Multimedia, Property Management

How to Navigate Frozen Pipes – Video Extra

In this video, Landlord Gurus founders Eli Secor and Chris Lee discuss frozen pipes. Eli talks about his experience with a bursted pipe in one of his rentals and some lessons he learned.

Topics in this video include:

  • Eli’s experience with burst pipes [0:41]
  • Lessons learned [3:11]
  • Cleanup after a burst pipe [7:26]
  • Takeaways [12:33]


Chris Lee: Hi there. We are Landlord Gurus and we’ve got another video coming to you today. So today we are going to talk about one of the issues and one of the types of phone calls that landlords probably dread the most, and that would be flooding or water intrusion. 

Eli’s just gone through this. We had a, in Seattle here, a pretty cold spell, a fairly unusual cold spell, a while back. And Eli had some pipes burst in one of his units, and it was happening all over the city, actually. There were people whose pipes were bursting left and right, so, you know, I’ll just turn it over to Eli and let him tell his story and some of the trials and tribulations and lessons learned.

Eli Secor: Yeah, it’s a very sad story, but I’ll try to keep it brief. Uh, not really, but it was a big hassle. So this was MLK weekend, about a month and a half ago. And I was skiing. I was down in Bend, Oregon, so about seven hours away. And going up the lift, the first run of the day, and my phone started exploding in my pocket.

I get lots of spam, so I usually don’t answer the phone, but I knew by the time I got to the top of the lift that something was going on because I’d had four back-to-back calls or so. I called back one of my tenants and it turned out that in the attic on the third floor of one of the apartment buildings, this is a small building of 10 units that I manage, a pipe had frozen and then what’s typical is when it starts to thaw, it starts to warm up, then the hole opens up. So it’s a split in the copper pipe and water was pouring in through all the light fixtures in the ceiling. This is the very attic in the top floor. And they’ve got buckets and they’re emptying them. And in the meantime, they’ve called, you know, smartly, they’ve called the fire department. 

I get another call from the person in the basement level three floors below. It’s all flood coming in through his fixtures, all over the place. So, long story short, it flooded the upper apartment, the office below, and then two basement units. It kind of spread out as it went down. It sounded like it was pretty dramatic. 

I spent the day on the phone, you know, getting things dealt with, getting people out to deal with it. The fire department had a long list of people ahead of us, but they did get around within about 40 minutes to turn the water off. So, they were busy that day, but they came through.

CL: So these pipes were inside the building, I understand, which to me, is unusual for what we get here in Seattle where it doesn’t get all that cold for too long, but you know, here, we’re told to insulate your pipes that are outside and put the covers over your faucets and disconnect your hoses.

But nobody really talks much about interior pipes other than, if you’ve got something under the sink, that’s an exterior wall, maybe you open up your cabinet doors to let the heat through. Something like this, where it’s inside the building, is unusual for here. You don’t hear about that very often.

ES: And it was even in insulated space. So, it’s a narrow attic where they’d blown in insulation and it wasn’t very good insulation. There wasn’t enough of it, and it just got really cold.

CL: Yeah, it speaks to how cold it was here.

ES: Yeah. So I learned several lessons, which I’ll share with you, through this whole thing.

So first of all, and this goes for the entire prospect of managing rental property, is to have a handy person that you trust who is really proactive and will work with you. I’m very lucky to have somebody like that and they were out the next morning to repair the pipe and get water restored.

I was very fortunate. Lots of people were waiting around the city, waiting on plumbers for even weeks. 

CL: So, it was the water off in the entire building?

ES: The entire building, yeah. So nobody had any water and that lasted overnight. People can use bottled water and that type of thing for that long. But you got to have water or else you need to relocate people. 

Next lesson, and I’ve learned this a couple of times, I’ve actually had gas leaks in the building. So, the first thing to do is to call the authorities. It is the quickest way to make sure that water, electrical, gas, any issues like that or where there’s danger to your tenants, or catastrophic danger to your property, that those things get taken care of.

CL: Call the authorities, meaning like the utility companies themselves? 

ES: We called both the fire department and the water district. And it happened to be the fire department that got out the fist. All those departments are very proactive about taking care of these types of issues because that’s their job and they need to keep people safe.

Next point is, insulation is good. And that goes for a lot of reasons. It saves energy, and better insulation would have avoided this. I’ll come back to that. Insulation plays a big role in this story. 

And very importantly, require renters insurance. There are a whole host of reasons to do this, but in a case like this, it will cover your tenants’ loss of use where they can’t be in the space during that time. So they’ll pay for alternative lodging. And I did have 1 tenant that I needed to have out of the space because it was so heavily impacted.

It’ll also pay for kind of incidental expenses, additional costs for food, and going to a laundromat, all those types of things. 

Lastly, and it’s not the issue in this incident, but liability insurance. So another building that I know of, somebody was smoking, illegally, not allowed, but on a deck at a unit, but put a butt out into a garbage can and it started to fire. There’s damage to a bunch of the units. Their liability insurance covered that. So even if those tenants don’t have renters insurance, you don’t have a lot of recourse most of the time to try to recoup that. So, that’s a big one. 

CL: Yeah, that’s huge. And that’s something that, I know in a lot of leases, it’s written in that requires the tenants to have rental insurance, but I don’t know that everybody always checks that. Or I know that in some cases I’m not super stringent about that.

ES: Well, and it’s getting easier and easier. Lots of the property management software companies that we deal with, there are affiliate partners and I use, we use personally, I’m using both Avail and TurboTenant and it’s very easy through either of those to just purchase for the tenants to purchase. The renter’s insurance is right there and the certificate sends right to you. So there’s no reason not to do it. 

We have other partners that are outside, that do renters insurance separately, so there are lots of options out there and tenants can just call their insurance companies. It’s cheaper. 

And then, last on my list of lessons is to deal quickly, compassionately, with your tenants. Offer help, even if it’s not financial. I did put up a couple of tenants, for a couple of days each, just out of goodwill. You’re not required to do that, but, you know, this is the type of thing where you want to maintain good relationships. And while it wasn’t my fault, I am in the business of providing housing. And, I want to be generous and helpful when I can. 

CL: Yeah, no, that’s a good point. I mean, it is devastating to them. It impacts both of you, obviously, but, it’s their housing. It’s where they live. It’s where their stuff is. That’s very disruptive. 

ES: Very disruptive. And that was the first thing that people were concerned about. It’s like, I don’t want disruption. Unfortunately, we had some. 

I had some lessons on cleanup. So first thing you have to mop up the water. A shop vac is good to have around just to get the bulk of it up. And then immediately set up fans and dehumidifiers. You can rent all this stuff.

I actually over the years have accumulated a couple of each and I got them into the space immediately and it makes a huge difference in terms of drying out materials, drying out space. So that’s really imperative. A good moisture meter is a good thing to have around, where you can tell what the moisture level in drywall is.

Some of them will read through the drywall. Some of them have little probes or both. So I had one and it was good to have. And then the big lesson is just to bite the bullet and get things dry. I was very nervous about mold and the impact that it could possibly have on my tenants.

internal link Also Read: Mildew and Mold in Rental Properties: Video Extra

In doing so, I called a whole bunch of remediation companies thinking I’ve got to get the right people out to do this job. In hindsight, what I really needed to do was to get everything that was wet out and then, if there was any doubt about whether or not it was going to dry quickly, I needed to get the materials out.

So cutting any drywall away, anything where there’s insulation, you really just have to get it out of there because it’ll hold the water and it will create mold and rot over time.

CL: And that includes carpet as well. If you have carpet in your units, right? 

ES: Yeah. Often you can set up a floor fan underneath carpet to blow underneath so that it dries out. I’ve done that before in basement units where there was a flood. I now have moved towards using tile and in places like that just because it’s much easier to clean up. 

I didn’t think about it enough, but mold takes time to develop. So if things get wet right now, mold takes at least a couple of days to start developing. So if I get everything dry, immediately, then that’s really not an issue. Of course, always err on the safe side where there could be issues of mold because when you have your tenants living there, that can be a big health issue.

So always take precautions, bring in experts if it all in doubt. But mold doesn’t happen immediately. It takes time. It needs heat, food, which is wood or drywall, and moisture. And it can’t live without those things. So if you get all the wet out and you get everything drying fans and dehumidifiers, then you’ve headed it off.

CL: So when you’re saying is it took you a few days to try and evaluate your options. And what you’re saying is maybe instead of taking that time, to just act immediately.

ES: That’s what I’d do. Yeah. And that did take me at least about a week, I think, to get a remediation company in there. And I was lucky. People were waiting weeks, and I got an opening. That was lucky. But that was a week or a little bit more before anybody got in there. By that time, mold had developed behind baseboards, you know, that type of thing, anywhere water’s trapped.

CL: Yeah. Got. So don’t delay. If they come back and say it’s going to be a week before we can get out, you got to take matters into your own hands. 

ES: Caveat just being if in doubt, if you can’t tell whether things are safe, I believe that, you have to have somebody who will really vouch for and be responsible for things being done correctly.

But yeah, if I had to do it again, personally, I’ve got good resources in terms of handy people. I know people who are plumbers and insulators and drywallers, so I would just get it done. So having used a remediation company, I have some thoughts about that. The company I worked with was great, but essentially it was a demolition company.

They came in, they did have a very high quality moisture meter, so they were able to see everything that was wet ahead of time, but then they cut the drywall out, and they pulled the insulation out where it was wet, and they set up fans and dehumidifiers. It’s really that simple, in this case, it was at least.

If there is mold, they can treat it. And that’s also not really complicated to do, but, I don’t think I’m qualified to give you authoritative advice on that. In some cases, a bleach solution is enough, but, if it’s there, you may need an expert.

They will also in theory contain the spaces where there could be mold so the spores don’t spread. In practice, it seemed like masking off areas, hanging plastic, covering things, cutting things away, taking out insulation and fans and dehumidifiers. That’s what they did.

They don’t do reconstruction or this company didn’t do reconstruction. So I had my handy person come in and re-insulate, drywall, paint. I wouldn’t want the remediation company to do that because they’re 100 plus dollars an hour versus, you know, 50 or that, you know, even that’s a lot, but they’re much more expensive.

CL: Right. Got it. Okay. So they come in, they do their thing, but then they leave you with big holes in the walls.

ES: Pretty much. So, some takeaways, most of which I’ve mentioned, take preventative action. I also had a pipe burst in a laundry room that’s not conditioned a couple years ago.

So, insulate your pipes no matter where they are. Cover the hose bibs, make sure that to the extent that you can, that you know where the plumbing is and that it’s insulated. Don’t let mold develop. Get on it, and make sure it doesn’t have an opportunity to get growing.

CL: Sorry, going back to the insulating pipes, you’re talking about some of the stuff that you can just get in home improvement stores, like the kind of sleeves you can put over your pipes. Those foam things, the hose bib covers you can get everywhere, put those on. 

ES: Yeah. The pipe insulation where it’s a sleeve, that’s more applicable in a space where it’s not conditioned. And in this case, what I did is to make sure that there’s more insulation, which insulates the space, but it’s bedded in it.

So this is not an area where I would go, put the pipe insulation directly on. I would just make sure the area that is in it.

Yeah, get things dry. Don’t give mold time to develop and don’t take any chances with your tenants where mold could develop. Fet them out if you have to, get experts if you have to, and play it safe. 

CL: All good points. Well, yeah, that sounds like, quite a nightmare of events, but, it sounds like you’re able to learn some things and, and it sounds like everyone’s back in their units and your units are all buttoned back up.

ES: Pretty well, still a few more things. Trim, paint, that type of thing, you know, a month later. But, it’s all fine. Everybody’s back in. 

CL: Quite the experience for us Northwesterners where it doesn’t freeze that much. Although, you know, who knows, maybe it will become like this in more and more years.

But yeah, I’m sure you Midwesterners out there probably deal with this all the time and are experts at it.

ES: Send us your tips in the comments here.

CL: Exactly. Please do. And, yeah, please like and subscribe to the video down below. Check out our channel on YouTube and, we’ll see you again next time. 

ES: Come back and see us. Thanks.

CL: Thanks, everyone

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Here at Landlord Gurus, our commitment is to provide expert advice on the complex and important issues faced by landlords and property managers. Together we have over 30 years of experience in residential property ownership and management. In addition to sharing our own expertise and experiences, we call on specialists in fields including maintenance, law, tenant management, and more. Where we see topics that require more in-depth discussion, we create insightful articles that provide valuable information and guidance.
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