Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Ballad of the Underground Utilities

This ode is dedicated to all of our citizens who believe that life will be a dream if utilities are all underground.  99 times out of 100 this situation runs smoothly (unless someone makes the monthly drive into a transformer).  This is the story of Number 100.

The story starts on September 3.  We wake up one sunny Sunday and head out to church in the morning.  Our neighbor has a new "fountain".  No, they didn't install a fancy artistic bird bath; there was water bubbling up through a crack in the driveway.  A 12-18-inch water main had ruptured some time overnight. 

Frantic phone-calls, emails, social media posts and front-door pounding revealed my neighbors were home and were on top of the situation.  Whew!  By lunch time DeKalb Water had sent out a large crew with heavy equipment to turn off the valve at Tilly Mill, excavate the yard, completely rip out the irretrievably damaged driveway and remove the damaged section of pipe.  Then a trailer of replacement pipe was brought in and a section welded into place.  Water was back on before midnight.  Every man on the job was moving like he had a purpose; no one was just standing around on a shovel.  What's more, each one was a gentleman to the neighbors and kids coming out to see the excavator at work and they even refused coffee and dinner when we offered it to them. 

Water pressure was priority one and treated as such.  But there are still downstream (pun intended) effects.  The neighbor's driveway and yard had all the curb appeal of a nuclear test site for a couple of weeks.  Eventually a Dekalb-funded contractor returned and installed a new basic concrete driveway and leveled the damaged yard, making it ready for re-landscaping. 

Imagine my confusion when a single electrical circuit in MY house started flickering.  Not the whole house, just one circuit.  Check the breaker board - all is good there.  Before I had a chance to make a call a Georgia Power cherry picker is in my driveway ready to solve the problem.  The power fluctuation set off an alert at the service center on Shallowford.  The previous water main break and its (essential, however ham-fisted) repair had damaged the underground power conduit. 

Repairing underground utilities doesn't happen in a day.  The crew brought in a portable transformer to power the house.  Just a hand truck with a metal box on it, with enough juice to run my abode for, potentially, years.  As I mentioned to my FB groups, if your kid plays in my yard, remind them to not touch the box on wheels.  Bad things will happen. 

Life is going back to normal and the utility troubles are fading into memory.  The spray paint appeared on the lawn this week.  The red, orange, and blue segments that make your front yard look like a steer getting divided into two freezers.  This is the only notice you'll get that "someone" is planning to dig.  Who will it be?  AT&T?   Comcast?  The power company?  Will they be sending a company crew or a contractor?

Another Sunday morning.  Not as sunny yet.  Headed out the front door to Sunday School and I'm greeted by two trucks and a trailer from Georgia Power's contractor, UTEC. 

"Good morning, gentlemen.  Welcome to my yard.  What's the plan for today?"

It's a good thing I did because there was no intention to knock on the door and announce themselves.  There wasn't exactly a "plan", per se.  Just some vague vision of a ditch-witch running between two houses,  flying dirt, a broken brand-new driveway and a large tree falling at random.

Two hours later - back home.  Parked half way up the street because the ditch thingy is in my driveway (unused) and the vehicles are still in the street (unmoved).   Pails of tools dropped in my flower bed.   Three guys in hard hats are sitting around having a chat.  Still haven't knocked on the door because after my son goes inside, my husband comes out to see what's going on.  Which means:  they screwed up w/ the house "good cop".  Now they have to deal w/ Pat. 

I didn't hear the argument as I was on the phone with Georgia Power regarding such trivialities as, "How do you NOT send an engineer to determine the best work plan given an R-50 neighborhood and houses less than 15 feet apart?" and "Are you going to knock down the tree onto my house or maybe we'll get an arborist to do it right?"  and most of all, "If you're going to rip out trees, a section of yard, and my neighbor's driveway, show me the guarantee that Georgia Power is going to pay for replacements".  Little stuff like that. 

A senior honcho at Georgia Power talked with the supervisor on site and decided we needed to plan this operation a little more thoroughly before going forward.  Holy Common Sense, Batman.  The crew wrapped and left.  (Pat didn't have to tell them to "pack your s**t and get out".  But he was thinking it.)  Allegedly, I'm going to have an appointment from an engineer this week to review the intricacies of the site, what damage is unavoidable, and we'll go forward once I have a written liability statement in my hot little hands. 

So what have we learned from this little saga?

1)  Third party contractors are too often the weak link in any operation.  Company staffers have more skin in the game, so they put more effort into getting the job done right.  Third-partiers are too many steps removed and thus are hindered by a broken giveadamn.  Where else in our municipal operations do we have third-party contractors that  may not have as great a commitment as a company wo/man?

Contractors may seem less expensive in a contract but how much extra are you paying in padded hours and recovering from fouled-up work?

2)  The underground infrastructure we already have is past its useful lifespan and we're all going to be playing catchup with emergency repairs for the foreseeable future.  How comfortable do you feel putting anything else down there when it can be washed away at random?

3)  Underground utilities require a property owner to use extensive foresight when doing anything from planting a tree to replacing pavement.  When something is damaged, repairs are time-consuming and cause collateral damage in the process.  The story above is about utilities between completely separate single family homes.

How do you think this emergency would get handled in one of the many duplex and townhouse developments going up in the city?  There's no wiggle room.  One home's utilities go on the fritz, the neighbors will suffer even more.

4)  How much money and effort are the "everything underground" advocates willing to pay to create "contingency access" to utilities in case emergency repairs are needed?  Because if you insist on this type of infrastructure, you have to have a way to get to it.  Especially with water conduits surviving on band-aids and borrowed time.

Stay tuned, folks.  It ain't over yet.

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