Chasing Water Leaks Part I

March 27, 2010

Ten percent of homes have water leaks that waste 90 gallons or more water per day. water-meterParticipate in National Fix-a-Leak Week by fixing a water leak this month.

 

The Silent Thief

A leaky faucet that drips at the rate of  one drip per second can waste more than 3,000 gallons of water per year. If you have a dripping faucet or running toilet, these need to be fixed first and will solve the obvious water leaks. If you need to call a handyman or plumber.. the time is now. If you want to give it the DIY try, visit EHow.com for a straight forward method for fixing common faucet and toilet leaks. However before you start, make sure you have already read my post on Water Supply Cut Off and City Water Cut Off.

 

Even though fixing water leaks is not normally what I would consider as preventative maintenance, fixing a faucet or toilet is something that is hard to miss, if you see it leaking….fix it. However, some water leaks can occur in places you would not normally view. Under the sink, behind the refigerator, and under the house are just some of the places. These type water leaks can go unnoticed for weeks, months or even years. These leaks not only waste water but can cause structural damage to wood floors as well as foundations. If you have no leaks, this inspection is about 5 minutes. If you do, plan on a good part of the day.  Good luck .

 

The Inspection

This inspection method is really about finding those hidden leaks.  Insure that nothing will be turned on (dishwasher, toilet, sprinklers, etc.), or activated during this test. Before performing the inspection you must gain access to the meter. This may require a meter key that can be purchased in the plumbing section of any home improvement center. Once you have the meter box open, the meter should be visible. There are at least a dozen different water meters having different dials and gauges. Look for the “Low Flow” gauge in the meter (in the meter pictured here, the low flow indicator is the little red blob to the left of the large sweep hand, between the 7 and 8 on the dial). If you are unsure which gauge it is, turn on a faucet, leave it on and look at the meter. One of the gauges in the meter will be moving faster than any other part of the dial; this is the low flow gauge. Turn off the fixture, return to the water meter and watch the low flow indicator for approximately 3-5 minutes. If the meter progressively moves forward, you have some form of leak, if not no further investigations are required. If you do have a leak,  you can call a professional or try to further isolate the problem. Either way, it may take some time  as some the leak may not be visible.  $TIP$: Isolating the leak before calling the plumber will save you some money as the plumber will charge you by the hour whether he is looking or fixing a leak. 

water-meter-key1Before we start the leak isolation test, turn the water off here (to make sure you can). It may seem like a simple task and why should you do it just to say you 100_0178can? Because when you really need to, time is of the essence, and you don’t have time to search for the right tool. This cut-off (on the street side of the meter head may be hard to get to, so find the right wrench that will work for you).  A crescent type wrench works best for me. The cut-off is probably a ball valve and you will only need to turn it 90 degrees from its current position. 

 

Leak Isolation Group I (fixtures, faucets and toilets):

If you find a lot of  water or condensation on the fixtures, save the test for a dry or warmer day as this condition will make it difficult to find your problem.

 As mentioned in the beginning of the article, you should have already fixed any obvious dripping faucets. This isolation method is for the hard to find leaks. If the low flow meter stops after any one of the isolation steps, you have found the source of the leak. toilet_water_shutoff_valve

  1. One at a time, turn off each fixture at the wall and return to the meter to watch the low flow gauge. This should include all faucets, toilets, ice makers, water filters, dish washer and water heater (inspect last).   If the meter stops, there is a leak between the cut off and the fixture.
  2. If you find water dripping or puddles, take some unused toilet paper and wipe down the hose, pip, cut-off, fixture and both ends of the connection; everything under the sink.  TRICK: Why use TP you ask? TP is very absorbent, very pliable and you can see any water trace in the paper. Water travels down hill so look at the joints above the first sign of water.
  3. With the water turned on, start your inspection from the highest joint/connection. Look at the TP after wiping down each joint/connection/pipe section/cut-off. If you find any water deposits on the TP, you may have found the leak. Leaks are usually found at joints, couplings and connections. Assuming it can be tightened, do so by hand if possible or with a wrench, or call a plumber. TIP: Most plumbing connection are made with soft plastic, copper or brass, only tighten the joint to the point of not leaking, over tightening can cause it to leak worse.  Many plastic joints ca be tightened by hand. After tightening the joint, dry it completely and perform the TP test again. Perform the test at least twice. If the leak persists, replacing the rubber washer or seal at this joint may be required.
  4. Toilets: Toilets require the TP test as well. Since most residential toilets have a tank, you will have to verify that water is not leaking from the tank to the bowl. Remove the lid from the tank and add some food coloring or colored tank bowl cleaner to the tank water (do not flush). Give it about 5 minutes, then see if any of the color has leaked in the bowl. You may have a leaky flapper valve. 
  5. Check the water meter again. Hopefully you fixed it, but you could still have more leaks.
  6. Perform this series of tests as required for each water fixture in the house. This will include all faucets, toilets  refrigerator mounted ice maker. dishwashers and any other water consuming or delivering device.

Look for articles on Sprinklers Leaks and Plumbing-Chasing Leaks Part II for additional leak detection methods.

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Plumbing-City Water Pressure

February 28, 2009

plumbing-faucetCommon water pressure should be somewhere between 45 and 125 psi.

There are many contributing factors that impact this value that may include 1) distances to the water source, 2) size of the distribution lines, 3) elevation of the water supply, 4) primary water line size and the list goes on. However, your plumbing system should work correctly if the pressure is within the 45/125 psi range. If you have just moved from the city to a rural area, do not be surprised if the water pressure is lower than what you have been used to. Contact your water provider to determine if they are within their specification at your house.  (If your house is served by your own well, the primary pump will determine the pressure. Wells will be covered as a separate post.) There is no maintenance inspection associated with the water pressure item other than knowing what it is as a reference as it can cause the system to act differently than normal. Recognizing the  changes will help to determine if any action is required during high pressure conditions, you may experience excessively noisy pipes, clanging or hammering. Low pressure is pretty obvious… low pressure and low flow. Typically, these conditions can be associated with the service provider performing work that required them to open up or turn off the water near by. If the condition does not pass in 24 hours, you may call them to determine how long the condition could continue.  TIP: If you experience low pressure, take the opportunity to fill up some gallon jugs as you may totally loose water pressure before the water line repair is fixed.

waterpressure-gaugeIf you suspect your water pressure to be out of range, you can check it using an inexpensive pressure gauge available at most any home improvement center. To check your water pressure, simply screw the pressure gauge on to an outside faucet (TIP: closest to the water meter) and open the faucet. This will provide an accurate reading. If you find it to be low or high and intend to call the water department, provide them the reading to assist them in their resolution. (TIPKnowing what the water pressure is, under normal conditions, is also valuable information

Since water lines stay under pressure and are considered a closed system, turning the water off, opening the pipes(s) and exposing the interior of the water line allows dirt and mud into the system. It doesn’t matter whether the work  is performed by the water provider, plumber or yourself, it can cause clogged water filters, strainers and faucet nozzles. If you are aware of the work, wait about three days, then clean your faucet strainers/nozzles/filters. Look for a future post on this subject. Plumbing-Faucets.


Plumbing- Water Supply Cut-Off

January 25, 2009

In most cases all houses should have a service cut off independent of the 100_0172water meter. Even though the  function can be performed at either location it is not uncommon for the service cut-off to be inoperable or impossible to find especially in older  homes.  Deterioration to this service  cut-off is not uncommon. If you can find it and it works, this would be the normal location to turn the water off when you need to turn-off the water.  However, if you cannot operate it with relative ease…. DON’T FORCE IT as it can be broken easily without to much effort. As you can see in this second picture there are several cut-offs and the handles have corroded away. I had to dig out a pail of dirt just to take the picture. If turning the water off at the meter is you choice, see 100_0176 Plumbing-City Water Cut-Off.  If this water cut-off does not work and does not leak and you can still turn the water off at the meter, just leave this one alone.  The day may come when you find it leaking, replacement will be your best option at that time. 

Regardless of where you choose to turn your water off, ensure that it can be performed in one of the two places, and turn the water off at least once to say you did. If you have a plumbing problem typically you need to turn the water off fairly quick.  A leak can put a lot of water on the floor as well as cause an expensive call to a plumber. If you can schedule a plumber based on his schedule, instead of an emergency call out, the cost difference is dramatic.

Key Inspection Points and Action Items:

  1. Locate the water cut-off.
  2. Atempt to turn the water off here, if not,  go to the water meter.

Seasonal Reminder-Winterizing Plumbing

January 21, 2009

 

Uninsulated pipes installed in unconditioned crawl spaces or attics can freeze when the outside ambient temperature  falls to 20F or below.

plumber1I am a little late in the season for this one, but here in the Southwest part of the country, winterizing our plumbing is perceived as not a big deal, but in reality, we  have more frozen pipes in our part of the country than Northern climates. Our building code are more lenient and allow methods that would never be considered in Michigan or Wisconsin.  Several years ago, Southern Louisiana had extreme cold weather over the Christmas holidays. The amount of broken water pipes almost called out the National Guard, due to the extreme loss of water pressure in the city water supply.  If you live in Baton Rouge or Houston, it would not be uncommon to find your main water pipe exposed on the outside wall of the house before it goes in the house.   For that reason, these tips may apply to homeowners that live in zones 8A or greater as  defined by the USADA Hardiness Zone Map.

According to the Building Research Council at the University of Illinois, uninsulated pipes installed in unconditioned crawl spaces or attics can freeze when the outside ambient temperature  falls to 20F or below. However, high winds or “wind chill “can augment this number potentially causing frozen pipes at higher temperatures.  Wind chill typically impacts pipes that may be exposed to insulation leaks in the building envelope. For example, a water pipe in an exterior wall without insulation is at risk, add the fact that a crack in the exterior wall near the pipe will allow colder temperatures to increase the opportunity for a frozen pipe. 

Key Inspection Points and Action Items:

  1. Wrap exposed pipes: Especially outside pipes, but don’t forget pipes under the house in crawl spaces as well as in the attic. All Home Centers sell foam foam-insulationsleeves to cover the pipes. This is cheap insurance as these sleeve are about $2.00 per 8 feet. 
  2. Cover or wrap the exterior faucets. Home Centers have a solution for faucets that protrude from the wall, but you will have to be creative for faucets that surface out of the ground. My grandmother always tied an old hand towel around the outside faucets…. its pretty ugly but it worked.
  3. Caulk the cracks: Check the exterior of the house, especially in relation to faucets or pipes on exterior walls. Ensure the surface is well sealed as not to allow cold air to seep into the wall cavity.
  4. Open cabinet doors: In extreme conditions or extended vacations, open cabinet doors associated with all kitchen and bathroom faucets.
  5. Dripping Faucets:  If it appears you may experience sub 20 degree weather, and you have pipes (especially on the North side) that are at risk, let the hot and cold water run. Granted, this breaks my rule of wasting water, but if possible, try to capture the water in a pan or pail and water your house plants. They are probably drying out since your are running your heater anyway. TIP: If the open faucets stops dripping, leave it open as this will allow the ice formation to expand without damaging the pipes.
  6. Turn off and drain Lawn Sprinkler System: If cold weather conditions are forecasted  for several days, you may consider turning off and draining your sprinkler system. Hopefully you have a cut off and drain. For some of us, watering in the winter is still necessary due to the lack of rain or snow, so you may just turn it off based on the weather forcast. TIP: If you do not have a drain at the sprinkler cut-off, you can activate the sprinkler system for a few seconds to remove presure from the lines.
  7. Disconnect and drain exterior water hoses: A water hose connected to an exterior faucet will telegraph a frozen condition into the faucet potentially causing the faucet to freeze. 
  8. Extended vacation:If you are leaving the house for several months, you may consider turning the water off and draining the pipes. As an alternative to that, leaving your Central Heater on 60F, will alleviate this situation. Look for future posts on “Extended  Winter Vacations” for more details.

Plumbing-City Water Cut-Off

January 16, 2009

Knowing how to turn the water off here is a valuable tool in your home knowledge arsenal. Being able to turn the water off changes the complexion of your relation with a plumbing emergency as well as the plumber. It may seem like a simple task and why should you do it;  just to say you 100_0178can? Because when you really need to, time is of the essence, and you don’t have time to search for the right tool. This cut-off, on the street side of the meter head, may be hard to get to so find the right wrench that will work for you.  A crescent type wrench works best for me. The cut-off is probably a ball valve and you will only need to turn it 90 degrees from its current position. Be prepared, when you open the meter lid, you will probably find many bug friends as it is a great place to hang out if you are a cock roach. Give it try.


Plumbing-City Water Meter

January 14, 2009

watermeter2The city provides a water meter  to determine how much to charge for water usage and also a place to turn the water off. The meter can also be used as a tool to recognize water leaks.  If your water bill dramatically changes and cannot be related to service work, changes in household routines, extra house guests or summer watering, the water meter should be the place to start to determine if there are any hidden water leaks.  Obviously, if you have any recognizable leaky faucets, fixtures or toilets, these leaks should be addressed.  $TIP$: Many municipalities charge related services (sewage, trash pickup) on the same bill, these charges can be relational to total water usage. If you have leaks you may be giving the city extra money due to a water leak. Look for the upcoming post on Chasing Water Leaks  for a leak isolation method.