Leaky pipes can wreak havoc on your home and belongings. Even just a tiny leak can provide enough moisture to rot studs and floor joists, and larger leaks can obviously cause flooding and all sorts of damage. Sometimes there are easy fixes to plumbing leaks and sometimes they are more involved, but regardless, they need to be fixed as soon as possible.
Signs of a Leak
The visual signs of a leak will depend on where it is. Some of the easiest leaks to spot are in the ceiling because water will drip down onto the drywall and discolor the ceiling, or after enough water has gathered, a bulge will form. Hopefully, you’ll see this before the buildup softens the ceiling enough to collapse.
If the pipe is in a wall, you’ll likely notice softening, discoloration or bubbling of the drywall at the base of the wall. In some instances, you’ll notice dampness or mold on the carpet.
Either sort of leak can be hidden by harder surfaces that won’t show these signs as quickly, like wainscoting on a wall, so you may have to be more proactive about inspecting your pipes.
If you have a crawl space or unfinished basement, leaks will be easy to notice because the pipes are exposed, assuming you go into those spaces. Fortunately, leaks in these places typically cause less damage to your home, but they still create problems.
Find Out Where
Once you’ve found the pipe you think is leaking, keep moving up to find where the leak is actually coming from. Water will run downhill, so find the highest spot on the pipe that is wet and you’ve likely found your leak.
On pipe running horizontally, due to water’s surface tension, the water may be flowing down the pipe for a considerable distance before actually dripping. Just follow the water back to where the pipe becomes dry and look for the leak in the pipe. It isn’t totally uncommon to find water dripping from an electrical wire or some other feature, other than a pipe. This takes a little bit of work, but you should always follow the water back to the start. Unfortunately, this can lead to tearing out a lot more of your ceiling.
It is possible that the dripping water is from sweating pipes and not a leak. The moisture comes from the cold water cooling the pipe and moisture in the warmer air around it condensing on the surface, like water condensing on a cold glass of lemonade on a hot summer day.
This is an easy fix. You’ll only need a towel and insulating tape, which you should be able to find at a hardware store. Dry the pipe with a towel and wrap the length of the pipe with the insulating tape.
Turn Off Water
Before you do any work, turn the water off. Your problems will undoubtedly become far worse if you somehow neglect to turn off the water before you loosen fittings or cut into a pipe.
Hopefully, you already know where your main water shut-off valve is. That information will be very valuable if you ever have a pipe burst. If you don’t know where the valve is, it is usually where the main water line enters the house, which is easy to spot because the water meter tends to be there. The valve is just inside and should be accessible, either in the basement, crawl space, under a sink, or some other semi-hidden location.
Most water valves will turn clockwise to shut off. If the handle won’t turn, call a plumber who can fix or replace the valve, and also take care of the leak.
Fixing a Leaky Joint
The first attempt to fix a leaking joint is to try and tighten any threaded fittings. If this doesn’t work, you can temporarily fix the problem with epoxy putty or waterproof tape, but the joint will need to be replaced to avoid a future failure. Copper pipes require soldering at the joints, and unless you are familiar with the process, it is best to leave it to a professional.
With threaded pipes, the problem that you will face is that turning the fitting or the pipe will tighten one end and loosen the other, which makes it easy to install new plumbing but makes it very problematic to replace in an existing system. Again, your best bet is to call a plumber who will have the tools and knowledge to handle these situations.
Fixing a Pipe
If the leak is small, a patch can stop the leak. One option for this includes a piece of thick rubber held tightly in place with hose clamps. Another option is using epoxy putty. Although some epoxies claim to work in wet conditions, it is best to completely dry the pipe before using the putty and letting it cure.
If you don’t want to take a chance with a patch, replacing that section of pipe is usually best left to a professional plumber.
Quickly and properly fixing plumbing leaks will save you a lot of money and stress. Being able to spot and patch a leaking pipe is a good way to minimize the damage, but in most instances, a plumber will need to make a permanent fix to bring you peace of mind.
Amanda Peters is the resident DIY and home improvement guru at benjaminfranklinplumbing.com/tampa If you’re done looking for leaky pipes, you’ll find more of her tips and tricks here on the blog or around the web.