WATER DAMAGE PREVENTION BY HARRY HEIST

Water Damage Prevention
by Harry Heist, Attorney at Law

All of us are aging. We see and feel it every day; at least I do. What we do not seem to recognize is that the units we manage are aging as well. It is hard to comprehend that 1970 was 45 years ago. When homes and apartment communities were and are built in Florida, many contractors used and still use the cheapest of materials. Cheap piping and wiring are extremely common. Some of these shortcuts have resulted in massive lawsuits as we have seen in the plastic piping and aluminum wiring class action cases. Other shortcuts are not as blatant, but are still now causing serious damages to the rental units. While you cannot ever prevent a storm from blowing a roof off or preventing a resident from causing a kitchen fire, there are a number of things you can do right now to prevent thousands of dollars in damages and the resulting legal headaches that go along with this damage. Water in the wrong place equals property damage, inconvenience and then the dreaded mold.

It takes a little time and little money to inspect your rental units and take action, action which not only can save money but can avoid legal problems. One small flood can cause a big problem. If a problem can be avoided, it should be. Many managers of single family homes do not look at themselves as asset managers. As an asset manager, one has a duty to preserve the asset for the client. An apartment manager often looks at himself or herself as “just an employee”, but we believe an employee has an important duty to help preserve the property of the owner. By doing so, everyone benefits, as everyone has a stake in the business that they are in.

This article will begin to examine just some things that should be looked at, evaluated, fixed or replaced on a rental property to prevent water damage, and detail the reasons why. The choice is yours. Sit back and wait for a disaster, or prevent one right now. Everything that follows is incredibly easy and inexpensive to do.

WATER SUPPLY LINES

A typical rental home, or any home for that matter, has many interior water supply lines. These include the toilet bowl line, sink lines, washing machine hoses, dishwasher hoses, refrigerator water dispenser and ice cube maker hoses. Many of these supply lines or hoses when originally installed were of the cheapest quality possible, and even to this day, the cheapest quality materials are used. We have seen many cases when these lines burst or slowly leaked, causing massive water damage, and often resulted in mold damage as well. It is time to examine them NOW. Recently, we dealt with a case when a simple bump by a mop to the toilet water supply caused the wafer thin 30-year old line to break. Upon attempting to turn off the water valve, the valve crumbled in the hand of the resident. We have seen pin holes in supply lines to fully bursting washing machine hoses. Refrigerator water supply lines are usually made of a thin, clear, plastic ¼ inch line holding the full water pressure of the plumbing. They fail constantly. The dishwasher has rubber hosing behind the appliance, and under the counter and completely out of sight. You never see them or even think of them until one bursts. The washing machine which may be brought in by the resident or has been there for years, has 2 water supply lines comprised of black rubber hoses that bulge, crack, break and fail all day long.

The solution? Braided steel hoses. Speak to your regional manager or your owner now, and get these cheap or old hoses replaced with better quality braided steel hoses. Are the replacements cheap? They range from $5 – $15 and will potentially save many thousands of dollars. Own your own home or rent somewhere? I bet you have not even checked your own residence to see what type of supply lines are present. When replacing, always take the time to see if there are any leaks and to be aware that disturbing old valves can result in a big problem. Beware and be prepared.

AIR CONDITIONER DRAIN LINES

Most air handlers are located in the ceiling of a rental unit, often above the air filter grate. Some are in closets. As the air conditioner is operating, water naturally condenses and drips into the drip pan located below the coils. In theory, this water is supposed to flow into a PVC pipe and usually ends up running outside where it belongs. Some air handlers have a safety feature which will shut off the air conditioner if the pan begins to fill up with water and fails to drain. The drain pipe for the air conditioner often gets plugged up by moss, mold, and algae growth. Sometimes a critter will nest in the line in colder weather, clogging it up. The result is an accumulation of water in the drip pan which then overflows and begins to soak the ceiling, causing damage and potentially mold. If the air handler has the proper safety float shut-off switch, and it works, the air conditioner will shut off. You will have a service call, and although you have to pay for this, the problem will be fixed with no damage. All too often though, there is no float switch, or it is nonfunctional; the drain line is plugged, and the water slowly or sometimes quickly enters the rental unit.

The solution is simple. Any air conditioning technician, maintenance tech or handyman is fully capable of checking the drain pipe or pipes on a routine basis, cleaning or blowing them out, flushing them with bleach and making sure they work. Failure to take this simple preventative maintenance step is a recipe for water damage, mold and the resulting legal problems. This is an extremely common problem. If you do not bother to deal with it now, you will have to deal with it later when it is too late, and after you have damage.

WATER HEATER PANS

If a water heater is properly installed, there is a plastic, metal or rubber pan that the water heats sits in which is designed to catch water in the event of a water heater failure. It is not a matter of if a water heater will fail, it is a matter of when. They do not last forever. If you are able to catch a leak fast, you are in business, but many times, the leak is discovered too late or occurs while the unit is vacant or the resident is on vacation. The water heater pans are very similar to the pan dealt with above that is under the air handler. The water is meant to drain into this shallow pan and then flow out the PVC drain pipe to the outside of the unit. The problem we see is twofold. Sometimes the pan is not installed properly, or the drain pipe is not properly affixed to the pan. This results in the water slowly filling the pan and running out around the bottom of the drain pipe to pan connection and not into the drain pipe as designed. You also can have the same problems when the drain pipe is clogged just as discussed above. This clogged pipe results in flooding, defeating the entire purpose of the water heater pan.

The solution is to inspect the water heater pan and drain pipe. Some are made of tin and over the years have corroded away. Check the fitting from the drain pipe to the pan, and make sure the drain pipe is clear. This is something that can be done at the same time the air conditioner drain pipe is being checked and or cleaned out. There is no safety device on a water heater pan. If it fails, you will have a flood where the water will continue to run until the problem is discovered. No alarm is going to sound! The sound will be of running water and a screaming resident, if that person is lucky enough to be home at the time.

GUTTERS AND ROOFS

Out of sight and out of mind. Often a gutter is not cleaned until it begins to overflow, or you see something growing out of it. Clogged gutters and accumulating debris can result in water intrusion to the roof and eaves. The water flows out and over the gutter and seeps into the roofing material under the shingles, eventually rotting the wood and/or causing leaks in the home. The smallest of roof leaks can go unnoticed for quite some time until water intrusion occurs in the walls, ceilings or behind the siding, and mold begin to grow. Once mold begins, the residents cry foul and legal problems start. Leaves, twigs and other debris left to accumulate on the roof can cause leaks. Water is meant to run off of a roof, not sit on it and soak into the porous areas. A typical roof will have sewer vents, air vents, electrical pipes and flues going through the roof. Around each of these will be some sort of tar or other product used to keep a seal. With time, these products dry, shrink, crack and fail, causing slow leaks into the attic spaces and eventually the ceiling in the living area.

The solution is proper roof and gutter inspection, cleaning and maintenance. This needs to be done on a periodic basis along with checking to see whether the downspouts are sending the water away from the outside of the unit. Any item such as a pipe or vent protruding out of the roof needs to be checked for potential leakage, and this is often discovering by going into the attic or crawlspace. A leak can go on for a long time and the water evaporate prior to getting into the living areas, but can be readily discovered by a visual inspection in the attic. Why wait until it is too late? You cannot depend upon residents to tell you when something needs to be done. You need to inspect, and you need to ask residents if they have noticed anything unusual when you do your periodic inspection and maintenance.

SHOWERS, SINKS AND TUBS

Each year we deal with legal problems that arise when water slowly seeps into the walls or the countertops due to cracked or missing grout and caulking. Eventually, this water causes damage and often mold. Have you ever received a call from the resident regarding the smell of mold in their closet? Yes, the closet that is behind the shower? Often these leaks could have been prevented by proper maintenance.

The solution is a thorough inspection of the grout in the bathtub and shower areas, closets behind the bathroom, sinks and countertops. The damage is often found under the countertop, so a visual inspection above may show nothing. Taking the time and spending the money for caulking, grouting or regrouting now can save thousands later. Most insurance policies do not cover leaks due to grouting issues, as insurance companies expect you to maintain this, but insurance will typically cover leaks from structural problems or defective drain pans. Keep this in mind, as it could mean the difference in having the insurance company pay for a large job or deny the claim.

CONCLUSION

Most property managers have dealt with one or more of the water damage related issues above. Most know that water damage is the single most costly cause of damage to homes and apartments. Will the property manager take proactive steps to keep this damage from occurring? Sadly, most will read this short article and do absolutely nothing. Not even an inspection will occur. All we can say is to keep the phone number of your water remediation/extractor on speed dial, and hope that you as a property manager are not held liable for damages that you as a property manager could have easily prevented.

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