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Water issues force multiple shutdowns, boil order at Willow Lake Estates in Elgin

The entry Willow Lake Estates where residents have seen their share water shut-offs boil orders recent weeks. | Mike Danahey/Sun-Times

The entry to Willow Lake Estates where residents have seen their share of water shut-offs and boil orders in recent weeks. | Mike Danahey/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 14, 2014 12:15PM

ELGIN — The mostly elderly residents of the Willow Lake Estates subdivision — which maintains its own water system — have been dealing with sporadic water shutdowns and boil orders since Nov. 14.

While some residents in the 600-plus-unit subdivision are frustrated by the situation, Ray Russell — who is the elected, unpaid president of the homeowners association for the manufactured-home community — said such work is not out of the ordinary for the area, except for an increase in how long the boil orders have been lasting.

“We’re trying to minimize the impact on residents, but the reality is things can happen and there can be water main breaks in cold weather,” Russell said.

“It’s been a little frustrating, yes, more so for my wife than me,” resident Andy Balafas said. “We’ve been using bottled water. There was no water for a shower one night, but it’s not killing me.”

Balafas and his wife have lived in the subdivision for about 15 months. Balafas said he is concerned that such work might point to further infrastructure issues that need to be addressed.

Russell, who has lived in the 47-year-old development for about a decade, said the issue is not such an omen but part of living where it gets cold.

The 55-and-over community is nestled along the west bank of the Fox River on the city’s north side, not far from Interstate 90 and Elgin’s Riverside Water Treatment Plant. It is owned and operated by Equity LifeStyle Properties (ELS). Formerly known as Manufactured Home Communities, the firm is a real estate investment trust whose chairman is real estate mogul Sam Zell.

Previous incidents

Russell said Willow Lake Estates has had several shutoffs and boil orders in place most years he has been a resident. Last winter, there were five or so shutoffs and boil orders, he said, some due to hooking up homes, others because of issues with the water system.

And this summer there was similar work, too — albeit with a new policy at Willow Lake where the boil orders have been lasting three days or so instead of about a day. Russell said the process now is that a boil order remains in effect for 72 hours, then the water is tested on the fourth day and, if it passes, the order is lifted on the fourth or fifth day.

Russell said the extended boil orders represent erring on the side of caution, given that a good many of the residents are senior citizens, some who might have health issues that could be impacted by potential drinking water problems.

“We’re trying to make sure the community is safe, while addressing the issues,” Russell said.

As one municipal website explains, “A boil order is issued, as required by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, when any work results in an interruption of service, or causes water pressure to drop below 20 pounds per square inch ... . A boil order remains in effect until test results from the lab indicate the water is safe, typically 48 hours.”

Multiple orders

Boil orders last month at Willow Lake happened from Nov. 14 to 19 after water was shut down for a time to connect service to a home, Russell said.

The water was turned off again and a boil order issued Nov. 30, he said, as the two smaller of three water main breaks were repaired. That boil order was kept in place while a crew fixed another water main break in a bigger pipe that involved going underneath an unoccupied home, he said.

The boil order remains in effect and could be lifted by Friday or early next week at the latest, Russell said.

He noted that residents are called when the orders go into effect and when they end.

Russell said plumbers hired by Willow Lake did the recent shutdowns overnight from about 10 p.m. until 6 a.m., in the hopes that would reduced usage issues for residents.

Elgin involvement

While Willow Lake Estates maintains its own water system, it buys its water from Elgin.

Elgin Water Director Kyla Jacobsen said that the city has known about the issues in Willow Lake for about two weeks, as a water department employee has acquaintances who live there. The water department started getting calls about the problems more than a week ago.

Jacobsen said she spoke to the subdivision’s head of maintenance, and he had the hired plumber call her. He told her “they were going to wait until all the work was done before doing the testing,” she said.

“When I spoke to the plumber, he understood what he needed to do. He accepted my offer to analyze the samples. He stated that he believed everything would be ready to test on Wednesday and that he would come to get sample bottle from us for collection,” she added.

While there had been some initial confusion over the situation, Jacobsen said that by Wednesday, the water department and the subdivision appeared to be on the same page.

She explained the city sometimes puts boil orders in place in parts of town where repair work involves isolating a section of pipe that can’t be fixed under pressure. The way Willow Lake’s system is set up, the entire subdivision is impacted by such projects. And, because of physics, when water gets cold, mains pretty much anywhere can be susceptible to breaks, she noted.

Among Equity LifeStyle Properties’ holdings are more than 370 manufactured home communities across the United States and Canada, where residents own their homes but rent their lots. In Illinois, along with Elgin, ELS owns sites in Monee and Beecher.

Russell said management has improved greatly over the last five years or so, and there have been concerted efforts to improve the area as well. As such, he intends to include information about how boil orders work and why they are used in an upcoming resident newsletter.

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