Mobile Home Park Mastery: Episode 279

There’s Nothing Uplifting About Lift Stations

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When a mobile home park sits lower than the city’s main sewer line, the only way to get the property’s sewage pushed upstream is with a “lift station”. Yet many mobile home park buyers don’t know what these are, how they work, and what the dangers are. In this Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast we’re going to drill down on this unique feature of many communities to understand the fine points to buying and operating a “lift station”.

Episode 279: There’s Nothing Uplifting About Lift Stations Transcript

Unlike water, sewer is not pressurized, so it can't run up hill. This is Frank Rolfe with the Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast. We're gonna be talking about lift stations. Now, what is a lift station? Well, since sewer can't run up hill, you have to find a way to push it up hill, and that's very important when the mobile home park sits lower than the city's main sewer line. Because in that arrangement, if you connected the park to the city's main sewer, the sewer would never get to the line, it would just sit there and fester in the park, and I would start backing up through all of the toilets and the sinks, because it couldn't get enough pressure to get up hill. So instead, many years ago, they devised a device, and what it is, is it's imagine a tube that someone drills into the earth and then fills with concrete on the walls.

And so what happens is you have this chamber, circular chamber, and all the sewage from the mobile home park dumps into this chamber. And there in the chamber, you've got a pump, and the pump physically blasts that sewage up hill. So it's not really a very complicated concept to understand what a lift station is, it's a mechanism, a man-made tool to move sewage up hill. Now, how do you know if your park has one or not? Well, the first thing would be visual inspection, and you probably have seen a lift station in the past, you just don't know what you saw. So if you see a concrete cylinder sticking out of the ground, probably about four feet to five feet high with some strange looking box on the top of it, typically, that's a lift station. And once you know what they look like, and it's not hard to grasp, some of you can go on Google Images and see what they look like, you can typically find them just through visual inspection. However, not always, because they may be hidden from view.

Maybe you've got some high grass down where the lift station is back in the corner of the property, something like that. So the next way is to ask the sewer company itself, so any sewers companies will be more than happy to tell you during due diligence whether or not there is a lift station involved in moving the sewage from the property to the city's main. And you can also spot a lift station, some people are looking at the budget of the park you're looking to buy, because there will be an electricity charge, not a small one, from running that pump most of the time to push that sewage uphill. And you may also see other charges such as inspections of the lift station. So between those three methods, you will definitely find whether or not the park has a lift station. And then the second question is, who is responsible for the lift station? Because sometimes the city owns the lift station and it maintains it, and then sometimes the mobile home park owner owns it and they have to maintain it, so it's not just do you have a lift station on your property, but also, "Am I responsible for that lift station or am I not?"

Now, what does a lift station cost? What if it breaks? What are some of the costs we have to look at paying? Well, first, and the most common problem is the motors burning out, and these motors are not inexpensive. Most lift stations have two motors and each motor is probably gonna cost somewhere between $10,000 to $20,000 to replace. That's a lot of money. That's about comparable to replacing the engine on an expensive sports car. So that's the first cost you will have over time is motors will in fact burn out. But let's say that instead, that concrete cylinder itself breaks, what does it cost to replace the entire lift station? Well off, and that price can be at $50,000 to $100,000 or so, so it's not a very inexpensive part, and part of owning a lift station is being ready, being ever vigilant for the fact you might have to write a really big check to fix the thing. Now, what are some other concerns? Well, there's a lot of concerns with lift stations, and that's what we really want to talk about here. The first one is, when the power goes out, or the motor stop, how long will it take until that cylinder fills up with enough sewage that the sewage through hydraulic pressure just starts going everywhere? And the answer is it varies based on the lift station.

Most lift stations will last a day, maybe even longer than a day before you'll be in a crisis situation. But I've also seen lift stations who it could only last a few hours. Now, when it comes to a problem, obviously a day gives you some ability, although not a lot to get something done, but how in the world can you own and sleep at night or even during the day, have been relaxed when you know that if something breaks on that lift station, you only have a few hours to fix it before something terrible occurs? Now, how would you know if something happened? Well, the lift station typically has on the top of it, that was the strange metal thing I discussed, a panel, although I've also seen just raw metal infrastructure, and typically it has to have both an audible alarm and visual. The audible is frequently a siren, but I've also seen a bell. The visual is typically a strobe light, although I've also seen ones that have just a light, which is either green or red, red, meaning that the lift station was not functioning. So when of those goes off, when the siren or the bell goes, or the strobe light starts up, that's the beginnings of that time clock of how long that lift station can last, and you wanna make sure when you buy the mobile home park that your lift station can last long enough for you to make critical repairs.

How long is that? Well, I know just a couple of hours isn't going to work, probably a day or so is what you really, really want. But you need to ponder how long you can go, how long you can feel comfortable with before you are so stressed out you can't really own the mobile home park. Also, there's things you can do as a park owner to reduce that stress. The first one is make sure that both of your motors are working. Some people with lift stations, many moms and pops, when one of the two motors breaks, they don't replace it because of the extreme cost. They keep kicking the can down the road saying, "Yeah, I'm gonna replace that some day," but some day always becomes a week, and another week, and a month, and another month, and then when the other motor goes out, then they're in real trouble.

So if you have a system that uses two motors, then you do have some comfort because one can go out and yet it keeps working. Now, what if your lift station only has one motor? Well, you might look into adding the second, because if you only have one motor, then every time it breaks, you're in a crisis, whereas if you have two, assuming one of the two motors doesn't burn out at the exact same time that the other does, the system can keep running while you go in and replace the engines, kinda like having an airplane with one engine versus a twin engine plane. On the twin engine, it can keep flight if one engine goes out, but on the one engine, it can't. It's also important to remember that if the power goes out, no matter how well you've designed your system with your two motors in there, even if they're brand new, they stop.

So if you have a mobile home park with a lift station, it's often a good idea to get a generator. Now, why? Well, because if there ever is a power crisis, you can put the generator on and it will keep running the lift station. And if you think, "Well, I'll just go rent a generator or buy one when the crisis hits," it'll be too late. Everyone has run down to buy all the generators, most stores don't stock that many generators. They don't sell like hot cakes, it's not like selling AA batteries. So when you really, really need it in a moment of crisis, then you need to have one on hand, because you won't be able to get one immediately. Even if you say, "Well, I'll order one in." Well, it won't be there fast enough. And the other thing you would do if you ever had a problem with your lift station is quickly turn the water off to the park.

If you can stop the water flow, which converts to sewage, you can perhaps reduce how long it will take until you overrun that lift station. It's also very important that you be aware of the condition of the lift station itself. I once toured a property, and the big metal panel that has all the information on it, the audible alarm, the visual, it had all collapsed and fallen into the lift station. Mom and pop had not ever bothered to go out and look at the condition of the lift station in the longest time and in that time that metal hatch on the top, it had completely rusted and fallen in.

Now, a lift station is not something to truly be feared of because many utilities, most utilities in the United States, all of those sewer companies, they all have many lift stations in the system, and they rarely fail. But follow their example and keep them very, very well maintained. And make sure you really understand them, that you've got them in their system, which are good enough condition, and suitably built to hold problems for a long period of time. A lift station is not something that most owners worry about frequently, but the ones who don't worry about them frequently typically what gives them that peace of mind is they've been very prepared in what they're doing, and stayed ever vigilant over the condition to make sure there's no problem. Does owning a lift station mean you can't buy a mobile home park? No, absolutely not. There are very few deals that died, because there's a lift station involved. But that doesn't mean you can be cavalier about it, you need to make sure if you have a lift station, you fully understand what you have, and you've thought through all the different ways to mitigate your risk, because although they are a risk, they're not such a risk that you cannot manage it, but the key is you need to put in it enough thought and effort to make sure you're mitigating it in every way possible. This is Frank Rolfe, the Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast. I hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.