Preventing Backups Saves Money—and Pipes – Detecting Plumbing Problems

Of all the modern conveniences we take for granted, perhaps none is as important as indoor installation. By bringing fresh water into our homes and draining sewage away, the pipes in our buildings are an overlooked and mature system that almost magically distances us from our not-too-distant urban past. But when the installation fails, we notice almost immediately how much we depend on it.

Savvy city dwellers know something about their surroundings – including the building systems they depend on. When it comes to plumbing, a cooperative or condo resident’s knowledge should go at least a little beyond “wiggling the handle all the way”. Telltale signs of installation problems in a building often appear weeks or months before a disaster that leads, for example, to a very messy cleaning of a burst pipe. Knowing how to identify these potential problems with the building’s plumbing system could mean less money and hassle spent by all residents of the building.

Muddy story

The history of plumbing in New York City is none other than the neat, immaculately tiled bathrooms of some of today’s luxury Manhattan homes. Just a few generations ago, the city’s water and sewer systems were extremely primitive. In the 1890s, wealthy Manhattans might have septic tanks to handle waste, but most homes still used outbuildings. At that time, the fresh water supply was brought into the apartments through wooden and copper pipes.

Bob Bellini, president of Varsity Plumbing in Long Island, said New York City plumbing engineers wanted to eradicate the scourge of cholera around the turn of the century, most of which spread through contact with waste-contaminated water. To do this, they found a way to separate and move human waste from the city’s water system.

Some of the iron and copper sewer pipes used for these earliest urban systems are still in use today, says Stuart Liben, owner of New York City-based Metro Waterworks Inc. “We found sewer pipes that are more than 100 years old . They’re made of extra heavy cast iron, ”he says. “And some old sewer pipes are made of wood.”

The old wooden pipes are actually wooden blocks with a cylindrical hole drilled through them. But today, modern pipes that are installed to bring water to townhouses must be made of copper or plastic by law.

Who is responsible?

Thanks to the outdated state of the plumbing infrastructure in some of the city’s residential buildings, repairing these systems requires the expertise of highly qualified professionals. However, repairs to plumbing inside and outside a home can be costly. So who is responsible if a pipe leaks in a wall? Or who pays the bill for repairs if the installation in a ceiling fails? The short answer is that responsibility for plumbing repairs depends on the building’s authoritative documents, which vary from building to building.

In many buildings, the maintenance of all lines visible outside the walls of an apartment is the responsibility of the apartment owner. In such buildings, maintaining all the plumbing that is literally inside the walls of the apartment is often the job of building management. Each owner of the unit should review the building’s bylaws and other relevant documents to determine who is responsible for the various parts of the plumbing system.

Sometimes unit owners have to pay the cost of maintaining the plumbing in their apartment walls, which is connected from the building’s risers to the apartment’s plumbing. “It depends on how the bylaws are written,” said Phil Kraus, President and CEO of Fred Smith Plumbing & Heating in Manhattan.

“Usually in a cooperative the tenants are responsible for what is outside the wall. In condominiums, sometimes people are responsible for piping from the risers through the mains into the bathrooms and kitchens also extend into the walls. “Kraus emphasizes:” You really have to speak to your manager and read your rental agreement. ”

The larger a building, the more complicated the plumbing system becomes. A clear difference between sanitary installations in an average single-family house and an apartment building are the vertical risers of the apartment building. Vertical risers are the large pipes that carry waste and water away from the building. The vertical riser of an average single family home is a 3-inch pipe compared to a 6-inch diameter six-story vertical riser or the 8-inch pipe of a 20-story building vertical riser.

Larger buildings often need pressure intensifiers and regulators for their plumbing systems to function properly. These pumping and balancing devices help the system direct fresh water to the higher floors of the building. They also ensure adequate water pressure. Plumbers access these mechanisms through utility cabinets on different floors of a building.

Identify problems

One of the most common problems associated with installation in city apartment buildings is dirty water, usually due to corrosion of the water pipes. Both the water and sewer lines wear out over time and often leak when they need to be replaced. Sometimes the need for maintenance is obvious due to the water stains on the walls or ceiling of the apartment. In other cases, a foul odor can alert residents to a problem. Sometimes there are no warning signs of an impending installation problem.

Often times, something seemingly innocuous like a low pressure shower or cloudy water from a faucet can be an indication of a much larger, not clearly visible problem with the plumbing system. Residents should report these or any other inconsistencies they discover with the installation to management immediately. Other problems, just as clearly visible, will be spotted by an observant person who knows what to look for. “If a resident sees leaks, stains on the walls or ceiling, or notices that the ceiling is beginning to buckle, the tenant should call the building manager immediately,” said Elliot Clark, president of Sanitary Plumbing & Heating in Manhattan.

Since most building inspectors are not plumbers, professionals should never attempt more than simple repairs to the building’s plumbing system. Supers should be able to deal with clogged toilets or clogged sinks and shower drains. You can also do minor repairs to faucet and water pipes (such as replacing washing machines) and replacing sinks. As a rule, although this is not always legal, they can also replace toilets. Today, even these seemingly straightforward repairs have gotten more complicated.

“Lots of people have installed overseas-made faucets and you need special tools to do those repairs, and a lot of the [new] Toilets are difficult to work on, “says Kraus. Depending on the type of fittings installed, it is best to leave the more technical installation work to the registered installers. Otherwise, legal and liability issues would be wooed – not to mention safety issues.

For example: “A super should never touch gas pipes. They are not registered plumbers, ”says Clark.

According to the law, building supervisors are allowed to work on all piping on the equipment side, according to Bellini – although he points out that many local residents are asking these building workers to do more than they should.

“The problem is, people want to save money, but too often when they do plumbing repairs they bite off more than they can chew [by having a superintendent attempt
 to do the work]”Says Bellini. And some of the mistakes a Super could make could even harm residents’ health,” he adds. “A layman could use lead for soldering pipes that provide drinking water – but you don’t want lead poisoning, do you?”

A recently mandated upgrade to the water and sewer system required for all residential buildings in the city includes the installation of backflow preventer. These devices are needed in buildings to prevent a building’s drinking water from flowing back into the main city system. “It keeps the water in the building and prevents it from going back onto the street and contaminating the water [drinking] Water, “explains Kraus. Builders bear the costs of installing these devices.” These devices are used on the main line of the building and can be quite expensive. They can cost anywhere from $ 5,000 to $ 80,000 or more, “says Kraus. Although they’re expensive, everyone in town benefits from these installations.

Can we talk about this?

Plumbing fixtures and plumbing are man-made materials and will eventually fail. However, residents can control how much such disruption a building’s residents are causing by keeping their eyes open and not being afraid to invite their superintendent or a plumber to their building’s apartment to fix it. The biggest factor in avoiding pitfalls is the preventative mindset. For example, if a bathtub is leaking, a device owner should recognize that failure to fix the problem can result in more expensive repairs and even damage the structure of the building.

When it comes to plumbing emergencies in a multi-unit home, reporting small issues in a timely manner doesn’t help and almost always results in something bigger and more expensive. Bellini says such delayed corrections can take more time and can also affect the bottom line of any resident by increasing the maintenance fees required to do the job.

Prevention is also a matter of avoiding the daily pitfalls that many city dwellers succumb to without ever considering the impact they are having on the building’s plumbing system.

“Nobody wants to be bothered by a professional who comes out,” continues Bellini. “Still, people want to save money on dry cleaning and pour hot water down the drain by running their shower to steam their clothes. But every time water flows down the drain it wears away on the plumbing. ”

If you keep your eyes and lines of communication open between neighbors and employees in building maintenance, the cooperative and the apartment, you can prevent small nuisances from turning into big headaches. Building staff and administrators can also do their part by training residents and knowing when to call a professional.

Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer and is a regular contributor to The Cooperator and other publications.

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