THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Shock and Aw... A surge that didn't result in victory

When Susan Reed got home from work on August 6, there was a burning smell in her home.

Reed soon discovered that a power surge, apparently the result of a problem in the neutral power line coming into her Woodbrook subdivision home, had come through the line.

The surge burned out several electrical outlets, Reed says, and fried about $1,300 of personal electronics gear. Reed wonders whether it caused further damage to the wiring behind her walls.

Dominion performed temporary repairs to ensure safety, and told Reed more permanent repairs would be completed in three to four weeks. Recently, when a contractor replaced a cover plate on an outlet, he discovered some burned wires inside, so in order to rest easy, Reed says, she will have to hire an electrician to check things out.

Reed filed a claim with Dominion for the ruined electronics and other expenses, but Dominion, denying negligence on its part, refused to offer any damage compensation.

Ken Schrad, a spokesman for the Virginia State Corporation Commission, the state agency that regulates Dominion, says he is unfamiliar with Reed's specific case, and declines to scold the utility. Given the magnitude of Dominion's operations, he says, there is always a risk of a "glitch in the system," either because of equipment failure or an "act of God," such as lightening.

Dominion, Schrad says, would not be liable unless the customer could prove "outright negligence." He says it's up to Reed's homeowner's insurance to cover any damages, and given the fact that breakdowns and lightening strikes are inevitable, Schrad suggests consumers protect their electronic equipment with surge protectors. 

But that's not the end of Reed's story.

Reed came home in early September to find a section of the fence surrounding her property partially removed and a backhoe parked in her yard. 

Reed was bothered by the removal of the fence because she has dogs she lets out in the yard. She was also bothered by the failure of Dominion to call her before coming to her home or leaving equipment there. That's just "common courtesy," Reed says.

Reed also says that the company left her with a broken concrete walkway and failed to replace the section of fence. Reed's husband did the repairs himself.

That would seem to violate Dominion policy. According to company spokeswoman Le-Ha Anderson, Dominion will restore property to the same condition it was in before the utility performed the work, except Dominion will only re-seed lawns, not lay down sod.

Reed says her yard was partially re-seeded.

Anderson takes issue with Reed's version of events. She claims that Dominion's subcontractor advised her they repaired the concrete walk in Reed's yard. Anderson also says the Dominion subcontractor did not remove the fence in the first place– that some other contractor at the Reed house at the time did so– so the Dominion subcontractor did not replace it when they left.

Reed denies there was another contractor at her house at the time Dominion brought the backhoe.

Anderson agrees it would have been common courtesy for Dominion to notify Reed before leaving equipment in her yard, but she says the utility believed in good faith that its earlier discussions with Reed had been sufficient notice.

"The bottom line is this: We want our customers to be happy," says Anderson adding that if Reed was unhappy about the work done at her house, "We encourage her to give us a call." Reed says she'll call.

Anderson points out that homeowners typically use shrubs, fences and other objects to try to hide unsightly electrical meters, or unknowingly place walkways, play equipment, or other yard projects over buried cables or other utilities. She urges homeowners to be aware that Dominion may need access to equipment at their home before installing such aesthetic items, and to check with services like Miss Utility (dial 811) to locate buried utility lines, even if you don't plan on excavation, to avoid future headaches such as broken walkways, should repairs prove necessary.


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