Matt Davidson, executive vice president, and John Ramirez, regional manager – engineering services, give a summary of what should be considered if a building must be re-piped—and how to know if that is what is needed.
[00:00:25.410] – Matthew Holbrook
Welcome to The Uncommon Area, where we apply an uncommon perspective to better understand what you need to know to operate an HOA. Today, our question is, what do we need to know about re-piping? To help with that, I’m joined by a couple of people here from Action Property Management: Matt Davidson, our Executive Vice President; and John Ramirez, our Regional Manager for Engineering. Just want to thank you both for being a part of this.
[00:00:57.720] – Matthew Holbrook
I guess just to kick things off, John, I think it’d be helpful if you could just give us a quick explanation. When we talk about re-piping in an HOA, what are we talking about? What does that even mean?
[00:01:10.080] – John Ramirez
Basically, going into the walls and getting into all the cast iron piping, meaning all the vertical lines for the kitchen sinks, drain lines for the bathroom sinks, and drain lines for the bathroom tubs. That also entails opening up a lot of walls.
[00:01:28.650] – Matthew Holbrook
You say that it’s getting into the walls with respect to cast iron piping. When we’re talking about re-piping, we’re talking about literally removing pipes from the walls and putting in new pipes?
[00:01:41.270] – John Ramirez
That’s correct. Basically, you’re going to take the old and put brand new. There’s two different pipes. There’s cast iron pipe and there’s copper pipe. Depending on what you’re doing can entail a whole different scope of work.
[00:01:53.530] – Matthew Holbrook
But when we just use the phrase re-piping, just to be clear, we’re talking about taking pipes out of the walls, putting in new pipes with respect to plumbing in an HOA building.
[00:02:07.960] – John Ramirez
That’s correct, yes.
[00:02:08.920] – Matthew Holbrook
All right. Then maybe just to set the stage, Matt, you’ve been in this business for a while. You have some experience or background in buildings and associations that actually have done re-piping. Maybe you can speak a little bit to just what your experience has been in this.
[00:02:28.410] – Matt Davidson
Well, yeah, my experience actually is more limited when it comes to re-piping because of how complicated it can be. I have a lot more experience with trying to figure out ways to save the piping that’s already there and prolong the life of it.
[00:02:45.610] – Matthew Holbrook
John has already just started off painting a really dire picture right out the gates that we’re talking about opening up walls, and taking out all the pipes that are in the walls, and replacing them all. We’ll talk about what that actually looks like in a minute. But, John, what’s your experience in actually going through and dealing with re-piping issues?
[00:03:03.160] – John Ramirez
Basically, I’ve been part of multiple retrofits, cast iron and copper. We’ve been with a lot of properties that are aging within time. I’ve been involved with different developers, different third-party vendors on changing them out and getting replaced.
[00:03:21.730] – Matthew Holbrook
It does sound like this is not the main choice or this is not something that a board of directors of an HOA would say, “Hey, let’s just go re-pipe. We’re excited about doing that.” Why don’t we start off with talking about what do we do to avoid getting into that situation?
[00:03:41.010] – Matthew Holbrook
Matt, maybe you can start off with that. What are things that a manager or a board member really needs to keep in mind with respect to maintaining their building to not put themselves in a position, where someday they’re going to have to re-pipe or to delay that even?
[00:03:59.390] – Matt Davidson
I would say two of the most important things that you can do to prolong the life of the piping that you have is on the domestic water side, so just your hot and cold drinking water. If you’re having pinhole leaks, then look into corrosion control, like phosphate injection into the water, which can help preserve the integrity of the water pipes.
[00:04:24.760] – Matthew Holbrook
Let me stop you right there. I’m a manager. I’ve never even heard the words that you just said. Who do I ask about that? What kind of a vendor would I go to?
[00:04:34.800] – Matt Davidson
There actually are a lot of companies that specialize in water treatment. This is really common in big high-rise buildings, especially in the hospitality space in hotels.
[00:04:46.820] – Matthew Holbrook
This would apply also in your garden-style condominium building as well?
[00:04:51.910] – Matt Davidson
It probably would. You have the most frequent issues when you have recirculating hot water. It’s easiest to do something like that if there’s one main water source. If every single unit has its own water supply, it wouldn’t apply to you. But in any other situation where you have shared water, and especially recirculating water, it probably works.
[00:05:14.430] – Matthew Holbrook
Let’s come back to that as to what the question is, what do we do in a situation where every unit has its own water supply. But in this scenario, John, would you have anything to add to what Matt was just saying?
[00:05:26.430] – John Ramirez
No, I think that’s one of the biggest problems, especially with the hot water circulating. It causes a lot of pinhole leaks. The water we have right now in many different regions, it’s really hard, and it really beats up the copper piping. Looking for a good water treatment system for the domestic hot water would be the way to go.
[00:05:45.180] – Matthew Holbrook
Is there anything that you should be doing if you do have individual water for each unit?
[00:05:51.730] – John Ramirez
Not much. They do have different systems, but when it comes to the garden-style, like homes and stuff like that, there’s really not much that you can do.
[00:06:00.520] – Matt Davidson
But you don’t tend to have the same aggressive deterioration of the lines either. Usually, your pipes are going to last quite a bit longer when you don’t have water constantly circulating through them.
[00:06:13.610] – Matthew Holbrook
[00:06:15.430] – Matt Davidson
[00:06:15.430] – Matthew Holbrook
[00:06:16.100] – Matt Davidson
Just sort of going back to your question, then there’s the waste lines. The best thing you can do to preserve those is to clean them regularly.
[00:06:25.840] – Matthew Holbrook
What does cleaning look like?
[00:06:28.760] – John Ramirez
There’s a lot of different methods. Two of the biggest methods are snaking them. They actually get a plumber out there. Because these units don’t have cleanouts, it’s not a requirement. You actually have to go in through some kitchen sinks and open some P-traps to run a snake, which does work, but it doesn’t work completely.
[00:06:48.370] – John Ramirez
What we’ve been doing for the last few years is hydro jetting. Basically what a hydro jetter is basically a pressure washer. You basically stick this into a drain, get into the main line of the vertical stack, and then it flushes all out. We try to do this on a yearly basis. Especially right now, there’s a lot of residents and vendors in these units who use their car disposals as trash cans. They’re throwing in vegetable grounds or coffee grounds, which harm and build up in the pipes.
[00:07:22.280] – John Ramirez
We notice if we did this process on a yearly basis, it prevents a lot of backups in a lot of units, and it expands the lifespan of these pipes.
[00:07:32.100] – Matthew Holbrook
Now you mentioned that these units don’t have cleanouts. Some do, right?
[00:07:37.060] – John Ramirez
It’s really rare, but some do, yes.
[00:07:41.290] – Matthew Holbrook
Can you add cleanouts?
[00:07:43.030] – John Ramirez
You could. It’s a little difficult. Cleanouts have to be near a drain line, and sometimes these drain lines are in the walls either next to someone’s living room or it’s next to someone’s bathroom. A lot of residents don’t want to see a cleanout cap on the wall. Sometimes you get lucky, you could put them under their sinks, but depending on the layout of the plumbing, it varies.
[00:08:09.910] – Matthew Holbrook
Anything that you would add on that, Matt?
[00:08:12.540] – Matt Davidson
I was just going to ask John, in a garden-style scenario, if you have a few units and they’re sharing one main drain line that goes to the sewer, would you still recommend hydro jetting that mainline?
[00:08:24.880] – John Ramirez
Yes. There’s two ways of doing it. There’s a vertical riser. That’s where basically all the waste comes from the units. That would want to get cleaned at least once or twice a year. Now the main line is where all the debris falls before it goes into the street. The main lines, you would want to hydro jet at least once a year.
[00:08:42.470] – John Ramirez
Hydro jetting is the best way to clean out the main lines down in the garage.
[00:08:48.010] – Matthew Holbrook
Are there any other cleanout approaches or anything else that a manager or board member should be thinking about, or is it just go right to the hydro jet? Any other considerations?
[00:09:00.850] – John Ramirez
Educating the residents. What to put down the sinks is the best thing. A lot of this can be prevented if residents understood what the sink was actually made for. It’s there to wash the dish, get some of the grounds off, and then let the water flow for a little bit. Some of these residents nowadays are just, like you said, using them as trash cans, and that’s what really beats up these pipes. It’s what causes a lot of the grease and gun to get built up in the lines.
[00:09:27.840] – John Ramirez
For these residents or board members that are looking to maintain their equipment, I would just educate. Educate, I think, goes a long way.
[00:09:36.230] – Matthew Holbrook
All right. Where we started off this conversation, we were talking about re-piping. What are the signs that that might be something that you really have to seriously consider, and maybe this really is the only solution, the hydro jetting is not going to solve the problem?
[00:09:52.490] – John Ramirez
You’re going to notice signs as you get a plumber in there, and you snake in a line, and the line busts through the cast iron pipe. That’s a huge sign that the cast iron has lost is strength. It’s starting to weaken.
[00:10:04.570] – John Ramirez
You also notice smells in the units. You’ll notice a lot of smells because the pipe is starting to crack. A lot of the gas smells that are trapped in this cast iron pipe will escape, start going into units, and it will get into multiple units.
[00:10:19.500] – Matthew Holbrook
Play this out for me. You’ve got a plumber in, they’re snaking a line, bust through the pipe. How is the board supposed to make a determination in that situation? Do we just have an isolated situation here where we need to replace that pipe? Or how do we know, “Okay, we need to actually be considering re-piping an entire building?”
[00:10:43.190] – John Ramirez
The best way to do it and the way we’ve done it in the past is using the camera. We’ve ran cameras down cast iron pipes, and they could determine the condition of the inner walls of the pipe. Whether they’re weakened, they’re cracked, or they’re starting to show signs of heavy rusting, that’ll give us a good indication on the condition of the piping.
[00:11:01.590] – Matthew Holbrook
I’m assuming that that would require a certain cooperation from the residents you’re needing to access the units.
[00:11:07.160] – John Ramirez
Yes. The good thing in something like this you don’t have to get into every single unit. You can get to every third unit and basically run a camera, which is a good thing. Cameras can go down a good 24 feet, so you don’t have to go into every unit.
[00:11:20.670] – Matthew Holbrook
All right. Matt, you’ve got a plumber who runs a snake, busts through a pipe, and we bring out somebody, and they start putting cameras into the pipes. The conclusion is, “Hey, you’ve got to repeat this whole building, or this whole series of buildings,” or whatever the situation might be. The manager, the board member starts making phone calls and saying, “Hey, I need to get some quotes on how to go about doing this and what’s it going to cost.”
[00:11:53.050] – Matthew Holbrook
When going to make that kind of a phone call, what are the types of things that a manager or a board member should have in mind and be ready to address in that a situation? You’re talking to a vendor and you’re going to say, “Hey, I want you to come out and re-pipe my building.” What else do you say?
[00:12:09.230] – Matt Davidson
I think as with most projects, the more information you have going into it, the better the quality of the quotes you’re going to get will be in the end. Understanding whether the building is relatively new and probably has somewhat accurate plumbing plans, or if it’s a really old property and maybe there have been a lot of modifications made over the years, it’s good to know because that will probably change what the bidders will need to know. Do they have to physically inspect a lot of the units or are there some plans that they could refer to that would give them some decent idea of the quantities that they’re going to need?
[00:12:52.500] – Matt Davidson
Then beyond that, the board would need to consider setting some policy in the beginning around what happens to the repair of the units. Because any time you do a full-scale re-pipe, you’re going to have to be opening the walls inside people’s units, and that no matter what, gets you into a discussion of who’s going to pay to put back what was taken out. You may have some units with just simple painted drywall and other units that have really expensive stone cladding on the walls and things like that.
[00:13:28.710] – Matt Davidson
I would always suggest that, at the beginning of the project, that the board be aware that those questions will come up and so have a conversation with legal counsel and with the bidders about exactly what’s involved in the project, so you can set some policy. Then set the expectations for the residents about what the association is going to do and what we may need their cooperation to do. “We’ll give you a new pipe and put the walls back, but you might be on your own to put your stone back.”
[00:14:01.310] – Matthew Holbrook
Right, and that’s where they may want to put their own personal insurance on notice or potentially make a claim there?
[00:14:08.230] – Matt Davidson
If they have damage, yeah, certainly.
[00:14:11.900] – Matthew Holbrook
Anything else that you would add on that, John?
[00:14:14.210] – John Ramirez
No, I think that’s perfect. I think the biggest point is just to make sure you have accurate plans. That’s the biggest part here. Fortunately, we can’t just open all the walls just to take a look. A lot of these walls are closed up and some of these are model homes, where we’re not just going to open up peekable holes just to see the condition of the pipe. Making sure you have accurate plans is the biggest key.
[00:14:33.640] – Matt Davidson
The other thing that some communities have done, which is not necessarily the best approach, but you could consider is, if it’s a vertical building like a high-rise, requiring that when people remodel their units, they replace the lines within their unit. The association may pay for the replacement of the lines, but that they need to allow that work.
[00:14:57.860] – Matthew Holbrook
This is obviously a very invasive process if you get to this stage. Talk to me a little bit about other options going down the road of looking at using epoxy solutions or other less invasive solutions. Should boards consider those kinds of options?
[00:15:19.800] – John Ramirez
For me, the epoxy solution, I know it’s a word that gets spread a lot. It’s been going around for the last seven years since I’ve heard about epoxy solutions. But there’s a lot that goes with epoxy. One of the biggest keys for epoxy is that the pipes have to be completely cleaned, free of any grease for the epoxy to grip to, to adhese to.
[00:15:42.120] – John Ramirez
Now that’s an impossible thing to do to a tall vertical building. Even a garden-style home, it’s hard to guarantee that you can get all the grease out of the pipe for the epoxy to grip.
[00:15:53.470] – John Ramirez
In the past, I’ve heard that the epoxy does not grip to certain sections of the pipe because it wasn’t cleaned properly, and it breaks apart. When it breaks apart, it breaks apart in clay pieces. That would eventually start to cause a lot of backups in the building. Not even a snake can go in there and break apart this epoxy when it breaks apart.
[00:16:15.920] – John Ramirez
Then that becomes a problem where you have to open up the wall and then replace the pipe when you should have just done that in the first place.
[00:16:22.110] – Matt Davidson
I think one of the things that you have to keep in mind, too, is that you talk about vertical main drain lines, but it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole bunch of horizontal pieces that connect to those verticals. It can be hard, not just when you’re cleaning, but when applying epoxy to get it to adhere evenly to all of the different angles within the piping system.
[00:16:50.010] – John Ramirez
Right. Then another fear that we had, too, which happened in a few other locations, is let’s just say the epoxy does grip to the walls of the pipe, what happens eventually is when you have to go in there and do your normal maintenance snaking or hydro jetting, it actually breaks apart that epoxy within the pipe, which then starts to come apart, starts to fall in the horizontal lines, and then you got to start taking apart the pipe just to get rid of all the debris that fell in there.
[00:17:16.840] – John Ramirez
Epoxy, in my opinion, it’s not a fix. I don’t even consider it being a Band-Aid. It’s something that I don’t recommend for the high-rises or garden-style buildings. It’s just not a product that I think has really been used that often. I think if it was, a lot of buildings would be using it, and that’s not the case right now. Most buildings are just actually just replacing the pipe in the long run.
[00:17:46.010] – Matthew Holbrook
If I’m hearing you correctly, you’re saying there’s a certain gamble associated with the epoxy. In your opinion, it’s not worth the gamble-
[00:17:52.740] – John Ramirez
[00:17:53.100] – Matthew Holbrook
-because of the potential issues that could arise?
[00:17:55.830] – John Ramirez
[00:17:56.600] – Matthew Holbrook
If somebody is selling epoxy as a solution, is that generally their main angle? Or do you have companies that give you both options of, “We’ll actually re-pipe” or “We’ll do an epoxy liner?” Do you have companies that provide both options?
[00:18:18.120] – John Ramirez
We do. There are companies that provide both. They throw the epoxy out first because it’s half the price. To re-plum a building, like Matt was saying, it’s not just re-piping, it’s sticking apart walls, putting back new finishes. It’s a heavy cost to an association. Doing epoxy is just half the price sometimes.
[00:18:38.410] – Matthew Holbrook
I guess what I was getting at is, do these companies have a vested interest in trying to talk you into epoxy? Because it sounds like you’re not particularly a fan of that as an option. Is it possible that boards could hear a sales pitch, “Hey, epoxy is actually not going to be as bad as John says,” but maybe they have a vested interest in that? Or are there companies that you can go to that can give you a pitch either way and help boards understand pros and cons?
[00:19:07.540] – John Ramirez
There are. They got the fly-by vendors that are coming under your door and say the whole world. Then, like I said, their pitch is, “We can save you half the price of a re-piping.” You just got to be careful with companies like that.
[00:19:20.790] – John Ramirez
References are the biggest key. How long have they been around? Check that stuff, check other properties that they’ve done already. Talk to those managers. Talk to those boards to see how well it’s been working out.
[00:19:32.330] – Matthew Holbrook
Matt, do you have any other perspective on the epoxy angle?
[00:19:36.950] – Matt Davidson
No, I totally echo what John has said. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s never, ever going to work for you, but definitely do homework because I don’t think that it’s very common, and I think that’s for a reason.
[00:19:53.270] – Matthew Holbrook
All right. The last thing I was going to ask, and this is directed to you, Matt. You’re in a board meeting, and the board has selected a plumber who’s going to go in and re-pipe an entire community, a building, whatever it might be. They walk the board through, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do, here’s what’s going to happen. This is our timeline, this is the cost.”
[00:20:18.300] – Matthew Holbrook
Then they leave and the board now looks at you, Matt, and says, “Okay, we need to start thinking through some of the logistics of this with our residents, with our homeowners.” What are some of the things that you would maybe point out to a board that they need to be thinking about from a logistics standpoint that the plumbing company is not necessarily going to handle on this, but that the board needs to proactively address?
[00:20:45.960] – Matt Davidson
Beyond what we talked about earlier, about how you’re going to handle the repair to the interior of the units once the project is done, I would just think about what’s the path of travel for the plumbers and the workers? What kind of protection is going to be installed within the units? Who’s going to be available to allow access? What kind of notice can we provide to the residents so that if they have other homes, they can make their plans to go there?
[00:21:15.170] – Matt Davidson
We can give people realistic expectations of how long they potentially won’t be able to live in their units, and whether or not maybe there are decent hotels nearby, and maybe we can reach out and arrange more favorable rates for people who will be displaced.
[00:21:34.500] – Matt Davidson
But definitely, the timing and the communication with the residents is really critical and narrowing down an accurate schedule for how they’re going to move through the project so that you can give people a realistic forecast of when they won’t be able to use their apartment. Because you have to keep in mind that in a garden-style community, it may be a bunch of neighboring units next to each other who will be impacted at the same time. In a high-rise, it may be lots of units above and below that won’t be able to use their plumbing for a given period of time.
[00:22:13.240] – Matthew Holbrook
It sounds like setting expectations with residence is a huge component to this. I would assume you’re going to be communicating by email and actual mailers. You’re going to probably want to hold town hall meetings, and answer questions, and bring the vendor in to help to address those kinds of things.
[00:22:30.870] – Matt Davidson
[00:22:32.490] – Matthew Holbrook
Overcommunicating is really important. The homeowners, if you’re doing a re-pipe, they’re going to be displaced, am I right? Because you’re looking at probably—I don’t want to attach a specific time frame—but just generally speaking, about 10 days or so. Is that probably about the time frame you’re looking at?
[00:22:53.460] – John Ramirez
It’s about 6-7 days per unit to get it all re-piped.
[00:22:59.060] – Matthew Holbrook
You’re going to tell homeowners it’s going to be a week, maybe a little bit more.
[00:23:02.410] – John Ramirez
[00:23:03.720] – Matthew Holbrook
All right. Then is there any leverage that the association has with residents who maybe say, “You know what, I don’t want to cooperate with this and I’m not going to provide access to my unit?” You’re usually going to have a handful of those in any situation. I’m assuming that the board has some leverage as to how to address those issues.
[00:23:26.370] – Matt Davidson
Yeah. I would say you definitely want to have this conversation with legal counsel before you even start the project, not later, because there potentially will be people who will say they don’t want to cooperate. But I think that in order to consider a project that’s this complicated and invasive, you probably have real problems.
[00:23:50.410] – Matt Davidson
The association should have a fair amount of leverage to tell somebody, “Look, we understand this is really inconvenient for you and we’re sorry. It’s inconvenient for all of us.” You do not get to force a lot of other people to not be able to live in their units because they’re constantly having leaks or something like that because the piping has failed. We’re going to have to work through that.
[00:24:15.260] – Matthew Holbrook
The thrust we would recommend, though, is overcommunicate up front and do everything you can to get buy-in, but just know that there may be other steps that you need to prepare ahead of time for in case you’re having a challenge getting access to a particular unit.
[00:24:33.240] – Matt Davidson
[00:24:35.670] – Matthew Holbrook
All right, is there anything I haven’t asked about that I should be in order to be thinking about this subject?
[00:24:42.650] – John Ramirez
No, I think all the questions are pretty much there. Like I said, the main thing is investigation for the re-piping. Make sure you investigate what you have because there’s a lot of plumbers out there that might come to you or vendors and tell you, “Hey, your pipes are full of sludge and grease. You got to replace them right away.”
[00:24:59.980] – John Ramirez
That’s really not true. There are ways to correct that. There are ways to flush out that grease before you have to actually re-pipe a building. Like I said, I gave a couple of examples: plastering cracked tiles, crack arrest piping like that. That’s all indications of when you have to re-pipe a building.
[00:25:18.630] – John Ramirez
An age of a building. If it’s already hitting that 50-year old mark, might be about that time to do it as well. He had mentioned about some of these residents that may push back to do some of the plumbing repairs. Some of these vendors are happy to do it, and some of these residents are happy to do it. They’re excited to do it.
[00:25:37.120] – John Ramirez
There’s really not much pushback because it’s something that’s been happening for a lot of years, and they’re just tired of the water leaks, they’re tired of their walls being opened. It’s something that they welcome, not a lot of pushback.
[00:25:49.470] – Matthew Holbrook
Well, that’s great. Well, thank you both very much, and I hope you found this to be helpful. This concludes this episode of The Uncommon Area. We would encourage you to check out other episodes where we address other questions and issues that are helpful to understand in operating a homeowner’s association.