How To Fix A Plumbing Leak Before It Drains Your Wallet.

Dealing With Leaks

Of all the problems that can occur in your plumbing system, none have the potential to be as costly as a good, old fashioned plumbing leak. From a leaking water heater to a toilet leak, big or little, fast or slow, leaks cause millions of dollars in damage every year.

Plumbing leaks come in two varieties, water supply leaks and drain leaks. Although water pipe leak can do more damage faster, a leaking drain (or any kind of leak) should not be ignored. Just look at the Grand Canyon to see what water can do.

Drain Leaks

A leaking drain my be a toilet leak,  a sink leak or any other leak on the drainage system. It will often show up as a spot on the ceiling below.

If you see a water spot on your ceiling, check directly above for a leak. If you find nothing there check under all the fixtures and in every vanity. Often water will run across a ceiling and show up in a seam or low spot.

It’s a good idea to check under all your cabinets periodically for leaks. If you find a problem you can often correct a small leak by just tightening the slip joint connections in the piping. If you have leaking metal p-traps you can probably change them to PVC for less than the price of a happy meal.

Leaks From Fixtures

Another common plumbing problem is leaks from individual fixtures. These vary from refrigerator water filter leaks to leaking kitchen faucets. Most of the time there are individual fixture stops, or valves, which turn the water off to that fixture only. If so, this allows you to stop the water leak and still have water to the rest of the house.

When you are checking under your cabinets pay careful attention to the stops and to the supply lines going to your faucets. These are prime places for leaks. Use your hands to feel for water on these since it is often hard to see a very small leak.

The Most Urgent Leaks

The most urgent kind of leak is a leak on the main water supply piping in your home. That’s why it is very important to know where your main water shut off is located and how to turn it off. If you have a supply pipe leak, getting the water turned off quickly can prevent thousands of dollars worth of damage.

Galvanized Pipe Is Especially Tricky

Once the water is off you can begin to try to determine what the problem is. If you have an older house you may have galvanized pipe leaks. These are especially tricky because when you fix one you may cause another by disturbing the old pipe.

Nails Don’t Always Leak Right Away

A fairly common cause of leaks in copper piping is a nail in the pipe. Many times these leaks will not show up for quite some time, however long it takes the nail to rust away. Always be very careful when installing baseboard or other trim.

Working With Plastic Pipe

While leaks in galvanized or even copper pipes require special skills and tools, plastic piping is fairly easily repaired. You need to be sure what kind of pipe you have because different types of pipe use different glues and cements. Pay close attention to the curing times for the cement so your fresh repair doesn’t blow apart when you turn the water back on.

Some plastic pipe, like PEX, can’t be glued and must be joined using special fittings. The pros usually use barbed fittings with crimp rings and special crimping tools but there is a fairly new product that you can use called a shark bite fitting. Unlike its namesake, a plumbing shark bite type fitting is a good thing.

Shark Bite Fittings

These plumbing shark bite fittings just push on to the pipe. No tools or special skills required! The only time you need a tool is to remove them. What’s so really good about these plumbing shark bite fittings is that they actually work very well and are used by many professional plumbers every day.

So…we’ve learned that all plumbing leaks are not a reason for alarm. Many are simple to fix with easily learned skills.

Copyright 2009 Bryan Stevens

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13 comments to How To Fix A Plumbing Leak Before It Drains Your Wallet.

  • Andy Bruce

    Hi Bryan. Have a leak on the top of a 20 yr. old water heater in a 30-year-old house. Plan to replace it today. I can do many DIY projects, but this is my first water heater. I want to install the tank myself. I’ve installed a gas range before, so I’m not too concerned about working with gas. What I would like is your professional advice of whether you would recommend anything in particular as far as the installation? What do I need to watch out for?

    One question in particular: the Home Depot plumbing guy asked if we had an expansion tank installed. We don’t. Do we need one? Our water heater is in the unfinished part of the basement. There’s not a lot of clearance. The pipes are close to the duct work and floor joists. Do you have any advice on that.

    • Bryan

      Hey Andy,
      You probably have copper water pipes in a 30 year old house. If you can solder you should be fine. If it will help, don’t be afraid of using Shark Bite fittings. Also, it is a good idea to install an expansion tank anywhere in the cold piping if possible. I think we spoke on the phone yesterday, but maybe this will help someone else.

      Thanks- Bryan

  • Mark Muetzel

    I need to replace a leaking joint in an existing galvanized water supply line. I have all the parts and tools, and some degree of knowledge of how to fix it, but looking for some suggestions on how to get it tightned down with no leaks. Changing from galvinized to copper is not an option at this time.
    Thanks.

    • BTS

      Mark,

      I hate to tell you this but I have no magic bullets. Any time you start messing with galvanized you run the risk of leaks. You may even cause issues in a different location than you are working. With that being said, here are my suggestions:

      Take you time and don’t jerk or bang the pipes around.

      Use a wire brush (a copper fitting brush works perfect) to clean the threads on the old pipe and fittings.

      Wrap the male threads with Teflon tape and then use a good pipe dope (pipe joint compound) too.

      Get all fittings good and tight.

      I usually pray.

      Good luck,

      Bryan

  • Charles

    Stuck Moen 87400 cartridge!! I believe its a 1224 but after everthing is off it simply won’t budge. Would it be wiser to replace the faucet then headache the cartridge?

    • BTS

      Charles,

      If it is a 2 handle model it is a 1224. You should not have to replace the faucet. If you have the handle off and the cartridge nut off (the little nut under the handle) the cartridge will come out, I promise. Remember, it’s just plastic and you are bigger ;-).

      Here are a couple of things to try:

      First, get a short piece of 2 x 4 to use as a fulcrum. Now rest your channell locks on the 2 x 4, grab the stem of the cartridge and pry up, using the channel locks like a lever on the 2 x 4. This will almost always give you enough leverage to pull the cartridge out.

      If you are feeling adventurous you can also try the “Lucy” method. I call it that because it has the potential to wind up looking like an episode of the Lucy Show, but it can work. Here’s what you do. Make sure the handle and cartridge nut are removed and the opposite handle is turned off. Now hold a towel over the problem cartridge and plug the spout as best you can with another cloth. Next, get someone to turn the water on to whichever side of the faucet you are working on. This will often force the cartridge out of place or at least loosen things up. Just be prepared to make a little mess.

      Personally, I would try the 2 x 4 first but the “Lucy” trick can be pretty fun.

      Let us know how it goes.

      Thanks,

      Bryan

  • Juanita

    Thanks a ton for all the practical tips and advice. I will definitely be bookmarking your blog for future reference and will also email the link to everyone I know. It seems to me that at some time or the other, someone I know ignored the ‘tiny’ leak in the bathroom simply because : a- calling in a plumber would be too expensive; b- fixing a leak is laborious and they didn’t have that much time on their hands and c: what damage could a little leak do anyway! Thanks for not just highlighting the potential destruction that a seemingly ‘small’ leak could do but also for the easy to do steps that any homeowner could take to stop the leak and prevent major damage.

  • Carol

    My problem is that there is a plastic flex line which makes it very hard to tighten the trap connector–after replacing the washers it still leaks a lot. The joint basically gets to a point where it can’t be tightened any further to stop the leak, largely because there are so many joints and twisting causes the other ones to loosen and leak. So just saying to tighten the joint isn’t very helpful with my arrangement.

    • Bryan

      Carol,

      Sorry for the delayed response. The “real” world has been pretty hectic lately.

      I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “plastic flex line”, but maybe I can offer some general advice that will help.

      First, sometimes when tightening “slip joint” nuts (the technical term) you have to hold the pipes you are connecting so they don’t twist when you tighten the nut. It is a good idea to first loosen all the connections and then start at the fixture drain (like the sink) and work your way to the wall or floor- wherever the pipe goes. This ensures you have a good connection at each joint.

      Another tip is to get some softer washers. There are some out now that are usually red in color and they are a little softer than the kind of milky colored ones that come with the traps a lot. You can usually find them at a Home Depot or Lowe’s.

      The above assumes you have all plastic piping. If you have some metal slip joint piping you need to make sure you aren’t using a standard flat slip joint washer on a plastic connection, it won’t seal very good. The washers you should be using in the plastic piping are tapered. The smaller side needs to be pointing toward the female side of the connection (the side with the threads on it.

      I hope this helps.

      You can do it!

      Bryan

  • i used to do DIY plumbing at home at my work seems to be on par with regular plumbers.’-~

  • Thanks a ton! That was really helpful, I just bookmarked your website.

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