When considering a pipe replacement project there are three major components that must be addressed:
(1) The age of the building
(2) Plumbing pipe repair history
(3) A pipe investigation.
In the late 1960’s into the mid-70’s, There was a building boom in Honolulu and these buildings are now 40-50 years old. Many of these buildings are still served by the original cast iron waste and vent risers. These cast iron plumbing systems have an average service life expectancy of 75-100 years under ideal conditions. However, in Hawaii due to the climate these pipes have estimated life expectancy of only 35-40 years. The buildings that were constructed during this “boom” who have yet to replace the original cast iron plumbing systems, are either at or near the end of their service life expectancy.
Along with the age of the building building managers must look at the frequency of plumbing related repairs a building is experiencing or the increased rate in insurance claims. Naturally, in the early years there won’t be much of a history to draw upon, but as a building ages, the frequency of plumbing issues increases. These plumbing issues and leaks must be documented.
The two major recurring pipe repair items or issues are cracking and clogs. While it’s easy to understand a cracked pipe, it’s not so easy to appreciate the extent of pipe clogging, especially throughout an entire building. Every plumbing system has both vertical pipes and horizontal drain lines. While vertical pipes experience clogging, a lot of clogs occur inside the horizontal drain lines. Once the inside face of the pipe starts to rust, sediment begins to accumulate because of the roughness of the pipe. Clogs of this nature are not easily dealt with because drain snakes and high pressure hydro-jetting treatments can easily puncture the failing pipe walls creating even more problems. If not maintained, this accumulation gets so great that it reduces the flow to a point were replacing the pipe is the only option.
For these buildings over 40 years old that have started to have numerous plumbing repairs and issues, the next logical step is to hire a consulting firm that has experience in retrofitting plumbing fixtures. That firm will do an investigation to confirm the existing conditions, determine the extent of deterioration, and also confirm the methods of repair as required. This investigation will involve obtaining the original building plans and doing an assessment of the common area drain lines along with an assessment of the piping in a few select units which involves inspecting the pipes both on the outside and dropping a camera down the inside of them.
Once the consulting firm does this investigation, a report is put together that outlines the next steps that need to be taken to further address a plumbing replacement project.
That report may indicate that the next step is for the building to undergo a plumbing retrofit, in which case, a plumbing company will need to be selected to perform the work.
It’s important for building managers to do their research on the plumbing companies to find out:
(1) How many buildings have they retrofitted and the size of those buildings.
(2) Will that company perform all the work or subcontract some of it out.
(3) Time to complete the project.
(4) Cost to complete the project.
(5) Whether or not they will assign a project manager throughout the duration of the project
(6) What methods of communication will they use to communicate with owners/residents and board members
(7) What quality control metrics they will use to ensure the project is on schedule
One of the factors of the cost of the project will also decide upon what type of pipes to use; PVC, ABS or Cast Iron (and the quality of the materials including their manufacturer). This is an opportunity to add other options to the plumbing system that the original system may have lacked such as additional drain lines, overflows, valves, etc…
Communication with the owners and residents throughout the retrofit project is important, especially before the project begins and during the early stages. At the very least you want to have one “Town Hall” meeting prior to the project and then monthly meetings throughout the project that the building management, plumbers, and construction firm attend to answer any of the residents questions and keep them informed of what’s going on. Depending on your building you might even want to do weekly or bi-weekly meetings.
As with any major building project, the AOAO may not have enough in the reserves to cover the full cost of the plumbing retrofit and a loan will need to be taken out. The Banks have many loan options available to AOAO’s and it’s important to look at what each Bank offers. Some of them do have the option to pay off early without penalty, others are low interest rates for the first five years and then they go up, etc … Every bank will have an apples-to-apples comparison to the terms of the loan. A sensitivity analysis is also required from the banks to ensure enough funds have been allocated because once the board of directors chooses a set amount, the association ownership will vote to approve the amount. It’s best to have contingencies in place so that the owners will not have to approve for additional funds.
If your building falls under that category of not needing a plumbing retrofit until a few years down the line, then now’s the time to start budgeting (and possibly raising the maintenance fees) for when it needs to be done 3-4 years now so that if a loan needs to be taken out not only will the loan amount be less but also the amount that the owners will need to individually contribute. Work closely with your building managers and board of directors in order to have a strategic plan to execute such a large project.
By Mark Aronson