Many New York City homeowners are often surprised by the amount of work it takes to update their plumbing, as they are likely unaware of the state of their building’s infrastructure and the changes needed to realize the vision for their home. The complexity of replacing or repairing aging systems in the close quarters of an NYC apartment often makes plumbing upgrades one of the more expensive line items of a major project.
Just because plumbing is “below the surface” doesn’t mean that the budget required to upgrade plumbing infrastructure must be hidden as well—the total cost should be transparent when working with a skilled design-build firm. “Our process and proprietary technology also eliminate the potential for unpleasant surprises during your renovation,” says Fraser Patterson, Founder and CEO of Bolster.
After consultations, site visits, detailed sketches, and in-house risk assessments, Bolster provides a cost estimate that outlines your entire project, no matter how complex. “And beyond quantifying the potential risk of every project, we guarantee to absorb this risk on behalf of the homeowner, should we experience any unforeseen setbacks or delays. It’s a pretty radical way of doing business, says Fraser.”
Much of the expense of updating plumbing stems from the level of training required to qualify to do the work and know the city’s regulations inside and out.
“The city is strict with who it issues licenses to for plumbing work,” says Bolster Architect Agustin Ayuso. “It usually means working in a constrained environment, and you need skilled people who know how to use the right materials, and how to apply the correct methodology.”
Read on for a breakdown of what exactly goes into updating plumbing systems.
In the wake of accidents like the 2015 gas explosion in the East Village, the city is regulating work on gas piping more strictly than ever. How this might affect your renovation depends on the scope of the work being done.
If you’re simply replacing gas fixtures, there is very little complexity involved, Agustin says—it’s just a matter of swapping a fixture with a new one. Relocating gas appliances like stoves to new locations, however, is more complicated than a simple cosmetic change.
“That brings up issues of testing pipes to make sure they’re adequately sealed, that there’s adequate pressure in the outlet, and the pipe is properly closed,” Agustin says.
If your plumber’s test of these pipes fails, you’ll have to replace them. But a potentially costlier situation is if your gas valves need to be relocated, which some homeowners need to do to accommodate new appliances.
In this case, the gas risers—which serve entire buildings—must be tested for pressure.
“If the riser fails, then the homeowner is more likely to lose gas altogether, and replacing or fixing the riser requires access to other parts of the building,” Agustin says. “It can be difficult to gain the access you need to make repairs.”
The city updated its plumbing code in 2014, and one of its more significant regulations ensures that apartments undergoing renovations are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many homeowners are unaware of the laws regarding accessibility that can arise during major renovations.
“There is a multitude of requirements for complying,” Agustin says. Specifically, homeowners relocating bathroom fixtures must follow ADA size requirements, which might require them to expand their bathrooms if they are installing larger sinks or bathtubs.
The plumbing code can also present potential challenges when testing gas piping. Your plumber may find that your pipes are working and have no leaks, but the code requires a second test to check that pipes can function at a level above working pressure.
“If this fails, there’s no way around the issue but to fix or replace the piping,” Agustin says.
Branch piping brings water and gas from the risers to your apartment’s fixtures, and it’s also where most leaks tend to happen, particularly in older buildings.
“A lot of buildings require that it be replaced,” Agustin says. “If you’re gutting your bathroom, buildings may tell you that you also need to upgrade the piping inside your walls. It’s their opportunity to upgrade the internal infrastructure, adding equity to the building overall.”
Working in tandem with your architect, you should account for this upgrade when you’re budgeting for your project, as replacing the branch piping requires opening your walls and increasing the cost.
Risers and stacks
In building plumbing, risers control the flow of clean hot and cold water, while stacks are the sanitary system, with one carrying waste and another serving as a vent that allows for the flow of air.
Some new green buildings have gray water systems, which add another level of complexity by collecting runoff water from lavatories, processing it, and returning it to the plumbing system to be used in flushing toilets. In these buildings, there are additional waste and supply risers and stacks, and doing any kind of updates requires a plumber who understands these systems well.
Most co-ops and condos don’t allow risers to be relocated, however, because of the risk of a missed connection or a drop in water pressure that could affect the whole building.
“When it comes to supply water and waste, some testing is required, but it’s not as rigorous as gas testing,” Agustin says. “The systems are designed for efficiency and run straight for most of the building. If one apartment offsets a riser or stack, it probably won’t affect the building, but if you allow everyone to do this, you start seeing drops in pressure, which is harder to manage.”
Wet over dry regulations
Wet over dry regulations concern the placement of wet rooms—like bathrooms and kitchens—over dry ones—like bedrooms and living rooms—in the apartment below yours. Similar rules also concern placing noisier items, like toilets, dishwashers, and tubs over quiet areas.
“Wet areas tend to leak, and you can develop problems over beds and couches and where families eat dinner. And wet areas have hard flooring that transmit noise that you don’t want over people’s bedrooms,” Agustin says. “Buildings tend to have strict rules about it.”
This is likely to impact your renovation plans if you intend to relocate or expand wet areas. And while some buildings might allow you to move plumbing around, you should take into consideration whether doing so will allow your fixtures and appliances enough pitch to function properly.
“The piping under your kitchen sink needs to have enough elevation down to get back to the stack,” Agustin points out. “It’s another thing to check on before you get too comfortable with relocating plumbing.”
“While plumbing upgrades might sound like a daunting task on paper, our team is well-equipped to manage the entire process, from design and compliance, all the way through the final build,” says Fraser.
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