/ Home & Energy

Raise a stink over water companies

Flood in a house

If I buy food from a shop and it makes me sick, I can sue the shop. If raw sewage seeps into my home and makes my family sick, do I have the same right to sue the owner of the leaking pipes? I don’t.

And anyway, why are thousands of homes a year in 21st century Britain flooded with sewage?

One of our members contacted us after a catalogue of pathetic responses from Thames Water when her basement was full of its sewage. Repeated calls to Thames weren’t returned. Tankers to pump out the sewage were promised and failed to arrive. Her three children became ill, neighbours complained of the smell and the electricity continually cut out, setting off the burglar alarm at all hours.

After we intervened, Thames did a survey and found the problem was a collapsed drain caused by a blockage of fat. We asked Thames about compensation in such cases – it said it’s responsible for damages only if flooding is a result of its negligence. It eventually refunded our member’s annual sewerage bill, under the regulator’s ‘Guaranteed Standards Saving Scheme’. It did say its communication ‘was perhaps not as good as it could have been’. This is among the greatest understatements I’ve seen.

Stop wasting my time

There are two issues. First, I was under the impression that we paid water companies to take away waste. To me, if waste returns, the company hasn’t kept its side of the bargain. Second, they enjoy unusually generous leeway when it comes to compensating customers.

When the industry was privatised in England and Wales, more than 20 years ago, their liability was limited so they didn’t have to worry too much about such things. One reason seems to be that the old pipe networks could play up, but the industry also argues that it can’t control the weather or what you put down your drain.

This is understandable to an extent – but to be fair to customers, firms need to respond quickly when your home is full of sewage.

Water isn’t the only industry to get special protection after privatisation. We believe rail firms have unfair small print in their national conditions of carriage. Leeway for privatised industries isn’t an excuse to treat customers unfairly. We’re watching to ensure they do right by you.

Comments
Nerys says:
30 July 2013

JD

I’m expected to fill up my baby’s bottle from their disgusting lead supply pipes. Certainly not, I’m a Britta fan. And what about the customer is responsible for old lead supply pipes under other people’s lands. You couldn’t make it up, could you? Come on, Which? Sock it to the rapacious spin-doctoring scum bags.

Hello Nerys, thanks for your replies. Appreciate your passion, but please try not to use bad language.

MJR says:
31 July 2013

John Ward said, “The one thing that Which? Conversation does not seem to be able to attract is contributions from representatives of the industries concerned in the topics!”

It’s because they cannot deny the great water meter and supply pipe responsibility scam which protects them from having to replace lead supply pipes. And how can they deny that domestic water meters installed on their own pipework in the public footpath to monitor leaks under other people’s lands is an abuse of consumer rights? The £200 Government heating grant for pensioners ends up in the coffers of the water companies because of the outdated RV rip-off for an extra £200 per year for unconsumed water, leaving pensioners to freeze to death in winter. And how many mothers up and down the country turn on the tap first thing in the morning and fill their kettles without flushing out the lead accumulated in the lead supply pipes from the night before. Lead supply pipes should have been replaced years ago due to the serious effect lead has on babies and young children. As I’ve said several times before, the water companies are getting away with a scam that is far more despicable than PPI and that is why the representatives will not rise to the challenge.

Lead piping is not used for water mains, since lead is not strong enough for large diameter pipes. Lead pipe is still present in some supply pipes. As I have said before, it is really only a problem in soft water areas. If you have lead pipes and are concerned, you can ask your water company to carry out a test. If you don’t trust the water company, you can buy your own kit to test for lead. You may find that your water company will replace lead pipes free of charge, particularly any piping up to the stop valve. The pipe after the stop valve is considered the householder’s responsibility, though I found one company that will replace it in some circumstances. Flush the loo once before making morning coffee and that should remove any lead that has dissolved overnight.

Here is information from Ofwat about water meters: http://www.ofwat.gov.uk/mediacentre/leaflets/prs_lft_101117meters.pdf

If the supply company cannot fit one, the reasons will be explained and water use can be estimated on predicted use if a water meter had been fitted.

I am reasonably happy that our water companies are providing a safe water supply, though the comments in Peter’s introduction to this Conversation do concern me. I believe that it is reasonable to push for water meters to be installed in or close to properties so that customers with water meters do not pay for water leaks.

MJR – do you have evidence of excessive levels of lead that give you such concern?

MJR says:
1 August 2013

Malcolm R – I have evidence that the water supply pipe to my property is lead which is why I use a Britta jug.

The longer water is left lying in lead pipes the more excessive the levels of lead will be (ie) if a young family go away for a two-week holiday and fill the kettle on their return they are going to consume two weeks accumulation of lead and that is a cause for concern. But most young families do not know that and the water companies are not going to tell them.

Now can you explain why United Utilities abide by The Water (Meters) 1988 Regulations but SESW do not? Unfortunately I cannot change to UU (as one can with other utilities) so I’m stuck with the rapacious SESW.

MJR says:
1 August 2013

Wavechange advises, “Flush the loo once before making morning coffee and that should remove any lead that has dissolved overnight.”

No, Wavechange — that will empty merely empty the WC cistern in the bathroom which is nowhere near my kitchen taps. But as one will use the loo anyway it’s a great piece of water company spin-doctoring. And what about those with the PSC in the next street – do the maths.

MJR. I’m trying to be helpful. If you flush your loo, it will remove standing water from the supply pipe. If you have lead piping in the house, that is your responsibility and not that of SESW.

Have you tested your water to establish that lead is a problem? I should also test the efficacy of your Brita jug if you do have a problem. It might not be as effective as you think.

MJR says:
1 August 2013

Wavechange said, “I believe that it is reasonable to push for water meters to be installed in or close to properties so that customers with water meters do not pay for water leaks” and I agree with you and as this is stated in The Water (Meters) Regulations 1988 it should be in place. UU do abide by the The Water (Meters) Regulations 1988 but SESW do not. Unfortunately, due to certain privileges given to the water companies (but not other utilities companies) I cannot change to UU much as I’d like to.

MJR

I have had a look at the SESW website. I had never heard of the company, but it was easier to find information related to lead piping than with my own supplier, though it’s much the same.

SESW will test your supply for lead providing that this has not already been done. It will replace piping on its side of the stop tap if you replace lead piping that you are responsible for. That’s the same as my supply company. There is some useful advice on their website: http://www.waterplc.com/userfiles/file/FS_lead_in_drinking_water.pdf

If SESW are not complying with regulations, do report the problem to the regulator.

wavechange – How many families with young children return from a two-week holiday and put the kettle on as soon as they step inside their front door – thus consuming a cup full of lead contaminated tea? Or worse: prepare a lead contaminated drink for their young children? Of course these unfortunate parents are not aware of this health hazzard and the rapacious water companies are not going to tell them.

Re “SESW will test your supply for lead providing that this has not already been done. It will replace piping on its side of the stop tap if you replace lead piping that you are responsible for. That’s the same as my supply company. There is some useful advice on their website:” All I have found in the SESW website is spin doctoring poppycock i.e. how am I supposed to replace several meters of piping under somebody’s else’s land at a cost beyond the average consumer, plus trespass? Also, SESW (unlike United Utilities) is in breach of The Water (Meters) Regulations 1988 act and getting away with it because nobody seems to notice. But the banks got away with the PPI scam for years until somebody woke up from the sleep of unawareness. Unfortunately this nation is short of Columbos.

SESW do not abide by The Water (Meters) Regulations 1988 where as United Utilities do abide by the act? I would also ask the some from Which?

MJR

If you switch off the water supply before you go on holiday, which is a sensible precaution to avoid flooding, I’m sure you will remember. Even though I do not have any lead pipes, I always draw off water before filling the kettle.

Have you had your water tested to establish that a problem actually exists? Water companies treat their water, especially if it is soft, to help decrease the risk of customers having problems with lead. You can carry out your own test if you do not trust the water company.

If there is a problem with lead, I suggest that you discuss this with your water supply company, but I suspect you are more likely to get help if you adopt a friendly, professional approach.

Best of luck. Others who have tried to make helpful comments have left this Conversation, so I will do the same.

I think it would be a very good idea to have a word with your water company because they may have an economical solution to the problem. I think there is a limit to what we can suggest as correspondents through Which? Conversation because we are not in possession of all the facts – crucially (a) exactly how far your property’s supply pipe extends before it meets the company’s main supply and their stop valve and whether it is a continuous pipe or is interrupted by joints, angles, or valves, and (b) what structures or obstacles occupy the land through which your supply pipe passes and what alternative routes might exist. There are a number of potential engineering solutions available today for replacing water supply pipes without major excavations or interfering with existing structures. It is also possible that the water supply company now has a main that is nearer than the one you are currently connected to. As Wavechange recommends, however, it would be in your interests to do a test for lead levels in the first place so that you can be certain whether or not there is a problem. It would also be worth while checking by means of metering – with the assistance of your supplier if possible – whether or not there are any failures [which might both let water out and let contamination in]. You can check the water hardness yourself on-line on the SESW website. The Water Quality Inspectorate also might have some useful information that would put you in a stronger position to take this further. I think some simple things are worth exploring first and it would be a cruel water company that that gave you no help at all. If you are paying both for wasted water due to leakage and for filtering to purify your drinking water the expense will never end unless something is done to rectify the supply.

wavechange – how come you (and other ‘helpful comments’) avoid responding to, “SESW do not abide by The Water (Meters) Regulations 1988 whereas United Utilities do abide by the act?” but instead thrash out the same old mantras? But as you’ve left the Conversation you won’t need to respond now.

John Ward, re your comment, “It is also possible that the water supply company now has a main that is nearer than the one you are currently connected to.” Yes it has, actually: at the boundary of my property – but it prefers to instal its meters on its own pipework in the middle of the public highway thus using their so called domestic meters to monitor leaks on their own pipework and under other people’s lands – which makes SESW in breach of The Water (Meters) Regulations 1988 act. I have been a member of Which? for some years now and will be taking my case to Which? within the next few weeks.

I understand a little about water chemistry, MJR, which is why I commented on lead in water. I do not know about water companies and their regulations, which is why I have not commented on them. My supplier is neither of the ones you mention. Perhaps what you regard as ‘mantras’ might just be good advice.

It’s a good idea to invite Which? to take up your case officially since, presumably, if there is a breach of statutory duty by Sutton & East Surrey Water Company, then the water regulator [Ofwat] is also delinquent. I hope you will let us know in due course what Which? says or does and how you ultimately solve your problem.

Hello MJR – please read our commenting guidelines: https://conversation.which.co.uk/commenting-guidelines Try and be polite to other commenters.

MJR

Wavechange – you said

“If you switch off the water supply before you go on holiday, which is a sensible precaution to avoid flooding, I’m sure you will remember. Even though I do not have any lead pipes, I always draw off water before filling the kettle.”

So who does that paragraph related to my question copied below? I said:

wavechange – How many families with young children return from a two-week holiday and put the kettle on as soon as they step inside their front door – thus consuming a cup full of lead contaminated tea? Or worse: prepare a lead contaminated drink for their young children? Of course these unfortunate parents are not aware of this health hazzard and the rapacious water companies are not going to tell them.

I was referring to families with young children, not myself so how does “I’m sure you will remember” fit my question. Nice try, wavechange, but slanting doesn’t work. Goodbye!

To John Ward

Yes, I believe that SESW (unlike United Utilities) is in breach of its statutory duty and will be taking my case to Which? within the next few weeks and will let you know the outcome. Unfortunately (unlike other utilities) I cannot change my water supplier to the more consumer-friendly UU.

Nerys says:
7 October 2013

Guess what, I’ve just had a phone call: NatWest, Barclays and… oh, yes a claim for PPI, please press 5. But I’ve never had PPI so I pressed 9.

How soon before these calls target SESW victims of the great water meter scam? Because one day the Nation is going to wake up. No need for you to worry though, United Utilities. You abide by the 1988 reg-rules, so you can sit back and watch the s££t hits the SESW fan.

And nobody will be pressing number 9.

stowaway54 says:
5 November 2013

If I flush the lol first thing in the morning I get everyones sewerage, thanks thames water

Very Disappointed Uk resident says:
30 April 2019

December 2018 my cellar was flooded by a main sewer blockage that caused the sewage to back up through a drain in the cellar floor. United Utilities told me that there was no failure on their part and it was down to me to claim on my house insurance. I have since obtained a schedule of work for the pumping out of the excess sewage to prevent the back up, YOU HAVE GUESSED IT they failed to pump the sewage out on the day it backed up into my cellar. This is still a ongoing complaint.
Points to consider when dealing with United Utilities. 1 Always ring through the main switch board (they only record your conversation that way) 2 Never let a manager ring you unless you are recording it. 3 Always send your complaint in writing never ring up (What they don’t tell you that until the complaint is in writing it is not a complaint and until then you have no statutory rights). 4 Request your recorded phones calls and any data that they hold on you, under the data protection rules (This is when you find out any conversations with so called regional managers are not recorded in any way). 5 Do not rely on the code of practice as they do not follow any of it. 6 Disregard anything that they say (No matter whom you are speaking to) unless they put it in writing (THEY SAY THEY WILL BUT WILL NOT) BE warned. 7 If they conduct a site visit record the conversation, they will only deny what was said and agreed at the meeting. They will fill in a customer satisfaction form ( There is a space for your comments and a place for you to sign the form. ask about this as they will not offer this and deny later). 7 Obtain your house and mobile phone records (To disprove their lies as to when the have rang you about appointments etc) 8 Do not let them fob you off with THAT IS THE CONTRACTORS RESPONSIBILTY United Utilities are ultimately responsible. AFTER 3 MONTHS THEY HAVE REMOVED THEIR SEWAGE BUT ARE DENIEING ANY RESPONSIBILTY FOR DAMAGE CAUSED BY THE SEWAGE SITTING THERE FOR THREE MONTHS. I am astounded that in this day and age that any company (ESPECIALY AS LARGE AS THIS ONE) can conduct themselves in this manner with no consequences what so ever (or so they think).