Plumbers Warn of Gas Line Hook-Up Scams, Dangers

By MICHAEL MOLINARO | Dec 19, 2012
Photo by: Ryan Morrill Nick Russo, a technician with Walt McCollum Plumbing, Heating, Cooling in Manahawkin, tightens a galvanized fitting during a gas line reconnection job in Beach Haven.

An original New Jersey Natural Gas estimate of six months to have gas service returned to Long Beach Island and surrounding towns following Superstorm Sandy was cut short by vigilant utility workers whose work included replacing or repairing approximately 14,000 gas meters. The early finish on the work set off a flood of phone calls to plumbers in the area from those seeking to have their gas restored.

“Our phones exploded,” said Sam Wieczorek, president of Barnegat Light Plumbing and Builders, which has been in business since 1959. “As fast as we could pick up a phone and take a call, another call would come in. It was 24 hours a day; I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Wieczorek cleared three email accounts that got close to receiving 10,000 emails each at the peak of the panic. “A lot of people literally emailed me over 140 times. If everybody just did it once, it’d be real simple. The biggest thing is not to panic; this is a catastrophic event. We will get to your house and take care of it.”

Mark McCollum, office and marketing manager for Walt McCollum Plumbing, Heating, Cooling in Manahawkin, which has been in business for 40 years, concurred.

“We’ve had a lot of challenges prioritizing these calls,” said McCollum. “It’s been an ongoing challenge to get people that live here year ’round back into a warm home.”

The panic is calming now, but the heightened demand for work has brought with it a litany of scams and potential problems.

Both companies agreed the price to restore service should range between $250 on the low end to $350 on the high end, depending on the home’s needs. Any price lower may mean one is receiving shoddy work from a contractor without a plumbing license. A higher price could mean price gouging. The job itself should take anywhere from half an hour to two hours.

The evaluation and hook-up service of a plumber is required following a gas shutoff because utility companies are responsible only for the connections from each house’s meter to the pipeline in the street. Connections from the meter to the home and its gas-powered appliances are the responsibility of the homeowner and thus require a plumber, who checks for gas leaks and whether appliances should be replaced completely during an evaluation.

Wieczorek feels that following the mandatory evacuation order set by the governor for LBI during and after Sandy, only licensed plumbers and electricians should have been allowed on the Island to deal with immediate issues. This would have lessened the amount of scams by self-proclaimed “general contractors” from New Jersey and beyond.

“It could be a guy that hangs wallpaper,” said Wieczorek. “It should have just been state-licensed plumbers and state-licensed electricians. Period.

“It takes the same amount of time to become a plumber as it does a doctor,” said Wieczorek, referencing a master plumber license, which takes seven years to earn. One can check on the licensing of a given N.J. contractor by contacting the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs.

“If you advertise plumbing, by law it must state the person’s name, address and state license number on any advertisement, stationery, trucks, everything. If you see an advertisement and it doesn’t have all that, it’s not a plumber.”

McCollum recommends being leery of any contractor willing to do the work immediately, as he said most state-licensed plumbers in the area are inundated to some degree. “People should not trust somebody knocking on their door asking to do this. We’ve been here 40 years and plan on staying here for 40 more years. We’re not ‘one-and-done.’”

Sometimes the parts being used can pose problems. Wieczorek loaded up on 6,000 to 7,000 galvanized fittings used to complete gas reconnections. He said the high demand for them has led to some contractors resorting to using black steel pipe fittings, which he said offer only a short-term fix.

“Handymen were hooking it up that had no business hooking up a gas line,” said Wieczorek. “I’ve seen people light furnaces where the heater ducts were completely underwater still. You can get Legionnaires’ disease.”

Checking for gas leaks is critical, of course, and Wieczorek uses high-tech gas detectors among other tools to find them. “You don’t know if anything hit the gas pipe during the storm. You have to really start hunting for them and purge the lines.”

Wieczorek has dealt with instances in which contractors who did little in the way of assessment would get a furnace to light to signify to a customer that a job was done and return to them the basic necessity of heat. Then the furnace would run for a brief time on gas accumulated within it prior to the storm until eventually only cold air would be blowing out.

While working to reconnect a restaurant’s gas lines in Ship Bottom, Wieczorek found an 18-inch section through the wall that was rotted with holes in it. “If a handyman did (that job), he wouldn’t have picked that up,” he said.

The worst Wieczorek has seen, however, was an explosion at a residence in Ship Bottom whose owner had hired a passerby contractor with a cheap price at the recommendation of a neighbor.

“The neighbor said, ‘Oh, this guy’s going to hook it up for $150.’ I thought, ‘There’s something wrong here,’” upon checking on the home at the homeowner’s request.

Despite Wieczorek’s warnings to the contractor not to turn the gas back on without further evaluating a floor heater that had been underwater, the contractor did so anyway. An explosion occurred, lifting the floor up 6 inches, said Wieczorek, sending a fireball into the air that singed the contractor’s hair and moustache.

“Any heater that goes underwater, they’re done. You cannot fix them. Saltwater will eat them up. Even if you get them lit, it’s going to cause major problems down the line.”

Instances of price gouging have abounded, said Wieczorek, including one case that he said led to a woman placing a sign on her front lawn that read “I was ripped off.” “All she had was a gas range – one connection. Really simple. The whole job couldn’t have taken more than 15 minutes, and he charged her either $1,200 or $1,500.

“It aggravates me more than you can imagine,” he said. “I can’t stand seeing people being ripped off.”

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