Plumbing. It’s one of those things for which we all should be grateful, but about which we rarely ever give a thought—at least not until we see water seeping out from under the bathroom door. Fortunately, if and when things go wrong, there are plenty of professionals out there to remedy the problem. Even better, in most of our co-op and condo buildings, there are dedicated staff members working to maintain and service our plumbing systems with the goal of preventing problems before they ever start.
A Look Back
Plumbing refers to the system of pipes, tanks and other structures required to supply water, heat and sanitation for a building or dwelling. And it has been a concern for humans for millennia. The earliest known evidence of drains and primitive toilet technology were found among the 5,000 to 8,000 year old Neolithic settlements at Skara Brae on the coast of Scotland’s Orkney Island.
Water-carrying pipes and cesspools also existed thousands of years ago in the ancient civilizations of Sumeria, Akkadia and Babylon in the Middle East. Halfway around the world in Mesoamerica, ancient Mayan plumbing included underground aqueducts, flush toilets and household limestone water filters.
The Romans had a knack for plumbing, and even get credit for the word’s origins, which derives from plumbum, the Latin word for lead. From public bathhouses to massive underground sewer systems, there is no doubt the Romans were into their plumbing systems. Not that they were perfect at it, of course. Case in point; while many households did have private indoor toilets, few of those were connected to the main sewer system for fear of home invasions by rats, and the occasional eruption of flames from underground gas build-ups.
After Rome fell, most Europeans got lazy and reverted to collecting waste in chamber pots, which were simply dumped out windows into the streets – leading not only to a truly disgusting situation for pedestrians, but also to regular outbreaks of typhoid and cholera that killed thousands. Things began to get (arguably) better when Europeans began using small rivers and waterways to guide waste-laden water away from city centers. Of course, this made those rivers and waterways into reeking, profoundly polluted sewers...but at least there was less poo in the streets.
In the United States, the first public sewer systems were built in the late 1850s in Chicago and Brooklyn. The first American patent for a fixed water closet was granted in 1857, but the style of toilet we think of today did not come onto the market until the late 1890s.
Running water remained an elusive goal for much longer, with only about five percent of the U.S. population having it by the end of the Civil War. Most cities would have it by the 1930s, but many rural areas had to wait until the mid 1940s before they could turn on a tap and have fresh water flow into their homes.
In short, life for us modern Americans is pretty good when it comes to plumbing. Whether living in a single-family home or a multifamily residential building, the concepts remain the same when it comes to piping in fresh water and carrying waste away. That said, plumbing in a multifamily building comes with its own set of challenges.
“Customers most frequently complain about water pressure issues,” says Hugh Hodur, owner of VanDerBosch Plumbing in Edgewater. “Low water pressure on the hot or cold side of the the shower, or in the bathroom or kitchen sink.”
Another difference is that you’re sharing space with others. The habits of your neighbors can affect you, and vice versa. For example, if there is a blockage in a waste pipe on the second floor, other tenants on that floor, as well of tenants in the floors above, may find water backing up into their apartments.
And issues vary depending on the nature of the property, according to David Wiley, general manager with Nu Flow Midwest of Crystal Lake. “The challenge of water delivery in the downtown, mid-to-high-rise market is vertical distance. Water loses pressure as it travels upward, so it must be pumped, or driven along its trajectory.” Booster pumps can help propel water, but, as Wiley warns, their presence and the resultant high pressure they discharge, “create myriad other challenges in respect to balancing water pressures and flows within a building.”
Not every issue in a high-rise or other multifamily property is purely a result of poor piping. “If a building is experiencing pressure/flow issues, there are some initial diagnostic steps that should be taken, including verifying the booster pump sizing and operation, and checking and cleaning the pressure reducing valves,” says Wiley. “Dirty and/or broken pressure reducing valves are a problem that we encounter quite frequently. Additionally, the hot water return system should be blown out if possible and the function of the hot water recirculating pumps verified. Only once these mechanical issues have been cleared is it time to take a look at the piping itself.”
Problems Add Up – Drop By Drop
As with any system within a co-op or condo building, problems can arise with plumbing. And while there are a slew of legitimate plumbing problems that can inconvenience a property and its residents—among them “leaks, broken piping and valves, clogged drains, defects in hot water heating equipment and controls, buildup of scale and corrosion in piping and tanks, defective pressure reducing valves and defective plumbing fixtures and fittings,” according to one plumbing specialist, there are routines and maintenance measures that should be adhered to that can help avoid stoppages or blocks down the road.
For example, Hodur has some quick and easy remedies for avoiding water pressure issues. “Remove your shower heads. Make sure they’re clean. Same thing with the kitchen sink: remove the aerator on the faucet. Check both regularly for sediment and obstructions.”
And Wiley cautions about a more insidious potential problem. “Whenever water damage is detected, there’s a rush to remediate the damage of a leak, during which the presence of mold can be overlooked. It is important to verify that no growth has begun before walls, floors, or ceilings are replaced and covered up.
Staying Ahead of the Game
One of the best ways to avoid major plumbing issues in a multifamily building—no matter the size or scale—is through regular maintenance. A periodic flushing and draining of the main line to remove corrosion products that come in from the street is advisable, say the pros. Corrosion products and sediments coming in from the street can foul piping, controls and plumbing fixtures—but therein lies a possible blunder, says Wiley.
There are lots of products on the market that claim to penetrate even the toughest clogs and stoppages—and that might tempt a proactive building engineer or custodian to attempt to fix a sluggish or stopped pipe on their own. But Wiley warns the consumer to be wary. “Let me stress this, as this is important: there are no chemical additives that will prevent or clear the stoppages in domestic water piping,” he says. “Readers need to be cautioned against falling for any such promotions. Stoppages and blockages are mineral deposits accumulating over time on the pipe wall or interior diameter of the galvanized piping. Once started, they will continue unabated until pipe-lining or riser replacement is undertaken.”
That’s not to say that your building or HOA staff shouldn’t be involved in some basic day-to-day plumbing maintenance. For example, all the pros we spoke to urged building staff to observe all system pressures, gauges and thermometers on a daily basis, and recommend that management or building staff perform active evaluations of pipes and equipment, including the maintenance of a visual checklist of any exposed pipes. “In addition,” says one master plumber, “when a unit undergoes a renovation, make sure a visual inspection is completed to replace any piping that may show signs.” Staff also should ensure that the water riser valves are operating properly for each line. If a leak does occur, this can help isolate the issue to only the affected line and not shut down the entire building unnecessarily.
When people hear stories about flooding in a building due to a plumbing issue, talk sometimes turns to a backflow valve. “Backflow prevention devices are used as safety devices,” says another pipe pro. “They are used to make sure that once water enters a particular area, it can not “go back” and become harmful to a larger area.”
While the backflow devices can certainly prevent potentially serious issues with water quality and safety, they also can be extremely expensive and affect other systems in the building, he continues. “They need to be tested by a certified individual on a yearly basis. Backflow prevention will cause a reduction of operating pressures by as much as 20 pounds. A reduction in pressure could cause problems in the performance of plumbing fixtures and equipment.”
Lending a Hand
No one wants a plumbing problem, especially in their own unit. Fortunately, there are a number of things residents can do to help ease the pressure on their building’s plumbing system. “Be gentle when turning handles; don’t allow items other than water and waste to go down drains, and call for help or ask questions when you see something that doesn’t seem right,” says Stuart Liben, a Brooklyn, New York-based plumber. “Don’t allow excess water to flow on floors from showers or sinks.”
New York-based plumber Harris Clark encourages unit owners and residents to “Always check to make sure the plumbing fixtures are 100 percent closed when not in use. Always make sure toilets are not running. Report any signs of leaks to building staff as soon as possible.”
Who to Call
When plumbing trouble does rear its inopportune head, it can be difficult to decide who exactly should tackle the problem. If it’s in a unit, should the resident pull out the toolbox and fire up the YouTube how-to videos? Or should the building’s super handle the job? When should a professional plumber be called in to handle the situation?
“The capabilities of supers to handle plumbing issues are best judged on a case by case basis, and it’s difficult to generalize,” says Wiley. “I’d counsel that, when dealing with either water supply or drain issues, it’s best to call a professional. Remember that, what a super is encountering for the first time, we’ve encountered many times previously. The area where we often see the best of intentions yielding unsatisfactory conclusions is drain cleaning; there’s really more of a science and methodology to this than people realize, and so often the effort that results in a temporary clearing creates issues that will be problematic down the line.”
Hodur says he’s noticed a drop-off in supers tackling projects on their own in recent years, and attributes the trend to the age of many buildings in Chicago, and the complexity of their aging systems. “There’s a trend away from building superintendents doing too much,” he says. “I see them focusing more on tracking and maintaining. I’d say that half will call right away when they spot a problem, and half will attempt a fix on their own, and call if they fail. But it used to be more of a 70/30 breakdown.”
“Depending on the age of the building and how well the plumbing was installed, the issues can differ,” says Liben. “Simple repairs like minor clogs, loose drains, dripping faucets or hair stuck in drains can be handled in-house. Some buildings have more capabilities than others. I think a main reason why some buildings work better than others is regular maintenance. A competent person taking care of issues as they occur makes all the difference.”
In the final analysis, most pros are of the opinion that general fixture repairs such as faucets, toilets and showers can be handled by building staff – but drain cleaning, as well as any type of piping replacement requires the services of a master licensed plumbing company. When it comes to plumbing, it takes foresight, planning and the commitment of the entire building to ensure that all systems run their best. With fresh water running from our faucets and whisper flushes that remove all waste, it is more than worth the effort.
Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator.