Water leaks at your property not only affect your water bill but impact the availability of water where you live. There are water shortages all over the country. You can take an active part in saving water and reduce your water bill at your investment properties. It’s a win win. (1)
Remember, municipalities use your water usage not only to bill you for water usage, but to estimate your sewer and storm sewer bill as well. In the city of Portland, Oregon for example “Residential sewer volume charges are based on winter average water use, or actual water use, whichever is lower.” This means that you can control the cost of your water, sewer, and storm sewer bill (and the associated taxes) by managing your water use. This includes maintaining everything that is connected to your water systems. (2)
How do you do it?
First, of course you need to check your water bill. Water billing companies typically have usage charts included as part of the bill, that help you track the usage of your water. I encourage our property managers to compare water usage over a period of two to three years. Note: Water meters measure water use in CCF, or hundred cubic feet. One CCF = 748 gallon.
A typical Portland, Oregon household uses 15 CCF of water (about 7 CCF per person) every three months. Tracking the CCF gives you an idea if there are leaks at your property. Commercial buildings typically do not use as much water as residential buildings, unless they are industrial manufacturing, restaurant, beauty or cleaning related, where they use water in the day-to-day operations of their business.
Comparing properties that are similar helps. If one 10 plex costs you $500 a month and another $1000 a month it is clear you have a water usage problem. See the following chart to get a feel for the impact a leak has.
Basis for Calculations
1 cubic feet= 7.48 gallons
One day= 1440 minutes
One month= 30.5 days
Convert cf to gallons times minutes (1 cf= 7.48 * 1440 = 10771.20 gal/day)
Example: Meter moves two marks on cubic feet meter in one minute test. Meter has 10 large marks for each 0.10 cf and small hash marks for each 0.1 cf (0.02 * 7.48 * 1440 = 215.424 gallons per day).
What could be leaking?
Flappers are made of a combination of plastic and rubber. The plastic provides rigidity that allows the flapper to connect to the overflow tube. The rubber allows the flapper to create a tight seal over the flush valve that prevents water from escaping the tank.
The average toilet flapper lasts only about 4 to 5 years. It is important that you inspect your flappers annually and replace your toilet flapper when needed to prevent leaks. No matter what material they are made of flappers can fail from age, through mildew or mold, or through the growth of bacteria. These factors can cause the flapper to crack and not fit around the flush valve. Some drop-in bowl cleaners are also hard on the rubber component of a flapper. As flapper’s deteriorate, they begin to leak, and these leaks are continuous, and in many cases, you don’t know and can’t hear the leak.
Remember, that even though many tenants may pay part of the water bill they have no way to track how much water they are using because they don’t see the bill.
Underground water pipes and water pipes in walls of structures can leak. Reviewing water bills helps discover and remedy water leaks in water vaults, under sidewalks and in irrigation systems. You can save hundreds of dollars a month as you focus on minimizing water leaks.
Underground pipes from the streets to homes or apartments traditionally were made from galvanized steel that corroded over time due to electrolysis.
This corrosion is caused by an electrochemical reaction between metal and another substance. When this happens, the metal in a pipe loses electrons. They are transferred from the metal to the other substance. As corrosion continues, the metal breaks down further and this causes rust, leaks, and clogs. (3)
As a result of historical extensive pipe leaks, the plumbing industry has been developing alternative materials to reduce leaks. There have been transitions in materials used both in apartments and underground. Currently, there are five main types of plumbing pipe materials that are still in use: copper, galvanized steel, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), and cross-linked polyethylene (PEX). Chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) is also used. (4)
Water heaters do leak. Most of the time its condensation, but sometimes after 15 years they do die. Often when they do they rust out on the bottom. To be aware of it when the leak occurs to prevent damage to other tenants, you might consider installing a product called flood stop. This product notifies you when a leak crops up (https://www.getfloodstop.com/).
Let’s not forget that faucets, fittings, sinks, disposals, dishwashers, clothing washers and hot water heater’s leak. Wherever there is water there is an opportunity for a leak.
Sometimes there are many people overcrowding a property. Local landlord-tenant laws removed capacity caps some years ago. It used to be that there was a limitation of two people and a baby per bedroom. Those limitations do not exist in Oregon. As a result, you could have 10 people living in a 2-bedroom apartment. As a teenager, I had a girlfriend who had many siblings that lived in a three-bedroom unit. Her two brothers slept in one bedroom, her father had a room, her mother and a sister slept in the living room on a fold-out bed and she and her sister slept in the last bedroom. I count that as seven people in a 3-bedroom unit. And if everyone takes a shower or two a day, just imagine the excessive water use.
Lawn sprinkler systems tend to leak over time. They have pinhole leaks, especially if a landscaper damages them. The sprinkler heads are often attached to a flexible plastic piping that seems to loosen up the heads and then they get mowed over and destroyed.
Annual Property Inspections
How do you protect yourself, and your cash flow?
You schedule annual property (unit by unit) inspections. You perform a dye test in the toilet to make sure the flapper is not leaking. It is also a best practice to check interior fixtures, under sinks and behind toilets to look for signs of leaking or previous leaking.
Walk around the property to see if the ground is soggy from a potential leak. You look to see if the property is overcrowded. Listen for the sound of running water (from potential pipe breaks), check sprinkler valve boxes and if you suspect a leak and cannot find it, call an experienced leak detection company to help you find a leak.
It’s a battle to discover water leaks at properties.
The first step is the monthly bill review. Sometimes you must review two to three years’ worth of water bills to discover increases in water usage. Your water bureau will only tell you if there is a problem, when there is a massive increase in your water usage. Often, excessive water use creeps up over time. It’s a continuous battle, that can only be won if you review your monthly bills and work with your property manager to follow up on the CCF use by tenants.
Ratio Utility Bill back (RUBS) and separate water meter billing helps in the recovery of the water cost. In a way it incentivizes tenants to use less water, but as you can see it’s not always in their control. You can be creative. Maybe you develop an annual tenant questionnaire and send them a dye tablet so they can help you audit for problems. It will be the first step to saving you money, water, and the world.