Chasing Water Leaks Part II

July 28, 2010

water-leak210% of all homes have some sort of water leak, and can be repaired quite easily. However, hidden leaks are hard to find but can go un-noticed for years and cause significant structural damage.

To continue with the “Chasing Water Leaks” theme for March, Part II of this article is directed at the real hard to find category. By now you should have fixed any leaks associated with faucets, toilets, and any other water delivery devices (dishwashers, ice makers, lawn sprinklers, etc.). If not, make sure and read the posts on Chasing Water Leaks Part I and lawn sprinklers  and resolve those issues first before going any further.  This Part II  inspection will help you discover leaks that may be in the ground, in a wall or very small leaks that can go unnoticed in or around the house. Even if you decide not to do any of the work, isolating the leak for the plumber will save you significant $$’s.

Leak Isolation Group II (main lines and  concealed leaks)

  1. Main water line: Typically houses have a service cut-off immediately before the water service enters the house. Turn off the service cut-off and re-inspect the water meter low flow gauges to see if the meter is still running or not. If the meter still runs, walk the path of the water line looking for dark green grass (in the summer) or wet spots. TIP: Use caution in operating this cut-off if it has not been operated for a year or so, do not force it. You can still walk-out the path without using the cut off. Obviously, if you find something here it will need to be fixed before you can complete the inspection. Finding the leak here may conclude your inspection.  Considered rare, finding a leak here can typically be associated with recent digging.   mold
  2. At this point, the leak you are searching for is probably very small.  You will be looking for traces of water, in the form of moisture or mold. You may just find slight discoloration or the surface may be cold to touch compared to the rest of the surface. Inspect baseboards and walls near or around where water pipes enter the house. Make sure and look on both sides of a wall that may have water pipes in them.  Look for moisture on the walls and floors surrounding all the water fixtures. You may also find distortion on the wall or floor surface as water will cause the building materials to expand. If you find solid evidence, you may have to open the wall to get to it to expose the pipes, but before you do, try to isolate the problem further by following the Foundation methods.  (TIP: Experiencing foundation movement could have been the cause of a leaky pipes in a wall.) If you were unable to locate the leak based on the previous inspection you may eventually require a professional but before you call them try these inspection methods for further isolation.

Pier & Beam Foundations: Houses with pier and beam foundations usually have a crawl space with an access hole. Possibly in a closet or outside around the foundation. If you are claustrophobic, don’t like bugs spiders and crawling things, you want to stop here and call a professional. If you choose to continue, take a good flashlight and crawl in.

  1. Start at the end of the house where the water line enters the house and  crawl the path of the pipes. Look for puddles, wet soil and wet pipes. If you suspect pipes-in-crawl-space1a leak in the wall , look up at the floor boards and all locations where the pipes enter the house above you.  Moisture, dampness, mold is the give away. If it has been leaking for an extended period of time, you may find rotten wood. If the pipe is leaking within the wall, you will probably see water trickling down the pipe to the ground.
  2. If you find water or water damage around the large drain pipes under the toilets, shower, tub or sinks, this will have to be addressed, but is not the cause of water loss through the meter.

Slab Foundations: With slab foundations; walk the perimeter of the house.

  1. Look for damp areas or pools of water
  2. Look for damp conditions or green moss on the concrete and brick. This would not be associated with any gutter downspouts or roof run offs.
  3. At this point, if you  haven’t found it, you may have a leak in an interior wall or under the foundation. If you have had recent foundation movement or foundation repairs, this would increase the chances of this type of leak.
  4. Calling in a professional may be your only choice because it may require  specialized test gear designed to measure for small amounts of water. When you are interviewing a plumber over the phone, insure they are equipped for this type  of diagnostics. Otherwise they will come out and do pretty much the same things you did, then call another plumber (as a sub-contractor) to perform the tests  and charge you for both his time and the other plumber.

Key Inspection Points and Action Items:

  1. Use the  water mter to determine if any water leaks exist.
  2. Inspect in, around, and underneath the house.
  3. Once the leak(s) have been isolated, repair them or call a professional.
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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.


Chasing Lawn Sprinkler Leaks

March 21, 2009
 Fixing easily corrected household water leaks can save homeowners more than 10 percent on their water bills. sprinkler21

       

 Unfortunately many of us require lawn sprinklers to have any kind of landscaping short of cactus, gravel and rocks. Having a lawn sprinkler system is kind of like garage door openers, once you have one its hard not to. Dragging hoses around the yard is a real pain and it becomes a challenge to keep things alive. Taking care of your sprinkler system will save you money,  reduce the opportunity to waste water and keep your plant material alive. With water restrictions  on the upswing,  more and more cities are assessing fines for violating the restrictions.  Check with your local municipality for restrictions regarding time of day, rain and freeze detection.  Adding a rain sensor to your system is a wise decision.   

Rain Sensor

Rain Sensor

   

Because sprinkler heads are not under pressure until the system is live,  it can be difficult to isolate the leaks. “Pop-ups”  are the most common spray heads found in  residential systems. Typically I find  pop-ups require more maintenance than the larger impulse or stream sprayers primarily due to the fact that pop-up sprayer use less water per head and the water orifices are smaller and they clog easily.  With pop-ups, it takes more heads per square foot to provide adequate coverage. The greater the distance between heads, the further the water has to spray.  To do this, the arc in the spray pattern has to be projected higher in the air.  As a result,  you lose up to 50% of the water in the air.  Up until the last year or so, we have seen little in the way of water miser type heads. These new type heads are designed to replace the pop-up with a miniature stream sprayer providing a coarse spray in lieu of a mist. This can help reduce water loss and your system may be retrofitted to use these type heads. However, it is important to match the right head for the system. When your system was designed,  it was all based on a certain water pressure, pipe size and GPM (gallon per minute) volume, so any changes need to take this into account otherwise you may end up over/under-watering. Not that a DIYer cant figure this out,  a good licenced irrigator can help you solve the problem. Also, take a look at this comparison study of nozzle types.   

Top 5 Reasons Why Water Sprinklers are Wasteful   

  • Poor design: System design that allows sprinklers to spray water across sidewalks or concrete cause water to be lost to evaporation and run off. 
  • Wrong watering times:  Running your water sprinklers in the middle of the day allows the water to evaporate before it has time to absorb in to the ground. 
  • Wrong water duration: Some believe short duration watering is a way to conserve water however, short shallow watering can cause turf and plants to experience stress because the shallow water can cause shallow roots.
  • Dirty nozzles: Even though sprinkler heads (should) have filters underneath the nozzles, they can still pass some particles in to the nozzle. Many times bad-sprinklerthese particles can be wedged in the spray nozzle causing it to mis-spray and not distribute water equally and efficiently throughout the spray pattern.
  • Lack of maintenance: Sprinkler heads take a lot of abuse from lawn mowers, string trimmers and edgers. Whether it be abuse,  leaky or bad sprinkler heads, all of these conditions can cause a lot of water to run down the sidewalk. 

Standard spray nozzles are approximately 50% efficient as the over-spray is lost in the air.  Loss and waste in a sprinkler system can be difficult to recognize without taking the time to exercise the system and inspect each sprinkler head while running.   

 Keeping your lawn sprinkler system in good working order is one of the easiest ways to get optimum performance from your system. Most all lawn sprinkler systems can be defined in two distinct parts:
  • Feeder or Pressure Lines: The side under pressure includes a cut off valve, double check valve (aka back flow prevention valve) and a valve for each zone and a lot of pipe. 
  • Distribution Lines or Zones: The system could include any number of  zones, this is all dependent on the size of the system. The zone has to be running to inspect it for leaks. Since the sprinklers are spraying water, finding leaks can be a bit more challenging.

Chasing Lawn Sprinkler Leaks   

Feeder or Pressure Line  Leaks:   

  1. Finding leaks in feeder/pressure lines is similar to the same process as found in the Chasing Water Leaks post. Turn off the main cut-off that will isolate the sprinkler system from the remaining water supply. If the flow meter stops proceed with the following steps.
  2. Locate each sprinkler valve in your system. If you are not sure how many valves are in your system, look at your Sprinkler Controller to identify how many sections or zones are in the system. Finding the sprinkler valve may be difficult as valves can be overgrown by grass or ground cover.  If you have the original installation drawing, it should identify the approximate locations of the valves. Before you hire a professional, try the methods described in Searching for Lawn Sprinkler Valves. Either way, once you find them, take note of their location for future use. 
  3. You may notice water residue around some sprinkler heads even when it should be dry, known as weeping, this could be a hint that the sprinkler valve is passing water when it should not be.
  4. Once the valves are located, they should be turned off, one at a time to determine if you have isolated the leak. Each valve has a manual cut off on the center top of the valve. Once you have isolated the leak to a specific zone, the problem will be resolved at the valve. (TIP: Sprinkler valve can be disassembled and cleaned without removing them from the system but the water must be shut off.) Most likely it just needs to be cleaned (that means taking it apart and removing any dirt or debris inside the housing),  but it could have been damaged during the winter months, if so, you may need to replace the valve. Read this tutorial for specific instructions on repairing a solenoid valve.

Distribution Lines or Zones: (Plan to get wet)   

  1. Run each section one at a time. Walk the zone looking for excess water accumulation around the head, the seal could be bad or the head loose causing a lot blown-sprinkler1of blow by. Try tightening the head, (yes, all this while the system is running). If none of this stops the excessive water, replacing the head and riser is the simplest solution. If the leak is around the stem or nozzle riser, you can take these head apart for cleaning. Perform this action with the water turned off. To avoid additional dirt in the system, its best to dig away the dirt from around the head, down to the connection otherwise dirty water will enter the lines. It’s important to remember to do your best job of keeping new dirt from entering the system as this will cause more blockage problems further down the pipe. TIP: Keep a couple of extra sprinkler heads around for spares and spare parts. Changing the head is lots less invasive and a 1 for 1 head swap out than trying to operate on the head in the dirt and water. You can also rebuild the removed head for future change-outs.
  2. If the head is not leaking inspect the pattern of the water spray. Different nozzles are designed with different patterns, so the spray could be limited by design to provide adequate coverage. There are too many nozzle patterns to discuss, but most importantly, look for a  nice clean even pattern. If you see breaks or weakness  in the pattern, the nozzle is probably dirty. Turn the zone off and unscrew the nozzle. There will be a  filter in the riser. Clean the dirt out of it. Also inspect the nozzle itself for very small pebble grit lodged in the sprayer. Use a toothpick or very small screwdriver to remove these particles. The last item may require 2 people. Run the zone without the nozzle installed, this will blow-out any dirt particles that are below the filter. Tell your partner to turn the water off and grab the riser before it stops releasing water. This will keep  dirt from re-entering the system. Re-install the filter and nozzle. Perform this same inspection with each sprinkler zone.   
  3. If necessary, (while the zone is running) adjust any partial pattern sprayers that may be near sidewalks or driveways to keep the water spraying on the grass. If you have parkway sprinklers that  are designed to water across a sidewalk (bad design)  to water grass or plants, you may be stuck with leaving it alone since cutting it back may cause an area to be dry.

Key Inspection Points and Action Items:   

  1. Look at your water meter for any slow leak that may be caused by your sprinkler system. Isolate the sprinkler valves to determine where the leak is.
  2. Run each zone, inspect each head for leaks, also look for a good pattern and good coverage. Cleaning the heads may be required.  
  3. Adjust the sprinkler heads as necessary to minimize water over-spray on no-porous surfaces (sidewalks and streets).
  4. Adjust your water cycles to match the season.

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.

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.