Masters of Disaster

Stay Out of Hot Water

written by Mark A. Bush

Avoid major plumbing nightmares with regular maintenance, inspections and communication.

Picture this: It’s a Saturday morning, and a toilet in a unit on the 4th floor of an apartment building is flooding. Dirty wastewater from the backed-up toilet is seeping into the floors below, through the ceilings and down the walls—even dripping from light fixtures. With it being the weekend, it is difficult finding a plumbing service that’s available or even open. At best, everyone in and below the unit must deal with an inconvenient water shut-off; at worst, entire ceilings, walls, electrical systems, and even furniture will need replacing. What a disaster! All this damage—thousands of dollars in materials and hundreds of hours in labor—because of one simple plumbing problem.

With all the modern conveniences we enjoy, it’s easy to take indoor plumbing for granted. Tucked away behind walls and under floors, carefully crafted systems conveniently carry clean water into our homes and quietly take waste away. We can forget how much we depend upon it—until it fails.

While we may wonder what causes a given plumbing disaster, perhaps it’s better to ask how such disasters can be avoided.

Landlords, renters and property managers alike should be aware of some of the most common problems that come up, how to be prepared for them, and—better yet—how to prevent them from happening in the first place.

Here are some warning signs and tips for mitigating the impact and inconvenience of failures in our plumbing systems.

Slow or Clogged Drains

It is a common practice to use store-bought drain cleaning solutions to fix clogs or slow draining sinks and toilets. This is a big mistake. Drain cleaners are highly corrosive and seriously dangerous, especially if not used properly. Just take a look at the warning labels! Even when used as directed—because different homes may have different pipe materials (plastic, copper, lead, steel, etc.)—it can be hard to tell how a plumbing system will react to the drain cleaner. In some cases, the overuse of drain cleaning chemicals can cause serious ongoing damage to a home’s drain pipes, resulting in leaks throughout the system and a plumbing catastrophe.

A better idea is to consult with a plumbing service professional. They can check your pipes and make a recommendation based on what they find.

Clog-clearing tools such as drain snakes can safely snag and remove clogs in drains and toilets without the additional risk to your pipes from chemicals. A professional plumber will also have tools needed to identify and fix partial clogs, which can prevent an overflowing toilet or sink.

A professional plumber can also quickly detect other reasons for drainage issues, such as worn out gaskets or other plumbing system components that need replacing. It is much better to catch a potential problem early while the solution to fix it is small and simple. The cost of fixing plumbing problems before they start is usually just a fraction of what you would spend on a post-disaster repair.

Another great idea to protect your plumbing is to have a professional plumbing service inspect your system at least once a year. They can look for signs of possible wear and tear and take steps accordingly. As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Homeowners and tenants can take preventive measures into their own hands as well, with simple devices like drain strainers, or changing small habits like where to put cooking grease. Use drain strainers in your bathroom and kitchen drains. Strainers can block hair in bathroom drains in the sink, tub, and shower, preventing major clogs. Strainers can also prevent food debris from stopping up kitchen sinks. Although dishwashers may have built in strainers, it is best to rinse dishes before putting them in the dishwasher to prevent large food particles from blocking the drain. Never dump cooking grease down the drain, which can create truly disgusting clogs and blockages in pipes and will lead to a sizable repair bill. Instead, pour the leftover grease into a container and put it in the refrigerator. Once it has hardened, scoop out the solid waste into the garbage.

As for the toilet—one of the biggest and most important drains—the only thing that should ever be flushed down it besides bodily waste is toilet paper. Anything else will eventually create a costly and inconvenient clog, including the so-called “flushable” wipes. You may be able to flush them, but they truly don’t make it past a few feet of your drain. They stick to the side walls of the drainpipes and will eventually cause a very expensive clog.

No Hot Water

Have you ever taken a shower and found that you have suddenly run out of hot water? If so, you probably have a greater appreciation for a properly working water heater. One tell-tale sign of a failing water heater is low water pressure from your hot water faucets. If your cold-water faucet works well but there’s a significant reduction in water pressure with the hot water, it could be a sign that the water heater is failing and could soon cease to function.

Abnormal or strange noises can also be a sign of impending water heater failure. Sometimes these noises and sounds are consistent, but sometimes they are irregular, and they may include gurgling or bubbling sounds. The best way to determine if a water heater is making abnormal noises is to take note of how it sounds before use, and then listen to it after using a significant amount of hot water, like after a shower or load of laundry. If the sounds afterward are different, as described above, your water heater may be failing.

The reason a water heater may make these sounds is because the build-up of minerals and sediments in the water heater are literally being “cooked.” As the water is used, the sediments that are usually at the bottom of the heater are getting stirred up. These sediments and minerals need to be flushed out on a regular basis for the water heater to function at its best. Call a professional plumbing service to drain and flush the water heater annually to extend the life of your water heater and get the best performance out of it.

Murky or muddy water coming from hot water faucets are also a clear sign that the water heater is failing or needs proper maintenance. Another sign that a water heater will fail soon is rust around the tank fittings, especially on the top of the tank, which may often be overlooked. A leaking water heater is another sign it needs attention.

The most important factor to consider is the age of the water heater. Most water heaters are designed to last 10 to 15 years. If the water heater is more than 15 years old, there is a good chance it will need to be replaced sooner rather than later.

Prepare for the Unexpected

An absolute must for any landlord, property manager, or renter is to know how to turn off the water. One the most common plumbing problems is when a pipe or faucet breaks, and water is spewing out and no one knows how to turn it off. A good property manager should find out from the landlord ahead of time how to shut off the water to a unit or building. Where appropriate, the tenant should also be informed and instructed how to shut off the water. This alone will eliminate unnecessary flooding and water damage, because if something breaks or starts uncontrollably flooding, knowing where the main water shut off is critical to avoiding major damage.

Property managers need to know where all water shutoffs are, including the backflow valve shutoffs. These shutoffs are crucial to controlling possible flooding after an earthquake or other disaster in the case of sewer pipes breaking, to prevent contaminated water sources and the municipal clean water supply from mixing. Backflow valves are commonly used on properties that have large boilers, fire suppression systems, or irrigation systems, because there is an elevated risk of contamination.

If a backflow valve is installed, this system MUST have professional backflow testing conducted once per year to remain up to code and city and state regulations. Backflow valves are crucial for preventing potentially hazardous contaminants like bacteria and sediment from standing water in a boiler, or fertilizer and pesticides from a lawn irrigation system, from making their way into everyone’s drinking water.

For any planned projects that would require water shut off, all plumber technicians involved should know exactly where shut off valves or boiler procedures need to be performed ahead of time. A clear plan communicated to tenants is needed to inform them of what’s going on as well.

Perform Routine Inspections

Remember, the first sign of a major problem might be small, like a faucet dripping or a toilet running. The sooner you spot and treat a problem, the easier it is to take care of, both financially and mentally. Property and on-site managers who oversee older houses or apartments will especially benefit from close, regular care of their plumbing systems, and your tenants will appreciate living somewhere that’s well-maintained.

So, hire that professional plumber. They will understand your system, and they will be able to educate you on what you can do yourself. When it comes to avoiding a potential plumbing disaster down the road, it is money well-spent.

The bottom line here is to pay attention, use prevention, and ease everyone’s tension!

Mark A. Bush is the VP of Operations at R&L Plumbing. www.rlplumbingsanfrancisco.com