Plumbing Basics for Landlords: Understanding Piping Ownership and Responsibility

Unless you’re a certified master plumber, or you have had serious issues with the plumbing at one of your properties or in your own home, you probably don’t think about your pipes much. After all, most people take functioning plumbing for granted. Once things are down the drain, it’s “out of sight, out of mind.” You might be in a spot where you know that one of your properties will need an upgrade sooner or later, but you aren’t sure what the exact problems are and what you need to do about it. This article outlines some of the most relevant topics in plumbing, maintenance and renewals to get you acquainted with this potentially headache-inducing and often foreign aspect of property management. 

We’ll use Kenton county, Kentucky, one of the three counties that make up the northern-most regions of the state just across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio as an example. 

A Tale of Two Sewers: The Stormwater and Sanitary Sewer Systems 

Our plumbing infrastructure in the United States functions with two main sewers — one for stormwater and one for sanitation. Keeping these separate prevents toxic waste from ending up in stormwater basins, and it prevents stormwater from overwhelming the pipelines that manage waste. The same agency often oversees both. In Kenton county, for example, the Sanitation District No. 1 (or SD1) oversees the sanitation and stormwater sewer systems.  

It’s also important to know that potable drinking water is connected to your properties through a distinct set of pipes. These pipes only transport water to the properties. Once water is used in some fashion at a property, it exits the property through the sanitation sewer system pipes as waste. It’s not uncommon for a separate entity to manage potable drinking water. In Kenton county, the Northern Kentucky Water District manages potable drinking water and the pipes that deliver it. 

As a landlord, your concern should be primarily focused on the sanitation sewer system. That’s the sewer through which water and waste (sometimes called effluent) exit your properties. Although it is possible to run into issues with the pipes that bring water into your properties, most of the piping-related issues you will encounter in the course of business will pertain to clogs, backups and repairs on the sanitary sewer system.  

Whose Line Is It Anyway? Whether the Pipe is Your Responsibility  
or the County’s 

Plumbing projects can get pricey, fast.  

Sometimes, maintenance services on your plumbing come with a flat charge. Most plumbing issues start with flooding or slowly draining water, so let’s say you have a minor clog that has slowed the plumbing at one of your properties. You may have a plumber come out and snake your drain to break up the clog and the whole service comes with a flat fee to fix it.  

But if you have repeated problems at the same property or you discover that your pipes are old and breaking down (or both), you may need to have sections of your pipe repaired or reinforced. Even worse, repairs may require that you dig up whole sections of your piping or replace the entire system. In that case, the plumber may charge you by the foot for labor and materials.  

Depending on your situation and the project in question, the costs can really pile up, especially if you have a lot of pipe to manage. How much pipe you manage as a property owner is partially dependent on where you live. Think about it — part of owning a property means owning the pipes that are in it, and that includes the pipes that connect from the property through the yard.  

That being said, you clearly aren’t responsible for all the pipes that run from your property to the water treatment facility (which could be many miles away), so where is the cut off? Most of the pipe between your property and the water treatment facility is public and the responsibility of the county or governing body that oversees that portion of public infrastructure.  

Lateral Lines, Main Lines, and Assistance Programs 

Imagine a map that shows all piping, starting at the water treatment facility, running through all the streets, and branching off to individual homes. The pipes that run underneath streets are called main lines or the main sewer lines. They aggregate all the publicly provided water delivery and receive all the private effluent. They are connected to private properties via lateral lines – these are the plumbing lines that connect directly to the main lines from the private property. Any plumbing and piping in the building or on a private property leading up to the main line is a part of the lateral line and is the property owner’s responsibility to maintain and repair. Anything beyond the lateral line that is a part of that publicly owned main line heading toward the community’s water treatment facility is in the right of way, which means that it is public and the responsibility of the county. 

As a landlord, you need to investigate where your property’s lateral line of pipe meets the right of way. Generally, the lateral line meets the right of way at the road where the property is located.  

What makes this tricky is that your property’s lateral line can extend beyond your property under a public road before it joins with the main line. (After all, lateral and main lines do not match up at the exact same points where private properties end and public spaces like roads begin.) Sometimes, the county will assume responsibility for the repairs on the part of your lateral line that exists under a public roadway.  

Local governments also often make portions of their budgets available to help private owners manage the cost of repairing lateral lines where they meet main lines. If you’re making major plumbing repairs (or even small ones that extend out from your property), it’s never a bad idea to reach out to your local government to see if any such assistance is available. After all, everyone is ultimately connected to the same sewer lines, and sewer-line maintenance can affect public health. 

SD1 assists property owners with some of these lateral-line repairs in Kenton county, for example, and it outlines the parameters of the assistance program, conditions that properties must meet to qualify for the assistance, and other information on its website. Be sure to investigate opportunities where you own property so you can capitalize on whatever financial assistance may be available to you. 

Determining the Source of Plumbing Trouble 

Understanding how much pipe is your responsibility helps you understand the cost of an upgrade or a repair. It also shows you whether a clog in the pipe or a crack or a leak is yours to fix or is located somewhere on the main line or the part of the lateral line the county maintains. If you have a clean-out in your property’s yard, that may be an indication that the previous owner and the county have established where the lateral line and main lines join, or it may show any part of your lateral line that the county has agreed to maintain. A cleanout is a vertical pipe you can open to access the lateral line below. Clean-outs can be quite convenient because they provide another vantage point from which a plumber can investigate plumbing problems, identify the point where your responsibility ends and the county’s responsibility begins, unclog blockages and address other trouble. 

If you have plumbing problems, and you suspect that the trouble is coming from the main line or from a portion of your lateral line that the county oversees, contact a certified plumber with an active license in your specific county. He or she can determine one way or the other whose part of the piping is causing trouble and can secure the proper evidence and documentation that you need to have when you approach the county so that the county will send someone to make repairs (and cover the costs of those repairs).

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