The Association’s Plumbing

Plumbing is a crucial part of any community association. As such, it is important for managers and board members to become familiar with common plumbing problems and the process for working with a contractor. What kinds of issues are easily recognizable? What should managers and board members look for when selecting a plumbing contractor? How can association residents help prevent plumbing problems? We spoke with Justin Moe, owner of All Ways Drains in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, to answer these questions and more.

What are some of the most common plumbing repairs? Moe said that he most often sees clogged drains and pipe leaks in water and drain piping. But many issues can often be spotted ahead of time if you know what to look for.

Moe explained, “Pipe leaks often show signs of corrosion prior to leaking. It is best to take care of these before they become a larger problem.” However, corrosion is easier to spot on exposed pipes, and not all pipes are exposed. “If the piping is not exposed, then these bad spots may not be visible,” he said. Other telltale signs include stains on drywall or other surfaces. He said that managers and board members are welcome to inspect plumbing if they can do so safely and should look out for things such as “slow drains, leaking or corroded piping, continuous or frequently running toilets, dripping faucets, and low water pressure.” What if a problem becomes reoccurring? Moe noted, “Repetitive service calls for the same issue may mean there is a larger problem or other contributing factors.”

He also recommended performing preventative maintenance to help keep the association’s plumbing in good condition. Moe elaborated, “Clogged drains can often easily be prevented with preventative maintenance, which would typically mean high pressure water jetting the drain lines to remove any build-up in the pipes before it causes a complete blockage.” Yet there’s only so much a plumbing contractor can do to pre- vent plumbing issues.

He also emphasized educating residents on proper plumbing use, specifically what can and cannot go down the drain. Moe stated, “Unfortunately, no amount of preventative maintenance will prevent someone from putting something down a drain that should not go down a drain, and that is why education is very important.” He continued and said that even the amount of grease that comes off of food plates is enough to cause blockage over time, and that garbage disposals can also cause problems if they aren’t used properly.

When selecting a contractor, it is important to know what to look for. Moe gave these following recommendations: “Give clear instructions on the scope of the work that is to be estimated. Take time to research the contractors who are providing estimates. Are they known for providing low estimates and then, once they have the work, find reasons to increase the cost of the job? Are the contractors familiar with the multi-housing industry? Does the contractor work with multiple management companies or multi-housing properties? When something has gone wrong for the contractor in the past, do they do their best to make the situation right by the customer?” All of these things are important to consider. As to the contract for the project, Moe said that the work to be completed, project costs, and any exclusions should all be clearly defined and stated in the contract.

What is the recommended communication process between a board member, manager and contractor? Moe said that it’s best for the association to have one point of contact in direct communication with the contractor and that it is usually the manager of the association. “When multiple people are involved, then it is generally a good rule to try to keep these communications in writing via email. Unfortunately, when information is passed from one person to the next, things often get changed or misunderstood,” he explained. When communicating with residents about plumbing projects, Moe again suggested that the association have one point of contact relay information to residents and to preferably keep important communication in writing.

In what manner and how often a contractor updates and communi- cates with the association largely depends on the preferences of the association. “Some just want to know a job is done, while others may want to know the details. Some clients prefer a phone call when done or an email. Often, a client is present and there is no need for an update, or the repair is obvious,” Moe explained.

What kind of insurance requirements or documents should manag- ers and board members ask for from a contractor? Moe stated that con- tractors should provide the association with, or proof of, the following: liability insurance, workers’ compensation, auto and umbrella insurance certificates, a W-9, their license number and copies of any appropriate bonds. Generally, he said, requirements are outlined by the association. “Once the contractor has been made aware of the requirements, then he or she should review their coverage to make sure that it meets or exceeds the client’s requirements,” he said.

Throughout the project, Moe said that the association should expect the contractor’s personnel to be professional and honest, to clean up after themselves and to care for the customer and their belongings.

What are common reasons for delays on projects? Reasons for delays on projects and other issues are often outside the control of managers and board members, and even the contractor. Moe listed some of the common causes: “traffic, materials and product availability, and unknown factors — things that are behind walls, in ceilings or buried underground.”

What are some common reasons for conflict between managers, board members and contractors? Moe said that such conflict is almost always due to some kind of miscommunication. “Clear and precise communication is key for everyone,” he said.

While it is not ideal, an association may find itself faced with a cost overrun, where the actual cost of the project in the end exceeds the estimated cost. There are many reasons why this may occur, Moe said, and it is often due to unknown factors. “For example, it turns out that not just one small section of underground piping needs to be replaced, but rather a large section or the entire line. Or it turns out that there are other buried utilities in the same area that may cause the work to be delayed, or cause the work to take additional time. Another example would be that parts are unavailable for a fixture, and therefore that entire fixture will need to be replaced,” he explained.

How should managers and board members be notified of cost over- runs? “Once it is known by the contractor that costs may change, the con- tractor should inform the point of contact for that particular job. Again, preferably in writing if possible,” Moe said.

Managers and board members may find themselves with a role to play throughout the contracted project. As stated earlier, they may serve as the first point of contact for the association when communicating with the contractor or residents. Moe said that they may also be responsible for preparing the contractor’s work area. He explained, “Make sure the work area is clean and any personal items are removed, if possible. Pets should be kenneled or locked in a room that the contractor will not be going in.”

What is unreasonable to expect from a contractor? Moe answered, “Expecting that someone can be at their location immediately. Traffic, weather and construction are a constant challenge just for traveling. Expecting that the contractor will not make a mess is unreasonable for many jobs.” As for projects and repairs in general, Moe stated, “While it may seem like the contractor does magic, there actually is no magic involved, and no one has a magic wand that can fix things with a wave of that wand.” He continued and explained what managers and board members should expect from a quality contractor. “What is not unreasonable is expecting that the contractor will clean up after themselves and take precautions to prevent damage or minimize any mess,” he said.

Managers and board members are also partly responsible for ensuring that the contractor fully understands the association’s needs. If a contractor does not seem to be fulfilling their obligations, Moe offered his recommendations: “Communicate! Discuss the situation with the contractor and ask if the problem can be resolved. Often, a contractor may not realize that they are doing something wrong or not doing something they should be doing. Contractors are just a human as the next person, and they do not have mind reading capabilities. Most contractors honestly want their customers to be happy and satisfied, but that sometimes takes extra communication between the contractor and the client. If discussing the situation does not correct the problem, then put it in writing via an email or letter. Make sure this communication is addressed to the appropriate person and ask for confirmation that the communication was received.”