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Maintaining the plumbing systems and equipment in a building is essential to keep such systems safe. If the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance instructions are not followed, dangerous conditions can occur in the plumbing system, which may cause injury or death to persons and property damage. It costs money to maintain plumbing systems and equipment, but what is the cost of a person’s life?
There are requirements to install products in accordance with the manufacturer’s installation instructions. Manufacturers typically include maintenance instructions with their installation or use and care literature. For example, many plumbing products, such as shower valves, require routine maintenance at a time interval defined by the season.
Shower valves must be seasonally inspected to ensure that the maximum temperature limit stop is properly adjusted so that the maximum temperature of the water flowing from the valve does not exceed 120 F, which is the maximum temperature allowed by the International Plumbing Code. The limit stop must be adjusted seasonally because, in many locations, the change in temperature of incoming cold water can be as much as 40 F. If a limit stop on a shower valve is set to 120 F in the winter months, the temperature of water flowing from it can be 130 F to 140 F in the summer months.
Reference to the “time vs. temperature relationship for scald burns at various hot water temperatures” chart highlights the importance of seasonal maintenance. At 120 F, it takes 1.2 minutes for a child to develop a second-degree (blistering) burn injury.
In the previous example, an extreme swing in temperature can occur due to nothing more than the seasonal change of the incoming cold water. If the outlet temperature of the shower valve is 130 F, a child can receive a blistering burn in 4 seconds and, at 140 F, a child would receive blistering burn injuries in 0.7 seconds.
Also, the quality of the water contributes to the performance of the shower valve. Scaling can cause the control valve to stop performing its pressure balancing or thermostatic mixing function. The pressure-balancing piston in a pressure-balancing shower valve can seize up due to scale and no longer balance the pressure between the incoming hot and cold water ports.
When pressure imbalances occur between the cold and hot water systems, full hot water temperatures (up to 180 F) can flow from the fixture. Fixture use elsewhere in the building generally causes these pressure imbalances.
Codifying Proper Plumbing Maintenance
The International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC) is a model code providing for the regulation and safe use of existing structures in the interest of the social and economic welfare of the community. The IPMC establishes minimum maintenance standards for basic equipment, light, ventilation, heating, sanitation and fire safety. However, it includes very little about plumbing. The code addresses slip resistance in the bathtub, but it does not require an inspector to test the water temperature to ensure it does not exceed the code limit of 120 F, which can be a severe scald hazard.
Temperatures in rental properties are found well in excess of 150 F to 160 F regularly. These temperatures will cause third-degree, full-thickness burn injuries in less than one second. The IPMC must be updated to address this serious oversight and require inspectors to check and make sure the hot water temperature in bathtubs and showers does not exceed 120 F.
The IPMC does not explicitly address the temperature limits in showers; however, it does refer back to the IPC for new work. Similar to the IMPC, the IPC also requires maintenance and sets the responsibility for it among owners and their designated agents, who are commonly known as operators, facility managers, management companies, maintenance companies and the like.
The 2012 International Plumbing Code states:
“2012 IPC 101.3 Intent — The purpose of this code is to provide minimum standards to safeguard life or limb, health, property and public welfare by regulating and controlling the design, construction, installation, quality of materials, location, operating [and] maintenance or use of plumbing equipment and systems.
“2012 IPC 102.3 Maintenance — All plumbing systems, materials and appurtenances, both existing and new, and all parts thereof, shall be maintained in proper operating condition in accordance with the original design in a safe and sanitary condition. All devices or safeguards required by this code shall be maintained in compliance with the code edition under which they were installed. The owner or the owner’s designated agent shall be responsible for maintenance of plumbing systems. To determine compliance with this provision, the code official shall have the authority to require any plumbing system to be re-inspected.”
For existing showers or tub/showers with older-style, two-handle, non-compensating-type shower valves that do not meet the shower valve standards listed in the IPC, my experience shows the shower can be one of the most dangerous fixtures in an apartment or building. Checking the maximum temperature flowing from the shower or tub/shower is not explicitly mentioned in the items for the turnover of rental properties in the IPMC.
However, the temperature of the water from the shower should be checked by running water until the temperature stabilizes. Then flush a water closet and turn on a faucet to see if pressure drops associated with other fixture uses occur. You can also determine if it causes the water temperature from the shower to exceed 120 F.
If it does, there are several ways to control the temperature with temperature-actuated mixing valves: at the source, at the point-of-use, or by adding a temperature-actuated flow reduction (TAFR) valve conforming to ASSE 1062 that shuts down the flow to a trickle if the temperature exceeds 120 F. The TAFR device cannot shut down the flow completely; a trickle flow is needed to allow the shower valve to adjust to a lower temperature. Cooler water will cause the TAFR device to open and restore the flow at a milder temperature. This could take about 30 seconds after the user readjusts the shower valve to a lower temperature.
Differing Maintenance Approaches
There are different approaches to property maintenance practices. Where work is not done until something leaks, breaks or causes an injury, I refer to this as “reactive maintenance.”
Reactive maintenance is essentially a “maintenance by crisis” process. There is no planning and, as the term implies, all maintenance is reactive in nature. With this type of building maintenance, a building owner simply sits back, collects rent and waits for something to break or someone to complain about an issue before investigating the problem and trying to repair it. This process primarily addresses issues as they arise with a “run-until-it-fails” approach.
While this theoretically keeps scheduled maintenance costs to a minimum, in many cases, it costs more than having a full-time maintenance person working to maintain a building. The costs can add up quickly when equipment fails and causes fires, power outages, floods and damage to other systems and equipment. Revenue and productivity can be cut significantly with extended periods of downtime, excessive labor rates for expedited emergency repairs, and litigation costs for personal injuries or property damage associated with the lack of proper maintenance and failures.
In many cases, not having a maintenance plan and reacting to failures and clean-up that may cause further property damage can eventually cost more than having a scheduled maintenance program.
A more proactive approach is to perform maintenance as required by the manufacturer in its written instructions. This type of planned maintenance is referred to as “proactive maintenance” and often leads to an extended system and equipment life, significantly less energy usage, and fewer claims of property damage or personal injury.
As one might expect, based on its name, proactive maintenance is a more involved process. It focuses on scheduling and performing maintenance at regular intervals, as recommended by the manufacturer’s instructions or based on operating conditions — such as water quality, the degree of fouling since previous inspections, the corrosion to wetted parts or the degree of wear on moving parts.
Proactive maintenance requires the recording of conditions at regularly scheduled inspections and considering the root causes of equipment failure to anticipate when a problem might occur. Ideally, this should be followed for all a building’s systems.
Preventive maintenance/proactive maintenance works specifically with time-based or scheduled intervals that determine what maintenance personnel will inspect, clean, lubricate and repair as part of the service to each piece of equipment for a given day. This type of maintenance program typically involves gathering all the manufacturer’s literature for each piece of equipment in the building and then looking at the manufacturer’s suggested maintenance requirements and working those requirements into a calendar or maintenance schedule.
This method is intended to perform inspections and maintenance service on the systems or equipment before equipment begins to wear. This type of care requires the technician to document the condition of the equipment filters, bearings and provided lubricants and inspection of moving parts as necessary. If the fouling is less critical, based on the water, air or usage conditions, then the schedule of inspection and maintenance for that piece of equipment can be adjusted or extended to a greater time interval based on the previous reviews and predicted maintenance needs.
When the poor condition or efficiency loss or operation of a piece of equipment is noted, then scheduled cleaning, lubricating or replacement of parts or equipment can be ordered, shipped and swapped out at a time less disruptive to the building. This is much better than waiting for the equipment to break, spring a leak or cause costly flood, fire or smoke damage to the building or injury to its occupants — not to mention the associated clean-up costs and litigation.
However, a building owner or manager may choose to manage risk by assessing the maintenance task’s level of importance and prioritize upkeep for those systems and equipment that pose the highest risk of liability versus the cost of performing the maintenance or the repair. It requires an assessment of the building systems and ranking the maintenance items based on priority. This is not as easy as it may appear.
For example, one train of thought is an exhaust fan in a building is a lower-priority repair compared to a water heater. If an exhaust fan fails, it is less likely to cause disruption and create a serious threat to building occupants or considerable financial risk to the owner with respect to shutting down the building or injuring a tenant.
However, as a volunteer firefighter for 34 years, I saw many fires associated with neglected exhaust fans when they were left on and unattended close to combustibles. A fire will disrupt a building and is a serious life safety hazard.
Another example is when a central water heater or master mixing valve fails, compared to a water heater in each tenant space. A central water heater failure would generate calls from tenants saying they have no hot water; in a hotel situation, the owner may have to close the building or rebate room nights and lose revenue. An apartment or office building owner may need to refund a pro-rated portion of the rent to tenants if the building is without hot water. This could be a serious loss of revenue for every day without hot water.
Often, without a preventative maintenance schedule or pre-planning, it could take days or weeks to replace a large water heater, which would entail securing a contractor, verifying the equipment sizing, verifying access route for removal and replacement of equipment, ordering the proper equipment, engineering any modifications associated with changes in equipment manufacturer or size if it is a different style or manufacturer of heater, arranging for shipping, rigging the equipment into place, and paying for overtime and expedited labor rates, etc.
This is why hotels, hospitals, research labs and other critical facilities should have at least two water heaters serving the building in case one goes down. The percentage of redundancy for each piece of equipment should match the situation. In an apartment building, you might get by with two water heaters sized with 50 percent of the load in each heater. Another option is to divide the water heating demand into three water heaters — you have the option of one-third the capacity in each heater.
A common problem with no extra capacity in the sizing is when one water heater fails, the remaining equipment cannot keep up with the demand. So often when three water heaters, pumps or pieces of equipment are provided, they are each sized at 50 percent so if one fails, the other two can still handle the peak load.
During my many years in this business, it has been my experience that when most building owners and property managers utilize reactive maintenance, they are faced with the failure of one of two water heaters sized at 50 percent capacity. When they try to limp along with one heater, they are forced to turn up the water temperature to compensate for the loss of one water heater in reaction to tenant complaints of little to no hot water near the end of a peak hot water usage period.
If there is no master temperature-actuated mixing valve installed downstream of the water heaters, the hot water system temperature changes. When the hot water system temperature is changed with either an adjustment to the water heater thermostat dial or an adjustment to the outlet temperature of a master temperature-actuated mixing valve, every downstream shower valve and fixture that has a maximum temperature limit stop must have the limit stop readjusted by flowing water and adjusting it down to a safe temperature of 120 F or below.
Critical facilities should consider having 100 percent back-up capacity in all crucial system equipment if the loss of that system could cause a serious problem.
Each piece of equipment or system needs to be considered as to its priority to the building’s operation so that a preventative maintenance schedule can be developed to regularly address the more critical systems first. The less critical systems can be inspected and maintained annually or when the need arises.
Proactive Plumbing Preventive
Develop a proactive maintenance plumbing checklist for each building to assure the daily, weekly, monthly and annual inspections and maintenance are performed in accordance with the manufacturers’ recommended maintenance for each piece of equipment. The checklist should cover all the systems and equipment in a building to ensure that everything is operating as intended.
Concerning plumbing systems, include the following seven items on a maintenance checklist:
1. Leaks. Check for signs of leaks, including dried water spots under relief valves, moisture or puddles and the presence of mold or mildew. Water spots are a sign of thermal expansion or pressure problems that may need further inspection. Check for water running into water closets or dripping in fixtures. Unknown and unrepaired water leaks can waste thousands of gallons of water a year per fixture.
Check to see if relief valve discharge piping is correctly installed and directed to a safe point of disposal. Examine relief valve ports on water heaters, backflow preventers, tanks and equipment to see if there are signs of water spots indicating periodic leakage.
2. Corrosion. Examine joints between different pipe materials to check for galvanic corrosion between dissimilar metals. Look for signs of corrosion on all visible plumbing pipes, as well as the presence of lime or scale deposits around water faucets and showerheads. If there is a water softener, check to see if the salt chemicals are added regularly and that the appliance is backwashing properly.
3. Water pressure. Check the building’s water pressure to be sure it is no higher than 80 psi and no lower than the minimum pressure required for each piece of equipment or fixture. In buildings with multiple stories, higher water pressure is often found on the lower levels, while lower water pressure can be found at higher levels. Water pressure that is too low may cause resident complaints, while water pressure that is too high wastes water and leads to erosion of valve seats and damaged fixtures, pipe and fittings.
4. Valve operation. Operate all the valves in the plumbing system to make sure they do noy seize up or scale over, and are operational and ready to close and isolate the piping system during an emergency. Inspect safety and shut-off valves in your plumbing system for the correct size, pressure and capacity for the application operation. Replace any broken valves.
If there are signs of leakage at a relief valve, check to see if it is still operational. Relief valves can scale up in hard water conditions, which causes valves to become plugged or inoperable. Seized-up pressure relief valves can create an explosive condition in a water heater or boiler. Check for properly sized, located and rated thermal expansion tanks.
5. Water heaters. Inspect all water heaters to make sure they are working properly and, if there are multiple water heaters, set them to the same temperature. Ensure they have a temperature-actuated mixing valve conforming to ASSE 1017 on the discharge of the water heater.
Check to see if the drain valve on the water heater is working. Drain the water and check for sediment. If excessive sediment, consider isolating the water heater and performing a de-liming operation with a mild acid solution pumped through the water heater to dissolve scale buildup on heating surfaces and restore the water heater efficiency.
Inspect the water heater for proper temperature and any apparent leaks. Test the safety valves and overflows. Repair safety issues immediately.
6. Drains. Visually inspect all the drains in the building with a camera to look for signs of improperly sloped slow drains or clogged drains. They should be cleaned to restore proper function, ensure they are in good working order and do not contain any root infiltrations or dips or bellies in the lines.
7. Backflow testing. Most commercial buildings and large multi-unit residential buildings are required to have backflow prevention devices and annual backflow testing to prevent water in the system from flowing backward or being contaminated with other chemicals and substances. Testing for these devices is typically required on an annual basis and paperwork is often required to be submitted to the authorities having jurisdiction.
For reduced-pressure backflow preventers, be sure to check for adequate floor drain size and capacity if the discharge port on the relief valve starts to discharge at or near the upstream pressure.