Mobile Home Park Mastery: Episode 63

The Dirty Job Of Managing Water And Sewer

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Nothing sounds messier than dealing with water and sewer in a “trailer park”. However, the reality is that it’s something that all park owners can easily deal with if they know what they’re doing. In this episode of our six-part series on “Dirty Jobs” we’re going to review the modern strategies on addressing water and sewer systems and repairs in mobile home parks. Although nothing sounds more unpleasant than digging up a pipe in a muddy field, the truth is that it’s not a frequent occurrence if you obey the strategies that other owners have figured out from experience over the past half-century.

Episode Transcript

Sewage, is there anything dirtier than that? What about trying to dig down through a big pile of muck and mud and water trying to get to a water leak? In this in our series on dirty jobs that mobile home park owners have to deal with, we're going to be examining just that. Water and sewer. It's such a huge and crucial issue when you own a mobile home park, and it's also just a really dirty job. If you are not successful at dealing with water and sewer, it'll make a dirty job of your budget as well. This is Frank Rolfe with the Mobiel Home Park Mastery podcast, and we're going to be going over everything we know about water and sewer in mobile home parks.

Let's start off with water. There's two types of water lines in a mobile home park. There can be galvanized metal and there can be PVC. Now, most of the time most of the parks you look at are going to be galvanized metal, simply because the golden age of park construction started in the '50s and ran through the '70s and there really wasn't any PVC at that time. That doesn't mean there weren't some newer parks built since then, and also maybe your park was retro-fitted to PVC at some point in the past. Normally, you're dealing with galvanized metal piping.

It's not all bad. It does corrode. It does get little pinhole leaks or sometimes snaps off entirely. It doesn't really hurt anything. All you do when that happens is you fix it. All you're out is the cost of the leak, but your grass and your trees are actually happier and all the happier for it. Now, there's two types of water systems. There's well water and there's city water. We always prefer, as everyone does, municipal water. It means it's treated by the city, I don't have to worry about it at all. Well, a little different. I'm in charge of my own water supply. I have to dig down. I've got to go ahead and rework the well occasionally. I have to chlorinate it and put it in a holding tank. I also have to test it.

Obviously, city water is a whole lot easier than well water. PVC is a whole lot easier than galvanized. The reality of the water system in most parks are, they're pretty much okay. We've only ever re-piped two mobile home parks ever out of the hundreds we've owned, and even other big owners like Sun Communities have never really piped a single one, someone in their real estate department told me. Mostly, you just patch your water lines along. Even though it's a dirty job, it's not that big a deal keeping water systems in pretty good working order.

How often do you get breaks and issues with water lines? It depends on where you are. It depends on how the lines are built. Basically, it depends on even the earth itself. If you have a lot of shifting that goes on in your soil, like in Texas in the summer where you get big cracks in the ground, then your lines are more prone to break. Other ares have very, very great stable soil, and the lines just don't break that frequently. It's not a very frequent repair call that we get that we have a broken water line. That's not that big a deal.

A bigger deal as a park owner is, where the heck is the water going and what is it costing me? Water is a single biggest line item on most park's budgets. As a result, if you lose control of that water bill, you're in a heap of trouble. How do you do that? How do you stay on top of the dirty job of trying to keep your water bill reasonable? Well, here's what you do. There's two places water can be lost. One is in your main lines, and the other is in the homes themselves.

When you're looking to buying the park, there's a company called American Leak Detection. They're franchised across America. You can go ahead and have them come out and look at your water lines using a patented device like a stethoscope that listens for hissing noise in the earth. That hissing noise means a leak. They'll go through your park and they'll be listening for leaks, and they'll mark them as they go. They're very, very accurate. They can even tell you how many gallons each leak is doing.

Now, if American Leak Detection goes through your park and finds a lot of leaks, then that means you're wasting water there and you need to get the leaks fixed. What if they go through and there's no water being wasted, yet your bills are too high? Then that means it's the customers. They're abusing water. They either have internal leaks in their homes or they just have lifestyles where they use a lot of water.

I was in a park recently and I saw a guy with a giant commercial water truck right up against his home with a hose in it. You know what he's doing, he's refilling that every night before he goes to work. He could be a landscaper. He could work in concrete. I don't know what he's using the water for, but imagine if you were using your hose at home to fill up a pool every night. You could imagine how big your water bill could be. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars a month. That park owner probably does not realize what's going on. If he's not sub-metered, he's probably paying the customer to live there. He's probably charging him $300 a month in lot rent, the customer's using probably $600 a month in water.

How do you break tenent abuse? How do you identify tenent abuse? Here's what most people do. If your water bill is roughly about $40 a month for water and sewer combined, then that is typically a tenent who's in pretty good working order on the way they use water in their lifestyle. In that case, there's not much going on. As you approach $100 a month, you know bad things are happening. The only way you can grasp control is to meter. If you meter your water, that way people pay for what they use. That always fosters conservation. Typically, water bills decline by 30% when you install those meters, and that's pretty impressive.

The only way you can truly get a handle on where water goes in most parks is to, A, do American Leak Detection to make sure there's no leaks in your main lines, and B, install meters and bill the residents for what they use. That's becoming standard practice in the industry. I would say that probably 90% of every park purchased today by a professional investor, they're immediately putting meters on and starting to bill the water back, and it makes complete sense.

The meter of choice of course is the Metron Meter. It's a product that came out of Europe, now used in the US. The amazing part is, it reads your water readings every 20 minutes and it allows you to see when there are actual leaks going on. That's how owners get ahold of the water. You see, it's not really that dirty a job. Let's move to something far dirtier, and that's sewer. Now, sewer's very different than water. Why is that? Well, number one, sewer is not pressured. Sewer, you do not read with a meter. Sewer basically is just gravity fed down the line until it ultimately goes somewhere where it's treated.

Now, the options for sewer treatment are as follows. There is city sewer, that way the city takes care of your sewage for you. Then there's three other options which are private. One, septic. You all know what that is, sure, that's easy. Sewage goes to a canister and then it goes off into the ground when it's absorbed. Your business partners basically mother nature and she's a pretty good business partner regarding septic. Next one, packaging plant. Your sewage goes into a treatment plant, like a miniature city treatment plant. Typically a concrete rectangle about 20 by 40 feet, sometimes bigger. It comes in raw sewage one end, comes out the other end 98% pure. Typically runs off into a stream or creek as it comes out 98% pure.

Third style, lagoon. This is not good. Sewage goes into a big pit, also known as a cesspool. The liquids evaporate, it's a really nasty, horrible mess. Most states are trying to get rid of cesspools, they're trying to get rid of lagoons. Denver's been very prolific at it. They have it down to about 10 of them left. Every state will one day jump on the bandwagon because raw sewage sitting there is terrible for health. Just a terrible idea in general. It doesn't smell good, it doesn't look good. It's all going to go the way of the buffalo over time so parks that have lagoons, I would avoid. I wouldn't even buy them. That's too dirty a job to even contemplate in most cases. However, packaging plant, we own some of those, and septic, we certainly own some of that as well.

That's how those work. Now, do they really work? Yes. Yes they do. Packaging plants always work fine. The only danger with packaging plant is the capital cost when they go out, because here's the terrible news. It can cost you about $1 million in some cases to replace that packaging plant. The inexpensive ones are still going to be probably about $300,000 or $400,000. That is well beyond the budget of most parks to make any economic sense.

Septic's different. Septic is, again, a relationship with mother nature. You have your own business partnership. Most of the septic parks have been running for half a century. No reason it'll ever stop. Basically, septic is okay, but again, you have to be worried. It's not necessarily the capital cost. It just worries you because you might have to replace the leach field at some point or some of the tanks. Now, the leach field is typically $4,000 to replace, so that's not going to kill you. The tank might be $1,000. It's simply the fact in life when you have potential for capital calls that scares people. When you have septic or you have a packaging plant, and hopefully not lagoon, just the fact that you are in the middle of that always makes things unpleasant.

That's how sewage works. Now let's talk about sewage pipes. Several options here. Clay tile, that's the original and a really good product. That was definitely what you've got if you bought a park in the '50s or the '60s. Then, sometime in the '60s and the '70s they experimented with cast iron. Again, not a bad product. Although, unlike clay tile, it tends to bend over time. If you don't lay it properly it will bend, and those bends it create what's called bellies in the line. Since sewage only flows with gravity, what happens is you then have to worry about the sewage stopping and not making its daily commute out to the main area where it's treated, so you may have a little bit more Roto-Rootering going on with that.

After that, they did some terrible products. Orangeburg, Orangeburg means you have to re-pipe the entire park. Then a thin-walled PVC. Some call it schedule 10 or schedule 20. I don't know what you'll call it. You'll immediately spot it. It's not PVC. It's not what we know of as PVC. It's very, very brittle. Typically turns yellow when it's buried, terrible product. Then after that, you have the PVC, which is the all time greatest. I'm not sure you can even improve on it, it's so darn good.

What's the main worry with the sewer lines? Well, if you've got clay tile, the biggest concern is root intrusion. Clay tile pieces don't fit together that tightly. As a result, trees will try and get their roots in there to get a constant source of liquids. Not a bad plan on the part of the trees, but not good for you as the park owner. When that happens, the roots will get in and either stop the line by growing these giant root balls that you have to remove with a Roto-Rooter, or in fact, they can even cause your line to cave in. Now, on the cast iron, of course, and PVC, they fit together so tightly that can't happen.

Nevertheless, even though clay tile is the number one feature of parks built in the '50s and the '60s and even the '70s, it's a great product. It's very, very rare to replace sewage lines unless you have that Orangeburg feature. Even the thin-walled PVC, most of it has already caved in over time, so those have already mostly been replaced. The fear with Orangeburg is it dissolves over time so really, normally your sewage is traveling through cavities in the earth that were only there because there was a pipe at one time and then it dissolved. That's a pretty bad thing to have happen.

Our number one sewage repair as a park owner is of course Roto-Rooter. Our customers cook with lots of grease and the disposals rarely work, so they cause giant Grease Balls that will slam lines shut. The good news is Roto-Rooter is very effective at removing those and not super expensive. Figure around maybe $250 in some markets to get that fixed.

Another point I also want to point out is you definitely always want to use a licensed plumber always when regarding water, and even sewer I would say in most cases. Water and sewer are something you don't want to mess around with. It's too dangerous. Water, people drink. Sewer, you can guess what happens if the sewer backs up. You've got a real health issue going on. Try to always use a licensed plumber. Don't just use somebody who lives in the park who's super cheap, because in that case it's a little too serious to go for super chap.

One more item we didn't talk about called the lift station. It's a really, really dirty job if that goes bad. Bear in mind, sewage cannot run uphill, it can only run down. It only goes by gravity. When your city's line is higher than the park's lines, you have to push it uphill. What does that is a lift station. A concrete cylinder with two pumps in it. The sewage falls in and is pushed uphill.

What's the dirty job there? Well, the dirty job is number one, those motors can sometimes go out. Most of them have two motors, but if both go out you're in a real problem. Interesting bit of trivia, what typically makes those motors go out is underwear. Believe it or not, people somehow flush underwear into the toilet into the sewer line, and that will wrap around the motor, and that such a seemingly harmless item with elastic in it and cotton, it catches in the gears and will burn the gears out and blow the motor out. When you have a lift station that isn't functioning with its motors, here's what happens. It fills up with sewage until it comes out the top. Then you have raw sewage flying everywhere. That is a real crisis.

You can also have both motors running and you can still loose your sewage being pumped out if you lose electricity. That's why many smart park owners have generators around that are handy that they can go ahead and install and turn on in the event of a power outage, so they don't have a problem. Another tip. If you start realizing that your lift station is not working, turn your water off quickly. That is the key item that can sometimes save the day for the park owners. If you stop additional water going into your sewage lines, then you'll stop the pressure that goes into the lift station.

Those are the ins and outs of the dirty job of water and sewer in parks. Probably of everything I told you, the most important thing to watch over is your water bill itself. It is in fact the largest line item in most parks. You got to make sure you're on top of it. Now, you'll improve your odds enormously if you make that the tenant's problem. If you put through sub-meters and start billing them directly, then they have to worry about that large line item and no longer you.

The most common dirty item we have with water/sewer is Roto-Rooter. Roto-Rooter is a number you should always keep handy, even when you're out to dinner, because if anything ever happens it seems that's always what happens. You always have those clogs in the most inconvenient days and times. Typically, it's on Christmas day or Thanksgiving because people do a lot of cooking, a lot of grease, a lot of injecting things into the sewer system that just don't work out.

Again, this is Frank Rolfe with the Mobiel Home Park Mastery podcast series. Hope you enjoyed this segment on dirty jobs, water and sewer. We'll be back next week with some more dirty jobs.