Tenant With Medical Problem
June 16, 2017 6:53 PM   Subscribe

We figured out what was backing up our sewer line every day (see previous post). Tenant in top floor unit has a medical problem (severe intestinal disease) that causes digestive issues and 10x/hour bathroom visits. His 'flare up' started a week ago (just when the problem started) and has not subsided. How do we handle this delicately?

We figured out what was going on today when, while we were scoping the line with the camera again, we noticed that the toilet was flushing from the upstairs unit every 5-10 minutes. A more direct conversation with the tenant uncovered the cause of the problem.

Obviously, we are concerned for the health of our tenant but cannot afford daily $150 main line cleaning (today, the plumber pulled 15 FEET of compacted toilet paper out of the line - all having accumulated in a 36 hour period). We've done 4 clean outs and two scope/camera inspections to get to this point today ($650 in cost so far).

Our lease has a clause for misuse/overuse/abuse/neglect of utilities and appliances where costs can be passed back onto the tenant. We haven't threatened that yet - this guy is obviously super sick and we don't want to seem like we're more worried about the plumbing than we are about his health.

We've asked the tenant to change their behavior... use wash cloths, placing paper in the trash, running more water. They were incredibly apologetic and embarrassed at the situation. They committed to resolving the issue immediately. They ordered a bidet device on the spot and we agreed to install it for them on Monday.

My question to the hive mind is - what do I do if this doesn't get better? My current plan is to pay for one more clean out (if it comes to that) and then to tell the tenant that we will pass all additional expenses onto them if the problem continues beyond that.

Is that too cold?
posted by shew to Human Relations (31 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
This is gross and interesting. Thanks for sharing the update - seriously! I think it would be fine to pass on the cost, but before you do that, consider if there is anything you can do to make it easier on the offending tenant. It sounds like a few things are already in place (not sending toilet paper down the toilet and getting the bidet) - maybe also encouraging extra flushing between use?
posted by Toddles at 7:03 PM on June 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

This isn't misuse or overuse of utilities, for this person. I wager he is using the toilet exactly as much as needs to. Willingness to change his behavior and order extra equipment to avoid the problem in the future are pretty conciliatory gestures on his part to address the issue. Wait to see how that works before you jump to conclusions about the need to get punitive.

Going forward, you should assume a specific percentage of loss on your rented properties. If it's not clogged pipes, it will be scratched floors or tenants who don't make rent or vacancy or some other thing. If this kind of uncertainty stresses you out, landlording might not be the right endeavor for you.
posted by scantee at 7:11 PM on June 16, 2017 [60 favorites]

I knew it was upstairs tenant but didn't have time to respond! Bidet will completely solve this problem but they should be moved to bottom floor.
posted by cda at 7:13 PM on June 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think if you have to have the line cleaned out one more time you just say "you're responsible for future costs" and stick to it. Don't be lecturey or anything, just neutrally-stated and go on about your business.

I do think that helping them in ways that benefit you both is the right route to take, and clearly they seem eager to work with you on that. The bidet is a good idea (we have one, it was easy to install) and probably kinder to distressed anatomy anyway, I kind of think it's on them to make decisions about whether they need a small wastecan with disposable bags for paper trash - and they won't know if they even need it until they get some time with the bidet - and I think it would make you the better person to just say "okay, let's see if this improves the plumbing situation in the next week or two and if it's not working out for you, please, I'd rather you let me know before we have to bring plumbers in again." I don't think you need to be a hardass about it at all, just treat it as a complication you're going to work on with them, giving them a chance to work with you, and then if they don't you can have the harder conversations.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:14 PM on June 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

second lalex - this isn't a matter of being "cold" (but yes it's incredibly cold and shortsighted to blame your outdated and fussy plumbing on the one tenant who is unlucky enough to tax it), it's a matter of law. your "overuse/abuse" clause in your lease is probably unenforceable for this; that's meant for people who overload the weight bearing rating of floors with indoor gym equipment or try to put something solid down the toilet, etc. he's using the toilet for the intended purpose, if somewhat more often than average, so your situation is different and may qualify as medical disability which must be accommodated depending on your jurisdiction. lawyer before you go charging this tenant for a dime. and have you gotten a second opinion on the condition of the plumbing? frequent flushing alone shouldn't do this if he's using a normal amount of toilet paper with each flush and that's the only thing that's reasonable to ask of him
posted by slow graffiti at 7:39 PM on June 16, 2017 [21 favorites]

Response by poster: Some additional info:

This process has taught me more about my sewer line than I ever wanted to know. Both camera inspections (two different companies) have declared the line in good working order. First inspector even described it as being 'beautiful'. No weird turns, no bellies. I have the tapes and have been watching them all day.

The line was cleaned from the toilet to the main 4 times in the last 5 days. Twice the line was scoped (48 hours apart) and observed to have 10-15' of compacted toilet paper both times. Each time, the line was cleared after the scope. I challenged the plumber each time - 'is this something we missed before'? He insists each clog was brand new.

Good suggestion on the lawyer - just sent him a note.
posted by shew at 7:52 PM on June 16, 2017

Have you considered having him switch to toilet paper designed for septic tanks? It will disintegrate almost immediately after flushing and may help alleviate the compacted TP issue. As someone on a septic tank system, this was a lesson that I had to learn the hard and expensive way.
posted by ralan at 7:57 PM on June 16, 2017 [34 favorites]

If the line is clogging up with toilet paper, it's not in good working order. As long as he's flushing stuff that is normally consider flushable (toilet paper you can buy at the store and not paper towels for example), it's up to you, the landlord, to keep the line open.
posted by Grumpy old geek at 8:20 PM on June 16, 2017 [24 favorites]

Bidet device. Your ordered one, like the Toto Washlet? They're expensive but so very awesome and cut toilet paper usage by at least something like 80% (unscientific guess based on personal experience).

Most homes don't have an electrical outlet close enough to the toilet for bidet devices to be plugged in. Plan on obtaining an electrical permit and paying $300 or so to have a new outlet installed (or do it yourself much more cheaply), not including drywall repairs.

Offer to subsidize crappy, septic-tank-friendly toilet paper?
posted by halogen at 8:24 PM on June 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

15 feet is more than 10-12 feet. And I'm reading 'compacted' to mean 15' of pipe length filled with it, not 15' of unrolled 2 ply, yes?

That's just way more than normal usage that any most modern systems (residential, not business) might be able to handle.

The bidet will make both of you happier!
posted by Vaike at 8:26 PM on June 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but I took the 10'-15' of toilet paper to mean 10'-15' of piping clogged with compacted toilet paper. If the pipe has 3in diameter, I'd estimate that takes 2-3 regular rolls of toilet paper to fill it, and using 20+ rolls of toilet paper in 2 days is not normal usage in a home.

But the tenant seems to know it and is willing to work together on this. The bidet device should cut down TP use to a more typical amount and hopefully fix the problem.
posted by ktkt at 8:28 PM on June 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

Either your person has a lifetime stack of TP and is flushing it constantly all day every day, or your sewer pipe is not angled correctly. No one person or decently sized residential apartment can make a 15ft long toilet paper clog in 48 hours. Not unless on purpose anyway.

Where do you live? Clay soil? It's not uncommon for pipes to not run downhill anymore like that if it shifts.

What you are saying is extraordinary, so it will require real hard evidence. There is no way a guy with the runs is causing 15 ft of pipe to be clogged with toilet paper, unless it is on purpose, and again, he/she has like 30 rolls on hand at all times and flushes them all. Every day. All day.
posted by sanka at 8:39 PM on June 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

Were both septic companies certified? A few months ago, my landlady's septic tank started backing up into my shower. Her plumber and the guy who installed it were certain it was an electrical problem. The actual, certified septic guys who came in next discovered that the entire sump pump had been built wrong by an amateur handyman (hence it not looking like the images we googled) and replaced it. No more backups. I think getting a bidet should be a good accommodation for your tenant's medical issue, but you might want another opinion about your sewer line.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 9:17 PM on June 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

With our old house the home inspector recommended single-ply toilet paper, as it is much less durable and will decompose faster, leading to less likelihood of clogs.
posted by nickggully at 9:39 PM on June 16, 2017

IAAP, but IANYP. I do major new construction and remodels on commercial buildings but no service work, so I'm maybe... half an expert?

It sounds like maybe a section of your sewer line is inadequately graded, flat, or backgraded. It could be that previously solids/TP were getting pushed through by shower water and sink water, but now the graywater/blackwater ratio has shifted due to your tenant's health issue and so you're seeing the 15-foot clog that is really the outcome of a backgraded pipe section.

Did you get the opinion of an actual fully-fledged licensed plumber, or did you get the opinion of a drain-cleaning technician who runs a snake and a camera and works for the plumbing company?

Also, re: previous question: If the water was actually leaking from under the toilet, I really hope that you (or your plumber) pulled the toilet and installed a new wax ring. The wax ring is the only thing making sure the stuff in the toilet goes only into the pipe and the stuff in the pipe (gases, germs) doesn't come back out. Otherwise your other tenant is living in a space where there's no actual seal between the waste pipe and the toilet, and waste can accumulate under it/leak out, sewer gases can enter the living space, etc. Not optimal.
posted by cnidaria at 9:47 PM on June 16, 2017 [27 favorites]

Definitely talk to your lawyer, and if they're not super familiar with landlord/tenant issues, you may want to talk to a landlord/tenant-specific lawyer. I'm you're getting into disability accommodation territory.
posted by radioamy at 9:47 PM on June 16, 2017

I guess what I'm trying to say is that properly installed and maintained waste piping (i.e., with sufficient grade and fittings of the correct sweep) should be able to handle frequent toilet use. If it can't, then there's a problem with the piping, not the toilet user.
posted by cnidaria at 9:50 PM on June 16, 2017 [18 favorites]

I knew it was poop! I win the internet!

I think the advice to check with a lawyer is best, and the bidet should also help. I would be surprised if you could pass 100% of the costs onto the tenant in the future.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 9:52 PM on June 16, 2017

I think I'd let things ride for now, given how embarrassed the tenant was. See if the bidet doesn't fix things. See what you hear from the lawyer. If it clogs again, maybe that's when (if ever) to give them a "we'll pay for one more and after that we'll pass the costs along" message. My point is that I think it's worth the risk of one extra $150 charge to not embarrass them again if you don't have to. Offering to cover the cost of the bidet would also be a nice touch.
posted by salvia at 10:02 PM on June 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

It may be a good idea to suggest to the tenant that the toilet should be flushed once per handful of toilet paper, not necessarily once per visit to the toilet. As mentioned, a well-designed system should handle almost any level of use - as long as the water-to-paper ratio is correct. Someone who's having problems and using a lot more paper than usual, may not realize that it's better to flush 2-3 times in a single sitting.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:39 PM on June 16, 2017 [14 favorites]

Also just, while following whatever above advice ends up relevant to solving the plumbing issues, keep in mind how incredibly humiliating and unintentionally boundary violating this situation could be for your tenant. You can see in how people are reacting, calling it gross, finding it interesting, or talking about it without taking his feelings into consideration as a part of the solution. It sucks to have your disability/illness become public knowledge in such a way, when you really have limited to no control over that happening. Of course they are embarrassed and apologetic, this has to be a nightmare for them.
posted by colorblock sock at 12:08 AM on June 17, 2017 [59 favorites]

Is there any chance that "flushable" wipes are also in the mix? My plumber days that the havoc that those cause in plumbing keep him in business. They shouldn't ever be flushed.
posted by quince at 10:18 AM on June 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

Google "fatberg" for the impact of flushable wipes on municipal sewer systems
posted by theorique at 12:10 PM on June 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Good call on the bidet; this person's backside is probably already raw from the mixture of moisture and wiping over the long term. I'm sure we've all been there. That's going to help a lot to keep it all liquid.

Multiple flushes during a sitting, as above, are an excellent addition as well.

And, in the spirit of disarming your mutual embarrassment with the tenant, maybe a get-well giftbag. Difficult to say what goes in there, besides the obvious copy of "Everybody Poops". You could go with the washable wiping glove and some pedialyte, maybe inflatable donut cushion, but giving medical stuff is potentially humiliating and not quite right for the landlord-tenant relationship, but then again people sometimes bond over mutual embarrassment. Gift card to the local drugstore might keep it simple. Reading material is good if you know what they read. A card acknowledging with a note that acknowledges both your own embarrassment at having to bring up the issue, your confidentiality, and your wishes for the tenant's health.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:52 PM on June 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm on the tenant's side here - a properly functioning plumbing system should be able to handle (toilet use, flush, waste goes to sewer, ready for re-use immediately) essentially unlimited times without degraded performance. (Water bill is another thing)

Either he's putting something in there he shouldn't - and you didn't find anything unusual while scoping - or it's your plumbing system's fault. It sounds like he's being nice about working with you (and the situation) without finger-pointing, but charging him for repairs would be wrong.
posted by ctmf at 1:57 PM on June 17, 2017 [8 favorites]

(Assuming your tenant is flushing any prohibited materials - or like, entire rolls of toilet paper in a single flush,) you are currently not meeting your obligation as a landlord to provide your tenant a habitable living space. If I was your tenant I would be withholding rent until you fixed the problem.

Just because one contractor says your plumbing is fine doesn't mean that it is. Get someone else to look at it. If you can't afford to do this you can't afford to be a landlord.
posted by mikek at 7:12 PM on June 17, 2017

I second the Toto Washlet. But's small and he will have to constantly refill. You need to drastically reduce toilet paper use - which I daresay is probably good for the gentlemen in concern as well. (10 x/hr - think about him).

In India where they don't use toilet paper as the mainstay of sanitary cleaning - it's all water based - bathrooms have these mini hand-showers (affectionately called bum sprays) . It connects to a tap that is always installed next to the WC. In the US it could attach to the main that feeds the flushing tank, the hardware is fairly inexpensive here is an example . He could dry off with a washcloth or paper - that much your pipes could probably handle, or that paper could easily go into a trash bin - but clean with water. Esp if this is going to be a prolonged condition. Offer to install it, maybe even split the cost. (Kick it to his health insurance - just for fun)

Unless you can say that what is happening to your pipes would be happening anywhere, and even then, it seems unfair to punish someone for a health problem they have unwittingly contracted.
posted by whatdoyouthink? at 8:43 PM on June 17, 2017

Hi. Family member in a household where someone has bowel disease here! I suspect that your local disability or human rights code or other legislation protects this person's reasonable need for accommodation. However, in our household, we have discovered a few things.

1. Wipes are not flushable.
2. Flushable wipes are not flushable.
3. It helps to flush the toilet throughout use, like after each handful of toilet paper, rather than all at the end.
4. Some toilet papers break down faster and better than others.
5. Septic toilet paper can help

I don't know much about bidets, but that sounds helpful. I suspect whatever is blocking things is toilet paper, since severe bowel disease does not usually go along with any matter that is solid.

Anyway, we've found that the above steps really help. Also, if you ask them to use wash cloths, you are asking them to take on a huge amount of laundry, risking that these will accidentally be flushed, and putting them in a situation you do not request of other tenants, which is discriminatory, based on what I know, anyway.

Good luck!
posted by shockpoppet at 6:58 PM on June 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

I am a landlord. It's really your job to accommodate your tenant, not the other way around. Much as it sucks to have to pay that cost, it really is part of the cost of doing business. You can put this on your Schedule E.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 12:40 PM on June 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

YOUR POOR TENANT. How physically miserable for him.
After recently enduring similar sewer line mysteries, I will share the advice of my fantastic plumber: no more Charmin Ultra Strong. It doesn't disintegrate easily when wet and is fabricated more like a wipe than toilet paper.
Made the switch to Angel Soft Mega Rolls (again, plumber's recommendation) and been surprisingly happy. (We are picky about toilet paper and this checks the boxes of comfort, strength and low-to-no lint.)
Perhaps your tenant was using an ultra plush paper, particularly if he's been in raw distress for a bit.
Best of luck. I used to be a landlord and well recall that it's a tough job in diplomacy at times.
posted by younggreenanne at 9:19 AM on June 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

What kind of toilet paper is he using? With my old apartments that clogged a few times I switched to Scott single ply and never looked back. I actually hate thicker toilet paper now.
posted by christiehawk at 9:55 AM on June 22, 2017

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