To drip or not to drip: Old-school advice in new-construction apartments?

These signs put up before the holidays have been yanked at Treesdale Apartments, an EarthCraft-certified building. Contributed photo These signs put up before the holidays have been yanked at Treesdale Apartments, an EarthCraft-certified building. Contributed photo

Anton Largiader lives down the road from Treesdale Apartments on East Rio Road. He watched the 88-unit affordable housing being built in 2009, and when he saw a “freeze warning” sign in December—before temperatures plunged in January—advising tenants to leave their faucets dripping, “I was astonished,” he said. “This is like out of the ’70s.”

Largiader is perplexed that a modern new construction building in a relatively mild climate would advise what he calls “wasteful practices.”

And it turns out, Treesdale isn’t the only one sending out cold weather alerts. Management Services Corporation, which manages dozens of rental properties in town, tells its tenants to let the faucets drip when extremely cold weather is expected, according to a couple of tenants. C-VILLE Weekly was unable to reach its vice president of property management, Renee Beam, at press time.

For newer construction complexes like Treesdale, “It seems you shouldn’t have to do that,” said Joyce Dudek at Albemarle Housing Improvement (AHIP), the nonprofit that acquired the land, rezoned it for an affordable multifamily complex and sold it to Pinnacle Construction and Development Corporation, which built Treesdale. “You would expect everything would be insulated.”

Pinnacle will receive $680,864 in tax credits annually over 10 years—more than $6.8 million—for building Treesdale through a HUD program called Low Income Housing Tax Credits, according to Jim Chandler at the Virginia Housing Development Authority, which doles out HUD tax credits.

Affordability is key in such projects, said a HUD spokesperson. So is environmental sustainability. “We have incentives for the developer to meet EarthCraft standards,” said Chandler. That would include insulation, which also is required by contemporary business codes.

Chandler said he has no idea why an EarthCraft-billed project would ask tenants to leave their faucets dripping in cold weather. “Maybe the manager onsite is being overly cautious,” he speculated. “If a tenant is turning off the heat and the pipes freeze, it could be a disaster.”

And indeed, Treesdale property manager Alice Fletcher admits to being overly cautious after pipes burst at another property managed by her company, Park Properties, when a tenant cut off the heat before going out of town during a severe cold snap. “It was a kneejerk reaction to something that happened in an older property in Culpeper,” she said.

“Even if you leave your heat off, the apartments on either side would maintain the heat,” said Philip Agee, technical manager at EarthCraft in Richmond. “Most new construction is designed to prevent that sort of thing even if someone goes out of town.”

Water savings are a big component of any sustainable design project, he said. “Especially in affordable housing and multi-family housing. It’s a huge opportunity for water savings and for energy savings.”

Agee said he’s worked on 190 EarthCraft projects, and this is the first one he’s heard of that advised dripping faucets to avert frozen pipes. “It’s an education issue on the management or maintenance side,” he said.

Michael Lynn has worked at Albemarle County Service Authority for 38 years, and he knows something about when pipes freeze here. If it’s in the teens for several days, if the plumbing is in an exterior wall and not very well insulated, depending on the age of the house, that’s when it might be necessary to let the faucet drip and leave cabinet doors open, he said.

“It doesn’t happen very often,” he said in December. “Like today, the temperature is 32 to 35 degrees. There’s no way pipes could freeze. We haven’t had it cold enough to warrant that.”

And in an EarthCraft certified complex like Treesdale, “I have no idea why they would even say that,” said Lynn. “We encourage people to conserve water.”

Temperatures plunged into the single digits last week, but the signs at Treesdale have been pulled up, said Fletcher. “I’ve learned my lesson,” she said.

Not everyone is surprised that a building that boasts about its EarthCraft creds would go old-school to avoid frozen pipes. “I see million-dollar buildings with flaws in them all the time,” said Guy Caroselli at LEAP—Local Energy Alliance Program. “If they had a history of pipes freezing and in a time where there could be a heavy freeze, turning on the faucet could help keep pipes from freezing.

Caroselli says the amount dripped would be negligible, especially compared to how much water would be wasted if pipes froze and burst. “It’s an ounce of prevention,” he said.