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Plugging Leaks

Routine maintenance can help schools and universities avoid plumbing disasters.

Nearly 10,000 more students than last year are attending classes at Miami-Dade County public schools. In New York City public schools, enrollment has increased by about 14 percent in elementary schools and 21 percent in high schools since 1990.

Throughout the nation, enrollment numbers at many schools and universities continue to climb and put added stress on facilities. While increased occupancy and continual use affect all components of a building's infrastructure, the plumbing system often deteriorates the most.

When it comes to a building's plumbing, facility managers (FMs) are constantly looking for ways to extend the life of the system, conserve energy and water, and reduce the number of repairs. With a carefully planned preventive-maintenance program, school and university administrators can achieve all three results.

Every plumbing system requires repairs from time to time, but routine preventive maintenance will limit unexpected repairs. In addition, conserving energy and water results in lower costs and improved efficiency.

The first step It's critical for FMs to document all aspects of their facilities' plumbing systems. The following items should be recorded and filed:

- As-built construction drawings of a school or university's plumbing system.

- Construction drawings and operations and maintenance manuals for all equipment, such as water heaters and sump pumps.

- Results of water-quality tests to determine corrosiveness and lead content.

- Written standards of valves, piping and equipment used in the buildings. The same equipment should be incorporated into any renovations or additions.

Common trouble spots The following are various areas where trouble can occur, as well as the problems associated with each:

- Drainage piping. Slow drainage usually indicates a blockage or collapsed line.

- Water piping. The appearance of corrosion build-up on water-piping joints may indicate pH imbalance or improperly joined metals.

- Gate valves. Valves that are improperly installed or have been subjected to a prolonged pH imbalance will show signs of corrosion and may even fail.

- Plumbing fixtures. Blockages in toilets and sinks often are due to insoluble items getting stuck in the openings. Luckily, such problems are easy to correct. In addition to poor drainage, blockages also can cause leaks. And leaking faucets or toilets can result in substantial water loss - as much as 2,300 gallons per year!

- Plumbing equipment. Discoloration, a marked decline in water quality, or the presence of sediment often indicates a problem with the water supply source. Water-heating equipment also can cause system problems - especially with reverse-osmosis water equipment, which has especially delicate components.

Prevention techniques These steps can help you avoid problems:

Monitor pH balance. One of the easiest ways to avoid plumbing problems is to routinely monitor pH balance. FMs can treat unbalanced pH levels with water-treatment kits. These come in different sizes and include various agents to correct imbalances. Water quality also can be improved by using paper membranes to filter out sediment and using charcoal filters to correct odor and taste problems.

- Check and replace valves. To prevent valve problems, make sure that all valves are installed properly. Replace old valves, if necessary.

- Install new toilets or fixtures. The key to preventing plumbing problems and avoiding blockages is either installing new toilets with larger passageways or replacing the fixtures of old toilets. When appropriate, installing flushometers rather than tank-type toilets also can reduce long-term blockage problems.

- Inspect and maintain neutralization sumps. Regular inspection and good maintenance of all interceptors and neutralization sumps will further reduce the likelihood of blockages. All sinks should be equipped with cleanouts at the bottom of traps to aid in eliminating blockages and retrieving dropped valuables, such as jewelry.

- Other preventive measures:

- Make sure partial drain-down of water-heater equipment adequately flushes out scale and sediment.

- Install back-washing water filters that flush out trapped sediment.

- Recharge neutralization tanks to properly neutralize acidic effluent.

- Inspect and lubricate all pumps.

- Periodically flush exterior water mains by opening on-site yard hydrants to prevent sediment build-up in water-distribution piping.

Repairs without disruption Repairs should be performed regularly, depending on the size and age of the facility, and at a time that is least disruptive to students and faculty. The ability to isolate portions of a system, such as valves, is crucial in minimizing disruptions. By building more isolation options into a plumbing system, FMs can reduce the disruption caused by routine maintenance and repairs. Providing advance notice to personnel also will reduce complaints and permit people to seek alternative facilities. Emergency repairs, such as fixing water-main breaks, gas leaks and water-heater failures, however, require immediate attention and allow little lead time.

Many facilities that have been in operation for four or five decades have undergone numerous plumbing system modifications. The two most common of these changes are the shift from brass to copper water piping, and the transition from extra-heavy bell-and-spigot cast-iron pipe to the use of service-weight hubless cast-iron pipe. For facilities that use these types of materials, it's a good idea to keep specialized adapter fittings in stock. Hubless cast-iron fitting gaskets and clamps that are made to merge extra-heavy and service-weight pipe, as well as brass-to-copper solder/brazed adapter fittings, are essential for older facilities.

In spite of a school or university's best effort to adequately maintain its plumbing system, occasional repairs are inevitable. Conducting preventive maintenance properly and efficiently can significantly limit the number of emergency repairs. A well-defined prevention strategy will save schools and universities time and money, as well as ensure a desirable, smoothly run campus.

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