Why Inspect Your Home Plumbing?
Plumbing problems can lead to many major issues whether you are currently a home owner or if you are considering the purchase of a home. Many of the plumbing problems that can result in enormous water bills, major structural damage or other costly repairs can easily be avoided and addressed with a proper DIY home plumbing inspection. A small leak could waste tens of thousands of gallons of water each year and result in much larger headaches. Use these tips to help make regular DIY plumbing inspections all around your house.
The First Step In Inspecting Your Pipes
This first step to inspect your pipes may seem obvious but should not be over looked as it may be the easiest way to spot trouble with your plumbing. Look for signs of dripping and corrosion in exposed pipes, such as supply lines for toilets and sinks, as well as lines leading to appliances such as dishwashers, refrigerator ice makers, and washing machines. Leaking fixtures may need replacement parts, such as a new O-ring or cartridge for a dripping faucet or a flapper for a leaky toilet.
Howto Sneak Up on Plumbing Leaks
Sometimes plumbing problems are not so obvious. Even if you don’t see dripping, you may still have a problem. Wall or cabinet stains, rusty water, cracked or warped flooring and a musty smell are all indicators of plumbing issues.
Focus on Faulty YourPlumbing
Shutoff valves and copper and brass fittings are the first places corrosion occurs. The likelihood of corrosion is greater if the metals are mismatched, as when galvanized pipes connect directly to copper lines. This should be repaired immediately. But if the pipes are corroded or rusted, have them replaced.
Monitor Your Water Meter
Water meters are great leakage detectors. Note the current level of water usage on your meter, and then suspend all water usage for 30 minutes, making sure all water-using appliances are turned off. Recheck the meter. If the triangular leak indicator is spinning or the dial hand has moved or the number has increased, you probably have a leak.
Remedy the Plumbing Problems
You don’t have to be an expert to fix small plumbing issues, as long as you feel comfortable and confident taking them on. If you have water-damaged flooring and walls, consider hiring a plumbing pro to fix the leak, and then replace the damaged areas to avoid mold growth. For major problems or anything you’re unsure how to fix, always call an expert.
Most homeowners already know about the more obvious leaks under bathroom sinks, but to really test your sink for leaks, fill the sink with water and then let it drain all at once. This test will force a large slug of water through the drain, and will often identify leaks that wouldn’t otherwise be seen. Carefully watch the drain while performing this test. One of the most common leak locations at bathroom sinks is at the drain stopper; fixing this leak is usually as simple as tightening the nut.
Note: if your drain goes “glug glug glug” after the water has drained out, you’re hearing air getting siphoned through the trap, which indicates a problem with the venting. Click this link for more information on that topic: Plumbing Vents: Why Houses Need Them.
If the bathroom sink drains slowly, it’s usually the result of hair in the drain. Fix this by pulling the hair out with a Zip-It tool. What’s a Zip-It? I’m glad you asked. It’s an inexpensive, effective, and easy-to-use drain cleaning product invented by a Minnesotan. Click the following link to find out, but prepare yourself to see some absolutely disgusting photos of hairballs removed from drains: http://zipitclean.
Stand at the toilet with the front of the bowl between your legs, and give the toilet a little nudge with your shin to make sure it doesn’t rock or swivel. A loose toilet can lead to a leaking toilet.
Flush the toilet several times times and check behind, around, and under the toilet (if possible) for any leaks.
If you have a toilet that clogs frequently, replace it. I recommend using Consumer Reports to help decide on a toilet. Their team tirelessly tests toilets in the most tasteful manner possible to figure out which ones have the best flushing ability. I’ve trusted them in the past, and they haven’t let me down. I’ll leave it at that.
Inspecting Showers and Tubs
To inspect bath tub drains, first make sure there is access to the drain. Sometimes this will be in the form of a large access panel in the room behind the tub, sometimes it will be an access panel at the ceiling below, and sometimes it will simply be a return register grill screwed to the wall that covers a hole in the wall. The photo below shows a comically small access hole for the bath tub drain at a recent new construction inspection in Otsego.
Inspecting Plumbing Via a Small Access Hole
This next photo shows a more traditional, old-school access panel behind a basement bath tub. The faucet was leaking profusely, but there were no rooms below, so the homeowner didn’t know it was leaking.
Leaking Bath Tub faucet
Once you’ve established that there is access to inspect the bath tub drain, fill the tub with water all the way to the overflow, and watch the overflow from the back side to make sure that water doesn’t leak out. A leaking bath tub overflow can lead to a big mess, and this is one test that is specifically excluded by home inspection standards of practice. After you’ve made sure the overflow doesn’t leak, pull the drain at the tub and make sure the drain itself doesn’t leak. If there are any leaks at the faucet, you’ll probably find them while doing this test.
The other common issue with showers and tubs is a slow drain, again, usually because of hair.
Inspecting the Kitchen Sink
For the kitchen sink, fill up both sides of the sink with water, pull the stoppers, then immediately turn on the garbage disposer if present. This will force a lot of water through the drain all at once, and will often identify leaks and drain problems that nobody knew about. Sometimes this test will even force water to shoot out of a crack in the side of the garbage disposer.
Inspecting for Cracks in the Garbage Disposal
If there’s a problem with the sink drain, water will typically back up on the side of the sink that doesn’t have a disposer, as shown in the photo below.
Water backing up in sink
The culprit is typically old galvanized steel drain lines, which accumulate sediment on the insides of the pipes, making the internal diameter smaller and smaller over time, to the point where the fixtures drain very slowly, or not at all. The fix for this condition is to replace the drains, which is an expensive repair.
This test on the kitchen sink will also sometimes expose problems that show up in other areas; we’ve caused water to back up through reverse osmosis water dispensers, basement bathroom sinks, basement floor drains, basement laundry sinks, and basement standpipes by doing this test. After conducting this test, go downstairs and make sure none of the other plumbing fixtures have backed up. If they have, there’s a problem with the drains.
The most common issue with a floor drain is a missing clean-out plug. This will allow hazardous, stinky sewer gas into the home. Floor drain inspection can be quite involved if you suspect a problem. This is one area where you may be better served by calling a plumbing professional.
Side note: floor drains are usually the focus of attention when a main building drain is clogged. I’ve received more comments on my blog post on floor drains than any other post. Most of the comments were from frustrated homeowners dealing with clogged main drain lines. If the main drain line in your home is clogged, water draining from the upper fixtures will starting backing up out of the lowest fixture. The lowest fixture is almost always a floor drain, so that’s where water comes out. This really has nothing to do with the floor drain; it’s just were the problem manifests itself because the floor drain is the lowest fixture.
Inspecting Water Heaters
Water Heater Draft HoodI’ve already blogged about water heaters ad nauseam, so I’ll make this short and sweet. Perhaps the easiest thing to check on your water heater is to make sure it’s set to a safe temperature, which is about 120° – 125° Fahrenheit. If your water heater has a draft hood (pictured at right), make sure your water heater drafts properly under a worst-case scenario. Also, check the relief valve discharge tube for signs of leaking. Leaking can lead to corrosion, and corrosion can lead to failure (and failure can lead to the dark side).
Be advised, if your water heater is leaking from the bottom, it’s time for a new water heater.