Plumbing Basics for Landlords: Potable Drinking Water

As a real estate investor or property manager, you’ll be well served to understand your plumbing system responsibility and how to deal with and prevent piping problems. Most commonly, if an issue does arrive, it will have to do with the pipes taking water from your property. But it’s also important to understand the water that comes in. Let’s cover potable drinking water – where it comes from, how the system works, and some of the common problems you may encounter. 

Where Does Potable Water Come From? 

As you probably can guess, there is a set of pipes that brings water into your property as well as a wholly separate set that brings water away from it. The pipes that carry your water away are themselves divided into two separate systems which we covered in our article about piping ownership and responsibility. An entity distinct from the group that manages sanitation oversees both the piping and the water coming into your units, and much like with the sanitation and stormwater sewer systems, the organization supervising your potable drinking water is determined by the location of your properties.  

You probably know the utility that provides your water, as you pay the water bills, even if only between tenant occupancy. Still, it’s a good idea to have a handle on what this group manages so you know where to turn if something happens to the water at one of your properties (or your own!). This group oversees what your water costs, it cleans and treats the water before sending it you, it connects water to fire hydrants for public safety and monitors water use to detect supply problems like leaks.  

SIDEBAR: Keeping All There Is to Know About Plumbing Straight 

This may all seem a little complicated, and that’s because there are a couple of things to know and a few moving parts. Here is a quick list to keep it all straight: 

  • What Leaves Your Properties: There are two main ways that fluid and waste leave your properties, which is through the sanitation and stormwater sewer systems 
    • The stormwater sewer system carries away rainwater 
    • The sanitation sewer system carries waste (or effluent) away from your properties 
  • What Comes into Your Properties: Organizations overseeing potable drinking water bring fresh water into your properties. 
  • Your Primary Focus as a Landlord: Most of your time as a landlord will be spent dealing with clogs, upgrades and repairs on the pipes that are connected to the sanitation sewer system carrying waste away from your properties. 
  • Other Areas of Concern: Although less common, you may occasionally need to oversee issues pertaining to clogs or leaks and the need for upgrades and repair on the piping that brings in water into your properties.  

Understanding the Potable Piping System 

Distribution Main, Service Lines, Water Meters and Points of Service 

Imagine potable drinking water moving from the water treatment facility that processes it through to your properties. The distribution main is the section of piping that carries water from the treatment facility to many individual properties. The piping that branches off from the distribution main heading into your properties is called the service connection or the service line, and it includes the piping, fittings and any valves along that piping. An important point along the service connection is the point of service, which is the outlet where the water meter is located. The point of service is the point where the water coming into your property can be shut off or turned on. The meter, if your properties have one (and most do), simply measures the amount of water that the district or utility is delivering into each property. 

Some properties have water meters inside the property. In those cases, the point of service is at the curb stop, which usually is — you guessed it — at the curb. It is simply another valve from which water coming into a property can be shut off or turned on. In cases where the property has no water meter or the water meter is in the house, but there is no curb stop or other valve, the point of service is at the right of way, which you may recall from Part 1 is the point at which the piping joins with that broader public piping, or in this case, distribution main, and generally, that point where the service connection meets the distribution main is where your property meets the public road. 

In Northern Kentucky, for example, property owners are responsible for upgrades and repairs to any of the service line piping that exists between the point of service and the property. This is something you’ll want to investigate where you manage properties, as it will be a relevant factor in managing maintenance costs if you have issues with these pipes. In Northern Kentucky, the District maintains any of the service line piping leading up to the point of service, even if that piping is on your private property.   
 

Problems With Potable Water 

If there is a leak in the potable water system, residents of a property might be able to tell from things like leaks in the house, a change in the water pressure coming out of the faucets or a strange color in the water. Still, a property could have trouble with the potable water system, and residents might not know about it. 

Water providers often run usage checks every so often to see how much water each property is using. A sudden change in the amount of water going to a property can be indicative of a leak, and in those cases, the water provider notifies the property owner of the possible leak. The Northern Kentucky Water District runs these checks every three months. Notifying the property owner is useful, because then the property owner can investigate the property to see if the leak is on the premises. Sometimes, for instance, property owners will discover a leaky toilet, sink or shower in the basement or in a guest area that isn’t used as much as main rooms. If everything appears to be working properly in the building, the property owner can investigate the water meter and point of service to see if anything is malfunctioning there.  

If you suspect there is a problem at one of your properties or you know because you discover a leak, discolored water or a change in water pressure, you should notify your water provider and call a certified plumber. In addition to sussing out the source of trouble in the pipes of the sanitation system when there is a backup, a certified plumber has the tools to investigate and document the source of trouble along the pipes carrying potable water when there is a leak or you have other trouble. You can use that documentation to approach your water provider about coming in to make repairs (when the trouble is clearly happening along the distribution main or the portion of the service line outside of your control).  

Repair Assistance and Bill Adjustments 

If the plumber’s investigation reveals trouble along a portion of the piping that you maintain, you will want to keep all your bills and receipts for the repair work. Some water providers will adjust your bill, but only if your repair project meets specific criteria, you fix the problem, and then you provide the District with the bill. Be sure to investigate any assistance programs that might be available from your water provider, as the provider’s assistance can help you keep repair costs down. 

Common Problems with Potable Water 

Corrosivity. Much can be said about corrosivity and its effects on water and the pipes that carry it. In essence, corrosivity refers to the intensity with which water corrodes or degrades pipes and fixtures. Water providers often treat the water so that it is less corrosive to the pipes that carry it, but — although rare — that can cause its own problems. Treating the water so that it is less destructive to the surrounding pipes can make the water more reactive with other toxic metals like lead and iron.  

Other Forms of Contamination. Much can also be said about contamination from the water source, such as the ground. Think, for example, of the lawsuit settlement between the residents of Hinkley, California, and Pacific Gas & Electric for which Erin Brockovich is famous. The EPA identifies more than one standard for drinking water, and that is because some contamination is life threatening (i.e. Flint water crisis), and other contamination is merely irksome. If you spot or if any of your tenants ever notify you about problems with the water coming out of the faucet, be it that the water has a simply funny or downright foul smell, a strange color or an off texture, notify your water provider right away. These problems may not pose threats to your health or the health of your tenants, but you won’t necessarily know unless a professional tests the water. 

Common Problems from Potable Water Pipes 

Leaks. One of the most common problems with potable water pipes is leaks. Corrosion from the water can wear the piping down until it breaks or develops a hole. Older piping materials are more prone to corrosion from chemicals and other substances coming through the pipes. Corrosion can also mess with the pipe’s fittings, as can tree roots. Leaks result in water waste, which is a huge environmental concern. It also means that you might be paying for water that your properties are not receiving. If you have leaks from corrosion, there could be something wrong with the water. If you have leaks from corrosion, you may also have contaminants coming into your water supply from the surrounding ground. 

Clogs. Although less of an issue since these pipes only carry water, clogs can still cause problems. If the pipe wall implodes, a contaminant in the water builds up along the pipe wall or tree roots get in, the pipes that carry potable water can experience a clog. This is problematic for the same reasons — it’s an environmental concern, and potentially it’s a waste of water. You don’t want to pay for water your properties are not receiving, and you don’t want any situation in which the water is compromised and therefore unsafe for you or your tenants. 

Service Line and Meter Installation 

If you are developing properties or you are updating them, then you’ll be looking into things like the installation of new service lines, meters or both. Service-line installations are no small project, and you’ll have to have your work inspected by the region’s water provider, so make sure you are in contact with someone who can help you prepare for the inspection and navigate the necessary rules and regulations.  

If you are installing a meter, then you want to work with professionals to make sure you install a meter of the right size for your property and the amount of water the residents will likely use. This is important because the cost of the installation will depend on the size of the meter. The size of the meter also impacts the cost to connect the potable water system to the sanitation sewer, and it also affects the amount of money you will pay each month for running water.  

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