The Backflow Conundrum
Julius Ballanco, PE
I received a fax the other day about a project that was completed four years ago. The fax said that the backflow preventer had failed and needed to be replaced. Not surprisingly, the fax was from an attorney. Of course, the attorney wanted someone to pay, and pay dearly.
I came unglued as I read the fax. Another idiot attorney sticking his nose into an area of plumbing about which he doesn't have a clue.
Attorneys always hire someone to provide them with advice. You would think that when the concern revolves around a backflow preventer, one would hire someone that is an expert in backflow protection. If not, any plumbing contractor could help out. After all, every plumbing contractor is an expert in backflow protection.
No, this attorney hired a contractor not at all related to plumbing. It would appear the contractor has no knowledge in backflow protection.
The backflow preventer was a 4-inch, reduced-pressure principle backflow preventer on the main supply line to the building. The supply line went to a system that introduced chemicals into the system. Hence, the only acceptable backflow preventer is a reduced-pressure principle backflow preventer.
My first thought was, “Why is an attorney contacting me?” Normally, if there is a problem with a backflow preventer, you call a plumbing contractor or a certified backflow tester. In today's society, the first phone call is all too often to an attorney. The first question to the attorney is, “Who's going to pay?”
Legal Eagle EyeSo the attorney went along his way, running up high bills, while investigating what was supposed to be installed. He traced the letters between the water utility and the engineer. As it turns out, in this particular jurisdiction the water utility typically installs a double backflow preventer on all water supplies to commercial buildings. The engineer wrote to the water utility, “Please don't; we need a reduced-pressure principle backflow preventer on the line, and the contractor will install it. No need for two backflow preventers.”
The water utility agreed and sent a letter, “Knock yourself out; you provide the backflow preventer.” The engineer specified a reputable reduced-pressure principle backflow preventer.
You may have already figured out what happened next. The location of this building is near the end of the city water main. The street pressure bounces all around. During periods of nonuse, if there is a change in city pressure of more than 2 psi, the relief port of a reduced-pressure principle backflow preventer opens up and dumps water. If the pressure constantly fluctuates, the dumping gets into a cycle.
Because this cycle of opening and dumping by the backflow preventer was possible, it was suggested that a spring-loaded check valve be installed in front of the backflow preventer. The check valve merely tricks the backflow preventer by making it think the city pressure is constant during periods of nonuse. The problem is, the check valve costs money, so, no, it was not installed. After all, it was only a recommendation.
The building owner could drag the attorney into the mechanical equipment room that housed the backflow preventer and show him how it constantly cycles. “Look at the water coming out. Now wait a minute and it will do it again. See, they installed a defective valve.”
I quickly composed a letter to the attorney. I wanted to start off by saying, “Dear Idiot Attorney,” but I thought better of the situation and decided to kill him with kindness.
I went into a dissertation about the quality of the reduced-pressure principle backflow preventer. Then I explained that no reduced-pressure principle backflow preventer needs to be replaced in four years. The beauty of a 4-inch, reduced-pressure principle backflow preventer is that it can be stripped clean and completely rebuilt right there in the field.
This occurred in a state that requires certified backflow testers - who must be licensed plumbers first - to repair any backflow preventer. I suggested that they find a certified backflow tester to test the reduced-pressure principle backflow preventer and make whatever repairs may be necessary, if there even was a problem.
I also indicated that the valve was required by the state to be tested and certified on an annual basis. It was obvious that the backflow preventer had never been tested.
I then went on to politely explain that he hired an idiot. He would have been better served to speak to someone in the plumbing profession. If they followed the law and had the valve tested annually, they might know what they were talking about.
You would think that it would end there. All of you know that a 4-year-old valve can easily be repaired if there is a problem. Hire the right professional and get the job done correctly.
Two weeks later, another fax arrived. The same attorney invited me and a hundred other people to come to the building to witness the failure of the reduced-pressure principle backflow preventer. It also stated that they had made up their minds, the valve was bad and needed to be replaced. But, come and visit, because this backflow-savvy attorney was going to prove to everyone that he knew how to determine when backflow preventers go bad. I'm sure he wanted to show the world that the valve dumps water. If it dumps water it must be bad and needs replacing, right?
I didn't go. There is only so much incompetence that I can handle. Guess what, a perfectly good reduced-pressure principle backflow preventer was removed and a new one installed. A better one, of course, according to Mr. Attorney. Now the attorney keeps asking, “Who's going to pay?”