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‘Check your water meter’: couple’s €2,700 bill for leak at French home

The leaky pipe was buried under the terrace and went undetected for months

John and Sandra Howard, who live in Mayenne and speak fluent French, were upset at the lack of help from the water company and authorities Pic: Yevhen Prozhyrko / Shutterstock / John and Sandra Howard

A couple who were hit with a €2,700 water bill after a buried pipe sprang a leak have warned other home-owners to check their water meters regularly.

John and Sandra Howard, who live in Couesmes-Vaucé in Mayenne, are also upset at the lack of help they received from their water company and authorities.

Their bill was reduced by just €200 after the intervention of a mediator, even though the water firm was not able to produce a key letter it claimed to have sent last February, warning it suspected a leak. 

It was only in May, when the Howards received a registered delivery letter about it, that they first became aware of the situation.

Read more: French syndicate denies error despite farmhouse’s €2,000 water bill

Leak eventually found under the terrace

“As soon as we received the letter, we acted and asked our plumber to visit,” said Mr Howard. 

“There were no external signs of a leak, and it took him a while to deduce that it must be somewhere between the meter and the internal water valve.

“He dug a hole where he thought it might be but found nothing. He could not continue because he was on another job.”

The couple then hired a specialist firm, which found the leak, in a pipe buried under a terrace, using ultrasound cameras. 

They used a garden hose to immediately bypass the leak. Their plumber returned to make a permanent repair, without having to dig up the terrace. 

Read more: Dogs trained to sniff out leaks in French drinking water pipe system

How does the Warsmann law protect water customers?

“So far, so good, but when the €2,700 bill arrived, we were shocked,” said Mr Howard, who is 82. 

“We have small pensions and do not have that sort of money. Our usual bill is around €300.

“We tried to invoke the loi Warsmann but the water company said we took too long – the delay with the plumber meant we missed the cut-off date by three days.”

The Warsmann law, introduced in 2013, limits the maximum amount a water company can charge in the case of a leak to twice the normal bill, as long as work to repair it is done within a month of a formal notification from the water company that they suspect a leak.

‘We feel the mediator favours the water company’

Feeling hard done by, the couple, who moved to France in 2004 and who are fluent in French, took the case to a water mediator, who sent them a detailed questionnaire to answer, with supporting documents.

“It took a day and a half to fill out, and then they sent a much shorter questionnaire to the water firm,” Mr Howard said.

The mediator then asked for more information, even though the details were included in their original responses to the questionnaire. 

“When they came back with the €200 reduction, we thought it was a joke. That is when we realised the so-called mediator, in our opinion, favours the water company,” said Mrs Howard.

“The key point is the February letter, which they allege they sent to us. However, we have never seen this letter and the water company was unable to produce it for the mediator either.

“If we were told of a leak in February, we would have acted then, and much less water would have been wasted.”

‘My wife has been in tears over this’

The Howards have legal assistance as part of their household insurance contract.

“We got an interview with a lawyer, who said we could take it to court but warned it would take time and there is no guarantee of a different result. 

“In the meantime, the insurance company said they could pay €1,000 for the leak, and we signed a deal to pay the rest off at €60 a month on top of our water bill for two years,” said Mr Howard.

“My wife has been in tears over this, and it has occupied far too much of my thoughts, so we think this is the best way.”

The couple have since changed their metal water meter cover for a lighter, wooden one, so they can read it at least once a month. 

“I thoroughly recommend that other people do the same,” said Mr Howard.

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