How property managers deal with sceptic tanks and water leakages

Posted on Uncategorized August 13, 2021 by Vittorio Bonomi

How property managers deal with sceptic tanks and water leakages

Your property either accounts for a large chunk of your yearly expenses or of your yearly income. In both cases, the last thing you need is high bills and insurance costs. Water damage is often the cause.

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As a homeowner or property manager, you are tasked with the job to ensure that your property is in good shape for you and your family or your tenants to enjoy. A large part of this work is making sure that bricks, pipes, and wires are where they should be and doing what they’re supposed to do. In Florida, this task is often closely linked with water, either in terms of flood risk, or in terms of issues to do with the water cycle, i.e., water entering and leaving your home. In previous weeks, we discussed challenges facing the water cycle at city and state level, and about the importance and risks around our aquifers and what Florida is doing about it. Today, we’re bring the focus much closer to home.

We can think about the water cycle in our houses from a flow perspective: the water that comes in, and the water that goes out. One is the clean water that runs by our water meters, the other is the dirty water that goes down our sewage system. Ironically, when it comes to water issues at home, of the two water types, it’s the water we see and use every day coming out of our taps that can be the sneakiest when it comes to showing existing problems. For instance, hidden leaks are responsible for a waste of 180 gallons per week for the average US household. This invisible waste impacts not only our water bills, but even more importantly, it raises the risk of flooding and damage, a major factor in insurance costs. On the other side of the cycle, we have the dirty water after use, which is the one we never want to see. With our house and city sewage infrastructure up to date we can easily achieve an invisible wastewater system. However, should any sewage issues occur, it’s impossible not to notice thanks to the unpleasant sight and smells that accompany it.

To get a better understanding of how homeowners are impacted by these issues, let’s take a closer look at these two sides of the house water cycle running silently in the background in our homes.

If we look at the unwanted one first, the dirty water, we can question why we are still even subject to having issues with this at our stage of urban development. The answer lies in the way southeast Florida’s sewage system was developed over the past 100 years. After the real estate boom of the 1920s, everything moved very quickly. The city planners involved saw that instead of having a large enough sewer system to reach each new house as the city grew, it was often quicker and cheaper — as it needed be — to install septic tanks. Septic tanks are a way to treat wastewater onsite in places where public sewers are not available. They are the equivalent to off grid electricity systems which are used for areas that are too far apart from the main grid to justify the costs of a connection line. Today, one-third of all Florida homes, about 1.6 million households, use septic tanks. Differently from publicly managed sewage systems, properties with septic tanks individually take on the responsibility of managing it. This involves frequently inspecting and pumping tanks as well as being extra careful about waste disposal and water consumption to avoid clogs and failure. These property managers have also to be mindful about maintaining the house’s drainfield, which involves avoiding parking, planting, or using the drainfield area in ways that could be damaging to its functioning and, most importantly, to human health.

A Miami-Dade report looking at Septic Systems Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise found that in Miami-Dade County only, there are 9,000 septic systems potentially subject to failure. It has also found that by 2040 this number is expected to rise to 13,500 in Miami-Dade and to over 67,000 in South Florida due to sea level rise. The reason is very simple: given the rush to build, initial regulation asked for the layer separating the tanks from the water table to be only one foot high. This was based on the idea that groundwater was going to be stable over time. However, with sea level rise the groundwater has also started to rise. Today, to prevent septic systems from failing due to proximity to groundwater they need to be positioned two feet away at least. This is a huge issue in Miami, especially given the fact that South Florida’s main freshwater source, the Biscayne aquifer, is right beneath the city. Septic tanks failure in Miami represents a direct risk to the whole of South Florida water supply system, putting our access to clean freshwater at risk, and raising the cost of water for all South Florida residents. In addition to proximity to the water table, septic tank failure can also be due to inadequate installation or poor maintenance, leading to hazardous sewage from toilets, drains, and sinks backflowing into the home and around the drainfield’s area. This is a real issue that while not often talked about, cannot be ignored. At the home level, the sights and smells of septic tank failure are clear from the start, and at the city and state level, water supply safety and quality checks pick up the impact on our freshwater sources. At both these levels, the question is not if we (as property owners and as city management) will take action but when we will do so: before or after the damage is done. This is a tough question as it requires considering both economic constraints as well as the urgency, or lack thereof, of this matter.

This leads us to the other part of the home water cycle: the water we want and need. Our access to freshwater is also a merit of over 100 years of development of the water supply system, which has made it possible for us to develop cities in South Florida and accommodate the water demands of the growing population. But the difference with the dirty water is that our clean water is nearly fully provided by the public system, with some private wells accounting for only 1% of total supply in the region. This means that the challenge we have as property owners has less to do with the infrastructure that takes the water into our homes and more to do with how we manage water issues inside our properties. Although it may seem like a simple and easy issue to manage, it is actually rather tricky because of its invisible nature; you may have a problem, but simply not be aware of it. From a user perspective, water supply issues are often the cause of undetected leaks that lead to water waste and eventually damage. The problem with leaks is that their signs may not be immediately apparent, and issues can go completely undiagnosed for years, costing us money on a daily basis. In contrast to issues stemming from a wastewater system failure, pipe water leaks are often hidden in pipes in our walls and under our floors, in faulty plumbing fixtures such as toilets and malfunctioning appliances such as water heaters. Because these leakages don’t smell and depending on their size don’t lead to flooding, they are much harder to notice. At the same time, while leakages signs may not be apparent right away, this silent process can and often builds up to major water damages not only to our own homes, but those of our neighbors leading to increases in our insurance burden.

US property management research shows that insurance firms paid $13 billion for water damage in 2017 and that water damage claims costing over $500,000 have doubled since 2015. It also found that water damage was second only to wind damage in insurance claims. To avoid moving into high insurance premiums, it is critical to track down the leak source as soon as a water leakage is suspected to avoid secondary damage such as contamination and flooding. And in this case as well, the question is when we will take action to address the 180 gallons of water wasted per week — a waste with high risk of turning into flood.

Luckily this issue is easier to solve than the sewage issue, although flooding can be a consequence of both. Behavioral changes are a major step towards addressing the risks and costs associated with water leaks. Developing the habit of searching for hidden leaks and checking for unexpected increase in water bills can effectively help to prevent an existing leak to escalate into a disaster. If you rent your property or own a holiday home, you can also hire a plumber to check your water system (especially the water heater) on a regular basis. Alternatively, you can also make your home smart by installing an automated leak detection and shutoff system. This is what the Point of Americas condo in Miami did: a building of 31 floors with 40% occupancy. After installing Water Security System affordable smart leak detection technology 4 years ago, the property saved 150,000 gallons of water in the first month after installation and a total of $36K annually. But most importantly, they have had no large leaks since. As a bonus, the WSS mobile app enabled each household to be metered and billed separately, encouraging further water savings.

From big investments to replace septic tanks to smart investments to prevent leaks and flooding, property owners are on call to protect their assets from becoming a liability. Get in touch with our consultants to find out how our smart water security system can help protect your property from high water bills and insurance costs.

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