Plumbing tales of the unexpected
In any building or facility, a plumbing issue can be disastrous for your tenants. Minor problems can easily escalate from a headache to a horror story within the blink of an eye. How does this risk translate to your building or facility? By PAUL ANGUS.
Maintaining your plumbing system is paramount to the continuity of any tenant’s business. If a building’s plumbing system becomes impaired for any reason and the building becomes inhabitable or unproductive, a loss of earnings will be incurred by the tenants. A plumbing issue can affect any type of tenant, but imagine what it can do to a café or restaurant!
Let’s evaluate various tales of the unexpected, delving into plumbing nightmare scenarios, and look at what you can learn as a facility manager to avoid future dilemmas and a potential loss of revenue.
Some like it hot
Picture the scenario: a prestigious hotel facility has recently opened and is operating without any hiccups. Guests are providing rave reviews, the facility has received awards and customer bookings have been made well into the summer season. Everything is going swimmingly, until the manager starts reviewing the energy bill. After further analysis, the building management system (BMS) attributes the high energy bill to excessive hot water usage.
The facility manager is very experienced and is aware that usage profiles for bathroom fixtures within a hotel are essentially based on three parameters: the number of guests per room, the frequency of use of these fixtures and the hotel occupancy rate. Why is so much hot water being consumed within the hotel facility? Despite further in-depth analysis from the plumbing contractor and a hydraulic consultant, the excessive hot water consumption and significantly high energy bills still can’t be explained.
Engaging an independent consultant soon establishes the root of the issue, which transpires to be a very simple, yet very costly error. During construction, every WC in every hotel room en suite was connected to the hot water supply. Every time any of the toilets has been flushed, an excessive volume of hot water has been literally flushed down the drain. Feeling the heat, the contractor returns during the defect liability period and rectifies the issue. This situation may have been what inspired the invention of the bidet!
The air that we breathe
For months, the facility management team for an old rail maintenance yard have been bogged down with complaints of a prevalent foul odour. The odour isn’t present all the time and seems to appear almost magically at certain times of the day. The foul smell is reported to be associated with a sewer odour, which occasionally drifts to the front of the facility and prompts further complaints from staff. The in-house rail maintenance plumber undertakes numerous visits to the maintenance yard administration building to try and uncover the cause of the mysterious odour, but with very little success.
As no building plans or hydraulic layouts are available, the exercise becomes a very costly and time-consuming guessing game. Further diagnostics include running a CCTV (closed circuit television) survey through the sewer drainage pipework, smoke testing, checking trap seals, reviewing the vent pipework locations in relation to mechanical ventilation intakes and even tearing down walls to access concealed pipework. Every time the rail maintenance plumber is convinced the issue has been resolved, the rancid smell reappears.
An independent consultant is engaged to provide a second opinion. After extensive analysis and investigations are all exhausted, the independent consultant decides an alternative approach is required. The occupants within the facility are requested to provide a diary, logging and recording when the odour is most evident and in which area or room of the building they smell the odour, along with the time and date of the occurrence. To the astonishment of the team, the odour appears to change location within the facility at various times of the day.
The source of the odour is eventually traced to a remote landfill site, located a considerable distance away. Depending on operations at certain parts of the site, along with which way the wind is blowing, the odour from the site blows in the facility’s direction and circulates via the mechanical ventilation system around the building. Never judge a book by its cover!
Plumbing the depths
An established and highly successful restaurant has been located in the retail level of a high-rise building for a significant number of years. One weekend, the restaurant is completely and unexpectedly flooded. The restaurant is forced to close temporarily, but thankfully the owners manage to recoup the lost revenue through the building owner.
Further investigations reveal that, a few months earlier, a new tenant fitout for a takeaway shop had been completed directly above the established restaurant. Each evening, as part of their cleaning regime, the staff at the takeaway shop hose down the kitchen area. It is later discovered that when the staff are washing the area, they regularly remove the grates and baskets located within the floor wastes. As a result, all kinds of rubbish and debris is being hosed down into the drainage system. Over a relatively short period of time, this has caused a significant blockage, resulting in the wastewater eventually flooding the tenancy below.
The problem is rectified by the building owner through working with the management team to update the tenant fitout guidelines and procedures. The building owner also engages a nominated and approved plumbing contractor for future tenancy fitout works. Although a simple solution, this expensive lesson could have been easily avoided.
Water, water, everywhere!
A sealed ground floor plantroom located in a relatively new educational facility begins to suddenly flood. The plantroom, containing highly sophisticated and expensive plant for a prominent external water feature on the campus, becomes significantly water damaged. To the facility management team’s surprise, there are no obvious signs of rainfall entry and, even more bizarrely, the plantroom is located above the surrounding ground level.
The facility plans are reviewed extensively by the facility management team, and eventually an external hydraulic consultant is engaged to review and ascertain how the phenomenon has occurred. The external hydraulic consultant finds that an external cable conduit lid has been accidentally broken during construction works on an adjacent building on campus. This broken cable conduit lid has allowed rainwater to enter the pit and effectively flood the plant room. Always think out of the box!
Diagnosing the problems
The goal is to prevent any plumbing issues as early as possible before they become time consuming and costly. Deal with the issue at the first sign of trouble and don’t wait for it to magically fix itself, because it won’t. Preventive maintenance pays for itself. When the plumbing system is operating and ﬂowing freely, as it should be, the facility management team can focus their attention elsewhere.
As demonstrated, common plumbing issues can occur because of improper installation, equipment failure or bad maintenance management practices. Damaged drainage pipework and/or blockages can further develop from an inadequate pipework gradient, resulting in wastewater appearing elsewhere within the facility. Installation mistakes can be tricky to identify, can contribute to issues further down the track and are not always obvious.
In older facilities where plans are not available to trace the pipework routes, it is recommended to establish where any clear outs are located, as this will be extremely valuable when an issue occurs. Issues associated with ageing infrastructure – such as a hydraulic plant, pipework and sanitary fixtures – often escalate and require immediate action. When undertaking these upgrades, it is recommended that reactive or quick fix practices are avoided, as they will inevitably cause more financial burden than relief.
Taking a proactive approach to upgrades is beneficial. For example, replacing out-of-date, inefficient plumbing fixtures with low-flow outlets or providing fixtures with aerators to reduce water consumption are effective methods of addressing water efficiency issues that can produce significant savings within a complex building.
In order to build confidence with tenants and investors alike, it is paramount to ensure a plumbing strategy is in place. This strategy can be applied to any commercial, retail, industrial and/or public sector facility in the event of a plumbing failure.
The plumbing system can often be a labyrinth of pipework concealed in far away and often-unreachable parts of the building; so don’t get caught out. Always expect the unexpected.
Paul Angus is an associate director – Hydraulic Services and Education Sector Lead (NSW and ACT) at AECOM, based in Sydney. Angus has strong commercial and technical capability in developing and delivering hydraulic design strategies and solutions. He specialises in providing a sustainable approach to system design, including water conservation, recycling and generating innovative engineering solutions.
Image: 123RF’s auremar © 123RF.com
This was originally published in the Apr/May issue of FM Magazine.