Change The Way You Look At A Plumbing Leak In 4 Easy Steps

Let’s face it, as the General Manager of a condo community, you have a VERY busy job. Unit 1203 already called twice this morning due to a funny smell in the hallway, the painting contractor has parked illegally blocking a resident trying to leave, and someone forgot to clean-up after their pet again just outside the front door to the lobby. All that, and it’s not even 8:15 AM yet! Where’s the coffee?

To successfully run a building, there are literally a thousand things to keep track of, especially if you want to keep your building looking and performing its best. From paint and spalling, to balconies and elevators, to lobbies and pool decks, to parking garages and landscaping, to windows and roofs, the list goes on and on. With so much to do, and see, on any given day, it’s easy to forget about the things you can’t see – the ones hidden behind your walls, like your pipes. This article will help you learn the key things you need to know about managing the pipes in your community. Leak repair and pipe replacement can be costly. Knowing the right time to do both is important.


Know Your Piping Systems

First, you should know how many plumbing systems you have in your building and what each one does. When something is leaking, you need to start with what system it is coming from. There can be as many as four major water-oriented piping systems in your community (we’re excluding gas lines for now as that’s a whole different ballgame). These four systems are: Supply Piping (sometimes called domestic water) that brings hot and cold water to the units in your building (think faucets and showers); Drain, Waste and Vent Piping which carries waste water out of your community (think p-traps and drain lines under your sinks, toilets and bathtubs and rain leaders from your roof); Hydronic Piping which uses heated or cooled water passed through a fan coil to provide temperature controls (heat and air conditioning) in your building, and Sprinkler Piping which is a key component of your fire suppression system. While some communities have other minor systems (for their pool, or landscaping), we’ll focus on these four major systems that are located within your walls and ceilings for now.

Regardless of which systems you have in your community, as your building and your piping systems age, it is important to document the failures. Each system and piping material carries an estimated useful life that indicates how long a system “should” last, though certain environmental factors can impact these estimates. Generally speaking, 30-50 years is all you can expect to get from your pipes before age catches up with them and you start to have leaks. When this happens, and every time you hear the work LEAK, it’s critical that you do the following:


Start a Leak Log

When pipes start to fail, accurate documentation of the failures will help to aid in budgets for repair and or replacement throughout the life of your building. A leak log will also help inform reserve studies. As such, the most important thing to do is begin a leak log. Which system was leaking, how bad was it, where was the leak located (not just the unit where the leak occurred but where, within the unit, was the leak? Was it near a recirculating pump on a hot water heater? Was it at a particular fixture or bend?). Tracking this over time can help determine if you have a systemic problem or not. Tracking leaks, and the subsequent repair costs, can help you keep track of which systems are leaking, when and how often. You can use the repair cost data to create budgets for future repairs and/or replacement, and you can discuss accurate repair costs more knowledgably with your vendors.


Save All The Pieces Of Pipe

When your plumber or maintenance staff has to cut out sections of pipe or fittings to replace them, ask to keep the extracted pieces that failed. Tagging and bagging them and tying them to the leak log can help you track your leaks and possibly expose a repetitive problem or a construction defect. If the same fitting breaks at the same spot in every unit in a stack, its usually not coincidence. Saving the pieces also allows you to send them out for testing in the future. A metallurgist or plastics engineer can inspect sections of pipe to help determine why they failed, and can give you an accurate estimate on the remaining usable life of your system based on actual wear.


Take Pictures Of Your Pipes While The Wall Is Open

Documenting the circumstances of the leak in photographs can be extremely helpful, especially in older buildings that don’t have blueprints. The pictures can be tied to the leak log and can serve as a reference for future issues. It is very helpful to “see” actual conditions and wall construction. Even if a property does have blueprints, clear accurate photo documentation can help to confirm or deny what the blueprints show and can help spot repetitive issues and better inform future analysis of repeat problems.

Knowing what is leaking, and properly documenting where, when and how often are critical data points when determining whether you have an age related or construction defect problem with your pipes. It’s also essential information when determining if it’s time to consider a building wide pipe replacement (or re-pipe) or whether it makes more sense to continue fixing leaks as they come. If you follow the four steps above, you will be well informed when your Board asks: How many leaks did we have last quarter? Wasn’t that a roof leak? Which piping system do we have the most leaks in? Was there insulation in the wall where the repair was made? Can I see the old pipe?

As leaks become more frequent, damages increase, insurance premiums climb, and residents get frustrated, you will know when it’s time to propose a building wide fix, rather than continuing to repair leaks one at a time.

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