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Preventing plumbing disasters.

Preventing Plumbing Disasters

Knowledgeable property managers understand the value of preventive maintenance. They understand that over time, it more than pays for itself. Preventive maintenance helps assure that equipment does not break down, avoiding repairs and costly damages that can result. It extends equipment life and also makes for happier tenants, with less turnover. And all of this contributes to the value and marketability of a building.

Some of the biggest maintenance headaches a property manager experiences are those associated with plumbing. When building occupants experience a shortage of water, they get upset. When a pipe bursts, insulation and other building materials can be damaged; structural problems can result; and carpeting, wallpaper, furnishings, and valuable records can be damaged.

Given the complexity and cost of such problems, managers would be well advised to include specific inspections and actions relative to the plumbing system in their preventive maintenance programs. With plumbing, most people believe that the best approach is breakdown maintenance. When a problem occurs, fix it.

Preventive problems

There are steps that can be taken to help minimize plumbing problems and damages that occur when a small problem becomes a big one. A typical preventive maintenance inspection schedule should include the following activities. The frequency with which they are performed will depend on a number of variables. At least an annual check is suggested.

* Examine all faucets. This involves a unit-to-unit or space-to-space inspection to assure that there are no leaks. The cost of repairing a simple leak is small. The cost of a neglected leak is not. For example, a steadily dripping water tap can leak 62,000 gallons of water per year. The cost of the water and attendant sewerage fees could be as high as $350 per year at a combined $5.38 per gallon. Depending on rates, the cost could be even higher. A toilet that does not shut off after being flushed could waste as many as 365,000 gallons per year, costing the owner $2,000 annually.

For the most part, residents will call management for repairs only after the plumbing has broken down or become a nuisance. It is wise for management to ask residents to report all maintenance problems by calling the management office and giving a written request to the on-site staff, as soon as they discover a problem.

* Examine all fixtures. At the time that faucets are examined, it is appropriate to examine fixtures and drains. If there is a greenish stain in a sink or bathtub, for example, copper pipes are being corroded by minerals in the water. An immediate water analysis is called for, along with remedial measures.

* Look under sinks. Are there any signs of leakage inside vanities, on items in the vanities, on the floor, at joints, or connections of piping? Bear in mind that small drips can cause rotting, permitting water to get under tiles, into the subfloor, into the ceiling below, and so forth. It may not seem to be a big problem at the present time. But, unless corrected, it will lead to a big problem.

* Examine laudry equipment. If the building has a laundry room, all hoses need close checking. These very often are overlooked by in-house personnel when the equipment is vendor-owned. Vendors often effect repairs on a breakdown basis. Look for signs of leaks (which can bring in pests or lead to structural damage), and examine hoses for signs of cracking. The same applies to laundry units inside apartments.

* Inspect accessible piping. Wherever piping is accessible, it should be examined visually and then be tapped with the grip end of a screwdriver. In the case of metal piping, corrosion occurs from the inside, due to the friction created by the moving water and, in some cases, the mineral content of that water. The sound or "feel" derived from the tapping can indicate if the pipe is about to go. In some cases a pipe may be paper-thin, and the tapping itself can cause it to break.

* Inspect inaccessible piping. Inaccessible piping can be "looked at" by checking for stains or rot. The most obvious place for this to occur is in pipe insulation. But bear in mind that it can also be found on baseboards or floors.

* Check stand pipes and sprinkler systems. Depending on the size of your building, its occupancy, location, and other factors, you may have other plumbing systems that need review. An extremely close check of the sprinkler system will help assure that it is working properly.

* Check the lead content of the water. Be sure to check the lead content because a great many existing buildings have plumbing which uses lead-based solder. This applies, too, for any water from drinking fountains. If unacceptably high traces of lead are found, the problem must be fixed. If no such problems are found, the fact needs to be documented in case someone files a claim.

* Check for appropriate use and potential. Past water consumption data should be looked at closely. Assuming this is done on an annual basis, how does consumption for the last year compare to that for the year before? About the same? Significantly more? It it is significantly more, why?

If there is no reasonable explanation, such as a higher occupancy rate, new kinds of commercial tenants, or building expansion, then the problem most likely is an underground leak of some type. In that case, application of leak detection equipment is a must.

Conducting the inspection

When our company performs this type of annual inspection and repair service, we will usually document findings on a unit-by-unit basis. If something more than routine work is required, we will take a photo of what we see, so there is no question about findings.

In some cases our personnel perform all the repairs. In others, we perform only nonroutine activities, with routine work being performed by in-house staff.

About 80 percent of all the plumbing work in a building is routine, and just about anyone with fairly good training can handle it. The other 20 percent of the work requires much more knowledge and skill, and people who have that skill are in demand.

It almost always works out best when the building or property manager has a fully staffed firm that can be relied on to take care of all needs. My reasoning for this is as follows:

* Continuity of service. A firm which is there as back-up is familiar with the building and its plumbing system. If the in-house person goes on vacation, or for whatever other reason is not there, the firm can handle all needs until the on-site worker returns.

* Equipment and materials. It takes more than people to do the job. You need equipment, spare parts, and materials. These are kept on the shelf until needed and, when needed, may no longer be in good condition. You do not want to tie up money in spare parts, seldom-used equipment, and materials.

* Licenses and code compliance. An individual who is competent to perform even some of the larger repairs may not be licensed to perform them. If a problem develops, and it can be shown that someone was injured as a consequence of work performed by someone who was unlicensed and/or who did comply with code, that person's employer will be held liable. If that person is on your staff, you or your company are the employer.


My general advice for taking care of plumbing is to rely on a qualified contractor you can trust, and who has an incentive to perform well and handle the work that requires more than routine knowledge. Have that plumber perform the annual audit of your system, so you know what your needs are and how well your in-house staff is performing. This will help you identify and take care of the small problems before they become major ones.

Experience shows that this is the quality approach to managing your plumbing system, and high quality almost invariably results in the lowest costs.

Thomas F. Warner is the president and CEO of The Warner Corporation.

Established in the nation's capital in 1939, The Warner Corporation specializes in conventional plumbing, heating, and cooling systems repair, as well as "high-tech" plumbing which requires computerized hydroacoustic systems and is described in this article. Warner employs more than 250 mechanics and has some 15 offices serving the city of Washington and virtually all of the surrounding Virginia and Maryland suburbs. The company is one of the largest plumbing/heating/cooling service contractors in the United States.

PHOTO : Preventive maintenance and checks during repairs will help reduce plumbing emergencies.
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Title Annotation:Operating Techniques & Products Bulletin 398
Author:Warner, Thomas F.
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:Sep 1, 1989
Previous Article:A survey of motivation in property management.
Next Article:High-tech, below grade.

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