Plumbing Basics for Landlords: Tenant Problems and Prevention

The best-laid plumbing of mice and men can still encounter catastrophic failure… or something like that. Proper piping maintenance is not simply about keeping the heat above fifty-five degrees in the winter (although you should). In fact, there are a number of ways you can treat your pipes and drains and you can train your tenants to treat your pipes and drains that will go a long way in ensuring your plumbing infrastructure remains in excellent condition. But before we jump into prevention, let’s first talk handling problems when they do go awry.  

Things to Consider When Managing Your Tenants’ Plumbing Problems 

Here are a few items to consider from a plumbing and procedures standpoint with your tenants: 

Who Handles Plumbing Problems — You or Your Tenants? 

At some point, you may need to invest in repairs or upgrades for your units, and that may be something of an unavoidable reality, depending on how old your properties are, the shape they were in when you bought them, and how long you plan on managing them. Ultimately, major repairs and other plumbing services will be your responsibility as you are the property owner or manager. Nevertheless, your tenants do not have license to mistreat the property or hasten the need for repairs and upgrades by misusing the plumbing, so you want to articulate in your lease agreement that your tenants will pay additional charges to cover the costs of repairs for any inappropriate behaviors that cause clogs, backups, buildups, and other plumbing problems. Certainly, landlords and tenants have battled in court over who is to blame for plumbing problems and the need for repairs, so you want to minimize any grey areas that open up an opportunity for debate by hammering out the details of what is and is not allowed and who is responsible for what in an air-tight agreement.    

Do It Yourself or Call the Pros? 

You’ll need to determine whether you want to take a crack at fixing clogs and other problems yourself before calling in a plumber or if you’d rather leave it to the professionals. If you decide you want to try fixing things yourself as a first step (which could potentially save you a bit of money if the problem is minor and you are up to the task), then you’ll want to invest in the proper tools and accessories. 

What Tools Should You Have? 

A decent plunger. Whether you have a high-quality plunger in your toolbox, or you gift one to your tenants, it’s a good idea to have one of these to unclog the toilet or the shower drain. 

Waterpump pliers. These are handy for loosening and gripping pipes. Water-pump pliers have serrated jaws and long handles so you can get a good grip on the pipe. 

A drain snake or drain auger. Drain snakes (sometimes called augers) come in a variety of sizes and styles to suit the needs of a variety of pipes. Generally, they come with a cable that goes into the pipe, a drum that stores the length of the snake, and a turning mechanism that enables you to feed the snake into the drain. You can purchase augers that are made specifically for toilets and longer snakes for longer stretches of pipe. 

A strap wrench. If you need to get a grip on a piece of pipe or other parts of your kitchen or bathroom but you don’t want to scratch or damage its surface, then a strap wrench is the way to go. Its flexible band enables you to get a purchase on the item that needs gripping without scratching or damaging it.  

Other tools. Depending on what you want to try to tackle on your own, you may be in the market for several other plumbing tools, including pipe cutters, specialty wrenches, and other de-clogging tools like drain claws. 

Tips for Guiding Tenants to Prevent Plumbing Problems 

Your tenants are one of your strongest allies in the effort to prolong the life of your properties’ infrastructure. After all, how well your tenants treat the pipes is one of the factors affecting how much you can minimize the need for repairs and how long you can delay upgrades, so it’s worth outlining to your tenants how they can do their part.  

Rules for Using the Garbage Disposal 

If your units have garbage disposals, then you’ll want to outline to your tenants some basic dos and don’ts to prevent plumbing problems. Here are a few basic garbage disposal rules to include for your tenants:  

  1. Use cold water with the garbage disposal. Cold water prevents any food substances from melting and sticking to the sides of the disposal. 
  2. Do not put certain foods like eggshells, pasta or grease down the disposal. Some foods are like glue and will form a disposal-clogging paste that is hard for disposals to clear. 
  3. Do not dispose of anything that is not food or is not biodegradable. Garbage disposals are for food only. Nonfoods and things that don’t break down (or that don’t break down easily) may break the disposal’s blades or motor, may cause damage to the pipes, may cause a clog or may cause some combination of those things.  
  4. Clean the disposal with a little soap and water, citrus, vinegar or baking soda. Some cleaners are harsh and will dull the garbage disposal’s blades. These ingredients can help tenants clean the disposal and remove odors gently.  
  5. Run the disposal every now and then. It’s a good idea to run the disposal (with water running) every so often for the health of the disposal and its motor. 

Using Each Sewer Line Properly 

If you’re not already familiar, get to know the ownership division of sewer lines in your municipality. Throughout the US, we have two main sewer systems. One manages storm water, and one manages waste. Two systems exist for a reason. Keeping these two systems separate prevents toxic waste (or effluent) from polluting the system that manages rainwater, and it prevents rainwater from overwhelming the sanitation system. All the same, homeowners or tenants occasionally apply a mix-and-match approach and connect downspouts from their gutters to the sanitary sewer system in a misguided effort to manage rainfall. This may not be an issue if you manage apartments and other units where lawn care doesn’t typically come under the purview of the tenants, but for landlords managing detached homes, it’s worth checking now and again. Mixed-use of these systems is against building codes, and you don’t want to find yourself in need of a plumber because leaves, mud, and rainwater are overwhelming or clogging the pipes that should only be managing sanitation. 

De-clogging agents. Liquid de-clogging agents seem like a perfect solution to a minor clog. All that you or the tenant has to do is unscrew the lid, pour a bit down the drain, and voila! The clog dissipates. The problem with de-clogging agents is that in addition to breaking apart a clog, they can break down the piping itself, causing more plumbing problems. What is more, de-clogging agents can pose dangers for you or the plumber when you need to break up a more serious clog or you are investigating the health of your pipes. The substances in de-clogging agents can be harmful if it comes into contact with your skin. If you think a de-clogging agent might be OK to use but you aren’t sure, consult a plumber.  

Anything other than water, waste, shampoo, conditioner, soap or toilet bowl and shower cleaner. If you are curious about the sorts of things people have tried to flush or pour down their drains, ask the plumber about his or her experiences the next time you hire one for routine maintenance or a repair. People have tried to flush or wash away everything from floss to clothing to sanitary napkins to drugs. While it’s true that people accidentally lose items down the drain all the time (think of people whose wedding ring slips off or those cringe-inducing moments when a person’s cell phone or wallet pops out of a back pocket and into the toilet bowl), people intentionally attempt to dispose of non-plumbing-friendly items through their plumbing all the time too.  

It may be worth explaining in your lease agreement that plumbers can sometimes find and retrieve items that tenants attempt to flush down the drain (more often than most people might think), and that you prohibit renters from attempting to flush or drain away anything that the sanitary or stormwater sewer systems were not designed to handle. There really is an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality about plumbing, and cautioning your renters to the reality that things aren’t guaranteed to disappear down the drain forever may dissuade them from trying to do away with incriminating or embarrassing items. It may also encourage them not to be lazy about flushing or draining away things that they know shouldn’t go down the pipes.    

You may not be able to motivate your tenants to care about good pipe stewardship (at least not all the time), but your tenants have a vested interest in caring about what happens to the pipes in their rental aside from complying with the terms of the lease agreement. If they are not kind to their pipes, the plumbing will stop working. A few extra pieces of guidance from you could help them protect your pipes over the long haul, but it could also help them avoid backups and other unsightly problems that create a literal mess in their homes and their lives. 

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