Introduction to Plumbing Systems in NYC Buildings


Plumbing systems ensure the smooth operation of essential functions, from providing clean drinking water to disposing of waste. In this guide, we’ll delve into the three main plumbing systems in NYC buildings:

  • Potable water systems
  • Sanitary systems
  • Stormwater systems


By understanding these systems, building owners and managers can ensure their properties remain functional and compliant with local regulations.


In each section, we will provide an overview of the definition and purpose of the systems, explain their components and functions, call out some highlights from the NYC code, and share common issues and solutions faced in relation to the plumbing system.

Cartoon of NYC water systems including potable, sanitary, and stormwater systems

Potable Water Systems


Definition and Purpose


What is a Potable Water System? The term “potable” is derived from the Latin word “potabilis,” which means drinkable. A potable water system, therefore, refers to the infrastructure that delivers clean, safe drinking water to the taps of homes, businesses, and other establishments. In the context of NYC buildings, this system ensures that water is free from contaminants, making it safe for consumption and everyday use.


Purpose of the Potable Water System: The primary purpose of the potable water system is to provide a continuous supply of clean water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and other domestic purposes. Given the dense population and the vast number of commercial establishments in NYC, having a reliable potable water system is crucial. It not only supports the daily needs of residents and businesses but also plays a pivotal role in ensuring public health.

Cartoon image of the NYC potable plumbing systems

Components and Functions


Water Supply Lines: The lifeline of any potable water system, water supply lines are responsible for transporting water from the city’s main supply to individual buildings. These lines are typically made of durable materials like copper to ensure longevity and prevent contamination.


Water Heaters: Water heaters are essential components that provide hot water for various purposes, from showers to dishwashing. They can be tankless or come with storage tanks, and they function by heating cold water using electricity, gas, or other energy sources.


Fixtures: Fixtures refer to the end-points where water is accessed, such as faucets, showers, and drinking fountains. They are equipped with valves that regulate the flow of water and are designed to prevent backflow, ensuring that used water doesn’t contaminate the clean supply.


Pressure Regulating Devices: Given the height of many NYC buildings, pressure regulating devices are crucial. They ensure that water reaches upper floors with adequate pressure and prevent potential damage to pipes and fixtures caused by excessive pressure.


Key Highlights from NYC Codes


Water Quality Standards: NYC has stringent water quality standards that potable water systems must adhere to. Regular testing is mandated to ensure that water is free from harmful contaminants like lead, bacteria, and other pollutants.


Backflow Prevention: The NYC plumbing code mandates the installation of backflow prevention devices in potable water systems. These devices prevent contaminated water from flowing back into the clean water supply, ensuring the safety of the water.


Material Specifications: The code also specifies the types of materials that can be used for different components of the potable water system. For instance, lead pipes are prohibited due to the health risks associated with lead contamination.


Periodic Inspections: Buildings in NYC are required to undergo periodic inspections of their potable water systems. This ensures that the system is functioning correctly and meets the city’s safety and health standards.


Common Issues and Solutions


Leaky Fixtures: One of the most common issues with potable water systems is leaky fixtures. Over time, faucets, showers, and other fixtures can develop leaks, leading to water wastage and increased bills.

  • Solution: Regularly inspect fixtures for signs of wear and tear. Replace worn-out washers, seals, and other components as needed.


Discolored Water: Occasionally, residents might notice discolored water coming from their taps. This can be due to rust in old pipes or disturbances in the main water supply.

  • Solution: If the discoloration persists, it’s essential to consult with a professional plumber. They can assess the cause and recommend appropriate solutions, such as pipe replacement.


Low Water Pressure: Low water pressure can be frustrating and can result from various issues, including blocked pipes, malfunctioning pressure regulating devices, or issues with the city’s main supply.

  • Solution: Regular maintenance and inspections can help identify and address the root cause of low water pressure. In some cases, cleaning or replacing specific components can resolve the issue.


Contaminated Water: While rare, there have been instances where the potable water supply gets contaminated due to backflow or other issues.

  • Solution: Installing backflow prevention devices and ensuring they are in good working condition is crucial. If contamination is suspected, it’s essential to stop using the water and consult with professionals immediately.

Sanitary Plumbing System


Definition and Purpose


What is a Sanitary Plumbing System? The sanitary plumbing system, often referred to as the wastewater or drainage system, is designed to collect, transport, and dispose of wastewater from buildings. This includes water from sinks, toilets, showers, and other fixtures that contain waste or contaminants.


Purpose of the Sanitary Plumbing System: The primary objective of the sanitary system is to ensure the safe and efficient removal of wastewater from buildings, preventing the spread of diseases and maintaining a hygienic environment. In a bustling metropolis like NYC, with its high population density and numerous commercial establishments, an effective sanitary plumbing system is crucial for public health and environmental protection.

NYC sanitary water system cartoon

Components and Functions


Drain Pipes: These are the primary conduits that carry wastewater away from fixtures. They are designed with a slight slope to use gravity to move water towards the main sewer line.


Traps: Every fixture has a trap, a U-shaped pipe that holds a small amount of water, creating a seal to prevent sewer gases from entering the building. This water barrier stops unpleasant odors and harmful gases.


Vent Pipes: These pipes allow air to enter the plumbing system, ensuring that water flows smoothly through the drain pipes without creating a vacuum.


Waste Stacks: Vertical pipes that carry wastewater from higher floors down to the main sewer line.


Sewer Line: The main pipe that collects wastewater from all the drain pipes and transports it to the city’s sewage treatment facility.


Key Highlights from NYC Codes


Proper Sloping: NYC codes specify the required slope for drain pipes to ensure efficient water flow and prevent blockages.


Material Specifications: The plumbing code provides guidelines on the types of materials suitable for sanitary plumbing, ensuring durability and preventing contamination.


Trap Requirements: Every fixture must have a trap, and the code specifies the design and installation requirements for these traps.


Venting Regulations: Proper venting is crucial for the efficient functioning of the sanitary system, and NYC codes provide detailed guidelines on vent pipe sizes, placement, and connections.


Common Issues and Solutions


Blockages: One of the most prevalent problems in sanitary systems is blockages, often caused by the accumulation of hair, grease, or other debris in the pipes.

  • Solution: Regularly clean drain openings and consider using drain screens. For severe blockages, professional drain cleaning services might be required.


Odors: Unpleasant smells can arise from dry traps, blockages, or issues with vent pipes.

  • Solution: Ensure that all traps have water to create a seal. Regularly check and clean vent pipes to prevent obstructions.


Slow Draining: If water drains slowly from fixtures, it can indicate partial blockages or issues with venting.

  • Solution: Clear any visible obstructions and ensure that vent pipes are functioning correctly. If the problem persists, consult with a professional plumber.


Backups: Wastewater backing up into fixtures is a severe issue, often indicating blockages in the main sewer line.

  • Solution: Avoid flushing non-degradable items down toilets and regularly inspect the main sewer line for obstructions. In case of backups, it’s crucial to seek professional assistance immediately.

Stormwater Plumbing System


Definition and Purpose


What is a Stormwater System? The stormwater system, often referred to as the storm drainage system, is designed to manage and direct rainwater and melted snow away from buildings and urban areas. This system prevents flooding, reduces erosion, and ensures that stormwater is appropriately managed to protect both property and the environment.


Purpose of the Stormwater System: In a city like NYC, with its vast concrete landscapes and high population density, managing stormwater is crucial. The primary objectives of the stormwater system are to prevent flooding, protect water quality by reducing pollutants in runoff, and safeguard infrastructure and properties from water damage.

Stormwater plumbing systems in NYC

Components and Functions


Catch Basins: These are designed to collect stormwater from streets and other surfaces. They often have grates on top and a sump below to capture sediment and debris.


Downspouts: These are vertical pipes that direct rainwater from rooftops to the stormwater drainage system or to other designated areas.


Storm Drains: These underground pipes carry stormwater away from buildings and streets, directing it to local waterways or detention facilities.


Detention Basins: These structures temporarily store stormwater, allowing it to be released slowly, reducing the risk of flooding and allowing sediment to settle.


Green Infrastructure: Innovative solutions like green roofs, permeable pavements, and rain gardens that absorb and manage stormwater at its source, reducing the load on the traditional stormwater system.


Key Highlights from NYC Codes


Detention Requirements: To manage the volume of stormwater and prevent flooding, NYC codes often require new developments to have detention basins or other stormwater management solutions.


Material and Design Standards: The NYC plumbing code provides guidelines on materials, design, and installation standards for stormwater systems to ensure durability and efficiency.


Green Infrastructure Incentives: NYC encourages the use of green infrastructure solutions by offering incentives and grants for projects that incorporate sustainable stormwater management practices.


Maintenance and Inspection: Regular inspection and maintenance of stormwater systems are mandated to ensure they function correctly and efficiently.


Common Issues and Solutions


Blocked Drains: Leaves, trash, and other debris can block storm drains, leading to water pooling and potential flooding.

  • Solution: Regularly inspect and clean catch basins and storm drains. Consider installing guards or screens to prevent large debris from entering the system.


Erosion: Improperly managed stormwater can lead to erosion, damaging landscapes and infrastructure.

  • Solution: Use erosion control measures like retaining walls, vegetation, and proper grading. Ensure stormwater is directed away from vulnerable areas.


Polluted Runoff: Stormwater can pick up pollutants from streets, rooftops, and other surfaces, contaminating local waterways.

  • Solution: Implement green infrastructure solutions that filter and clean stormwater. Educate the public about the importance of not dumping waste into storm drains.


Inadequate Capacity: Older stormwater systems might not have the capacity to handle the volume of water from heavy rainfalls, leading to flooding.

  • Solution: Upgrade and expand the stormwater system. Incorporate detention basins and other solutions to manage excess water. For solutions to protect your specific building, read our check-valve post here.

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