The Composition of a Typical Plumbing System

One of the challenges of serving on an HOA board of directors is dealing with issues and possibly not having a great deal of experience with the issue. Certain maintenance issues can arise that sometimes are beyond the experience level of a board member. However, a good basic understanding of a dwelling’s major systems can be of assistance when a more involved problem arises. In this blog, we are going to discuss plumbing. While a board member does not need to be a plumber, knowing how plumbing basically functions can help a board member recognize and define an issue in a timelier manner.

Plumbing repairs can be a major expense item on homeowner association budgets. Many times, there is little that can be done to effectively avoid certain types of plumbing repair expenses, such as a broken underground waterline. However, a better understanding of plumbing can be beneficial to a board of directors in possibly identifying aspects that can be avoided or improved upon to reduce the homeowner association’s expenses.

A typical dwelling’s plumbing system has two separate subsystems. The first being the pipes and fixtures that bring fresh water into the home, the “supply system.” The second subsystem being the pipes and fixtures that remove wastewater from the home, the “drainage system.” These two subsystems have distinct functions that do not intersect; however, there are bridges between the two. The bridges being the plumbing fixtures that are designed to keep both subsystems segregated. Traditionally, what both have in common is they both require gravity to function properly.

The first subsystem, the supply system, supplies fresh water under pressure. Traditionally, this pressure is achieved by treatment plants pumping water into elevated water towers. The force of gravity through this elevated tower pushes water into waterlines that feed individual homes, thus is a pressurized supply. With an increasing population with water needs, pumps and repeater pumps are used to supply many homes not serviced by water towers. However, this water supply is still supplied by pressure.

The drainage system, the second subsection, does not rely on pressure to function. Instead, it relies on gravity and sewer lines with a downward slope or angle. Wastewater falls, by gravity, to a lower-lying sewer line, typically a municipality’s main sewer line that relies on gravity and pumps.

While the water supply system is more straightforward, turn a faucet or flush a commode, and water is supplied. The drainage system has more components and needs more than gravity to function properly. Gravity being paramount to wastewater drainage, vent stacks are just as important. There is typically a main vent stack, and there can be auxiliary stacks as well. These vent stacks tie into the drainage lines at the plumbing fixtures and exit through the roof. See diagram above. These vent stacks allow air into the drain lines. Without air, gravity is not sufficient to move wastewater through the lines. The best example is to take a drinking straw and place it in a glass of water. Cover the top of the straw and then remove it from the class of water. Uncover the top of the straw, and the water held within is released. This is the same principle with a drainage line and illustrates the importance of air to drainage.

The drainage system has other important components, such as the traps and cleanouts. Plumbing traps are located under sinks and bathtubs. Traps are “U” or “S” shaped pipes in which water is “trapped.” The purpose of a trap is to maintain a water barrier that prevents sewer gas from emanating up through a drain. This water barrier is maintained continually in the trap and is replenished every time the sink or tub is used. A toilet does not have an external trap like a sink or bathtub; with a toilet, the trap is the toilet itself, with the water being maintained within the bowl.

Drainage system cleanouts are the component that is fortunately utilized the least, but consequently, in many regards, is just as important. As the name might imply, a cleanout is the point in a drainage system where a plumber can access the line. A cleanout can be located almost anywhere within the drainage system. There could be multiple cleanouts and even possibly no cleanouts. If there are typical locations for a cleanout, the basement, the crawlspace, utility room, and then the garage seem to be the most prevalent in that order. The cleanout can many times be identified by a round cap or plate, approximately six inches in diameter, on a basement floor. If the plumbing pipes are exposed, a 45-degree elbow joint within the main stack that has a removable plug or cap is a cleanout.

Main shutoff and plumbing fixture shutoffs only seem to be important during an emergency. Main water shutoffs can be as elusive as drainage line cleanouts. Although these shutoffs can be found in basements, crawlspaces, under kitchen sinks, garages, utility rooms, closets, etc., there seems to be no standard on where they can be placed. If the main shutoff location is unknown, the best place to begin to look is the water heater and then under the kitchen sink. If a leak is confined to a sink, bathtub, toilet, washing machine, or other appliance, most of these fixtures and appliances have individual water shutoffs located in the proximity.

The plumbing preventive maintenance topic and communicating this to the HOA membership can be problematic. Problematic in that people have a propensity to concern themselves with plumbing matters only when it is not functioning properly, and not before then. Communicating with the HOA membership about preventive plumbing maintenance can go a long way in reducing the plumbing expense for individual HOA members and the HOA.

The following are good items to include in the HOA newsletter, HOA website, and email/text blast out:

Remind HOA members of the importance of knowing where their home’s emergency water shutoffs are located. An additional step is to advise members to mark these shutoffs with red paint and make sure others residing within their homes are aware of the location.

  • Running toilets use about 6,000 gallons of water per month, translating to $70 per month.
  • Never pour grease down a kitchen drain.
  • Never flush baby wipes, feminine hygiene products, or condoms down the toilet.
  • Winterize all water supply lines exposed to cold weather.
  • Water heater life expectancy is 8 to 12 years.

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