Residential plumbing can be so frustrating. One day everything is fine. The next, you look under the sink, and there’s a wet spot on the bottom of the cabinet.
As we continue to look at a variety of plumbing issues, we will examine common causes of basic water leaks, clogs, and septic plumbing. These posts are presented to give homeowners a basic understanding of what’s involved and what they can do when working alongside a plumber.
What Are Common Causes of Basic Water Leaks?
Pipe are Joined by Mis-threaded Fittings
Threaded fittings, whether metal or plastic, can leak if the threads are damaged by mis-threading it onto its mate.
Be careful when threading pipes that you don’t use too much force to fit the pieces together, when you start threading or when threading you over-tighten. The male or female pipe could be damaged beyond use. It does not take a lot to screw up a fitting.
Take your time, align properly, and carefully proceed to thread the fittings. Use a sensitive touch to ensure the pieces are threaded properly before applying any more force to tighten the fittings. You’ll be tempted to mash the pieces together because you’re anxious to get the job done.
Even when threaded fittings are joined properly, the space between the threads — if wide enough — could allow water to trickle out, causing a slow leak. To prevent these spaces, use either pipe compound — better known as pipe “dope” — or Teflon tape on the threads to create a watertight seal.
Both are commonly used by plumbers and are cheap and readily available at area home improvement centers, hardware stores, or plumbing supplies. Chances are you have 10 rolls of partially-used teflon tape and three tubs of aging pipe dope in the garage you’ve forgotten about.
Another culprit for mis-threaded fittings comes when you are making a change to the piping infrastructure — cutting a new piece to replace a segment, shortening a length of pipe, or making an extension. If the joins are not accurate, you may be forcing the pipes together at the joints and a leak results from the stress. It doesn’t take a lot — even an eighth of an inch off can introduce a small leak, forcing you to correct the problem.
Integral Parts or Washers are Worn
If the fitting uses an integral part or washer, make certain that the part is undamaged (not dinged, bent, cracked with age) and properly inserted and seated in place.
A fitting with a washer that is not properly seated may feel tight but the dinged, bent, cracked (or even missing) washer will allow water to seep around it and cause the joint to leak. A good example of this is leaky outdoor water hoses.
As noted, when it comes to plumbing, even the smallest gap can lead to a leaky pipe and, if left unattended, can lead to bigger and more costly problems that will require the expertise of a plumber to repair properly.
Soldered Copper Joints are not Installed Properly
Today most homeowners don’t mess with copper pipes, but every now and then (especially in older homes) a need arises to fix or retrofit.
In days gone by, most homeowners confident enough to tackle residential plumbing could “sweat a pipe.” Today, however, with new compression fittings and newer materials and products, homeowners don’t mess with soldered copper joints often. Should the need arise, it’s best you call a plumber because it’s not worth the time, mess, and hassle to do it on your own.
Soldered copper joints can leak for a variety of reasons.
- The pipe and fitting must be thoroughly clean. A dirty surface will interfere with the solder flow and prevent a proper seal from being made. It’s easy for homeowners who do not solder pipes often to forget to clean the joints or to “blow through it” and not do a good job.
- Homeowners also ignore the need for applying flux to the pipe and fitting. The acid flux prepares the surface and creates the best conditions for solder to flow into the joint.
- Another common cause of leaking sweated solder joints is the mistaken belief that the solder is melted into the fitting. The heated joint melts the solder and capillary action draws the soldier up into the joint.
- When soldering a copper fitting, make certain to heat the pipe evenly, all the way around before applying solder. The solder must flow in all at once, all the way around or the solder may leave gaps that allow water to leak through.
- Overheating a soldered joint can cause the pipe and fittings to distort or deform, in which case a tight fitting joint is impossible. If a joint is overheated, the fitting should be thrown away and the segment of pipe cut back a few inches before making a fresh attempt. Heat the joint so that the pipe becomes a bright copper but not changing color to black or sooty. Ease off as the flame passing pipe starts to turn blue-green.
Plastic Pipe Fittings are Not Installed Properly
Plastic pipes with slip-fittings use solvents — like a purple primer — to soften the plastic of the two pieces and then fuse together. Leaks from these joints can be the result of a crack in the fitting, improper preparation, the wrong type of glue, or just not enough glue.
Plastic pipe should be cut with square ends, all burrs should be removed, and the pipe should be cleaned with an appropriate solvent for the type of pipe you are working with.
After the parts have been cleaned with a solvent, apply the pipe glue. Use the included applicator to swirl around the pipe two or three times and covering the entire stub that will go into the fitting.
Quickly insert the pipe into the pipe into the fitting while giving a quarter to half turn. This should yield a sturdy, watertight joint.
How to Test for Water Leaks
Leaks due to mis-threaded pipes are one thing. What happens if your plumbing system is leaking water? And we’re not talking a dripping faucet or running toilet. What about the plumbing lines underground or in places you might not notice?
- Testing your water supply system is something most homeowners can do, or have your plumber test it for you the next time he’s at the house for a repair. He may have equipment or an approach to test for water leaks not available to you.
- Turn off all water-using appliances, including dishwasher, washing machine, faucets, sprinkler system, and ice maker.
- Don’t flush any toilets.
- Next, locate the water meter for your home.
- At the meter, open the cover and look for the meter dial (it has numbers on it). It may be under a little metal or plastic lid. Write down the numbers. Also, look for a little triangle (often red) or small dial. This indicator moves whenever water is flowing and will move even when a small amount of water is flowing.
- Wait at least 30 minutes, even better a couple hours.
- Remember not to use any water, including flushing a toilet.
- Then check the numbers on the meter.
- If the numbers have changed, water is flowing somewhere and probably being wasted.
Isolating the leak can be done with a little plumbing detective work.
- Once you have ruled out the main supply line, turn on the water supply again.
- Go around the house and turn off the water supply valves to toilets, sinks and appliances then check the meter again.
- If the meter didn’t change, then one of those services is leaking water and you can turn each one on one-at-a-time until you find the culprit.
- If the meter did change, it could be your yard irrigation system, a leaking pipe somewhere around your home or something such as an automatic pool refilling system, fountain or another similar water using device.
If you cannot find the leak reasonably quickly, reduce the guesswork and your frustration by using your plumber or plumbing contractor. You do not want leaks to fester.