Do I have a right to complain about unannounced water quality testing?
November 14, 2018 7:18 AM   Subscribe

For the past three years, a man in navy blue service clothes has set off my security cameras every few months in order to conduct (what I assume is) water quality testing at my house. My home has been broken into before, so these unannounced (but probably perfectly legitimate) visits ramp up my anxiety and distract me while I'm at work. I'd like to require the water company to pre-warn me about these visits for my own sanity. Is this asking too much?

I rent an apartment that is at the end of a residential street and at the corner of a major intersection. There have been several water main breaks over the years at this intersection. I get the sense that my home's water quality is tested WAY more often than most people -- I've talked to neighbors and friends and nobody can recall having this much interaction with their water company. My water company has also left me at-home water testing kits about 5-6 times in the last two years. This may be due to my rental's convenient corner location.

I have large bushes at the front of my house, and this particular service man ducks behind them to get to an outside water spigot. He spends about 5-10 minutes running the water at full blast, and collects water in plastic bottles. One time, my cameras recorded him tapping his finger on my office window--I later realized my cats were probably looking out the window at him. He always, ALWAYS comes when I am not at home.

I have outdoor security cameras (post breakin) that send me instant push notifications when motion is detected. I'm still a bit twitchy about people near my house -- years after the break-in, which was quite traumatic. (A man kicked my back door in while I was at work, and a few weeks later he came back in the middle of the night and peered into my bedroom window while I was sleeping. This was all caught on camera).

Can I require utility companies to give me advance notice every time a service person comes within a few feet of my house? Or do they have a total and complete right to intrude without prior warning to the occupants?
posted by tealcoffeecup to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
That earlier break in and subsequent lurking--wow, I would be freaked out too. I wonder if the water quality kits aren't an attempt at avoiding legal liability for a known water problem--"warnings were issued, and testing kits left with the affected homes, thus satisfying our legal liability"
posted by craniac at 7:30 AM on November 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Are you sure this guy is actually from the water company and isn't just, like, stealing water? 5-10 minutes of running the water at full blast is potentially several dollars worth of water, at least where I live! I don't know if you pay your water bill directly (where I live, the landlord generally pays for water) but you probably want to at least mention it to your landlord. If I were paying the water bill I would be pretty annoyed if the water company was wasting 5-10 minutes worth of water every quarter (and sometimes it is easier to complain about money than about invasions of your personal space).
posted by mskyle at 7:30 AM on November 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thanks mskyle -- I pay the water bill, though it is generally pretty low ($30/month). Fwiw, landlord has been amazingly useless and hands off about all matters. I'm here for the cheap rent, ideally for a few more years. :-/
posted by tealcoffeecup at 7:41 AM on November 14, 2018

I would definitely call the water company about it next time it happens, if you're paying the bill. I mean, maybe this is one of those things that varies from place to place and it's normal where you are but to me the water company taking your water with no warning is completely bizarre and I would think they at least owe you an explanation.

Another thing that might be possible is to turn off the water supply to the outdoor spigot! Not sure if it's needed by other tenants, landscapers, whatever, but it's usually not hard to do - there is usually a shutoff valve inside the building near where the pipe goes outside. Make your home unavailable for whatever it is this person is doing, and if they need access they can ask.
posted by mskyle at 7:53 AM on November 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

It's possible (or probable, depending on where you live) that the water company has an easement on the landlord's property, which does in fact give them the right to use it to access what is essentially "their" property under the terms of the easement (often the water line going to your house from the main belongs to them, and your spigot is the easiest method to test the water coming through those pipes).

You say he always comes when you are not at home. Do you work regular office hours? If so, this seems normal to me, as most utility workers carrying out routine activities also work 9-5. But if you work an unpredictable schedule and this individual seems to be scouting out when you're not home to conduct these activities, that might raise concerns about whether they actually work for the water utility.

If I were in your position I would (a) call the water company and ask what the hell is going on with all the testing and testing kits. The testing kits in particular are odd -- if they're leaving that many, they should be telling you why. Also, (b) express concern about the amount of water being tested and its potential impact on your water bill. I'm sure your contract for water service allows them some "reasonable" access, but you should certainly inquire about it. Also note the tapping on the window. That's not cool.

Regarding prior notice, it never hurts to ask. But if this is a legit water utility, they are probably doing this at dozens of properties on a daily basis, and they might not see it as reasonable to notify you in advance. And if they do have an easement on the land, in most U.S. jurisdictions they don't have a requirement to notify you. But if you're nice about the request, perhaps they'll comply? I've occasionally gotten unexpectedly good results from my local government on issues like this just by asking.
posted by GorgeousPorridge at 7:58 AM on November 14, 2018 [8 favorites]

This is really bizarre behaviour, and I'd definitely call the water company to inquire about it and see if it's legit.
posted by odinsdream at 8:01 AM on November 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I’d call the water company and I would not hesitate to tell them that you reserve the right to call the cops when you see a random dude next to your house. They’re doing this regularly, they’re planning it, and they’re not giving you notice because it’s inconvenient for them. Fuck that. They may have the legal right but they’re being jerks.

Mind you, I don’t know that I’d actually call the cops on the guy, but I’d sure as hell remind the water company that they are putting their employees in a situation that could end up with the police being called (or worse).
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 8:12 AM on November 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Please don't call cops on someone who might be at worst "stealing" water.
posted by odinsdream at 8:28 AM on November 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

Given the infrequency, I'd say it's almost certainly legit. Hell, most months sli get at least 3 different people rocking up in my yard to read various meters or attend to other issues. Once every three months would be unusually infrequent around here. (Other places I've lived, they'd only do a physical meter read once every few months, so what you're seeing seems perfectly normal to me)

Are you sure these people aren't reading your water meter?
posted by wierdo at 8:31 AM on November 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

FWIW: call the water supplier.

In the U S of A - All water systems are required to perform water sampling throughout the distribution system. Typically, bacteria samples are gotten by sterilizing the appurtance and then running the water to flush and have fresh water from the main header going past your house. Typically they have a sample plan. If you wind up on it, you will see them every time your location is required to be sampled.

Trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids are typically a quarterly sample as of about three years ago, usually required in the first month if the quarter. When some substances are chlorinated they have the ability to form these substances, which are known carcinogens or their precursors. If they are high, they make you come up with an action plan to get them lowered.

As far as kits, if your home meets the sampling criteria it might be on the lead and copper sampling pool. It shows how corrosive the water is, to prevent another Flint Michigan crisis. Most places add corrosion control chemicals to prevent issues. Flint chose to stop, and once the chemical coating on the pipes dissipated, the metals started leeching into the water. Sampling is a way of verifying that these chemicals are effective. If they are sampling for this they should also notify you of test results, in writing, shortly after the sample results come in.

Most other sampling (inorganic chemicals, volatiles, asbestos, radiological, etc.. ) are usually done at the water treatment source.

For what it’s worth, all public water systems are required to send out to all customers a “consumer confidence report” that gives data about the system serving your house and how they are doing. Most are also available online. Not a bad idea for anyone to take a look. Any questions you have can then be answered by the water system.

If you are in a private well or a system that doesn’t meet the criteria to be a system, there are no requirements that I’m aware of.


Assuming that your location is subject to USEPA regulation.

For what it’s worth, bottled water isn’t required to do any of that, to my knowledge.

I hope this helps.
posted by kabong the wiser at 8:33 AM on November 14, 2018 [10 favorites]

Oh, and I should note that easements are irrelevant here if you are getting a utility service from the company whose employees are coming by. When you asked them to service your home, they gained a contractual committment from you to allow them on your property as necessary to maintain their system. (And said maintenance may not be for your benefit)
posted by wierdo at 8:34 AM on November 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Wow, everybody chill out a little bit. Have you ever worked from home? You would be surprised at the number of utility techs who come by just to check out their meters and other equipment during the day. This is not bizarre or abnormal at all, it's reasonable proactive behavior for a company that provides a service to you. The tech in question apparently hasn't done anything more than take water samples. Its not a reason to call the cops.

You could contact the water company just to get an understanding of what's happening, and you could ask them to notify you of an impending visit. It would be reasonable for them to say "we'll be there the week of Nov 12" or even "we'll be there sometime in November ". For techs who are making visits to multiple locations per day/week/month it would not be reasonable for you to require them to make an appointment for a certain day & time, unless they need access to a locked area.

If you start making noises about cops and trespass etc for someone walking on your front lawn and not creating any property damage at all, you're going to get labeled as "that customer", and that's never going to go on your favor.
posted by vignettist at 8:38 AM on November 14, 2018 [10 favorites]

I'm sorry for your traumatic experience, but as people have noted you probably don't have a right to demand advanced warning in this instance. It can't hurt to call and ask, but I would be very surprised if you got any traction here.

More to the point, maybe turn off push notifications for the outdoor motion sensors while you're at work? I can understand, given your experience, why you might want that when you're home alone, asleep etc., but I'm sure you have door and glass-break alarms to alert you if someone is actually breaking into your home, and even then, what are you meant to do with that information? Race home to beat the cops and…? I don't see how inviting regular false positives is doing anything good for your physical safety or emotional wellbeing.
posted by wreckingball at 8:50 AM on November 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Wow, everybody chill out a little bit. Have you ever worked from home? You would be surprised at the number of utility techs who come by just to check out their meters and other equipment during the day.

I am on the HOA of a complex that needs us to let any techs in, and we get visited once or twice a year by each utility. I find this level of checking extraordinary.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 8:54 AM on November 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

I am on the HOA of a complex that needs us to let any techs in, and we get visited once or twice a year by each utility. I find this level of checking extraordinary.

And it may be unreasonable for your property. However there may be a legit reason or concern at OP's property. There may have been complaints about water quality. There may have been an issue in the past where the state is requiring the utility to demonstrate the safety of the water. As internet strangers we just don't know. Best and most reasonable course of action would be to call the utility to get an idea of what's going on.
posted by vignettist at 9:08 AM on November 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

My former housemate, who worked retail and was thus home at irregular hours, asked the electric company to have their people call before they arrived to check the meter, and they were pretty good about it. I think it would be worth checking with the water company to see if they could do something that (and to confirm that this guy is legit!).
posted by velvet_n_purrs at 9:10 AM on November 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

What’s normal may vary by region, company, public utility, etc.

I think vignettist’s point is that these visits are not a priori outside the scope of normal, and I agree. I’ve lived in houses where I never saw a utility worker, and I’ve lived in houses where somebody in a blue coverall or yellow visibility vest would come by almost every week, checking the water, reading the meter, checking electric meter, sniffing for gas leaks, etc etc.

Just call water company and ask what’s up. They know, none of us do.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:11 AM on November 14, 2018

Extremely helpful to get the range of responses here; thanks everyone. I think every interpretation is plausible, and the only thing I can do is call the company to see if advance notice is possible, and find out if there is something in particular that is causing this frequency of visits/testing.

I'm also extremely tempted to shut off the spigot and see if that prompts different behavior. I'm pretty good about doing the at-home water tests every time they leave me a bottle, so I wouldn't feel guilty about cutting off their outdoor access when I'm not home.
posted by tealcoffeecup at 9:56 AM on November 14, 2018

I betcha you're over-fretting, but if you want to shut off the water, get a spigot lock like this (and buy your own lock); others, they might carry the key, especially if it's one of these.
posted by tapir-whorf at 12:46 PM on November 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Just some notes about what was said above.

For most water systems (not all), the lines behind the meter (meter to the house) are the property of the customer. The meter and the line to the main is the property of the system. In most systems, the meter is installed closer to the street (easier to read) and is not at the house or in the house. It is very uncommon to go onto someone's property to take samples without their express consent. If they need to take a sample, they should make arrangements with the customer or take a sample on their side of the system (set up a tap at the meter or maybe from a fire hydrant).

As mentioned above, there are quite a number of water tests required by the State/EPA; however, there are guidelines for where regulatory sampling is done. Taps on the outside of people's houses are generally not good places to take representative samples and are rarely used for regulatory purposes.

As far as kits they drop off at your house, I would definitely get more information on these bottles. Many water quality parameters require some type of preservation (acid, thermal, etc.) and asking customers to fill bottles is unusual. The only exception would be metals testing. That said, the utility should ALWAYS let the customer know exactly what is being tested and why. In fact, where I work, the service guys leave hang tags every time they have to visit a house and no one is home.

If I had to take an educated guess at what a legitimate utility worker could be doing, it would be metals testing of the mains. You may live in an area with older pipes that are prone to main breaks. The fact that they are running the water 5-10 minutes means they are trying to get fresh main water to the tap.

I have worked in DW for 25+ years and the situation you describe could be completely legit, but you certainly deserve more information.
posted by jraz at 12:56 PM on November 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

Even if they just confirm Yes, it's a Water Dept. Guy you'll feel a bit better. If they can't give warning, they should be able to leave a card with their logo saying they visited, and that would help if it were me.
posted by theora55 at 3:01 PM on November 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

After sitting on hold a while, I drafted an email to the company's customer service branch. This is the response I got:

"Thank you for contacting Teapots Co

Your information has been forwarded to our Management Team for review. All visits made by Teapots Co should be a scheduled visit through the customer. Teapots Co technicians drive Teapots Co vehicles, wear a Teapots Co uniform and have employee identification. If you have not scheduled an appointment then no one should be at your property. If you are uneasy please feel free to contact your local authorities."

So...I'm not sure how I feel about this! I ordered some spigot locks though.
posted by tealcoffeecup at 6:08 AM on November 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Wow. I guess you should call the cops next time?! I hope they’re not sending people out there and then telling people to call the police on them.

Any chance they’re notifying your landlord?
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 12:33 PM on November 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

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