THE PROBLEM: There are two square holes, each about the size of a child's foot, in the sidewalk outside Linda Huchon's house.
The little metal covers that are supposed to be on them, called "curb-box covers," went missing about three months ago. Now you can see a long dark hole leading to the utilities beneath her sidewalk.
In the grand scheme of things, it's a minor problem. But it is annoying.
For one thing, the Southwest Philadelphian is afraid that leaves and other debris will get down the uncovered holes, causing problems. For another, people can trip on them.
Huchon is having trouble figuring out how to replace the covers. She doesn't know which utility to call, and a plumbing- supply store she went to didn't have the proper covers in stock.
In the meantime, she's using bricks to try to keep the holes closed.
WHO YOU GONNA CALL? Walk down Philadelphia's streets, and you'll quickly find that Huchon's not alone.
Missing curb-box covers are a particular problem because so much of the city's utility infrastructure is underground.
So we tried to figure out who Huchon and scores of other Philadelphians can call if their curb-box covers go missing.
Turns out it's a little complicated (surprise!), because not every utility will replace your covers for you.
Basically, if the utility owns the pipes or wires the curb box leads to, it will replace the cover. If you own the pipes, it won't.
PGW, for instance, will replace missing curb-box covers because it owns the lateral lines that connect gas mains to customers' homes and businesses. So will Peco.
But customers own their own water and sewer lines, so Water Department spokeswoman Laura Copeland said the department won't replace them.
Why the difference?
Well, as PGW spokesman Cameron Kline put it: "Our stuff explodes." Water and sewage isn't quite that dangerous.
If you're like Huchon, though, you haven't memorized what every utility's boxes look like. Especially since there's so much stuff underground, from traffic-signal infrastructure to the obscure Center City steam loop. How do you know which is which?
Luckily, the Streets Department has a solution. You can call 3-1-1, and a Streets Department inspector will take a look at the curb boxes and inform the proper utilities for you within two business days.
One problem: If it turns out you have to replace the cover yourself, no one will call back to tell you. So keep your 3-1-1 service number, and call the operator back.
BUYING A COVER. Thanks to a Peco work crew that investigated for us, we found out Huchon's missing covers led to her water and sewer lines. So she has to buy her own.
PGW's Kline suggested she buy them from a building contractor. Contractors should have a supply since they install covers whenever they put in new lateral lines.
She could also try a hardware store.
But one word of caution: Our unscientific survey found that larger chains might not carry the right covers. We called the Home Depot on Oregon Avenue, and a sales associate told us that the store carried curb box covers that are the wrong size for Philadelphia boxes.
A sales associate at the Lowe's off 52nd Street in West Philly said the company doesn't stock the covers because they're a Philadelphia-specific design. Other cities either don't use curb boxes or use different sizes.
We had better luck with local hardware stores.
The person who picked up the phone at the Weinstein Supply Bath and Kitchen at 46th and Lancaster said the store sells the right kind of covers. They cost between $8 and $20.
Ditto for the guy who answered the phone at Barrco's at 63rd off Girard. They carry covers for about $15.
GOODBYE, MYSTERY VAN
Last week, Help Desk wrote about an abandoned van that hadn't budged from a spot on Fern Street in Olney for several months. Grover Reed Jr., who lives on the block, had left several messages on the city's abandoned auto hot line (215-683-CARS), to no avail.
After we contacted the Police Department, an officer from the Neighborhood Services Unit (NSU) inspected the van and gave the owner 10 days to repair a flat tire and bring the inspection up to date. If the owner didn't respond, the police said, the van would be towed.
We later caught up with Sgt. Frank Spires of the NSU, who reported that the owner had failed to respond to the notice within 10 days. As promised, the police had the van towed on March 8.
Spires also told us that the Police Department will be taking a closer look at its abandoned-auto hot line to improve communication between the automated line and the NSU. Sounds like a good idea to us.
- Kirstin Lindermayer
Have you dealt with city services lately? How'd it go? Let us know at www.thecityhowl.com, e-mail email@example.com or call 215-854-5855.