Recent inspections of residential and commercial backflow preventers have left some Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA) customers confused and upset with potential costs and requirements.
Backflow preventers are devices required by the state for residents or businesses using an irrigation system or reclaimed water to keep it from flowing back into the public water supply.
Homeowner Daniel Ferguson said after a third-party plumbing service came to his house to check his backflow device, no one communicated that he needed an updated one.
“Both my wife and I work from home, so we’re here 24/7,” Ferguson said. “The inspector didn’t even ask us any questions. they just left a hanger on our doorknob.”
The inspector stated that the house needed a backflow preventer within 30 days. After calling some of the third-party vendors that JEA’s website listed as preferred, Ferguson said costs varied wildly.
“The price blew my brain,” Ferguson said. “It ranged anywhere from $400 to $1,200 for a residential household.”
Ferguson also said one of the preferred vendors he called wasn’t properly licensed and had to decline helping him.
Residential properties are required to have their backflow preventer inspected every two years, while commercial properties must have it inspected every year, according to JEA.
If the guidelines aren’t followed, residents or businesses may be subject to fines, according to what Ferguson said he was told, although the amount or timetable was unclear to him.
However, David McKee, an associate program manager from JEA, told WJCT News, “We’re not contemplating fines.”
“On the initial door hanger, they’ll find that it says that people need to take care of it within 30 days, and most people do. But if they need more time or there are some special extenuating circumstances, we are very willing to work with them. All they have to do is let us know,” said McKee.
If residents are not able to get the new backflow preventer within the allotted 30 day timeframe, the utility is willing to work with customers, according to McKee.
Pete Vansandt, a broker for Vansandt Real Estate, said the same notice came to him out of nowhere for some of his properties.
“They’re not interested in getting back in touch or explaining anything,” Vansandt said of JEA. “We can email them, but at this point I don’t think we’re going to get much of a response.”
Vansandt – who has had legal battles with Jacksonville’s Municipal Code Compliance office over property issues and his practice – said asking residents to pay for the preventers shouldn’t be allowed.
“If you’re a monopoly, and you’ve got existing customers…you don’t have that right,” Vansandt asserted.
One of the issues for Ferguson is what he sees as a potential conflict of interest between inspection and implementation of the devices since the vendor that makes the inspection can also do the installation.
“We do make it very clear in our literature and when we speak to people that they do not have to use the person who comes to test the backflow preventer to do any required repairs,” McKee said. “You can use the vendor of your choice, or you can even do it yourself.”
If customers do the repairs themselves, they must get that work inspected by a licensed vendor on JEA’s preferred vendor list.
Another question for Ferguson is the timing.
“I’ve lived in Duval County for the majority of my life,” Ferguson said. “I’ve been in my house close to 20 years, and this is the first time this has come up.”
Backflow preventers have been required since the 1990s by the Florida Building Code, according to JEA. McKee said Florida re-wrote the rule in 2014 and required water companies to monitor compliance more regularly.
Ferguson said he worries for other residents who can’t come up with money for the unexpected purchase.
“We’re going to have to do a little bit of juggling, depending on what price comes in,” Ferguson said. “But $600 to $1,200 is a lot for this community. That’s a house payment, that’s a car payment.”
If residents can’t afford to get a new backflow preventer, McKee said they could turn off their irrigation system. However, if it’s in-ground, that will not prevent the requirement.
“Even if they were to disconnect from JEA’s irrigation service and install a shallow well or plum into a pond close by, they’d still be required to have a backflow preventer,” McKee said.
JEA uses third-party vendors to conduct occasional inspections on some residential and commercial properties to check for compliance.
For those inspections, JEA charges $35 back to customer’s monthly water bill. If customers don’t want to be charged, they can opt-out by contacting JEA and schedule their own inspection.
While each utility company is required to monitor backflow prevention in its region, how utilities enforce the requirements can vary.
For example, Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) has an ordinance that references a cross-connection control manual, which outlines implementation and enforcement.
“We all have requirements that are set by the state,” said GRU Supervising Environmental Engineer Jennifer McElroy. “The implementation itself is up to the utility.”
Additional Information About Blackflow Preventers From JEA