After pandemic hiatus, Plumbers union brings back Water’s Off service day

Brett Bernhjelm and Julia Kunze pause for a photo with Dave Hallis, a disabled Navy veteran whose Maplewood home needed plumbing repairs. Bernhjelm is a military veteran, too, having served six years in the Minnesota National Guard.

Dave Hallis’ kitchen drain needed more than a quick fix, and caulking in the disabled Navy veteran’s roll-in shower had begun to separate.

So when Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties called Hallis in March to see if he could use some free plumbing repairs, the timing couldn’t have been better.

Hallis was one of 25 Twin Cities homeowners who received free service through local union plumbers’ annual Water’s Off service initiative March 26.

“I’ve had a couple plumbers come in, but it would just continue leaking,” said Hallis, who lives in a Maplewood mobile home. “Without this help, these repairs wouldn’t be getting done because financially I am strapped. I was worried it would create more damage because hardwood floors and water don’t mix.”

Making the repairs in Hallis’ home were two volunteer members of St. Paul Plumbers Local 34, Brett Bernhjelm and Julia Kunze. They replaced the leaking pipes beneath Hallis’ kitchen sink, recaulked his shower and did a walk-through inspection of the rest of his home’s plumbing.

“It’s a good thing it’s getting fixed today,” said Bernhjelm, a 19-year member of Local 34. “The band-aids that had been put on were not going to work.”

Since Water’s Off started in 1991, union plumbers have donated more than 13,000 hours of skilled labor, at a value of over $2 million. Their contractors, members of the Minnesota Mechanical Contractors Association and the Metro Plumbing Heating and Cooling Contractors, pick up the cost of parts and other supplies.

“Giving back to our communities is one of our core union principles, so once we identified the problem, we knew we needed to help,” said David Ybarra, president of the Minnesota Pipe Trades Association.

“By providing free plumbing repairs and inspections, this program not only saves these homeowners money, it lifts a weight off their shoulders and brings the community together,” said Marcia Paulson of Community Action Partnership.

For Kunze, a third-year apprentice, it was her first time volunteering with Water’s Off, which had been canceled in each of the previous two years because of the pandemic. She said it won’t be her last.

“I just like to give back to the community, especially for a veteran who has fought for our country,” Kunze said. “It’s an amazing honor.”

Bernhjelm is a veteran too, having served six years in the Minnesota National Guard. He and Hallis shared a laugh when Hallis successfully guessed which branch of the military Bernhjelm had served.

“I got the feeling you were an Army man,” Hallis said.

Those are the connections, for Bernhjelm, that make volunteering with Water’s Off worthwhile.

“Other people don’t have the training to fix things that we, as union plumbers, can easily fix,” Bernhjelm said. “And it’s great to run into people like David. He served us, and it’s an honor to be able to serve him.”

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