By: Paul Bergeron, Units Magazine
Residents won’t admit they poured grease down the drain, but threaten to bill them for the repair costs, and it usually won’t happen again.
This much we know: Many people like bacon.
But when cooking it at home, a lot will pour the bacon grease down the drain.
Most know they shouldn’t do it.
Few are willing to admit they did it.
When apartment residents’ sinks clog and the coagulation of grease is the culprit, how should the maintenance team and management team handle it? Answers vary.
The majority who spoke to this topic say that the apartment community will not charge first-offending residents for the repair cost, which ranges from $35 to $180 per incident, if it involved a plumbers’ services.
Instead, residents typically are given a warning and are told if it happens again, they will be charged for the subsequent work. That “promise” or “threat” seems to be an effective preventive step, the group says. There are exceptions.
At a Darby Develop apartment community in Charleston, S.C., a resident’s kitchen sink backed up on a two occasions. Grease and coffee grounds were found in the P-trap (or J-bend), which, as an aside, also caused dishwasher problems. Ugh.
“Our property manager sent a letter alerting him he would be charged if it occurred again,” Victoria Cowart, CPM, Vice President, Darby Development, says. “It did occur again, and our maintenance supervisor took pictures of the P-trap when he took it apart, again finding grease and coffee grounds.
At this point, we certainly billed the resident. The cost was fairly negligible (approximately $35) and this problem has now not occurred again.”
Those were the sentiments of several persons replying to an apartment maintenance and operations employee Facebook page.
Who’s at Fault?
The true challenge for apartment operators is proving that the resident was at fault.
“How are you going to show that the pipes weren’t already clogged a bit when they moved in?” Paul Rhodes, CAMT, NAA Education Institute, says. “It’s just not a good policy to charge them to fix it, and I don’t know of any who do. If residents have a ‘fear’ that they might be charged for repairs, then it could deter them from putting in service requests for most anything. If that’s the case, then problems might turn into true nightmares for the property. The fix becomes even more expensive because the resident let it linger, and in the end – no matter what the issue is -- the operator can’t necessarily prove it was the residents’ fault.”
Ian Mattingly, LumaCorp, Dallas, says, “In my experience, and in my organization, unless the clog is a toy or personal item that can be easily traced, or very clearly in the stack belonging to a specific unit, most companies wouldn’t charge for addressing these kinds of issues. We do weigh the risk of poor resident reporting against some of these charges, but because of our aggressive preventative maintenance program, that risk is mostly mitigated.”
Linda Page, CPM®, ARM®, Senior Business Manager, Stewart’s Ferry Apartments, Fogelman, Nashville, works at a 30-year-old community.
“We charge for damages that the resident created such as holes in drywall, broken doors, damage from leaks that they failed to report, pet damage (of course), broken blinds, etc.,” she says. “I would not charge for grease clogged lines because my property is 30 years old and there is no way to determine if it wasn’t the result of grease build-up from years of use.”
Apartment operator Mary Gwyn, CPM, Chief Innovator, Apartment Dynamics, High Point, N.C., says she recently taught a local Maintenance for Managers class and no one said that they were charging for repairs such as that.
“These were all North Carolina folks, and in North Carolina, doing so could require a change in our lease language,” Gwyn says. “Broken blinds visible from outside are about the only thing I can see managers charging the residents for while in-lease. For bacon grease, I think most people would snake out the line, ask them not to do it again and move on. A comparable problem is when something that shouldn’t be in the toilet causes a clog – a kid’s toy, a diaper, etc. For that, we fuss and fix for free!”
Check Your Policy
Darby Development is pondering a policy to address these types of backups.
“The $35 charge described above to clear the line is the least of our worries,” Cowart says. “The headache truly comes when the build-up accumulates to the point that we have a back-up of either gray water or black water—and then we are dealing with mitigation challenges and costs.”
Cowart says her team is “going through our memories and records of line clearing payments to come up with a list of repeat problem areas in our communities where grease build up has caused clearing on more than one occasion. The building(s) served by that line, those lines, will all (in one relatively short span of a week or two) have their P-traps cleaned.
“We will also take the step of cleaning P-traps on our turns, to ensure we are always presenting every resident with a clean P-trap where someone else’s bad habits don’t cause them to be billed for something they had no part in. Lastly, as we move this policy forward—assuming we deploy it—when we encounter a problem in a main line, we will inspect the P-traps in the apartment units feeding that line and bill them, accordingly.”
Cowart says this policy isn’t aimed at the cost of maintenance techs’ time or Roto-Rooter type services, “although it goes without saying that our owners should not be incurring the costs of these services,” Cowart says. “It is aimed, more importantly, at the goal of preventing those costly and inconvenient backups where the mitigation can run into the thousands of dollars and where our residents are considerably inconvenienced at best and harmed at worst.”