Common Plumbing Concerns
Plumbing systems have gradually evolved over the years to the point that most people take them for granted. As long as the water is supplied to the faucet, drains from the fixture, and doesn't leak, everything is okay. And that may be the case. But there are also numerous circumstances where everything appears to be functioning properly but the component is on the verge of malfunctioning, which can cause potentially serious consequences.
Preventive maintenance will help you keep ahead of potential problems. It is important to pay attention to unusual noises and changing water flow or drainage rates and take prompt action. Fortunately, most problems can easily be corrected if attended to as soon as they become apparent. If ignored, significant consequential damage could occur.
While a home inspection may provide homebuyers with some guidance on plumbing system concerns, there are many system components that are not readily visible for inspection. For example, the main water supply and drain lines are typically buried. Any buried piping is subject to unpredictable and sudden damage from construction work, soil movement, tree roots, material deterioration, or freeze-up in extreme cold. To help avoid surprises, it may be helpful to contact the local water and/or sewer utility for information regarding local conditions and concerns prior to closing.
Bathrooms and kitchens are high use areas containing numerous plumbing components subject to wear and malfunction. Anticipate the possibility of leakage or other concerns developing in these areas at any time with even normal usage/aging.
Water Supply Piping
Modern water piping is typically copper or plastic. Lead, galvanized steel, and brass piping were commonly used for many years and are still found in many homes. The older the pipe the more prone it is to leaks, whether due to normal aging, corrosive water conditions, or corrosion caused by the mixing of different types of metal pipes.
The presence of lead in a water supply is a concern. Generally, only very old homes have lead water piping; however, up to the mid-1980s copper piping was joined with lead-containing solders, which can contribute to elevated lead levels in drinking water – particularly where the water supply is acidic. Fortunately, there are some basic methods to test for lead.
Several different types of plastic piping have been used for water supply lines since the 1980s. Problems surfaced with some of these pipes, particularly several brands of polybutylene (PB) water-supply piping manufactured prior to the mid-1990s. The cause of these problems was a combination of material defects and faulty installation. Subsequent litigation led to the establishment of special repair/replacement programs for certain PB systems that developed leaks. Problems with newer systems may be covered under the manufacturer warranty. If any concerns with a PB system exist, the pipe manufacturer or a local plumber should be contacted to help identify the product and determine if remedial action is required and whether costs might be covered under any program.
The adequacy of water flow to a house or individual fixtures is a factor of the water volume and pressure. Poor water pressure can be caused by supply problems, scale buildup in the pipes, faulty valves, and many other factors. If flow problems exist or develop, an assessment for cause and possible remedial needs should begin by checking the fixture for clogged aerators, partially closed valves, or defective faucets, before looking at issues associated with the main supply. A faulty reducing valve (pressure regulators) is one possible cause for low water pressure. This valve is installed in some water sup-ply lines to prevent damage to plumbing components from high water pressure. A damaged or improperly adjusted reducing valve can result in pressures that are either too high or too low.
Water hammer (“knocking” noise) may be due to high water pressure but can happen even under normal conditions. It is caused by a combination of factors such as inadequate air cushions in the water lines to temper the sudden stoppage of water flow when a faucet or valve closes or improperly installed piping. Often securing loose pipes and/or draining the system to recharge air chambers will help mitigate this problem.
Since drain lines are not under pressure, they are not as susceptible to sudden leakage problems as water piping; however, slow corrosion can lead to leakage.
Blockage can occur from gradual buildup of roots, hardened waste, or just flushing the wrong materials, causing a sudden backup.
Plastic is now the most common type of drain piping. It is durable, easy to work with, doesn't corrode and costs less than metal pipe; however, there are some issues. As with plastic water piping, there have been some material defects with certain types/brands. In addition, using the wrong solvent to glue sections or fittings together makes it susceptible to leaks. Also, plastic will expand and contract with swings of temperature, so if not properly secured and isolated from building components, pipe noise may be an issue.
One particularly problematic component is the base of a stall shower that has an underlying pan covered by tile or another type surface. If the exposed surface is not watertight, the pan will eventually deteriorate and leak, a condition that may not be readily apparent. Any leakage below a shower may be indicative of shower pan damage.
Toilets are susceptible to leak if they are not secured to the floor firmly. Long-term leakage can cause hidden damage to underlying floor components. Early models of low-flow toilets proved to be ineffective at fully draining the waste water, requiring multiple flushes instead. Through design advances, most toilets manufactured since the late 1990s are much more effective at waste disposal.
Many fixture traps need cleaning on a regular basis and may need replacement every 10 years or so. While the drain may appear functional and not be actively leaking, any trap that exhibits excessive corrosion or has a tendency to become blocked should be replaced before a major problem occurs.