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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

LA DWP preps Van Nuys customers for "The Big One"

(Update 2:50 pm : Well, I guess the fix didn't take. As I returned from lunch and some errands water was, once again, bubbling up from under the asphalt patch where the DWP had been working earlier this morning. I called to report it again. As of this moment, the water is off in the neighborhood again, after being restored about 11 am. They seem to be having a tough time with this particular break. -- Douglas)

It seems that the LA DWP has a new program in place to reinforce earthquake safety preparations here in Van Nuys. This week we have suffered a 2-hour power outage and, starting last night, a failure of a water main, which is still being repaired. The power outage led us to test and re-supply all of our battery-powered equipment, including televisions, radios and flashlights and today's water outage allowed us to test the quality and quantity of our earthquake water supply, while also rotating out some of our older stock.

While the end result might be beneficial, the outages are still a pain. I will say, though, that even as a computer and electronics addict, I can do without electricity more than I can do without running water. Even without electricity I can still cook and entertain myself in a variety of ways, but making do without water, except for drinking, is just...how can I put this...gross. I don't think I need to say anything else on this topic. You all know what I mean.

As an aside to the actual water main break, which currently has our street blocked and about 30 homes without water, there was our conversation late last night with the LA DWP assistance line. Around 11:30pm, I was getting ready for bed. I am quite sensitive to noises in the house, especially when they are new and repetitive. As I am lying in bed, I here this constant rumbling noise coming from the small crawl space beneath our 1943-era house. "Oh oh," I thought. "Water is running somewhere." I am very attuned to running water now, as a few years ago we had a pinhole leak in an outside faucet that went unnoticed for 3 days and nearly undermined the alley on the north side of our house. This time, I was not going to let this go until I figured out what it was.

After inspecting every faucet and tap, inside and out, the noise appeared to be coming from the main water line into the house. Shutting off the water made the sound go away. Time to call the DWP.

The nice gentleman at the DWP quickly informed me that those symptoms pointed to problems with our interior piping. Question closed. Being a computer troubleshooter by trade, this didn't make a lot of sense for me. I had checked everything on our end and found no leaks or even the signs of a leak. Grumbling, I made one last circuit of the house, even walking out to the curb to inspect the water meter box buried beneath our street parking area. Nothing.

Then, I look up the street to the south. In a very fortuitous accident, I notice a car driving towards me. What is more important, though, is that the car's headlights are reflecting off the road...as if it were wet. I walk up about ten houses and quickly locate the source of my noises. In the front yard of one of my neighbors, water is shooting out of the ground about 2 feet high. Ok, now I could go to sleep, knowing where the problem lay.

Still, I was a bit angry. The LA DWP "support" line -- it is very similar to computer technical support lines I deal with every day -- had failed me, as a customer. In an all too familiar way, their staffer told me that the problem was my fault and my concern. It was a typical "non-answer the questions and get the person off the phone" moment. As someone who provides support on a daily basis, such behavior is galling. There was no attempt to check for other calls in the area or other service issues in the neighborhood. There was no attempt to go beyond or elicit more information. Nothing. The basic response could be summed up as "It's not our problem!" Yet, in fact, it was their problem. How many thousands of gallons of water went down the street and down the drain before someone else called to verify my story?

When I woke up around 5:30am, I noticed that the problem was till occurring -- meaning that they had not yet turned off the water to the leak and water continued to flow. It was only when I later got out of bed that we discovered that water to the entire neighborhood had been turned off and a large crew, with all their equipment, was working up the street.

Sometimes, support people, myself included, will begin to treat every caller as a crank. "Oh, they can't possibly know what is going on. They must be confused." Well, as this event shows, not every caller is crazy, ignorant or stupid and support personnel should not treat them as such. If they do, it could mean thousands of dollars in damage or lost product.

Current DWP estimates say that we should have water back by around 2 pm this afternoon. Thank goodness I work from home or my clients would have to be dealing with a very stinky and grumpy person this morning.

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