The Bustos family was knee-deep in a remodel to their 12-year-old Ladera Ranch home when their daughter noticed something odd: bubbling white paint on new base molding.
“My husband said, ‘That’s water,’ ” Pam Bustos said, recalling that mid-October night.
“I guess I don’t get the concept,” Bustos said. “How does water create a pinhole leak in copper?”
That question is the subject of at least a dozen lawsuits pending in Orange County courts, including seven potential class-action suits recently filed by Ladera residents with similar stories.
Homeowners are suing builders, plumbers and copper-pipe makers, alleging there’s some flaw that leads to pits inside the pipes.
Builders and insurance companies are suing South County water districts, claiming chemicals in the supply are corrosive to piping that’s otherwise considered highly reliable.
Meanwhile, people all over the country are watching these cases, waiting to see if someone will finally be held accountable for the costly epidemic.
A FLOOD OF LEAKS
If she looks two houses in any direction, Bustos can find another neighbor who’s had a pinhole leak. One had $28,000 in damage to slate flooring and cabinetry. Another has had two leaks in three years.
“There’s definitely a lot more water leaks in south or southeast Orange County,” said Brandon Taliaferro with A to Z Leak Detection in San Clemente.
Taliaferro has worked as a plumber throughout Orange and San Diego counties, with calls for pinhole leaks and related repairs on a daily basis.
“I’ve seen plenty of really, really small weeping leaks that drip once an hour and don’t get noticed for months. Then the homeowner smells a musty smell or starts seeing signs of mold,” Taliaferro said. “We’ve also had plenty of instances where the homeowner was out of town for the weekend, opens the front door … and there’s 6 inches of water all over the house.”
Shapell Homes started building nearly 1,000 houses some 20 years ago in a Laguna Niguel development, spokeswoman Meg Waters said. They used copper piping, then considered an industry standard.
A few years ago, Waters said the company began getting calls from residents wanting to use warranties for pinhole leaks springing up in their pipes. Those calls, Waters said, were coming in at a much higher rate than anywhere else in the country where Shapell has built homes over the past 50 years, with roughly 1 in 168 area homes experiencing a leak.
As 10-year warranties expire on homes in communities such as Ladera, Coto de Caza and Talega, Taliaferro said he’s noticed an increase in calls from homeowners contacting companies such as his directly for help – with multiple repeat customers.
While Bustos’ insurance covered their bill, other residents have been denied. Insurers typically only cover sudden incidents, Waters said, with slow pinhole leaks oftentimes hanging homeowners out to dry.
POINTING THE FINGER
So what’s causing this South County plague?
In about 95 percent of the pinhole leak cases Taliaferro sees, he said there’s no issue with installation or reliability of the piping itself. The leaks aren’t at joints or in high-flow areas, with “no real rhyme or reason” for why one homeowner gets them and their neighbor doesn’t.
When Shapell’s leaks started, Waters said the company hired an independent quality contractor to inspect its Laguna Niguel development. When the contractor couldn’t find anything wrong with the pipes or their installation, the district looked to the water, she said.
Shapell filed a lawsuit against Moulton Niguel Water District in August 2012 claiming water provided by the district is corroding copper plumbing in its homes.
Most South County water districts rely on imported drinking water. Waters and others have asserted that chloramines – a combination of chlorine and ammonia used to disinfect the imported water – are the culprit.
“It doesn’t hurt people, but it has properties that don’t play well with copper,” Waters said, citing studies by national expert Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech. Edwards declined to comment for this story due to his involvement in ongoing litigation over pinhole leaks.
When asked about water chemistry as a possible cause, officials from Moulton Niguel and Santa Margarita Water District, which has also been sued by builders, insist their water “meets or exceeds all federal and state drinking water quality standards.”
SMWD doesn’t alter the water it gets from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to 19 million customers, SMWD spokeswoman Michele Miller said. Metropolitan Water District is also named in two of the pending lawsuits over pinhole leaks.
So if it’s the water, why would there by a higher concentration of leaks in certain communities, Miller said?
Even if there proves to be some issue with the way local water interacts with copper pipes, MNWD spokeswoman Joone Lopez said that seems more a matter for builders than for water districts.
“We don’t treat water for the pipes,” she said. “We treat water for the people and the safety of consumption.”
PREVENTING THE PROBLEM
Along with seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages for homeowners from their builders, attorney Richard Bridgford hopes to use the seven Ladera lawsuits to prompt action that might prevent future leaks.
By now, Bridgford said, builders should be aware of area water chemistry and should be forced to take that into account when deciding what building materials to use.
After repiping more than 200 homes, Shapell has stopped using copper in its south Orange County projects. While Lopez said water districts can’t dictate what materials are used in home construction, Waters believes districts should have to notify developers about issues with copper pipes before they start building.
“This could affect real estate prices if south Orange County gets a reputation for this,” Waters said. “The implications of this are far reaching beyond just a leaky pipe.”
While the parties battle it out in court, the Bustos family is still dealing with the aftermath of their home’s October leak.
Though they waited more than a month to reinstall hardwood floors and had humidity levels checked, the boards are now warping in random places.
When they walk that floor barefoot, Bustos said they still check for warm spots. And as they prepared for a recent vacation, Bustos planned to shut the water off so she didn’t come home to another nightmare.
“It’s just been an ordeal,” she said. “I’m so worried it is going to happen again.”