Sometime ago, Tres English, friend of NSN and very active in neighborhood support in Tucson, wrote about the impending repair bills for residents in the older parts of Tucson as infrastructure for plumbing and other things begin to fail. I have been dealing with just that in preparing for a small addition to my "little red brick American Homes" duplex in Toumey Park.
To add air conditioning to my duplex requires upgrading the electric service. It is currently 100 amps to one apartment and 50 amps to the other, being upgraded to 200 amps to each. Electricians have told me that my current electrical system is overloaded and not safe (another topic about its safety is below). In addition the meters are located under what TEP considers a patio roof. This requires relocation of the electric drop, meters and load centers, and much rewiring. For this duplex to be habitable for the extended future for me or a future owner, this upgrade and moving the electric service is necessary and unavoidable whether an addition is made or not. The air conditioning being installed is rated 14 SEER. It will be used during those periods during our monsoons when evaporative cooling cannot maintain comfort.
The decision on plumbing repair was also made by the outdated cast iron waste lines. The laundry drain line was completely rotted away and others were possibly in very bad condition. Inspection with a camera in the lines showed rust and corrosion. This necessitated digging up the slab in the utility room to inspect and repair the lines as well as provide for connection to the new bath in the addition. In the same manner as the electrical, some repair of the waste water plumbing was indicated and unavoidable even without the changes to be made for the addition. When we exposed the old pipes, we found corrosion as expected and discovered that the waste line from the kitchen was nearly blocked.
The very difficult part of all this is finding reputable contractors and being sure that you are getting value for what you are spending. One electrical contractor bid $11,000 for the electric upgrade. Another bid $9300. A recommended and reputable licensed contractor I was able to find through "Craigslist" got the cost down to $4200 plus some parts that I needed to order.
Plumbing bids began at $3800 at the high side (not including the water line replacement discussed below). I paid $600 to replace old waste water pipes and "stub out" the waste water for the new addition.. Fortunately I found a very knowledgeable certified master plumber who believes in reasonable prices, and who also provided a lot of advice and guidance. In an example of rising costs, one plumbing contractor bidding my repair project had replaced my leaking water line 3 years ago for $750. Their rep told me if they were asked to quote the water line today, they would quote $2500-$3000. Is this greed? Or is this market pricing? Guess where my opinion lies. A means to possibly change this is discussed below.
In the process of getting my building permit, I was required to change my 3/4" water supply line from the water meter to a 1" line. The change is dictated by the number of "fixture units" in the total house or apartment by the current UPC codes for residential plumbing. The valve in the water meter is a 5/8" valve. You could have Hoover Dam on the other side of that meter and 5/8" hole, and no more water would pass through it with a 1" water line versus a 3/4" water line, but "it's the code." It makes one wonder if the people who write the codes had basic physics in high school or college. I suspect that an upgrade to a 1" water meter should also be required, but I don't want to ask that question. Some cities already require a 1" water meter and 1-1/4" supply line for all residences.
Because there was no urgency in replacing the water line, I hired a laborer to dig the trench to find the old water line. In the process we found the water line and gas line to the other apartment in the duplex, with which "blue staking" does not help as the meters are all in the easement at the back of the property. It is good to know where these lines are for the future, and the information can be added to the site plan for the property for future owners. I am capable of replacing the water line myself. Between the digging labor and DIY, the cost of replacing this line is drastically reduced.
All in all, the electrical, plumbing and mechanical upgrades to my property represent about 3/4 of the cost of making the addition to the duplex. My ex-wife, who is my co-investor in this property, questioned whether we should not just sell it and buy another property with fewer problems. But I live here, and I really like this old house and neighborhood and my park and mountain views.
During the process of replacing the water line, I learned something rather scary and unsafe. The copper section of the water line was wrapped in a plastic sleeve. The remaining section was PEX, an extremely durable polyethylene pipe. My duplex's ground for the electrical systems was compromised. I told the plumbing contractor who had done this work 3 years ago, and they did not believe that the plastic sleeve on the pipe would prevent grounding. However electricians do not agree as it is the same as insulating a wire. There is supposed to be a minimum ten feet of copper or other _meta_l pipe in the water pipe from the inlet outward. Even then, dry soil does not make a good ground connection. The building now has a UFER ground which is effected by grounding the ground wire to the rebar in the new slab for the addition; this is said to be 1000 times more effective than grounding to plumbing or a ground rod.
I am able to add a grey water system to reuse shower and laundry water for very little cost in the process of my project. I do have some reservations about the City's new ordinance in this area, but I am putting in my system for my own reasons and satisfaction in any case. One major reservation is that there is not readily available "how to" information on this subject in what I would consider professional form. I have asked City sources and plumbers, and did not have much success in finding information until City Council Member Glassman intervened. Some vendors of grey water plumbing devices are considerably over-pricing them. In fact no unusual devices are required. My personal opinion is that while this conservation measure is very good for the future of a desert city with a limited water supply, we're not prepared for it. We are much more prepared for other green things such as solar power, solar hot water and rainwater conservation. Grey water has the potential of being another "ripoff" area for homeowners who lack the knowledge to know what is needed.
My grey water system is simple. There will be two laundry drains: one to the sewer when bleach or other things are added to the wash making the waste water unsuitable for use on plants, and another to the grey water system for the majority of uses. The drain hose just needs to be moved as needed. A shower drains directly to the grey water system. I have a reservation about water reuse from tubs and showers because there is some fecal contamination, however the water will be quite diluted and will be quickly exposed to the sun when used. If a future owner doesn't want to deal with grey water, and giving the option to switch as desired, I am including a connection to the sewer waste water system using a valve (a common swimming pool part) so the change can be made in the future on the shower waste line if desired.
My grey water will go to a small underground tank where there will be a sump pump which lifts the water to a 55-gallon opaque plastic barrel; opaque to prevent sunlight from encouraging algae. To be really "green," one could use a solar-powered sump pump with backup batteries. The barrel has a tap for a hose so the water can be directed to outside plantings.
Arizona regulations prohibit grey water use on gardens and trees from which people will eat fruits and vegetables, with the exception of citrus, however this compliance is voluntary. Grey water systems can be very elaborate. There are guidelines to follow, available from Arizona Dept. of Environmental Quality, but no codes or requirements, other than the City of Tucson requirement to provide for it in new construction beginning June 2010. At present it is very much an owner-designed venture. The other more important regulations are that water from toilets and kitchen sinks cannot be used. Bathroom sinks, tubs, showers, and laundry sources are allowed. Rainwater and grey water should not be mixed as the clean rainwater then becomes grey water and the combination must be treated as such.
For some folks, reusing laundry water can be as simple as adding a drain through the wall. You can't just lay the drain hose from the washer on the ground as the water can drain out of the washing machine unless the drain hose is elevated at least as high as the top of the tub in the washer. Where there is enough elevation between a house and yard, draining grey water to an underground tank would not be necessary, and water could be directed directly to outdoor plantings.
Fighting Greed in Services to Homeowners
So how do we solve the problem of over-priced services? I will use the example of a leaking or broken water line. While such a situation causes us much distress, and for some people panic, all of us have some means of taking the time necessary to find a good low-cost solution. Stay with friends for a day or two while the water is off. If the pipe is only leaking a little as was my case, and is true in most cases, let it leak until you find the solution you can afford. We need to educate neighbors, and then we won't have contractors charging $130/hour and more when they are paying the personnel they send out $20 an hour. The worst solution to the broken water line problem is calling the first 24-hour plumbing service one can find available. When my water line needed replacement 3 years ago, I got bids from $750 to $3600 from licensed contractors. The one which bid $750 was allegedly a reputable contractor, so I chose them. However, today I am spending about $300 to do the same work with hired labor for digging and me doing the plumbing. I am certain that another homeowner who doesn't want or is unable to do plumbing can find labor to dig a trench and a plumber for 2-3 hours work at reasonable rates and save quite literally thousands of dollars versus what contractors are quoting. Particularly people need to discover online source such as Craigslist and others where services are offered.
The reaction to a leaking natural gas line is more dramatic, and when discovered the gas must be turned off at the meter. It is still possible to find means to do without gas if the difference in time means spending many hundreds or thousands of dollars more for a quickly found solution versus one given more time and thought to find alternatives for affordable repair.
Of course one needs to be careful and investigate people with whom one does business, but that is necessary in all cases. Don't choose a firm just because it is big and has been in business for a long time. Check licenses with the Registrar of Contractors, check the Better Business Bureau, and review any complaints in those sources. Get opinions from others and from professionals in the building trade if possible.