a re-piping job. The catch? Part two: re-piping needs to be paid for all at once. And plumbers aren't banks. Of course, neither are homeowner's associations, but that is a story for another day.

So we broke the job down into two phases: the horizontal pipes, located overhead in the parking garage, and the vertical pipes, or risers, which run vertically through the walls, if you are lucky.

We met with the association members one dark, damp and chilly fall evening. This meeting was not a resounding success. The first vote, the noes beat the yeses by one. We on the board behaved with the utmost dignity, leaning forward in our chairs as we waved our pencils wildly and shouted out resignations.

Fortunately, the management rep was present, even though we had forgotten him in the rush of emotion, and he smoothed things over nicely for us. Provided we got more estimates, and chose a low bid, (what other kind is there?) the yeses won this second time around. It was a successful, if unsettling experience.

Luck was with us; we got a great bid from a great plumbing company. And not a moment too soon, for the 18-year-old water heater sprung a leak just as the plumber pulled up to begin the job.

Notices were posted, cars were moved onto the street, and on the appointed day, the furious buzzing of the Sawzalls began. The job was projected to last three weeks. The horizontal pipes would be done to code, with shut-off or isolation valves for each of the 56 risers. The hot water pipes would be insulated with thick black jackets. And this just might be enough to see us through to the next year, when we would do the risers.

Right. In the first three months of the year, three risers burst, all in the same unit, bringing the total of broken risers to five in the last two years. In the cursed unit, carpets were soaked, walls were ruined, but the owner kept her sense of humor, even when the pipe in the wall of her bedroom, right by her head, burst in the middle of the night. Four other risers were dripping into the garage at that time, emergencies waiting to happen, while our reserves continued to dwindle at an alarming rate.

After the work on the horizontal pipes was completed, another meeting was called. In the days before the meeting was held, the board members left the building at odd hours, ducking down stairs if we heard anyone coming. We planned. We prayed. We surrendered.

This meeting was held on a cool, dry spring evening. The air was calm. Our approach was different this time. Each owner knew the situation. And don't ever let anyone tell you miracles don't happen. We received a zero-hour bid from a different plumber coming in at $20,000 for the job, which was $10,000 lower than the lowest bid we had received.

Each owner was given a chance to speak, regardless of their position. Yes, no, why, why not. And to our surprise, the move to do the risers passed by a two-thirds' majority.

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