We have a leak. A big one.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that America loses a trillion gallons of water every year to leaks. Malfunctioning sprinkler heads, drippy faucets and especially faulty toilets are just some of the culprits. It’s what some refer to as deferred maintenance and neither lenders nor potential property buyers look kindly on such a practice. Nor does it fair well with residents stuck with paying higher-than-average water bills for no perceivable benefit.

While leak abatement is an important focus for homeowners, it is magnified to staggering numbers for the apartment owners and operators across their portfolios. From the property owners position, water leaks, especially in our nation’s water-challenged and conservation-minded environment, are all on the downside, both economically and public image-wise. Because most cost analyses suggest an immediate payoff, leak remediation is best prioritized, identified and remedied.

On the accounting side of operations, leaks are an invisible albeit significant line item. On average, a single household leaks over 10,000 gallons of water every year. That’s enough water to do 5 loads of laundry a week for that same household. It also adds as much as 10 percent to the water bill—an expense that yields absolutely no gain or advantage to the individual paying the bill. It might be thought of as a cost premium for inadequate maintenance. Good maintenance is a necessary investment that protects asset value, mitigates risk and builds resident retention. It’s simply good business for running a multifamily property.

California needs 11 trillion gallons of water to resolve its present drought and the ensuing vegetable and fruit shortage already affecting the nation. The one trillion gallons that fixed leaks would save in water would be a good start. It’s hard to imagine that we are sending perfectly good drinking water down the drain, or worse, into the walls or floors of our apartment buildings. And while tap water is still far less expensive than bottled water, its cost is set to rise as much as 30 percent in the next year in some parts of the country.


The slow moving thief
The irony is that such leaks are hardly invisible; some are downright obvious. Still, a drip or two from a kitchen faucet is easier to spot than the slow leak of a toilet flapper tucked away inside the tank. But EPA cites faulty toilet flappers as one of the biggest culprits of wasted water. And yet, at about $3.00 for a new flapper and requiring less than 10 minutes to install, it’s also one of the cheapest and easiest issues to fix.

Still, while faulty flappers are harder to spot, they are, many times, easier to hear. Worn out flappers often provide signals that they need to be replaced. Phantom flushes, that is, the toilet mysteriously flushing on its own at random times, means the toilet is losing enough water that it sets off a refill. Other times there’s simply a low humming sound of water running from inside the tank, which means the toilet is steadily allowing water to seep from the tank into the bowl.

The cause is not always a worn or aged flapper, and replacement is not always the answer. While most residents clean their toilet on a regular basis, they typically focus on those parts that can be seen like the bowl and the seat. But there’s often a build up of grime around the rim of the flapper inhibiting it from seating properly on the gasket. So while the flapper itself may be relatively new and in good physical shape, any build up of residue can cause a break in the seal, which is necessary for a properly functioning flapper; this, in turn, allows water to leak through and the rate of loss is dependent on the level of build-up.

Another hindrance to proper flapper functioning is the dreaded chlorine tablet. Foreign objects dropped in the tank such as chlorine tablets, used by residents to keep their tanks clean, can inhibit proper flapper function as it breaks down into small pieces that float around the tank. These pieces then wedge on the rim of the gasket precluding the flapper from closing. To make matters worse, chlorine tablets chemically break down the polymer material that most flappers are made from, and prematurely age and warp the flapper so that the seal is not secure. Suddenly this $3.00 item can be linked to thousands of dollars in loss.

A continuously running toilet loses, on average, 250 gallons of water a day costing a property an added $45,000 per year. Maybe a resident will report it. More likely, they won’t. It’s simply impossible to rely on residents to red-flag potential toilet issues because such leaks are less obvious and the anatomy and proper operation of a toilet is less widely known.


Know thy toilet
A community-level education program (resident communication, emails and flyers coaching residents on conservation, how to keep flappers clean and when to report issues) can help, but the cost-risk analysis typically supports some type of flapper replacement program as an essential step. Knowledge still goes a long way and it can be most helpful to provide residents with a general understanding of toilet function and dissuade the use of chlorine tablets and other foreign objects in the tank.

Still, it’s easy to understand why many apartment owners and managers have launched regularly scheduled flapper replacement programs at their properties. Some replace toilet flappers unit-by-unit upon turn over; others replace all flappers at a property at a certain time of year. The bottom line is to stay ahead of leaks, which can then buy time to educate residents.

National Fix-a-Leak-Week, launched by EPA in 2009, occurs every March. It’s an excellent opportunity to look for rebates and other specific offers by Federal, state and local municipalities and utility providers, and often include special offers on things like flappers that can make such a property initiative low or no cost.

As water costs rise over the next twelve months, the cost analysis will only continue to support regular flapper replacement.


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