Common Water Leaks in Homes - Symptoms, Causes and What to Do

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One of the ways you discover a common water leak in your home is to step in a puddle of cold water in your bare feet, on your way to the bathroom, in the middle of the night.

Your first reaction may be panic, and then you immediately set about locating the source of the leak – fast.

Most household water leaks are small, easily located, and fixed, but can you prevent leaks from happening? What's the first thing you should do when you find a leak?  What if it's a serious flood? When should you call a plumber?

All these things will be flashing through your head, so join us here for a few minutes to get the information on the most common reasons for water leaks in your home, and more importantly, what you should do about them.

Highlights

Common water leaks in your home

Every home is a maze of water pipes, hidden from sight until a leak occurs.

Pipes and joints can break due to physical damage, age, or freezing which expands the pipe then leaks when it thaws. All pipework should be protected by quality insulation against freezing and condensation, which encourages mold.

Most commonly, water pipes under sinks and in bathrooms leak due to physical damage – they get knocked when you are using the cupboard.

Faucets are the most common sources of home leaks. Drips get ignored as insignificant, but they can lose 3000 gallons of water over a year (EPA) and are a risk if the sink gets blocked and you are away. They are simple and cheap to fix, so never ignore them.

Water heaters or boilers are often located out of sight but need regular checking. Tanks can fracture due to corrosion. Joints and valves on water feeds can leak due to physical damage, seal breakdown, loose connections, or old age.

The TPR valve (temperature and pressure relief valve) is another common cause of leaks in water heaters. It is your main line of defense, protecting your home. These small valves can corrode, become loose or get clogged, and eventually leak. Invest in an annual professional check for your boiler or water heater, and you will catch issues early. Don't ignore them in between; check every couple of months for anything obvious.

Be aware of water discoloration at your sinks; it could mean rust formation in your heater, which can indicate a tank fracture.

Any household appliances that use water can spring a leak. Washing machines get hard use, plus the spinner can cause joints to loosen due to vibration. If you must move your washer for any reason, check all pipes and joints are secure after the move is made. It's very easy to stress a joint or twist a pipe, so check everything is secure before you run it and walk away.

How to detect a leak

If you find a puddle of water in your home, you will usually find the cause of the leak nearby. Once the supply is turned off, the leak should stop. However, if it's coming from a storage device like a cistern, storage tank, or water heater, you will need to drain it to stop further damage. Mop up, then find the source of the leak. Most often, the culprit will be close by, like a toilet cistern, washing machine, shower, or tub. Seals can break down and fail, causing leaks.

Hidden leaks are more difficult to detect. If you notice a musty or bad smell, it could be mold growth caused by a water leak. These should be checked out quickly.  Unusual stains on walls or ceilings can be a result of leaking water in the cavity or attic space and should always be investigated promptly.

Be aware of noises too, like a toilet cistern running constantly is often a sign of a leak. Gurgling in toilets as they flush can also be a sign of a blockage in the sewerage pipe, so use all your senses to track down a leak. Flappers are a common cause of toilet leaks, but they are easy and cheap to swap out.

Another good tip is to check your water bills carefully, and if they appear higher than usual, you could have a hidden leak, so it's advisable to carry out a water meter test.

How to prevent a leak

All water-using appliances should be professionally installed. With some larger appliances, the manufacturer's warranty may be invalidated if you don't.

Be sensitive to and aware of what's happening inside and outside your home. No leak is insignificant.

Check your roof for missing or damaged shingles. Ensure your gutters and downpipes are clear of debris, especially if you have trees nearby and after a storm.  If you use a sump pump, check it's working correctly, particularly during the winter season and regularly during the year.

Exposed plumbing pipes and joints should be insulated before winter. It is an inexpensive job, and grants are often available to help with costs.

Insulation also prevents condensation, which causes dampness encouraging mold to grow. Mold is a pest and will be accompanied by a bad smell or staining on your walls or ceilings. If any of that is evident, check for mold.

Technology can assist in water leak prevention. There are numerous systems available that will detect a leak as it happens, advise you via a text message and operate valves automatically to shut off your water supply. It is not inexpensive, but neither are floods; it could also reduce your insurance premiums.

How to fix a leak

Epoxy compound can be used for leaks in cast iron pipes and pipe wraps wrapped around the leaking pipe, then harden and stop the leak. Again, these are temporary fixes but which are effective in minimizing damage.

Always turn off your central water control valve first, then locate the leak. In many cases, you can do a temporary fix as a DIYer. Some leaks are easy to repair without a professional. For example, check out how simple it is to fix a leaking faucet.

Often the cause of a leak is a loose plumbing joint, a broken seal, or occasionally a cracked pipe due to physical damage or freezing conditions. Locate the source of the leak. Loose or broken joints in plastic or copper pipes are easily repaired temporarily if you have the materials to hand.

A fast fix is to wrap the leaking pipe or joint with silicone rubber tape, starting to one side of the joint, then wrapping it tightly around the leaking area and finishing on the opposite side, overlapping as you go. These tapes are available at your local hardware store for a few dollars. Well worth having a roll or two in your toolkit.

If a joint has been stressed, the water seal may be lost and leak. Loosen the joint off, carry out a quick clean-up, checking for physical damage, then apply fresh PTFE tape, reconnect the joint, and the leak should stop.

PTFE or standard plumber's tape is an essential item to have in your home toolkit. It can be a fast fix for many leaking joints. Some sealants can be messy and difficult to use, but PTFE tape is easy to handle, will effectively seal a joint, and enable quick, tight connection of threaded joint components and easy dismantling later. It doesn't dry out or disintegrate, and it is cheap.

If you find a pin-hole leak in a copper water pipe, a quick temporary repair can be made using a standard hose clamp with a small piece of thin rubber. Fit the clamp around the leaking pipe and place the rubber inside over the pin-hole leak as you tighten it, and it will stop the leak. You can do this quickly, even without turning the water off, and it should last long enough to get a proper permanent repair done.

If a leak is coming from your roof, you need to find out why. It will most likely be a loose, broken, or missing shingle or a hole in the roof covering through which rainwater is entering. Secure the attic under the leak and dry it off thoroughly. Leave a container in the area with plastic sheeting spread around to protect your belongings and ceilings. If a hole is small, seal it with exterior grade silicone sealant or replace the damaged shingle. If you cannot do the job yourself, call a professional as soon as possible.

Damaging water leaks - When to call a registered plumber

Leaks inside walls and ceilings or underground

Occasionally leaks occur within walls, ceilings, or even underground and are harder to detect. Damage may have already been done by the time you find them.

Your water bills are useful in keeping your home safe. If your water usage is generally the same, your bills won't vary by much. If they suddenly rise, you could have a leak. The best is not to ignore it.

When a leak inside your walls or ceilings becomes noticeable, it may have been happening for some time. Drywall and thick insulation absorb water which is when there could be a progressive problem.

Underground leaks are serious; they leach water into the surrounding earth causing damage to foundations or driveways.

If your water bill has risen significantly, do a water meter test. Take a reading with every water-using appliance turned off. Wait 20 minutes, then take a second reading. If they are the same, there is no hidden leak, but if the reading increases, there could be an underground breach.

Most analog water meters have a low-flow indicator, which shows any water still flowing into your home. In that case, there is a leak that urgently needs professional assessment.

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Major leaks and what to do

If you discover a major water leak, first shut off your water supply. It is normally in a covered sunken box on the perimeter of your property (side or front). If you live in an apartment, it will be under the kitchen or utility sink. It is a large valve which you turn clockwise to completely shut off the water. Turn on all your hot and cold faucets and showers to drain down any remaining water in your system. Turn off your electricity mains supply as a precaution – water and electricity are a dangerous mix.

Then look for the source of the leak.

If it is obvious, place buckets, containers, and large towels around the area to soak up as much water as possible. Remove temporary floorcoverings like rugs and mats, as they will absorb water.

If you suddenly experience low water pressure down to dribbles, or there is no water, check your neighbors. If they are having the same issues, call a professional.

Blocked sewers

There are only two things you should put down your toilet, toilet paper, and we will leave the other to your imagination!

If you are increasingly using your plunger to clear slow-moving toilet flushes, or worse still, if the toilet overflows onto the floor, you have a blocked drain. Do not ignore it. Have it checked out.

Tree roots are the most common reason for this type of blockage. They need moisture and break through joints in drainpipes. Once inside, they will grow in a flow of water. This happens gradually, so it may be some time before a blockage occurs. The result is serious and expensive.

Mold and associated health issues

Mold loves moisture. The microscopic bacteria travel in the air we breathe, but they require a high level of moisture to reproduce. They attach themselves to damp areas and start to feed. They fill gaps in porous surfaces, carpets, insulation, ceiling tiles, or drywall, then spread. It is critical to ensure leaks are thoroughly dried out to avoid mold threatening everyone's health in the house. Find answers to mold questions here.

Water leak clean up – Steps to take

Insurance is a wise investment; buy as comprehensive cover as you can. Contact your insurer quickly to register your claim. They will advise you what they need.  Ensure you take comprehensive photos of the damage and keep all damaged items until a loss adjuster has viewed them. If you don't, you are risking the denial of your claim. Also, don't go ahead with major repairs without your insurance company's permission, or they may decline payment. 

Remove all water-damaged carpets, rugs, and furniture for cleaning or disposal. If the flooding is from the clean water supply, many items may be recovered, cleaned, and reused. The longer furniture, beds, carpets, rugs, and drapes are left wet, the higher the likelihood of mold occurring.

If the water damage includes walls and ceilings, the drywall and insulation materials will have to be removed and replaced. Again, ensure you keep everything for the adjuster to see. Keep a written record so you can detail everything accurately later.

Dehumidifiers and air conditioning will help get your home dried faster, but it will take weeks to be totally dry following a flood. Timber absorbs water, and framing needs to be dried out thoroughly before reconstruction can begin. Warping may occur later if the material isn't dried out properly.

Conclusion

Be aware of what's happening in and around your home and involve your family. Be prepared for the worst-case scenario, and you will be ahead of the game if the worst happens.

Never ignore any leak; it may seem inconsequential but could turn out to be serious if left.

Always check your water bill for obvious changes which may indicate a leak. It could be the first sign of a hidden leak, where structural damage to your home is a possibility.

Insurance is essential, don't let it lapse; check carefully what's covered.

Know where your water and power controls are and your water meter. Keep torches handy and make sure they are fully charged or have fresh batteries. Keep protective gloves, masks, waterproof boots along with buckets, containers, old towels, and trash bags.

Have contact details to hand for emergency plumbers and your local authority. If you are new to the area, check with your neighbors for the contact details of trusted local professionals and other emergency numbers.

It is something you never want to happen, but if you can be as prepared as possible in advance, that will make it easier to cope with if disaster strikes.

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