Plumbing pipe problems

Thawing frozen pipes

It is not probable that homeowners in urban communities will often be troubled with frozen pipes unless they go away for several weeks and leave their home unheated during a protracted spell of freezing weather. If you are contemplating such an absence, the water should be shut off and pipes drained. But, if you should find a frozen pipe, certain steps are advisable.

Freezing water expands and sometimes cracks pipe or fittings. So the first thing to do is to look for cracks. Much of the water supply pipe in homes is concealed within walls, but thus it is more protected and less likely to freeze. If you find a section in the cellar that is frozen and cracked, replace it immediately.

Shut off the water supply at the main shutoff valve. Disconnect the pipe at the nearest union, after providing for pails to catch water that runs down from non-frozen higher sections. Replace the cracked pipes and reconnect the system.

If your original inspection disclosed no cracked pipes, open all faucets and begin applying heat from the faucet end of the frozen section. Bath towels soaked in hot water and wrapped around the pipe are a safe method. Be sure to catch or mop up water that drains off.

If the frozen section is in the cellar and not too close to inflammable objects, a blowtorch can be used to heat the pipe. Move the torch back and forth along the pipe to avoid concentrating too much heat at one point. Such heat of course would be carried along the pipe, so playing the torch on a free section would help thaw an adjoining section which might rest against wood. Pouring boiling water over pipe is another good way to thaw it out.

Electricity can be employed to thaw pipes but it is inadvisable foramateur plumbers to use this method as the danger of a serious electric shock is great. Only experienced electrical workers should attempt it.

Detecting leaks

Leaks may occur at almost any point in the water supply system, although connections, bends, and fittings are the more likely spots through which water may find its way. After the plumbing has been in for years, any section of pipe may be vulnerable. Leaks in exposed runs of pipe are easiest to detect; and those occurring in underground piping are hardest to find.

Leaks in piping behind walls or partitions or under floors may be troublesome to locate because moisture indicating a break may not appear near the place where the water is being lost. Water from a leak will often run along a horizontal run of pipe or a beam and drip off many feet from where it started. Water naturally runs down a vertical section of piping, perhaps to appear far below the actual leak.

Damage from leakage can be costly, for continuous undetected dripping can eat away plaster walls or ceilings, rot timbers and joists, and destroy painted or wallpapered finishes. Repairing such damage is usually expensive.

Location of leaks within walls or under floors is not easily accomplished by the amateur plumber. When a leak is suspected, you should study the pipe layout above the appearance of water and try to trace out all the possible sources of the leak. Water finds its way down and its appearance in the basement could come from a leak on the second floor.

Check all visible and accessible fittings and bends. Eliminate as much as you can, thus localizing the area in which the leak may be. But unless you narrow down the possible guilty sections to just one or two, you had better get some professional advice before tearing out sections of wall or flooring.

Professional plumbers have various devices at their disposal whereby they can locate leaks without destruction to building structure. These include: Darley's leak locator, which uses the principle of the electric coil and the magnetic field; test rods for underground leaks; sound-detecting machines, such as crystal sets with amplifiers which can magnify the sound of a leak 10,000 times; chemicals which measure water movement; and the principles of water hammer or hydraulic gradient.

Clearing clogged pipes

Most water contains minerals of one kind or another. They tend to deposit on the inside of water supply pipe, more often on galvanized steel pipe than on brass pipe with its smoother interior. So, after a number of years of use, pipe is likely to become clogged unless it is cleaned out.

Clogged pipe reduces the flow of water considerably. If pipe is really badly clogged, the best advice is to replace it with new pipe, but there are methods which will clean out some material if pipe is not too clogged. One is to attach a wire brush to a small metal rod and push it back and forth through a section of pipe, which of course has been removed from the water supply system. Flush it out now and then, and continue until you do not seem to be loosening anything more.

Another method is to take a 2-foot length of small chain that will go through the pipe you desire to clean out. Attach of piece of stout cord which is a little longer than the pipe to be cleaned to each end of the chain. Attach the free end of one cord to a piece of stiff wire and push the wire and then the cord through the pipe.

With the two cords, work the chain back and forth through the pipe several times and then flush out the pipe with water. This method will not clean out everything but it will usually dislodge some of the accumulation of deposits.

A third method is to fill the piece of pipe with diluted muriatic acid and let it stand overnight or longer. A solution of one part of muriatic acid to seven parts of water is best. Be careful not to spill any on your hands, face, or clothes for muriatic acid is both strong and poisonous. Screw a cap over one end of the pipe before pouring in the muriatic acid and cap the other end after the acid is in. Tilt the pipe up and down several times. Later remove the acid and flush out all accumulations that have been loosened. Repeat, if necessary.

Clogged sewer pipe

Occasionally some bulky object may be flushed down the toilet or kitchen sink and stop up the sewer line from the house to the sewer or cesspool. In most cases there is a drain in the cellar, and when this overflows you can be fairly sure the sewer line is clogged. If the soil stack has become clogged, your toilet or kitchen sink will overflow.

Often a bulky object may be forced down vertical sections of the soil stack, but when the stack runs horizontally, it may catch on other objects and clog the pipe. The first step is to direct all people in the house not to discharge any more water down the drains and not to flush toilets.

Most residential sewer systems have a special clean-out plug situated at the point where the sewer line leaves the house. This plug can be removed to attack and remedy this sort of stoppage. If the plug is made of brass, you can probably remove it with a monkey wrench or a stilson wrench. If the plug is made of iron and rusted in place, it may be necessary to use a cold chisel to start unscrewing it.

Once the plug is out, insert a spring-steel auger ( generally called a "snake") in the sewer pipe to try to remove the obstruction. A "snake" is a slightly flexible, long strip of steel with a heavy point or bundle of spikes at one end. Being flexible, it can be worked around any bends and pushed out till it meets the obstruction. Then by working the "snake" back and forth, you can break up the obstruction or push it out through the pipe.

Measure the distance from the edge of your house to the street, and measure the length of the "snake", and then you can tell, if the "snake" is longer, when it has probably reached the sewer in the street. Don't try to force it further than that, as the street sewer will be going at a right-angle to your sewer line.

A "snake" can be rented from hardware or plumbing stores or from a plumber. However, a clogged sewer pipe is often a messy job and should be corrected as soon as possible. You may prefer to call in a plumber to clear the pipe quickly. On the other hand, clogged pipes do not respect normal business hours, and it may be difficult or impossible to get a plumber or rent or borrow a "snake" when one is needed. A substitute for a "snake" which is at least better than nothing is a heavy rubber garden hose.

Do not use one of the light plastic hoses such as have recently been marketed, as they will buckle. But a heavy rubber garden hose connected to a faucet and pushed along a sewer pipe may do the trick and clear it. Push the hose in till it meets the obstruction, then turn on the water full force and thrust the hose solidly and repeatedly against the obstruction. The chances are you can then push it along.

However, if the stoppage is in the vertical part of the sewer line, often called the soil stack, you may have to cut a hole in the cast iron pipe and insert the snake through that. Choose a convenient spot to work on, perhaps about three feet up from the cellar floor. Keep the hole small. You want it merely large enough so you can insert a snake and small enough so you can later tap a thread into the soil stack and screw in a pipe plug. A hole 1" or 1 1/4" in diameter should suffice. There are two ways to cut such a hole—either with a diamond point chisel or with a metal hole-saw.

You had better be prepared for a flood as soon as you break through the sewer pipe if the stoppage point is below the hole you make. All the blocked up water will pour out, so it is wise to have some pails or barrels ready to catch it. If the stoppage is above your hole, there is much less likelihood of a sudden flood when the stoppage is broken since most of the released water will sweep down the soil stack past the hole.

Diamond-point chisel method:—If you use a diamond-point chisel and hammer, be careful to keep the hole small at first and enlarge it slowly and carefully so as to not split the pipe. When the hole is not quite an inch in diameter, try inserting the snake. If the hole is too small to work through (of course it has to be a little larger than the end of the snake), enlarge it a little more. Push the snake in the direction of the stoppage and break it up or push it along.

When your stoppage is cleared, you can turn to the task of making the hole round and cutting a thread for a pipe plug. Use a pipe tap reamer to enlarge the hole and make it perfectly round. A square wrench or monkey wrench can be used to turn the reamer. Then insert the pipe tap, making sure it is perpendicular to the surface of the centre of your hole, and turn the tap slowly with a monkey wrench in a clockwise direction to form a regular or right-hand thread.

When the tap stops or becomes too hard to turn without brute strength, turn it back and oil the surface you are cutting. Turn the tap in again and repeat the manoeuvre of oiling and cutting until you have a thread all the way into the pipe. Try screwing a pipe plug in. If it seems to fit reasonably tightly, remove it and apply white lead or some sort of pipe compound (or "dope") to the pipe threads and then screw the plug in.

Metal hole-saw method: The other method of cutting a hole in cast iron pipe is to use a metal hole-saw or cutter. It has a square shank so that it can be fitted into a bit brace. It can also be fitted into an electric drill. Note that you have first to drill a pilot hole so as to have a centre for the circular saw blade.

Different-sized saw blades or cutters can be inserted and screwed tight into various slots to cut holes for pipe taps of 1", 1 1/4", 1 1/2", and 2" diameters. Be careful not to press too hard or you may break the cutter. If you are using an electric drill, a pilot drill of 1/2" diameter is advised. Holes cut with a metal hole-saw are perfect circles and do not have to be reamed. Use a pipe tap to cut a thread in the same manner as just described for the Diamond-Point Chisel Method. Then dope and screw in the pipe plug.

Leaks around bathtub

In some cases leaks below a bathroom are first attributed to water lines, but on closer inspection it may be found that they are the result of improper sealing between a tile wall and the bathtub. The proper way to repair this leak is to scrape out all the old cement that is between the tile and the top of the bathtub and refill it with tile cement, or a mixture of plaster of paris, or fine sand and cement.

Cleaning out vent stack

It is seldom that a vent stack becomes clogged up, and so when one does you may be rather mystified. Other plumbing breakdowns generally make their presence known immediately. If a fixture becomes flooded, you know there is a stoppage in a waste line. If all the fixtures flood, you know the stoppage is in the soil stack or sewer line.

If odours of an indiscernible nature seem to be prevalent in your bathroom, kitchen, or any other location where plumbing fixtures are, it is possible that a stopped-up vent is the cause. The top-floor fixtures are the ones more often affected. Go up to the roof and check the main vent of the house.

Note whether or not vapours seem to be coming out of the top of the vent stack. The best way to create vapours in your plumbing system is to run the hot water—the hot water running into cold waste pipes will throw off considerable vapour. If the vent is open, you will see these vapours coming out. If no vapours emerge, your vent stack is probably clogged up. The vent clogs in various ways and for various reasons.

The stoppage usually occurs just below the roof where the vent pipe is offset. One way of clearing stoppages is to run an auger or cleanout wire from the vent opening on the roof. You may or may not know whether the stoppage point has been reached and broken through. Test the system again by turning on hot water. If vapours are seen rising, vents are open.

Another way of clearing a stoppage is to insert the end of a hose at the top of the vent and flush the vent thoroughly. This is sometimes advisable after breaking a stoppage with an auger or cleanout wire.

Draining a plumbing system

When people are planning to be away and leave their house unheated for the winter, it is a good idea to shut off the water and drain all the pipes so that water in them will not freeze and crack the pipes.

Just inside the house in the cellar is the main shut-off valve o' the water supply system. Turning off this valve prevents any more water from entering the house. In some cases there is also a shut-off cock out near the curb and it might be wise to have that turned off as well if winters are severe.

However, a broken pipe between the street and the house would not be too difficult to repair and would not cause the damage that broken pipes in the house might. Shut-off valves in the cellar vary. Some have handles and some have to be turned with a wrench. Some are equipped with a drain-off cock just inside the valve; if this is so, draining is simple. Let the water drain off through the cellar drain.

If there is no drain-off cock, you will have to disconnect the union which is nearest the main shut-off valve. Unions have been described and discussed earlier, and breaking the union and later reconnecting it should not be too difficult.

The next step is to go to the highest cold-water fixture in the house, presumably a top floor bathroom, and open the cold-water faucet. That will admit air into the cold-water system and allow the water in the line going to the cellar to drain down by gravity and go out the open drain-off cock or unconnected union. There may be sections where water remains, so it is safest to take a force pump (such as a tire pump), connect it to the faucet, and pump air into the cold-water line. That will force out any water in that section that did not drain out.

Shut off that faucet, disconnect the pump, and go on to the next highest cold-water fixture. Turn that on, wait a bit, and then connect the pump and blow that line out. Treat all other cold-water fixtures similarly. Flush the toilet repeatedly until empty. Sponge out any water remaining in the tank. Siphon or sponge out water in the toilet bowl.

Similarly drain the hot-water system, starting with the hot-water storage tank. This tank will have a drain-off cock near the bottom. Open this and let water drain out into a pail or across the cellar floor into the cellar drain. Then go to the highest hot-water fixture and open it; more water will drain down by gravity and emerge from the hot-water-tank drain cock. Wait several minutes and then connect the force pump as you did with the cold-water lines and pump out. Shut off that faucet and repeat the process with all the others.

If there are laundry tubs in the cellar, do not overlook those outlets. If pipes to the tub faucets go below the level of the drain cocks you have opened or the union you disconnected, you will have to pump out the water or disconnect the unions on those lines. Check carefully to make sure every water supply faucet or outlet has been taken care of. If there is an outlet outside the house for connecting a garden hose, that should be opened, drained, and perhaps blown out. If water is piped to the garage or elsewhere, do not overlook that.

One other part of the drainage system, the traps, must be drained. Unscrew the cleanout plugs at the bottom of the traps under the wash bowl and under the kitchen sink and drain them. Then put the plugs on again and fill the trap with kerosene, alcohol, or some other anti-freeze. A mixture of alcohol and kerosene is good as the kerosene will rise to the top and prevent the alcohol from evaporating. Filling the traps is necessary to keep sewer gas from entering the house via the soil pipe and soil stack and gradually filling the house via the waste pipes. If these traps are sealed, sewer gas will find its way up the vents and out.

If your home is heated by hot water or steam, all water in radiators, pipes, and furnace should be carefully drained out, and any radiators you are doubtful about should be pumped out with a force pump in the same way that fixtures were.

Refilling a plumbing system

This operation is much simpler—you just turn on the water at the main shut-off valve and let a supply come in. However, as a little sediment may have accumulated in the main service line while the water was shut off, it is a good idea to flush out this line. To do so, leave the drain cock open or leave the union disconnected and turn the main shut-off valve wide open for a minute or two so any sediment will be washed out through the drain cock or open union.

Then close the shutoff valve, close the drain cock or reassemble this union, and open the shut-off valve again slowly. Have all the faucets open so air will be forced out. As water rises in your water supply system, turn off the lower faucets first. Nothing need be done about the kerosene or anti-freeze in the various traps because when water is discharged it will carry those liquids down the drainage system.

Be sure to refill the hot-water tank and radiators and furnace before building any fires. Sometimes after water has been shut off for a time and turned on again, faucets will drip because washers have contracted. Let them drip for a day or two and the leather or rubber washers may swell up and stop the leak.

Noise in pipes

Noise in water pipes is both annoying and indicative of faulty conditions which in time might cause leaks to develop. Steps to eliminate the noise are therefore advisable. Noise in overhead pipes may be the result of lack of sufficient support. When you open a faucet, water rushes through the pipes. When you shut off the faucet suddenly, the momentum of the water is brought to a halt and the pipes vibrate. You may have too few pipe hangers. Pipe hangers installed every three or four feet will hold the pipe more rigidly and eliminate vibration.

In cases where pipes cannot vibrate, the momentum of water flowing through them causes what is called "water hammer," a chattering or pounding in the water system when a faucet is turned off. This can be stopped by installing a short piece of pipe next to a faucet to act as a sort of shock absorber.

The water supply line will probably come up to an elbow that turns to come through a wall. Shut off the water, and unscrew the piece of pipe that fits into the faucet. Remove the elbow and replace it with a T. Connect a short piece of pipe about 2 feet long with a cap on the end above the T, and replace the piece of pipe with the faucet on the end.

Stopping leaks in pipes

A small leak through a crack in a water pipe can be temporarily stopped in an emergency. A plumber may not be immediately available, or you may not have the proper tools or an appropriate piece of pipe for a replacement, or you may not have time enough at the moment to do a permanent job.

Place a flat rubber or leather gasket over the crack and hammer a piece of sheet metal to fit over the gasket; then secure both to the pipe with a clamp obtainable at hardware stores.

Where the leak is at a screw pipe joint and cannot be stopped by tightening the joint with pipe wrenches, apply a thin coating of commercial iron cement and/or a gasket and put a pipe band over it. A pipe band is rugged and has two bolts whereas a pipe clamp is lighter and has only one bolt.

Plumbing basics

Bathroom fixtures
Bathroom floor plans
Bathtub installation
Installing lavatory
Water closet install

Cesspool / septic tanks

Fixture pipes
House drain
House sewer
Soil stack
Vent piping

Finishing touch

Heating a home


Dishwasher install
Garbage disposer install
Kitchen plans
Kitchen sink installation
Laundry install
Room plans
Work areas

Cast Iron

Plumbing layout
Pipe plan
Water distributing

Faucet repair
Pipe problems
Repair other
Toilet repair


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