Sewage, Community Water Heater, Moisture

“First things to check are whether your vent fans are working and not clogged with lint or dust.”

Dear Maintenance Men:

I am the new owner of a four-unit apartment building and have experienced repetitive sewage backups since I purchased the building about a year ago. I am retired and do not have deep pockets. The plumber I use keeps on urging me to install a four-inch main line clean-out, camera and other things I don’t think I need. Why can’t the plumber just rooter the thing right!


Dear Maryam:

Your plumber is giving you good advice. Using the camera will determine exactly what the problem is and will help you decide the best course of action to solve your plumbing problem. The four-inch clean-out will be your best bet to keeping your drains clear on a preventive maintenance basis.

We would follow the advice of your plumber and preform the following:

1. Hydro-jet – To clean your main line thoroughly.
2. Camera the main sewer line to determine the actual cause of your problem, i.e., roots, pipe breaks or cracks, pipe collapse, etc.
3. Install a four-inch main line clean-out with street sweep.

Note: It may be necessary to install the four-inch main line clean-out before you can perform No. 1 and No. 2.

This work may not be cheap, but in the long run you will benefit from lower plumbing bills, late night emergency calls and happier residents.

Dear Maintenance Men:

I have a nine-unit apartment building with a 100-gallon water heater that serves all the residents. The problem is that only about three quarters of the units closest to the water heater get any hot water. The units at the other end of the building get warm or cold water. The heater seems to be working and producing hot water. How do I solve this dilemma?


Dear David:

Sounds like your circulation pump is not working properly. Calcium or hard water deposits in the water heater and lines may also aggravate this problem. The circulation pump’s job is to bring hot water to all the units at the same time. When the pump is not working or is clogged, the hot water will take much longer to get to the units furthest away from the heater.

The first step is to determine if the pump is working. Locate the pump near the water heater, check that the motor is plugged into an electrical outlet. Next, touch the water lines on either side of the pump and determine the temperature. If it is working properly, the lines should be warm or cool to the touch, not hot. If the pipes are hot or very hot to the touch, the pump is not working properly. If the pump does not spin when plugged in, it may need to be replaced. If the pump motor is working, the pump may be clogged with debris. Remove the pump and clear out the lines. Take care to clean the line from the pump to the water heater. This is generally the problem.

While you have things apart, this is a good time to clean out the calcium deposits in the water heater. Water heater clean outs should be done at least once a year depending on the hardness of the water in your area.

Dear Maintenance Men:

I have a problem with moisture buildup and wall damage in my apartment bathrooms. The bathrooms do not have windows as they are constructed away from any exterior walls. They do have vent fans, but they don’t seem to do the job. How can I solve this problem?


Dear Bill:

First things to check are whether your vent fans are working and not clogged with lint or dust. If the fan is operating properly, check the CFM or Cubic Feet per Minute of air movement. The minimum number should be 50 CFM. If the bathroom is get ting more than the average amount of use, you may want to replace the existing fan with one that has a higher CFM rating. We recommend using at least a 120-CFM fan.

And equally important, many bathrooms have two wall switches; one for the light and the other for the fan. If this is the case, we recommend combining the two switches into one. That way when the resident switches on the light, the fan will come on automatically. We find most residents will not turn on the fan if it has its own switch.

Plumbing Trivia: One drip per second from a leaky faucet can waste over eight gallons of water a day… toilets use from 25 percent to 40 percent of the home’s water consumption.

WE NEED Maintenance Questions!!! If you would like to see your maintenance question in the “Dear Maintenance Men” column, please send in your questions to:

If you need maintenance work or consultation for your building or project, please feel free to contact us. We are available throughout Southern California. For an appointment please call Buffalo Maintenance, Inc., at 714-956-8371. Frank Alvarez is a licensed contractor and the Operations Director and co-owner of Buffalo Maintenance, Inc. He has been involved with apartment maintenance and construction for over 20 years. He is also a lecturer and educational instructor for the Apartment Association. Frank can also be reached at For more info please go to: Jerry L’Ecuyer is a real estate broker and has been involved with apartments as a professional since 1988.