Our Philippine House Project: Plumbing

Our Philippine House Project: Plumbing


Our Philippine house building project.  What we learned about plumbing in the Philippines when we built our modest dream home on Panay Island.

Before getting into the mechanics of our plumbing system, we’d like to comment about Philippine bathroom design.  For the Westerner, many Philippine bathrooms are just too small. Some have no windows.  Between the small size and lack of ventilation they can become cramped, hot, wet, moldy buggy and unpleasant places.  We had a bathroom in a nice apartment we rented which we dreaded to use, not because it was dirty, but because it was small, windowless, wet and hot.  This can be true even in upscale houses. Many well to do Filipinos also have small, unattractive kitchens as they don’t ever see themselves doing any cooking.  The kitchen is designed for the maid.  We’re not sure why bathrooms are so small.  I suppose Filipinos could wonder why foreigners want to have “palatial” bathrooms.  Anyway, be sure you Filipino architect and/or builder knows what your expectations are.

We only have “cold” water plumbing so our water supply plumbing is quite simple.  We realize that many readers will want hot water, so here is some information on the available options.  We have not included homemade systems such as outside drums painted black, coils of black pipe or the electric immersion heaters you put in a pail of water.   There’s lot of information on the former online and the immersion heaters seem too dangerous.

CAE Kitchen faucet failed after one year. No repair parts available.

There are many good quality faucets which are designed for cold water systems only, ranging from cheap all-plastic units to the modestly-priced (about P1,100) and very popular metal units from “Wassernison”, a brand name seemingly chosen to have a bit of European cachet.   This suggests the next category of faucet sets.  These sets are more expensive, more attractive and well promoted and are generally in the P2,000+ range.  We ended up buying one of these for our kitchen faucet.  The name was Italian, the display and packaging elegant.  The quality seemed good.  We paid about P2,400 ($60) for our cold water only kitchen faucet.  Despite the Italian branding, a bit of post-purchase research showed that the faucet was made by CAE, http://www.china-cae.com/en/Index.aspx a very Chinese brand.  Our lovely CAE faucet started leaking after about a year.  More on our futile search for a replacement repair cartridge later.

The third category of faucet sets available in the Philippines are those by the big American brands, such as American Standard and Delta.  These are expensive, some faucet sets more than P10,000 ($250).  However some American Standard units were reasonable.  We bought all American Standard lavatory and shower faucet sets.  They are made in Thailand and seem very well built.  After three years there has been no corrosion and no leaking in any of them.

That brings us back to our leaking CAE kitchen faucet.  We bought a Wassernison faucet set as a temporary replacement and then took the valve cartridge out of the CAE faucet so that we could get a replacement.  Those (Ace, Handyman, Moostbrand, Citi Hardware, AM Builders Depot, who had extensive displays of lovely faucet sets, had practically no faucet repair kits, except  for a few ceramic cartridges for some Wassernison faucets and a scattering of Delta repair kits.  There were absolutely no repair parts for the CAE faucets.  In fact, the Moostbrand store which displayed and sold a glittering variety of fancy faucet sets had practically no repair parts for any of them.

After checking with a dozen stores for a faucet repair cartridge for our CAE, we finally found a cobbled-together solution at the Handyman Hardware store in Robinson’s Place in Ermita, Manila.  A Wassernison cartridge worked, but could not accept the CAE handle so we had to buy a new handle as well as the cartrige set.

So, what’s the lesson?  If you can afford it, buy top quality Delta faucet sets.  We wish we could also recommend American Standard, but I saw no repair kits for the brand in all of our shopping for the CAE repair kits.  If you want to save money, just buy Wassernison faucet sets.  The quality and design are not great, but then the price is modest.  Avoid the fancy faucet sets from brands you’ve never heard of.  They may look stylish but the underlying quality may be poor and parts are unlikely to be available, making for an expensive throw-away when the faucet fails in a year.

American Standard cold water only shower faucet

This American Standard shower faucet set is solid brass and very well made.  While such cold water faucets might seem an oddity to Americans (especially Canadians!) or Europeans, there’s a pretty big global, equatorial market for such products.  Note the porcelain soap dish.  These dishes are inexpensive and last forever while many aftermarket metal dishes start rusting after a year or so.

American Standard cold water basin faucet

We bought and installed the best kitchen sink we could find.  We chose a Hwaco (made in Singapore) which cost more than P 8,000.  It was a pretty and the gauge of the stainless steel seemed sturdy.

Hwaco Kitchen Sink

Newly installed Hwaco Kitchen Sink

hwaco_kitchen_sink_1

Now, after three years, the “stainless steel” sink is pitted with rust.

Since we bought the sink and many other supplies from Iloilo building product supplier “Moostbrand” we told them of the rusting sink.  Their salesperson implied that the rust was our fault, but promised to have a manager call us.  It never happened.  We have had better luck with Citi Hardware and Handyman.

"Bidet Sprayer"

“Bidet Sprayer”

These sprayers are common in Philippine bathrooms.  They can be used to clean the toilet user, the toilet itself  and the bathroom floor.  This is a cheap, sanitary and highly useful gadget which should be included in every bathroom. But don’t buy chrome-plated pot metal valves such as the one shown above.  That “Wassernison” brand valve screws into a stainless steel coupling.  I wanted to remove the valve to see why the water flow to the sprayer was low.  As soon as I put a wrench to the faucet to remove it, the threaded part of the faucet broke off and remained obstructing the stainless steel coupling.  Therefore I could not put in a new valve until the broken part of the valve was removed.  It was very difficult to remove the valve stem without damaging the threads on the stainless steel coupling.  I wasted hours on this.  Lesson:  do not buy ANY pot metal valves.  Buy quality brass valves even if they cost four times as much.

Also in this photo, note the stainless steel floor drain and how the water closet is set in mortar.  The bolt really serves no real purpose except to humor the Amerikano boss who is used to having stools bolted down.

There are several reasons we avoided installing a hot water heating systems.  Most people who have hot water systems in the Philippines, including many hotels, use the tankless, instant-on electric units.  There are single-point units which generally are used for hot showers, often mounted in or near the existing shower, but up high on the wall so they don’t get wet. They cost about P6,000.  The purchase price may include installation.  The second type of tankless unit is the multi-point.  These units have the capacity to serve multiple plumbing fixtures and can be hidden away in a cabinet, say under the sink.  The single-point units for showers can generally be installed fairly easily if there is already a cold water shower, even if the house was not designed with hot water in mind.  It’s best if the plumbing for multi-point units is installed when the house is built or remodeled so that the pipes can be hidden in the walls.  We could not have used either of these on-demand units because our water pressure is too low.  Before you buy a unit be sure to check your water pressure and the water pressure requirements of the unit you are considering.

These units use between 3.5 kWh of electricity for a basic single-point unit to 6.5 kWh or more for a multi-point unit.  Electricity costs are about P10 per kWh and rising, so these units cost between P35 ($.81) and P65 ($1.51) per hour to use.  If they are used mainly for showers and lavatory, then the operational costs may be modest.  If used in the kitchen or with a washing machine, then it could be costly. Another problem with these units is that they are a maintenance headache and they generally don’t last too long unless well maintained. In many areas of the Philippines, water is heavily mineralized and also contains dirt and other impurities. Deposits can build up quickly on the small, high intensity heating coils.   We decided that we would avoid these problems and expenses by not having hot water at all.  In general, water in the Philippines is already relatively warm, except in the “winter” — December and January.  Then, Carol will heat some hot water on the stove and bring it to the bathroom for bathing.  Bob has adjusted to not having really hot water and finds a coolish shower on a hot day to be wonderfully refreshing.

These wall mounted tankless electric units are popular

Of course there’s another, better, and in the long run cheaper way to heat water — a solar hot water system.  Citi Hardware, the “Home Depot” of the Philippines is a favorite of ours.  In addition to regular building materials, they offer some innovative products including drip irrigation systems from Israel and the Suntec solar hot water packaged systems.  If you’re interested in solar hot water you can go to Citi and look at them.  We bought our Bompani kitchen range from them and have been happy with Citi’s service.

SunTec solar hot water system from Citi Hardware

Back to our plumbing.  We avoided running pipes in tiled walls or tiled floors to avoid having to tear out tiling to make repairs.  As much as possible, we put the pipes underground just outside the walls.  In th photo the blue PVC pipes are supply lines to a bathroom on the opposite side of the wall.  That way, if there’s a leak, we can make repairs from the untiled wall in this bedroom.  We’d still have to tear the wall open, but at least we’d not destroy our tiling. We used Neltex brand PVC pipe, although we would have liked to use Atlanta brand. Atlanta was unavailable when we needed it. The Neltex brand is a step above the generic, unbranded pipe generally available.  Better pipe may have more wall thickness and better UV protection.  The orange pipe is electrical conduit.

Blue pipes serve a bathroom on the other side of the wall.

Bob, who was used to working with copper pipe, found that it was easy to make secure joints in the PVC, especially the smaller diameter pipes.  Tip for good joints:

  • Use good quality pipe, fittings and solvent.  We used Atlanta brand whenever we could.
  • Make sure the pipe cuts are square and have no burrs.
  • Make sure the pipes and fittings are completely clean and dry.
  • If you use one brand of pipe and another brand of fitting, make sure they fit together tightly.  PVC solvent does not work well at filling gaps.
  • Make sure the pipe goes all the way into the seat on the fitting.
  • Put solvent on the pipe end and the fitting.  Be sure the surfaces are really completely covered.
  • Let the joint set for about fifteen to thirty seconds then twist the joint 180 degrees.  In thirty seconds the solvent has not set,  yet it has dissolved the surfaces of the two plastic pieces being joined.  This melds the joint together, closing up any imperfections in the joint.
  • Then, let the joint be undisturbed for at least a fifteen minutes or a half hour.  The full strength does not come for 24 hours.  I’d try to leave critical joints in larger pipe to set overnight.  This drove my crew crazy.  If I had let them, they would start work or run water into the pipes immediately.

This photo shows three elements of the plumbing system.  The horizontal blue PVC pipe is a 1″ water supply line which encircles the building outside.  Repairs and changes to these outside pipes will be relatively simple. The vertical blue pipes are 1/2″ lines into the bathroom inside of this wall.  Because we have a gravity operated system, it would have been better if  we had used 1″ supply lines throughout, although we really have not had any problems, so far, but we may as mineral deposits build up over time inside the pipes.  These water pipes can be repaired from the outside with no need to damage the tiled bathroom.

TIP: It’s a good idea to take lots of photos during the construction of your house so that later you can refresh you memory as to how things were done and where things are located.

The upper 4″ PVC orange pipe is leading from the toilet to the septic system.  Only toilet waste goes into the septic system — nothing else.   Don’t forget to make sure your crew maintains a proper slope on the sewer and drain lines.  If the slope is too little the solids will not be carried to the septic tank.  If the pipe is too steep, the solids will be left behind as the water rushes to the septic tank.  The rule is 1/4″ of slope for every one foot run of line or 2.5″ per ten foot section of pipe.  Plumbing codes require that 3″ and smaller drain piping be run at 1/4″ per foot minimum slope. The 1/4″ minimum slope assures sufficient flow velocity for the transport of solids. Two feet per second velocity is the minimum recommended for soil and waste lines. A 3″ drain at 1/8″ per foot slope has a flow velocity of only 1.59 fps. A 3″ drain at 1/4″ per foot slope has a flow velocity of 2.25 fps. This is particularly important where 1.6 gpf water closets are involved, due to the limited waste carry of  low flow water closets.

Your workers might have never heard of such a rule.  Mine had not.  Perhaps it’s not generally such as issue in the Philippines because it’s usual for the septic tank to be very close to the house.  Our is quite far from the house.  It takes some serious advance planning to get everything right, so that in the end you’ll end up with the proper slope.  Remember, the sewer pipe exiting the house is fairly fixed at a few inches below the horn of the water closet.  You can go deeper, but then the septic tank has to be deeper.  The input pipe entering the septic tank has to be at the correct level,otherwise the tank will not work properly. This should all be figured out before the finished floor level of the bathroom and the height of the septic tank inlet are set. Once the house and tank are built, there’s little one can do but live with whatever mistakes have been made.

The lower 3″ orange PVC pipe carries downspout water from the roof and wastewater from the kitchen, showers, lavatories and floor drains to a series of catch basins and then through the perimeter wall to a ditch.  In the photo you can see two 2″ PVC pipes coming through the wall and connecting to the 3′ drain pipe.  The one on the right is from the sink in the master bedroom bathroom and the one on the left is from the shower and floor drain.  The 3″ pipe continue to the left and empties into the catch basin system.  We used 2″ pipe to try to avoid clogging.  There are no p-traps, except under the lavatory basin.  Remember that  gray water goes to catch basins, not the septic system.  We have not had odor problems.  We installed two 3″ PVC vent pipes which are hidden in the bathroom walls.  They only serve the water closets, not the sinks, floor drains, or shower.  These vents were intended to extend out through the roof.  We have not been in a hurry to cut holes in our beautiful long span roof.  Our attic is well ventilated and we have not had odor problems.  When we do the vent pipes will go up through the roof.

We mostly used heavier and more expensive Atlanta brand drain pipe.  Orangeburg brand pipe also looks good.  Cheaper pipe is available, but is subject to damage before and after construction — for example from landscape work.  It’s easy to put a shovel through the cheaper pipe but less likely with the heavier Atlanta. As you can see below, good pipe costs more than twice the cost of economy pipe.  I really wish we had not used one length of the cheaper pipe.  Guess what pipe you’ll get if someone else builds your house!  You may be charged for Atlanta and receive National.  It will all be hidden underground.  Of course, if you always choose the best materials, the per square meter cost of your house (excluding land) could end up being significantly higher.  It’s a paradox that old foreigners with a few years to live, at best, often insist on building houses which will last a hundred years!

Here’s a sample of prices we paid, mostly in the last half 0f 2010:

  • Neltex 1″ PVC water pipe 10′ P112
  • Atlanta sanitary pipe 4″x10′ P545  Better quality
  • National sanitary pipe 4″x10′ P238 Standard quality
  • Atlanta sanitary pipe 2″x10′ P192
  • Atlanta sanitary pipe 3″x10′ P410
Catch basins

Catch basins. Drain pipe is 3″ PVC

The house is surrounded by a system of catch basins and pipe which collect and discharge roof water from the gutters and gray water from the kitchen and bathrooms,  outside the lot.  The 3″ pipes facing the house will be connected to the roof downspouts.  The rebar reinforced catch basins were made on the site by our crew, a significant project.  They will have removable concrete lids.  The lids are removed periodically to allow cleaning out any material collected in the catch basins.  We’ll cover that in a separate post.  But there can be problems. see Beware of clay soils in Philippine construction.

3″ PVC downspouts installed

Downspouts painted

The downspouts are secured to the building with brackets made of flattened and shaped PVC pipe.  Very durable.  The pipe and brackets are painted with gloss latex paint — don’t use oil based paint on PVC pipe.  The brackets are attached with stainless steel screws screwed into nylon anchors in the wall.  We tried to use brass or stainless steel wherever we could but see our annoying experience with Creston stainless steel hinges.

There are twelve downspouts leading from the gutters to the catch basins and hence to a ditch outside the property.  Tigbauan, Iloilo gets about 100 inches (over 2.5 meters) of rain annually, some of it in torrential tropical downpours.  That’s about three times the precipitation of the average American city. Our roof covers about 300 square meters.  The volume of water coming off the roof during a storm  is prodigious.  I calculate that the system has to handle 168,542 gallons of water from the roof annually.  The system of  gutters, downspouts and catch basins are essential to keep your lot from turning into a muddy mess.

Catch basin with concrete lid

Catch basin with concrete lid

Gray water piping

Gray water piping

These two 4″ pipes carry gray water from the catch basin system out through the perimeter wall and into a future roadside drainage ditch.  This may not sound ideal but really has not produced any real problems.

Septic tank just about done and ready for 4" reinforced concrete top. 3-3-10

Septic tank just about done and ready for 4″ reinforced concrete top. 3-3-10

See more details about building the septic tank and catch basins HERE.

500 liter stainless steel tank

August, 2011 update regarding the “Stainless Steel” water tank.  When we bought the tank we wondered in my own mind how they could make stainless steel tanks and sell them so inexpensively.  Now, after a few months of use out tank is has quite a bit of rust, particularly at the seams and spot welds.    Some things which are sold as “stainless steel” are coated steel. If we were doing it over, we’ probably buy the readily available polyethylene water tanks.

rusty_water_tank

Our S-Tank “stainless steel” water tank after about four years. No leaks yet but it just seems to be a matter of time.

The following company sells polyethylene septic tanks, grease traps and water storage tanks: http://www.weida.com.ph/index.html

I am not sure about the economics of using a poly septic systems instead of concrete, but we’d be glad to add a poly grease trap and, when our stainless steel water tank give out, to replace it with a polyethylene tank. The stainless tanks look very nice but I am dubious about their longevity.

 

Stainless steel water tank in car port.

Rather than having a separate water tank tower, we put the 500 liter stainless steel water tank high in the roof structure of our car port.  The tank is about 15 feet above the house floor level.  There is a long 1 1/4″ suction line from our well, which is at the front of the house,  to our 1/2 hp Pedrollo water which is located in a storage room off the garage which is in back of the house.  The water from the well is pumped up into the water tank and then is piped down (gravity fed) and goes underground to supply the house.

We used blue PVC plastic water pipe but all stainless steel and brass fittings at faucets and fixtures.  That way, when we need to make repairs in the future, such as replacing a faucet, we will have good material to work with rather than having to tear out tile to replace a stripped plastic fitting.  This is a riser for a hose bibb. It’s been checked for leaks and will be cemented  into this exterior wall, under about 1″ of cement finishing.

Setup for testing plumbing for leaks

This is the set up we used to test our plumbing for leaks before cementing the pipes over when we finished the walls.  The green hose from the water pump connects to and pressurizes the house water system.  The blue pipe goes to the water well.  The house water was left pressurized for weeks to be sure there were no leaks. We found only one leak in the plastic pipe but several in the brass and stainless steel fittings.  This set-up also provided water during construction.  Later we moved the water pump along with a washing machine and generator into a concrete utility building attached to the carport.  The Italian-made Pedrollo 1/2 HP pump was not expensive and has operated flawlessly for almost four years.  Highly recommended.

Update November 2010.  Now that we’ve been living in the house for a few weeks, we can report that the water system is working flawlessly.  To recap, we have a well.  A 1/2 hp Pedrollo pump pumps water from our well to a 500 liter stainless steel tank in the peak of the garage.  The long pipe run from the foot valve in the well to the pump is 1 1/4″ blue plastic.  Although the pump inlet is 1″, the pump manufacturer said to use larger pipe so we did.  The smallest leak in this suction pipe would cause the pump to lose prime so Bob was fanatical about the pipe joints.  In addition to using the usual solvent to join the pipes, many were also sealed with two-part epoxy.

Epoxy suction pipe joint

Epoxied 1 1/4″ suction pipe joint

To Bob’s great relief, the suction pipe has worked flawlessly, never losing its prime in almost four years of use. From the stainless steel tank the water is gravity fed into the house (and laundry) via a 1″ pipe which circles the house.  The feed to individual fixtures is 1/2″ blue plastic pipe.  As noted in comments below, it would have been better, on a gravity feed system, to have used 1″ pipe throughout.  Larger pipe does not produce more pressure, but does produce much more volume of flow.  We were using a 1/2″ hose to wash the car.  We switched to a larger 3/4″ hose and the difference was significant. We bought a simple tank mounted  switch which controls the water flow to the tank.  When the level in the tank falls, the pump turns on.  When the tank is nearly full, it shuts off.  It cost P250 at Citi Hardware and worked for a couple of years and then became unreliable.

Since our water tank is above our garage, a pump switch which does not turn off gives our car an unwanted washing from the overflowing tank. We replaced the original switch with an Italian-made MAC 3 floating valve which is installed inside the tank.  It cost P1,195 at Citi Hardware.  You can see the manual at http://sdrv.ms/12Kpc1C The first MAC 3 valve we installed lasted about two years and then became unreliable, leaving us without water sometimes.  We’ve installed another MAC 3 but if it is not more reliable, we’ll go back to the P250 Chinese valves.

water_tank_valve

MAC 3 Floating water tank valve

Until we moved into the house the big question was whether a gravity fed system would produce enough water pressure in the house.  We thought we might have to add a pressure pump and tank. While the pressure is not high, it is very usable producing a satisfying shower.  After dubious water quality in our apartments, we’re also relieved that the quality of our water is good.  Taking a shower is a pleasure, not a olfactory trial. When we have one of our frequent power outages, we have 500 liters of water stored in our tank so we can continue flushing, taking showers, doing dishes and so forth without using a generator to keep our water system operational. So all-in-all, we’re very happy with the water and our very simple, economical water system.  Updated Mar. 12, 2013