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Common Plumbing Repairs II

This is Wally's other list of most frequently asked and answered question.

The topic is plumbing problems and repair. You can also check Plumbing Repairs I

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Noisy PVC Plumbing Drain Pipes - Cast Iron Solution

DEAR WALLY: We just moved into a 15 year old home. Every time we flush the second floor toilet, we hear water running down our living room wall. The wall is never wet and I can find no leaks in the basement. What is happening to the water?

ANSWER: Relax, the water is going down the plumbing stack and on its way to the sewer. Since you do not see any evidence of a leak, your description of the problem leads me to believe that your plumbing drainage system is constructed of PVC plastic piping. PVC piping is notorious for sound transmission. It's low density plastic makeup makes it very noisy. Often you can hear a small amount of water trickling down the pipe. You can identify this type of pipe very easily. It is non-metallic, white, and often has labeling imprinted on the pipe which states that it is PVC. You can solve your noise problem with a little bit of work. You have basically two choices. If the piping is PVC, you can replace it with cast iron piping. Due to its dense structure, cast iron piping transmits very little noise. This is one reason why you rarely hear water rushing down the walls of older houses. Cast iron drain piping was the material of choice 80 to 100 years ago. This choice will probably be expensive due to the fact that you will be removing existing drainage piping and replacing it with new piping. Also, in most cities and states, work of this scope requires the services of a licensed master plumber to perform the installation. Installing cast iron in a new house or a remodeled bath is not a budget breaker. Often it can be added to a house for only a $150 per bathroom. Remember, only the pipes that carry water need to be cast iron. All vent pipes that deliver air to the plumbing system can still be PVC. The other alternative is to expose the piping and insulate it with fiberglass sound batts. Be sure to wrap the entire pipe, starting at the base of the toilet and continue until the pipe enters the basement. Then fill the rest of the wall and ceiling cavity with sound batt insulation. When you have finished, flush the toilet before patching the wall. If you still hear the water, locate the source of the noise and add more insulation.

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Plumbing Vent Pipes - Can They Be Relocated?

Dear WALLY: I have two pipes which project through the roof on the front of my house. I have been told that they are plumbing pipes. They are very objectionable. I am getting ready to install a new roof on my house. The pipes are clearly visible in the attic. Are they really necessary? Is it possible to have them moved to the back side of the roof?

ANSWER: Plumbing vent pipe locations have angered many homeowners. In almost all cases, the frustration and disappointment that homeowners felt could have been avoided.

Plumbing vent pipes are a necessity. They allow your plumbing drainage system to breathe. Their primary function is to equalize pressure in the drainage system every time you run water in a sink, drain a bathtub, or flush a toilet.

In many homes, all of the plumbing fixtures are interconnected to the same drainage system. The system looks very similar to a tree. In fact, certain parts of a plumbing system are called branches. These branches can drain one or more fixtures.

If a drainage system is constructed without vents, strange things begin to happen. For example, you may flush a toilet on the second floor of your house and the kitchen sink drain might begin to make strange sounds. The drain will sound like someone with a giant straw is sucking the water from the trap beneath the sink. In fact, that is exactly what is occurring.

This happens for a very simple reason. As the water from the toilet drains down the pipe going to the basement or sewer, it is pushing ahead of it the air that was in the pipe just before you tripped the toilet handle. This creates a vacuum just behind the water. Because the system is unvented, it searches for the easiest place to replace this air. The vacuum can actually be strong enough to suction the water from a fixture trap. It is extremely important for the water to remain in the traps below the fixtures. This water seal stops offensive odors and vermin from entering your house.

Plumbing fixture vents solve this problem. Plumbing vents form another type of tree within your house. For the most part, each plumbing fixture has a vent pipe associated with it. These vent pipes also interconnect in many instances. The termination point for the vent system is the roof of your house. The roof vent pipes are the point where the replacement air enters your plumbing system as a fixture drains water.

These vent pipes have certain requirements with regards to their size and length. They also must be installed in such a manner so as to continually slope toward the drainage lines. Water or debris must not be allowed to collect in vent pipes. Blocked vent pipes can create a scenario as described above. If one of your existing drains bubbles or gurgles when another fixture is draining, you may have a blocked vent pipe.

Vent pipes, in many instances, can be installed so that they exit the roof where you would find them to be the least objectionable. The plumber merely has to avoid as many sharp bends as possible. Based upon your description, your vents pipes can be easily relocated.

Planning comes into play as well. Architects and designers should consult with plumbers if they intend to place plumbing fixtures on the front half of a house. Many plumbers will gladly discuss what they can and can't do with the vent pipes. This simple step will go a long way in avoiding homeowner disappointment and flustration.

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Anti-Scald Tub & Shower Faucets - Be Careful!

DEAR WALLY: My wife has requested that I install a new anti-scald tub and shower faucet. I told her that I could eliminate the possibility of scalding by simply turning down the temperature on the hot water heater. Will this work? Do the anti-scald valves really work, and if so, just how do they regulate the water temperature?

ANSWER: Beware! Turning down the temperature on your hot water heater is not the answer. Installing an anti-scald valve is the best way to minimize your chances of being scalded by hot water.

Hot water is a real danger. A person can receive a blistering second degree burn in several seconds as water temperatures approach 150 - 160 degrees F. It is a very real possibility for water to leave your water heater at or above this temperature, even though your water heater's thermostat is set at a much lower temperature.

The cold water which enters your hot water heater does so through a long tube called a dip tube. This tube extends almost to the bottom of the hot water heater. The thermostat for virtually all hot water heaters is located near the bottom of the tank. Herein lies the problem.

Water temperatures within hot water heaters are not always uniform. In fact, there can be a huge difference in temperature between the water at the top of the tank and the cold water entering the bottom of the tank. The temperature difference at the top of the tank, away from the thermostat, can be up to 30 degrees hotter than the thermostat setting. This means that if your thermostat is set at 120 degrees F, water can leave the tank at up to 150 degrees F.

Some anti-scald valves can protect you against this danger. However, it requires a specialized thermostatically controlled valve. The problem is, a large majority of anti-scald valves purchased by homeowners and plumbing contractors are not this type. The most popular anti-scald valve currently sold is a pressure balance type valve. Current plumbing codes allow either type to be installed.

The pressure balance valve controls water temperature by sensing pressure differences between the hot and cold water pipes that feed the valve. You can get scalded by pressure differences. If you happen to be showering and another individual somewhere else in the house turns on a hose or flushes a toilet, the pressure and volume may change in the cold water line leading to the shower faucet. This may cause the temperature of the water coming from the valve to increase, even though the hot water was not turned up.

However, pressure balancing valves have a slight drawback. When they are installed, they have a high temperature limit stop which allows you to set the maximum temperature of the water which comes from the shower head. This setting is based upon the temperature of the water leaving the hot water heater. If you make an adjustment on the thermostat of your hot water heater either up or down after you have installed the valve and adjusted it, the temperature of the water coming out of the shower or tub faucet will be directly affected. Remember, the pressure balance valves react to pressure, not temperature.

The ultimate tub and shower faucet is one that can adjust for both temperature and pressure differences. These valves can be expensive. They also have minor drawbacks as well. Once you have selected a water temperature, often it can't be readjusted unless you turn the valve completely off.  Also see: Water From Shower Not Hot Enough With Anti-Scald Valve

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Cast Iron Plumbing Pipe - It's Quiet!

DEAR WALLY: I recently was visiting with some friends. While sitting in their family room, I heard water rush down the wall next to me. It was very objectionable. Evidently, someone had just finished using the toilet facilities in an upstairs bathroom. I don't have that problem in my older home and I'm afraid it might develop over time. What caused the noise? Is the problem avoidable?

ANSWER: Based upon your description, your friends' plumbing drainage system is constructed of either PVC or ABS plastic piping. This piping material was introduced in the early 1970's. These products were sold on the basis that they were cheaper and easier to install than cast iron and galvanized piping. However, plastic piping materials have two major drawbacks: they are very noisy and they expand and contract readily.

You do not have the problem in your home because your drainage piping is constructed of cast iron. Cast iron plumbing pipes are very durable and quiet. Cast iron piping installed 372 years ago in France is still in service. The same is true for cast iron installed in the White House during the 1800's. Rest assured that the noise problem will not develop in your present home.

Cast iron piping manufactured today is very different from the cast iron piping made at the turn of the century. Cast iron pipe, years ago, used to be static, or sand cast. This method allowed for wide variances in pipe wall thickness. Also, the sand casting methods often produced tiny pinhole leaks. The old pipes were connected by inserting the spigot end of one pipe into the hub end of another pipe. This joint was then partially packed with oakum (hemp impregnated with tar). Molten lead was then poured into the joints to complete the seal. The process was very labor intensive.

New cast iron pipe is cast using a centrifugal spinning process. This process assures consistent pipe wall thicknesses. Many manufacturers water test their pipe to check for leaks. Cast iron fittings are still static cast, however, modern casting methods assure high quality pieces. The cast iron pipes and fittings of today are joined with rubber and stainless steel clamps. Believe it or not, cast iron piping can be installed faster than plastic piping.

Cast iron plumbing is very quiet. This results from its dense molecular structure and the use of rubber between sections of pipe and fittings. The rubber gaskets and seals isolate the pipes and fittings and help to absorb sound vibrations. The sounds you heard at your friends' house were created by the vibrations of the water bouncing against the sides of the lightweight plastic piping. Plastic piping can also create popping noises when hot water passes through it. The plastic pipes expand and often rub against the wood framing members inside of walls. Cast iron piping will rarely, if ever, cause this problem.

Should you decide to build or remodel, cast iron piping is also very affordable,. In fact, it only costs, on average, $150 per bathroom to upgrade to cast iron pipe. You can minimize this extra cost by using both cast iron and plastic piping in your home. Use cast iron for all of the drainage pipes that handle water wastes and use plastic piping for all of the fixture vent pipes.

Cast iron is also environmentally friendly. It is made from 100 percent recycled scrap iron and steel. Should your home be demolished in the future, you can recycle cast iron. Plastic piping, on the other hand, can not make these claims. The solvents which are used to weld the pipes together are highly toxic. They produce fumes which dissipate into the atmosphere. In order to avoid becoming sick while using these solvents, adequate ventilation becomes a necessity. Plastic piping is not easily recycled. Often it ends up devouring space in our dwindling landfills.

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Acrylic & Fiberglass Tubs And Showers

DEAR WALLY: My husband and I are planning a bathroom remodel. We can't agree on which type of tub / shower stall to install. My husband says there is no substitute for cast iron. Because of the wide variety of shapes and sizes, the fiberglass and acrylic products appeal to me. My husband says these units won't stand the test of time and scratch easily. I mentioned that cast iron products can chip. Without your help, we may be headed for divorce court! 

. I hope both of you have good attorneys. I think you might need them as both of you have raised some valid points. I'm very confident that there is a product or two available that will satisfy both of your desires.

Your husband's comments concerning cast iron are very accurate. Cast iron plumbing fixtures are extremely durable. Cast iron will not flex. The thick enamel coating is actually fused to the cast iron in high temperature ovens where the temperatures exceed 1,700 F. Through this process, the enamel achieves a hardness very near that of ordinary glass. However, enamel can be scratched and it does chip. If you don't believe me, come and look at my kitchen sink.

As you have already discovered, there are many manufacturers, styles, and materials used in fiberglass type tub and shower stall units. While the finish on these units is not as hard as enameled cast iron, they can easily retain their glossy appearance with a little care and maintenance. The simple rule is to use the same care and cleaning products that you might use when you wash your new car.

There are three primary types of "plastic" tub and shower units: gel-coated fiberglass, acrylic reinforced with fiberglass, and acrylic backed with a structural composite. Side by side, these products look very similar, however there are important differences.

The gel-coat products, when constructed with high quality ingredients, can be very hard and durable. The manufacturing process is critical, as the liquid gel-coat must be applied evenly on the molds at the correct temperature. Gel-coated products if damaged or scratched can be repaired with great success. Repairs performed correctly are permanent and virtually invisible.

Acrylic units are usually constructed using large sheets of solid colored acrylic plastic. These sheets are heated so that they soften. The softened sheets are then stretched over a mold to achieve the desired shape of the shower or tub unit. This stretching process, however, sometimes causes the acrylic to be very thin as it stretches around corners. Those units with the highest percent of acrylic tend to offer higher performance levels. Repairs to these units are not always successful.

Should you and you husband eventually agree on using a "plastic" unit, be sure to carefully follow the installation instructions. Many homeowners in the past were dissatisfied with the fact that the floors of these units flexed like oil cans. Some of the acrylic units backed with composites have addressed this problem. The other units often need to be set in wet plaster or mortar to provide a solid base. Be sure that you or your contractor carefully follows the installation instructions.

The care of either cast iron units or the alternatives is important. Never use cleansers that contain abrasives, as these can scratch both cast iron and plastic fixtures. If you simply make a practice of cleaning the tub or shower area every two weeks, you will avoid the heavy soap buildup that often necessitates heavy scrubbing. Virtually every manufacturer has a recommended cleaner that they strongly suggest you use. Follow these instructions and you will have a beautiful tub and shower area for many years.

Finally, if you do select one of the "plastic" units, you can keep it looking new with a little known trick. Once a month, take just fifteen minutes and apply a high quality spray automotive wax to the wall surfaces only. Never apply wax to the floor of the unit. Buff this wax out and it will be as shiny as new!

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Water Pressure Problems

DEAR WALLY: Every time two or more plumbing fixtures are used in my brand new house the water pressure is horrible. The water flow is reduced to a trickle. When just one fixture is used the water flow is fine. It is very annoying. The plumber who installed the « inch piping says this is normal. Is there anything that can be done to correct the problem?

ANSWER: Ah hah! Another victim of slow flow! Did your plumber mumble something about "...normal for undersized pipes."? Don't despair, there is a good chance I can help you with your problem. Thousands of people like you suffer unnecessarily.

It all started a little over 300 years ago with a guy named Robert Boyle. He figured out that when all the faucets are turned off in your house the pressure is the same just about everywhere in your water piping system. But, when you turn just one faucet on and let water start to flow, crazy things start to happen.

First, when the water leaves the big water main pipe in the street, it has a certain amount of energy. As it starts to go through the pipe under your lawn it rubs against the edges of the pipe and looses energy. This loss of energy results in a pressure drop. Then, when the water starts going around bends and turns in the pipe, it looses even more energy. Deposits on the inner walls of older pipes also can add to this energy loss.

The rate at which water looses energy or pressure depends upon the size of the pipe the water is flowing through. It can be dramatic. Let's say your water pressure is 60 pounds per square inch (PSI) as it enters your house. It's 7 a.m. and 4 people are using two bathrooms. If the water has to travel through just 80 or so feet of « inch pipe to get to the bathrooms, the pressure, as it leaves any of the bath fixtures, is now only about 28 PSI.

Guess what the pressure would have been had your plumber substituted 3/4 inch pipe for the « inch pipe? 54 PSI!!! Guess how much extra money it would have cost your (you!) plumber to put this larger pipe up to those two bathrooms? It could have been done for less than $70.

You can partially relieve this problem by replacing as much visible « inch pipe as possible. Do this for both your hot and cold water lines. Replace it with 3/4 inch pipe. In an average sized house, this replacement project can be done by purchasing about $150 worth of pipe and fittings.

If you are getting ready to build a new home, insist on using 1 inch pipe from the street to your house. Assuming your house is 100 feet from the water main, you will only loose 2 PSI by the time the water enters your house. The cost to upgrade to this pipe is often less than $100.

Water pressure problems are easily avoidable. Simply tell your plumber to use 3/4 inch pipe as the main feeder pipe. Only use « inch pipe to branch off this main pipe as you head to each fixture. Do this, and you will always be singing in the shower.

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Copper Water Pipe Corrosion - Aggressive Water

DEAR WALLY: I'm getting ready to build a new home. I am deeply concerned about my drinking water lines. I have heard from some friends in different parts of the country that copper water lines can corrode from aggressive water. Is this possible? What is aggressive water? My parents had copper water lines that never were a problem. Is there an alternative pipe I can use?

ANSWER: Aggressive water is drinking water that can cause corrosion. It is a real and growing problem in many parts of the country. Leaks are developing in new homes that are less than 2 years old in some cases. These leaks can cause high water bills and structural damage. Homeowners or municipal water systems that obtain their water from wells are susceptible. Rarely does surface water (that obtained from rivers, lakes, etc.) become aggressive.

The causes and mechanisms that are responsible for the corrosion are not always the same. Water that is slightly acidic is sometimes to blame. High levels of dissolved minerals and carbon dioxide also can cause problems. High levels of chloride or sulfate can be serious.

Poor workmanship can lead to corrosion. Plumbers who use excessive amounts of flux when soldering and/or leave excess flux on copper pipe and fittings are to blame as well. Flux is an acid that is brushed on copper pipes and fittings that allows solder to bond more easily to copper.

Municipal waters works usually have chemists who regularly test the quality of the water being drawn from wells, rivers, lakes, and aquifers. These chemists are responsible for maintaining water quality. Not only do these individuals treat water to make it safe to drink, they sometimes alter the water chemistry to make it less aggressive. Some municipal water works add corrosion inhibitors to the water.

Believe it or not, these chemists try to adjust the acidity and hardness of the water so that it actually coats the inside of your pipes with a thin scale of calcium carbonate. This scale can protect copper pipes from corrosion by insulating' the copper from the aggressive water. This may be the reason why the pipes in your parents house are not suffering from corrosion. New copper is very susceptible to corrosion, as the protective scale has yet to form.

Water chemistry can change. Those parts of the country that are experiencing growth may find out that their municipal water works are either drilling new wells, or sinking existing wells deeper. In either case, aggressive water may be mixed or injected into a previously non-corrosive water system.

For this reason, you may wish to consider plumbing piping which is not affected by aggressive water. CPVC plastic piping is a good choice. This piping has been used by the plumbing industry for over 30 years. It is regularly tested by the National Sanitation Foundation to make sure that it can deliver water which meets all U.S. EPA standards. However, CPVC piping should be used carefully in outdoor underground installations. There have been instances where solvents in polluted ground have actually migrated into the piping. Choose your piping materials carefully.

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Water Softeners

DEAR WALLY: I'm thinking about adding a water softener to my plumbing system. Just what is hard' water? Are there any real benefits to soft water? Are any piping changes necessary?

ANSWER: You are making a smart move. Soft water makes it easier to clean just about anything. It prevents the buildup of scale in pipes, water heaters, and boilers. The Soviets figured this out in 1910. They were the first to use soft water in electric power plant boilers.

Water from wells, aquifers, rivers, etc. contains dissolved chemical elements. Two of these, calcium and magnesium, cause water to be hard. The higher the amounts of these elements in a given measure of water, the harder the water. Water hardness is measured in grains per gallon. One grain weighs 1/7000th of a pound. Water containing 7 or more grains of these elements per gallon is considered hard.

Hard water can cause big problems. When water is heated, the calcium and magnesium decide it's time to get up and leave. They exit the water and begin to form a scale on the inside of pipes, boiler tubes, and hot water heaters. This scale buildup in hot water heaters and boilers can slow down the transfer of heat into the water. This slowdown can raise your fuel bills by as much as 30 percent.

A majority of your laundry problems are also caused by hard water. Hard water interferes with the cleaning action of soaps. Your white clothes turn grey because of unremoved dirt. Colors fade for the same reason. Soft water eliminates mineral deposits commonly found in toilet bowls and on ceramic tile and plumbing fixtures.

You soften water by removing the calcium and magnesium. It reminds me of a game I played as a kid: King of the Mountain. Hard water enters your water softener. It begins to pass through a bunch of tiny resin beads (mountains) that contain sodium. The calcium and magnesium jump out of the water and onto the beads. In the process, the sodium is knocked off into the water.

Eventually, the softener begins to fill with calcium and magnesium. These elements are removed from the softener in a regeneration process. A brine solution containing a high concentration of sodium is injected into the softener. This sodium jumps onto the beads and knocks off the calcium and magnesium. The calcium and magnesium are flushed out of the softener. The softener is now ready to work again.

Because you pay to soften water, you don't want to waste' soft water on your lawn, flowers, and shrubs. So, make sure your plumber pipes outside hose bibs with hard water. However, give serious consideration to installing a soft water hose bib in your garage. Cars rinsed with soft water don't experience water spotting.


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