How to avoid plumbing emergencies in your restaurant

In the restaurant industry, a plumbing nightmare can scare the bejesus out of any restaurant management team. From backed-up sinks ... to grease clogs ... to smelly odors – a serious plumbing issue can slow your restaurant to a screeching halt and lead to expensive repairs and lost business.

If left untreated, restaurant plumbing problems can start as a mild headache and develop quickly into an all-out migraine. We asked Susan Daywitt, CEO of a facility maintenance management company, to share typical plumbing "nightmares" she has witnessed over the years and tell about preventative measures that would help you keep your restaurant’s plumbing in good shape. Read the post to get an idea on how to maintain your professional kitchen plumbing and how to prevent plumbing disasters in your restaurant.


A greasy situation

If you're cutting corners by not regularly pumping and maintaining your grease traps, you're asking for trouble. Grease backups can lead to overflows and store closures, resulting in expensive repairs and lost revenue.

Grease that combines with calcium and ash in pipes can become so dense that no amount of hot water can unclog it; it can only be removed mechanically. If you experience an actual spill, it can lead to an environmental hazard. According to the U.S. law, any spill greater than 5 gallons constitutes an environmental spill the Department of Environmental Conservation will investigate, leading to expensive fines.

We've seen cases where spills from clogged grease pipes flood restaurants and parking lots. In one severe instance, a restaurant plugged up lines for a half-mile radius, leading to $10,000 in fines (not including cleanup). 

Bottom line, maintain your restaurant’s grease traps so you don't end up in a sticky situation.

Mysterious backups

Expensive plumbing repairs can often be the result of poor installation or lack of maintenance. Such cases have nothing to do with cleaning restaurant kitchen drains

One restaurant experienced constant flooding at the floor drains of its mechanical room, which were emergency drains. A check of the water heater and water softener didn't find the culprit. But after further investigation – which included running a camera down the drain – it was discovered the drain was not connected underneath the slab, which resulted in the constant backup of water. The plumber had to break up the entire kitchen floor to reattach the plumbing

A takeaway  – always hire a reputable company to check plumbing for a restaurant before work begins. 

Eww. What’s that smell?

Nothing can damage your restaurant’s reputation quicker than a nasty odor emanating from the drains and into the dining area. Check if your facilities meet commercial kitchen floor drain requirements. Smelly drains are the last thing you want in a place that serves food. 

If you're allowing large debris or bacteria down drains, this can lead to backups and smells. Installing a drain grate to keep debris out of drains is a small expense that will prevent clogs and smells.

While it's always a good idea to call a professional plumber for serious clogs and smells, investing in a drain snake can help you clear minor clogs. You can’t do without this simple tool for restaurant drain cleaning. Keeping vinegar and baking soda handy and pouring them down the drain can also break down grime that builds up in drains without using harmful chemicals.

Finally, be careful what you're voluntarily putting down drains. In the kitchen, scrape food scraps into the trash instead of down the drain to avoid any smelly clogs and backups.

Mysterious plumbing issues

Not all plumbing issues are created equal, and some are harder than others to diagnose and resolve. One restaurant recently had a plumber renovate a first-floor bathroom, only to find that a strong smell would occasionally drift to the front of the restaurant, prompting complaints from customers. 

Despite several visits by plumbers – and numerous attempts to find a fix – no permanent repair was found. There were no building or plumbing plans from the previous bathroom concept – making the task more difficult.

Finally, a plumber discovered the root of the putrid smell was a failed studor vent in the wall separating the men's and women's restrooms. The expensive repairs resulted in the wall being torn apart to replace the failed unit and eliminate the odor for good.

Second-floor locations

Second-floor restaurants can exponentially increase the risks and costs of plumbing problems, so I'd avoid expanding into one, if possible.

In one “nightmare” situation, the first-floor restaurant at a mall would constantly flood when the upstairs restaurant hosed down its floors each night, causing water damage to the first-floor restaurant. The upstairs restaurant removed all of the drain covers during the cleaning, allowing debris to go down the drains and cause the backups.

Each time the first-floor restaurant was forced to close, it would bill management of the second-floor restaurant. A temporary solution was eventually found when plumbers used a set of pans between the floors to catch the water.

Proper maintenance

Hopefully, your restaurant will never experience any of these situations. If you’re opening a new restaurant or upgrading the existing plumbing, it’s important to know the restaurant plumbing requirements, codes, and regulations in your area to make sure you’re compliant.

Many plumbing emergencies can be avoided with simple maintenance. You’d be amazed what plumbers find in drains – dishes, cups, forks! It’s no wonder “nightmare” issues can occur. The key is staying ahead of any plumbing problems. For example, if you hear a drain gurgling, have it inspected, as this could be an early sign that something is wrong. Minor clogs can turn into hard clogs in no time, so call a plumber at the first sign of an issue.

Preventive maintenance is the key to stopping “nightmare” situations in their tracks. Educate your staff on common restaurant kitchen plumbing issues so they can diagnose the early signs of a problem. Here are a few restaurant plumbing tips to follow to keep your location in tip-top shape.

  • Clean drains and lines to ensure drain socks are clean and clear.

  • Drain and jet lines at least once a year.

  • Use proper grating over all of your restaurant’s drains.

  • Clean grease traps regularly.

  • Ensure right-size traps and interceptors.

One of the staples of succeeding in the restaurant industry is keeping costs down. How much can another problem with plumbing cost for a restaurant? You never know. If you record all your expenses in your restaurant POS system, you can see how much you spent on plumbing repairs during the last period and how much of your profit it ate. A little preventive maintenance can go a long way in preventing a plumbing emergency – saving you money, and headaches, along the way.


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