leaks can cause massive damage—learn how to prevent them and use water leak
detectors to spot trouble early
Water damage is insidious because you can’t really fix it—there’s nothing you can do to repair water-soaked drywall, rotting wood, mildewed carpet, or materials infused with black mold. If you get there in time, you can dry up the water before damage occurs. Otherwise, you have to throw away the material—rip up the carpet, tear out the drywall and insulation, etc.—and replace it. Water leaks can be expensive and, between mold and black water, poses serious health risks.
Preventing water damage beats cleaning up after it. In this article, we look at the reasons home water leaks happen and what you can do to avoid or mitigate them, including:
Even a small leak from a pipe can cause significant damage over time. A leaking drain under a sink will make a mess—but you’ll probably spot it soon enough to fix it. If a supply pipe leaks behind a wall or in your basement, however, you may take days or weeks to notice it. And by then, the damage will be done.
Your home's plumbing is some of its most valuable infrastructure, and you should make sure it’s in working order. Practically speaking, this means two things. First, know the age of your pipes—as they age, they corrode, and connections may fail. Second, make sure they don’t freeze.
Know what kind of pipes you have and how old they are
There are two different kinds of home plumbing pipes—drain pipes and supply pipes.
Drain pipes flow down from your tubs, toilets, sinks, and other appliances to the sewer. They typically have a longer lifespan than supply pipes because they aren’t under constant water pressure.
Drain pipes (aka “drain lines”) are commonly made of cast iron or PVC. Cast-iron drain pipes can last in the range of 75 to 100 years, though factors like soil contraction from freeze-thaw cycles and root intrusion can shorten this lifespan. PVC pipes are estimated to have a lifespan of around 100 years, though some claim that they could last indefinitely. Soil contractions, sun exposure, and bad fittings can shorten the lifespan of PVC drain lines, though.
Supply pipes that flow water to your fixtures have shorter lifespans than drain pipes—after all, they experience constant water pressure and flowing water. If a pipe breaks because of old age, odds are it will be a supply pipe. Different kinds of supply pipe have the following average life spans:
Brass: 40 to 70+ years
Copper: 50 to 70 years
Galvanized steel: 20 to 50 years. This is highly dependent on water conditions and how quickly they cause corrosion
CPVC (plastic): 50 to 75 years
PEX (plastic): 40 years
It can be hard to assess the condition of pipes because they often corrode from the inside out. Know the age of your house and the type of pipes it has. When your plumbing approaches its age limit, have a plumber assess the situation.
Note:Between the '70s and '90s, polybutylene pipes were commonly installed in the mid-Atlantic region, the Southeast, the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest. These dull gray plastic pipes were cheap and thought to be durable at the time. However, it was discovered that they degrade from the inside when exposed to the low levels of chlorine used to treat drinking water. If you find out that you have polybutylene pipes, consult with a plumber, and consider having them replaced.
High water pressure puts stress on your pipes
If the water pressure in your house is above 60 pound-force per square inch (psi), your pipes are probably over-strained, and they could rupture. The average residential water pressure is between 30 and 50 psi. A plumber can check your water pressure if you suspect it is too high. Alternatively (if you have the equipment), you can fit a water pressure gauge over a sink faucet and measure it that way.
Don’t let your pipes freeze
Even if your pipes are new and free of corrosion, a freeze can cause them to burst. Water expands when it freezes, which can break pipes. Fortunately, you can take some simple steps to keep your pipes from bursting during a cold snap, including:
Insulating unheated spaces like basements, attics, and garages.
Dripping the faucets. A small flow of water helps prevent a freeze.
Opening cabinet doors under sinks in the kitchen and bathroom, so the pipes get warm air.
Keeping the heat on a relatively low level (at least 55° F), even when you’re out of town.
clogs may back up your appliances
A clogged drain can cause different appliances—such as toilets, tubs, and dishwashers—to back up and overflow. At best, the water that comes out of these drains is gray water, which is merely contaminated with soap, grease, food, detergents, and other substances that commonly go down the drain. At worst, it’s black water, contaminated with fecal matter and harmful pathogens. Black water overflowing into your home is very bad news.
Let’s look at some causes of major drain clogs:
Debris and grease clogs
Hopefully, you’re aware of the fact that drains can only handle so much stuff. Your kitchen sink may have a garbage disposal to grind up large chunks that go down the drain. This machine has its limits, too, however. And the other drain lines in your house have no such assistance.
Sometimes, a blockage forms near an appliance and causes problems there—an overflowing toilet, a sink that won’t drain, or a leaking dishwasher. In that case, you can probably fix it with a kitchen garbage disposal, hot water, a small plumbing snake, baking soda and vinegar, a plunger, or by otherwise clearing the clog.
But clogs can also form underground, in the sewer line beneath your house. And a blockage here can cause every appliance to back up.
Unfortunately, your sewer line can clog even if you do everything right. Tree roots seeking water, minerals, and nutrients sometimes snake their way into little flaws in the drainpipe or its fittings. As the roots grow, they expand the cracks and fill up the pipe.
Between the roots themselves and the debris they snag along the way, tree root intrusion causes major clogs and can back up every sink, toilet, and appliance in the house. You probably can’t fix this yourself—you’ll want the opinion of a professional plumber who will use an auger to cut up the roots, a chemical treatment to kill them, high-pressure water to blast them away, or some combination of these three methods.
water heaters mean big messes
Water heaters have a somewhat-deserved reputation for causing floods. Between the flow of water and the heat and pressure, it’s no wonder they occasionally spring leaks. The classic case is a burst water heater tank—but even modern tankless water heaters get old and fail.
Tanked heaters create huge floods when they rupture. Sometimes, the tank itself corrodes. Other times, valves, gaskets, and fittings come loose or wear down and fail. Simple maintenance, such as replacing pressure relief valves and heating elements, can extend the life of a tanked water heater. But they only last between 8 and 12 years, according to the US Department of Energy’s Energy Saver consumer resource program. When this date draws near (or if it’s already past!), replace your water heater with a tankless one.
Tankless water heaters have several advantages. Besides providing instant hot water, there’s no tank that can develop holes after rusting. Tankless water heaters do ultimately fail for some of the same reasons that tanked heaters go bad—corrosion of the heater and degradation of valves and fittings. But a tankless water heater may last 20 years or more, according to Energy Saver.
are smart water leak detectors that can prevent serious damage
Whether it’s from a burst pipe, a clogged drain, or a broken water heater, water damage is bad news. The hassle and expense of cleaning up after a water leak make proper maintenance and prevention critical. Keep your appliances in working order, know the age of your pipes, and don't put the wrong stuff down the drain. But to keep yourself truly protected, use flood sensors to provide an early warning of a water leak.
Frontpoint’s compact Flood Sensors—just 2.43” by 2.48” by 1.17”—fit almost anywhere. Put these water leak detectors under your sink, in your laundry room, in your basement, in the crawlspace, or any other place that has the potential to flood. When their moisture sensors detect water, Flood Sensors work with the Frontpoint Hub to send notifications to your smartphone and to monitoring professionals who will try to contact you.
You can take immediate action to head off any damage. And if you install a smart Z-Wave water shutoff valve and integrate it with your Frontpoint system, you can turn off the water remotely with a tap on your smartphone.
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