When other people are thinking about summer vacation, residential property managers need to be thinking about plumbing.  Yes, spring is time to get ahead of the game and take care of minor issues before they have a chance to create major problems.  For those managing residential properties there’s quite a bit that can be done to prepare your plumbing for summer and head off problems such as drain backups, and even avoid major disasters such as flooding.  Summertime is also great for jogging your memory to bring your maintenance items up to date for any type of property.

The Opposite of Winter

Spring is time to re-activate those items you may have shut down for the winter such as swimming pools and lawn sprinklers.  But don’t just turn them back on.  It’s time to inspect them and make adjustments, and once they’re running again make sure their working properly.  Are there any irrigation leaks? Any broken or miss-aimed sprinkler heads?  Do you have any pool plumbing or equipment that’s not up to par?  Is the water chemistry back to where it should be?

Don’t forget gas lines, valves, and BBQ grills.  Inspection and testing by a master plumber goes a long way in assuring everyone’s safety.

Anticipate Summer Problems

With an uptick in social activities, especially BBQs, there’s added demands on drains and sewers.  After a party many people rush through parties, letting more go down the drain and dumping more leftovers into the garbage disposal than they otherwise might.  So spring and early summer are great times for preventive drain cleaning and sewer cleaning.  An in-pipe video camera inspection will alert you to upcoming problems and hydro-jetting will thoroughly clear sewer and drain lines to prevent backups.  Don’t forget storm drains.  They should be inspected and cleaned to prevent “mini flash floods” following thunderstorms.

In the summertime apartments, condos, and even small businesses remain unoccupied for a week or more, without your even knowing about it.

As you’re probably aware, the majority of property insurance claims are for water damage.  Taking action within the very first day is critical in minimizing losses, and is required by insurance companies before secondary damage will be covered.  But what if a tenant is away on vacation?  They could very well be gone for two weeks!  With most leaks no one else notices, so the tenant returns home to find out-of-control mold and destroyed flooring, walls, cabinets, and furniture.  So schedule our plumbing inspections and call in a leak detection professional before the vacation season starts.  Inspections and pressure tests are quick and quite affordable and should part any property management annual schedule.

For single-family residences and duplexes, shutting off the water completely during long vacations is a very reasonable precaution.  But for many homes that would also shut off the lawn sprinklers.  It’s pretty straightforward and relatively inexpensive to have a plumber install a separate shut-off valve for just the building.  Also, in plumbing emergencies when the resident is at home that valve’s often quicker and easier for a resident to use than locating and cranking the main shut-off near the exterior water meter.  Having flooding and leak alarms installed can also be a good investment, whatever the building type and occupancy.

Spring and summer weather is also an opportunity to save a little on water heating costs.  Incoming water can be significantly warmer than in the winter, so you can turn the thermostat down a bit and still have enough hot water for everyone.  Around 120 deg. F is a reasonable minimum (and don’t forget that anything above 140 deg. F causes scalding).

Tips To Pass On To Residential Tenants

tips spring cleaning plumbingRenters want to avoid disruptions and protect their own property, and no one wants to come home to a plumbing disaster.  So it does help to pass along some prevention tips.  You could distribute a flier, or include them in other documents such as HOA minutes and notifications.  Here are several that are at the top of most people’s list.

  • Resist the temptation of sending fibrous vegetables (such as celery), fat, meat, or bones down the garbage disposal — especially when you’re entertaining a large number of lunch or dinner guests.
  • Whether from outdoor grilling or indoor cooking, never let oils or grease go down the sink.  Do not flush them down the toilet either.  They solidify inside the drain pipe, building up and eventually causing a clog.  Even with this precaution it’s a good idea to run lots of hot water and dish washing detergent down the kitchen sink from time to time.
  • Make sure there’s a convenient and easy to spot trash can in each bathroom visitors are likely to use.  No joke.  You’d be surprised how often plumbers are called in to clear a clog caused by a guest flushing a Q-tip or some other foreign object down the toilet.

Don’t forget to prepare your home before leaving for vacation.  You probably know about putting mail and newspaper subscriptions on hold and putting a couple of lights on timers.  But there’s some plumbing precautions you should take as well before heading out.  Preventing indoor flooding just as important as remembering to be sure the stove is off.

Before a Short Vacation

Here are some tips for when you’ll be away for just a few days.

  • Check that all faucets, indoors and out, are fully turned off and aren’t leaking.
  • Check that that clothes washer hoses are in good condition.  Better still, shut off both valves.  Burst washer hoses are one of the leading causes of home flooding during the summer.
  • Turn down the water heater thermostat or set it to “vacation.”  You’ll save energy but won’t have to re-light the pilot on your return.
  • Make sure that your yard sprinkler timers are properly set to avoid wasting water.

Before a Long Vacation

You should take those steps even further if you’ll be gone for a week or more.

  • Shut off the main water supply to your home as a precaution against leaks.  But check that this doesn’t also shut off any needed outdoor irrigation.
  • Turn off the water softener, especially if you’ve shut down its water supply.
  • Turn off your refrigerator’s ice maker.  And don’t forget to clean out the fridge before you go!
  • Ruptured water heaters are another common cause of flooding.  Many experts suggest that you drain your water heater after shutting off the water.  It will refill in just a few minutes once you’re back.  Turn the thermostat back up to its regular setting after the tank is full again.
  • Shutting off the gas provides a little extra protection against fire hazards.
  • To avoid an odorous return, clean all toilets before you leave.  You may want to leave a little chlorine bleach in the bowl.  Also make sure your drains are clear, and perhaps add a little baking soda.  It’s also a good time to clean your garbage disposal.  Run some water, then add baking soda, wait a while and add some vinegar, wait a while then flush it clean with boiling water.

You can learn more at http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2013/05/29/home-prep-vacation/2371035/. That’s a lot to do, so you may want to hire a local plumber to do it for you.

If at all possible, ask a neighbor to keep an eye out for your yard sprinkler malfunctioning.  If you’re going to be a way for a few weeks or more and the water is still turned on, it would also be helpful to have them come in from time to time to take a look around, flush all toilets, and run all faucets for a short while.

For All Occupancies

You can also use the onset of summer to jog your memory on annual maintenance with a regular schedule.

Your staff can take care of many items themselves.  That includes an informal inspection of plumbing in crawl spaces and public areas along with checking clothes washer hoses.  With a little training they might drain and flush hot water heaters as well.

But annual plumbing inspections, leak detection, and water heater servicing are best performed by qualified and licensed plumbers.  You might be able to benefit by scheduling preventive maintenance during the summer when water heater experts are usually less busy.  And if you know it’s getting time for a water heater replacement, doing so during warm summer months is less likely to upset people.

Spring Cleaning Your Maintenance and Contingency Planning

Consider including contingency planning and scheduled maintenance in your spring-cleaning mindset.  Residential plumbing companies are great for single-family homes and duplexes, but keep in mind that you should enlist commercial plumbing services for condos, apartment buildings, and especially high rises.  And of course restaurants, office buildings, nursing homes, and so on.

Reputable plumbing contractors are eager to establish long-term working relationships and may offer perks such as foregoing night and weekend rate premiums.  Service agreements can take away a lot of the headaches of being a property manager, HOA manager, or condo association leader.  Whether plumbing, electrical, or whatever you’ll have fewer details to juggle.

Do It In-House or….

Many states allow licensed real estate agents to do building work without a contractors license, and that’s great for minor routine tasks.  But most states also have notable exceptions such as lead abatement and certification, mold removal beyond certain area thresholds, electrical, and plumbing.  In California any service call above $500 can only be performed by a licensed plumber.  In general installing or replacing fixtures or water heaters requires a licensed plumber and a local building permit.  And keep in mind that any unlicensed services leave you exposed to legal and financial liabilities.

Scheduled Maintenance as an Opportunity

service spring cleaning plumbingFew real estate managers ever regret being proactive with regular inspections and leak tests, sewer line video camera inspections, and water heater maintenance.  Twice a year is the norm.  Hydro jetting drain cleaning and sewer cleaning every few years for residential properties is a great preventive measure, completely removing all grease buildup that causes slow-running drains and traps food particles and debris for a complete clog.  High-pressure water jetting is even more important for restaurants and other facilities with commercial kitchens.  Your staff can keep grates free of leaves and debris, but it often takes a professional plumbing company to assure that storm drains are clear and won’t back up.

That scheduled work is a great opportunity to establish a long-term close working relationship with a full-service plumbing contractor in the spring, or any time of year.  You’ll have someone on call that already knows you and your property.  They’re more likely to have special parts in stock or know the best sources, and arrangements such as terms and conditions, billing, and payment will all be worked out.  You’ll have set expectations, and they will have met or exceeded them.

They should soon earn enough trust for you to provide them gate codes and access keys so that neither you nor your staff will have to go out in the middle of the night just to let them in.  After clearly establishing services that the plumbing contractor can go ahead with and what they need to wait for your permission on, you can give tenants their direct phone number.  That’s actually a good incentive for tenants to sign multi-year leases or make a condo purchase, and worth promoting.

What to Look For

Of course you want a company that is licensed and insured, prompt and dependable.  With personnel who will treat you and your tenants professionally.  But what else?  Here are some big pluses in making a selection.

  • Are all of their technicians and plumbers in-house employees who have been background checked?
  • Do they truly have 24 hour emergency services, sending out top-notch trouble shooters even in the middle of the night?
  • Will they have a particular contact person assigned to you?
  • Do they maintain a good paper trail of inspections, findings, actions, and invoicing?
  • Are their preventive maintenance contracts tailored to your particular facilities?
  • Are they experienced experts in your type of occupancy?  That includes grease traps for restaurants and any other facility that handles food, back-flow preventers for high-rises, and mixing valves for nursing homes.
  • Do they employ one or more master plumbers for tough problems, gas lines, and gas leaks?
With a good working relationship you’ll sleep better knowing that plumbing problems will be handled promptly and properly with just a single phone call. Happy Spring!