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 Behind The Scenes  
 Are You Ready For The Inevitable Flood?
 
by Jay Smith
June 16, 2016

You say you don't live in a flood-prone area? Instead of looking outside the window and thinking you are safe, turn around and look at your plumbing! Those pipes and plumbing fixtures that are reliable year after year are just waiting for an excuse to flood you.

It really is not a question of IF, it is a question of WHEN. Especially with today's plastic pipes and connectors, failure is virtually inevitable.

We experienced a "minor" flood this week in our office. A bathroom plumbing fixture failed and poured out the capacity of a 3/8-inch pipe for about 30 minutes before it was discovered. That's a lot of water.

We were extremely lucky. It happened during the day and only ran for about 30 minutes. There was no philatelic damage. Some non-stamp junk that had been sitting on the floor (for much too long) was destroyed, but amazingly the water remained relatively contained in an area that did not have much valuable or important material on the floor.

Half the staff was gone for lunch. I was here with one other staff member and a visitor: a young man who wanted to sell his grandparent's stamp collection. We were all about as far as you can get from the leak area when I walked into another room and heard "the noise" of rushing water. A few more steps in the direction of the noise and I was squishing the carpet. Oops! I immediately ran to the main water cut-off for the building and stopped the flow. What a mess! In some areas the water was easily a half-inch deep.

The three of us, including our visitor who was young, strong, and very quick-thinking, and very generous, immediately started carrying out items that were on the floor or in the path of the water that was wicking through the carpet. We then tackled the items that were actually sitting in water. Within perhaps 10 minutes the three of us had each carried perhaps 20 loads out of the building. Lots more was hastily piled up on desks and tables.

The folks at lunch were recalled and one who had a large wet/dry vacuum quickly brought it from home (that was an enormous help). While we were vacuuming up water, fans were set up and a dehumidifier was brought from home. Also, importantly, the central air conditioning temperature was lowered; the a/c system can condense a tremendous amount of water from the air, lowering the humidity level in the building, which promotes faster drying of the wet areas. The water vacuuming went on for several hours well past the point of diminishing returns; we alternated between the central wettest areas and the margins to prevent carpet wicking from further spreading the wet zone.

On a positive note, we had the "opportunity" to do a lot of cleaning and sorting.

This could have been a catastrophe in a philatelic environment but for the following...

- We try to avoid putting philatelic or important material on the floor unless it is in a leak-proof plastic container.

- We stack vertically, and use metal shelving, as much as possible, rather than spreading horizontally. (Though the building is pretty darn full!)

- The entire staff has been trained on how to shut off the main water supply: Where the valve is, which way to turn it, etc. The valve is also tested every year so that we know it works and so that it does not become stuck open or very hard to close.

- In our unusual building, every pipe-run is a single piece of pipe from a main manifold to the fixture, without any joints (where failure is more likely). In addition to the main valve for the building, each of those pipe-runs has its own valve, thus an individual failure can be isolated from the rest of the water supply. This setup probably cost about $500 more when the building was last replumbed, but it has paid for itself multiple times.


Things you can do to minimize the possibility of a leak and to minimize the resulting damage:

- Several times per year, do a thorough check of pipes, joints, connectors, fixtures, etc. Look for seepage, discoloration, cracks, etc. Use a very bright flashlight and actually get down on your hands and knees when you have to so that you can really see clearly. Set this up on a schedule so that it will be easy for you to remember to do.

- Know what type (metal or plastic) of water pipes you have. If they are plastic, know the brand and type of plastic and know exactly what brand and type of connectors / joints were used. Then do an internet search every few years on those types of plastic pipes and connectors. You may be startled to find that not only are there recalls on those items, but that you might even be able to get your house re-piped at a reduced cost.

- If you have metal pipes, especially copper, it may be useful to know the pH of your water so that you know if you have to be more aware of the metal being eaten from the inside by acidic water. If you have your water tested, it would also be a good idea to have it tested at the same time for lead and other heavy metals.

- If you have copper pipes AND acidic water, monitor pipe thickness and be very watchful for discoloration resulting from extremely tiny seepage spots. If you find problems, you will likely determine that it is wiser to replace all the piping at once. (And if you are having copper pipe installed, be sure to specify the minium wall-thickness of the pipe to be used and do not allow any thinner-wall scrap pipe on the premises to be used for making connections, etc. That is a common problem. Do not assume that the plumber will not use thinner scrap pieces to make a connector.)

- Know where the main cut-off valve is and test it every year or so to make sure it is working properly. (If you have acidic water, some valves may not work properly after a few years.) Make sure all family members and anybody else that is in the house regularly (such as a neighbor who looks after things while you are on vacation) knows where this valve is. Put a sign on it that indicates which direction to turn to close it.

- Make and post in the maintenance room (or better yet in the "house book" which documents all maintenance done to the house) a PHYSICAL SCHEDULE of when certain plumbing parts were last installed and a REPLACEMENT CALENDAR of when they should be replaced. These parts include, and replacement of them simply must be done every few years: Washing machine hoses; any other flexible hoses such as to a dishwasher; toilet supply line connector nuts (the oversized connector that holds the supply line to the toilet tank; these are usually plastic and they WILL fail every so many years); and any other plastic connectors that hold connections tight by pressure -- plastic just can't survive forever under pressure. (Furthermore, whenever replacing a toilet's inside mechanisms, replace that connector nut.)

- Philatelists, myself included, seem prone to stacking stuff around on the floor because "I am working on it for a ‘couple' days". Don't do it! Pick up, clean up, etc. If it has to be on the floor, put it in a plastic container.

- If you have wood or wood-substitute bookcases, consider installing some sort of base under them so that they are not directly on the floor. (While you are at it, anchor the bookcases to the wall.)

- In larger spaces, basements (not good for stamps), etc., consider getting some used pallets upon which to place stuff. Sometimes you can get them for free.

- Having a high-powered wet/dry vacuum handy makes a huge difference. They can be less than $100 on sale. Being able to start vacuuming the water immediately can greatly reduce the size of the affected area if water is wicking through carpeting.

- Be aware of what type of carpeting and padding that you have and whether moisture will be trapped underneath it. (Also consider this when buying carpet and padding.)

- In cold climates, be aware if any of your pipes are in exterior walls or areas that are prone to freezing. Make sure that those areas remain adequately heated even while you are away on vacation or if you are a snowbird.

- Have an established relationship with a plumbing company. That can make a big difference in how quickly your situation will be repaired or how likely the plumber is to come at 2 am. Make sure you know how to find their phone number when you are in a panic.

Hopefully you will never have to deal with this kind of mess, but the chances are that we all will at least once in our lives. Minimize the risks and remain prepared and equipped to deal with it if it happens.

UPDATES and ADDITIONS:

E.G. and J.C. wrote to suggest the use of water-leak detectors. These inexpensive, battery-operated devices can be put in vulnerable areas and will make a loud alarm noise when there is even a "trace" of water. They use very little battery power under normal circumstances, however, the device should be tested (if it has a test mode) and the batteries checked for age/leakage a couple times per year. Put it on the schedule with testing your smoke alarms and your carbon monoxide detector (you do have those, right?).

J.C. wrote to emphasize that the typical cheap plastic connector lines to toilets, kitchen sinks, icemakers, dishwashers, and washing machines are... "junk". He also mentioned that PEX plastic pipes with plastic joints/connectors are serious problems; properly installed copper joints/connectors are better (but from my own personal experience, in acidic water, one has to be sure those copper joints are the more costly thick-wall type).

D.S. wrote from Saudi Arabia to say that even in the desert it is easy to have problems. While on a trip away from home (of course) a toilet supply pipe corroded and broke. The neighbor feeding the cat discovered the flood after an unknown amount of time; it took a further hour to locate the hidden main water shut-off valve.

One of our relatives who lived on the first floor of a two-story condo experienced not only a flood from her own broken toilet supply line, but a flood from the upstairs neighbor's plumbing. Whether upstairs or downstairs, it is important to know what your insurance does and does not cover; do not assume insurance coverage whether in an owned home, rented home, or condo situation. Ask your insurance agent what is and is not covered.
 
 

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