How To

The Rookie’s Guide to Identifying and Fixing Plumbing Problems

  • Guy Plumbing & Heating, Inc./Houzz

     (Guy Plumbing & Heating, Inc./Houzz)

  • SC Photography/Houzz

     (SC Photography/Houzz)

  • General Assembly/Houzz

     (General Assembly/Houzz)

You might think a running toilet or leaky faucet is a trivial issue in your home, something for your handyperson to take on later when you’ve got other jobs around the house to do. But make no mistake: Never skip a drip. Leaks, even minor ones, can amount to big increases on your water and even heating bill. “You’d be surprised at how much is going down the drain and how much you’re paying by not getting it fixed,” says plumber Scott Campbell of Central Penn Plumbing Services in Pennsylvania.

What’s more, fixing leaky faucets and toilets make up the majority of what most professional plumbers do, and trying to fix a faucet yourself, or hiring your neighbor’s uncle, can lead to serious issues. “It’s a quick and easy fix, but still something you want to call a professional about,” Campbell says.

If you’re unsure of where to begin with tackling a plumbing project — from a minor leak to a full-blown master bathroom remodel — here’s a bit of what you should know before taking the plunge.

Project: Plumbing issues

Why: To fix leaky faucets and toilets, unclog backed-up drains, replace or relocate plumbing during a renovation

Plumbing Basics

There are four main areas of plumbing, according to Dave Guy of Guy Plumbing & Heating in Menlo Park, California:

Drain cleaning and repair. This includes rooter companies that unclog drain lines.

Water heater repair and replacement. Water heaters usually need to be replaced every 15 years.

Plumbing contractors. This category includes renovations, remodels and the moving of fixtures. They’re also referred to as rough plumbers.

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Service and repairs. The majority of plumbing calls fall into this area, which includes leaky faucets and toilets and other plumbing issues.

Common Problems

As mentioned, most plumbers deal with service repairs. Think running toilets and leaky faucets. Not all of these issues will be visible right away. Many times, you won’t know there’s a problem until you get your water bill. Naz Derkach of Public Plumbing in Toronto says a running toilet can end up costing you an extra $300 a month.

And that’s a contained problem. It doesn’t include damage caused by water that leaks onto your floors or inside your walls and ceiling. “Every small problem, whether it’s a small gasket that needs to be changed or a toilet tank that needs to be rebuilt, can become a big problem,” Derkach says.

Running toilet. If you’ve ever lain awake at night listening to your toilet endlessly filling up, then you know what a running toilet is.

But not all leaky toilets make noise. Guy, a third-generation plumber, says calls about high water bills make up a large portion of his work.

To save time and money, he recommends having the brand and part number (located inside the toilet tank) handy when you call a plumber. That way, a plumber can arrive with the right part instead of coming to your home to make a diagnosis, leaving to find the right part and returning to make the repair. Also, with that information handy, Guy often can help homeowners fix things over the phone or have a part sent out and talk a homeowner through replacing it.

Leaky faucets. Drippy faucets are hardly benign either. This problem occurs when the cartridges in a faucet corrode or break down over time, Campbell says. “You’d be surprised at how much is going down the drain and how much you’re paying by not getting it fixed,” he says. And if it’s the hot water that’s leaking, you’ll feel the impact on your heating bill too.

RELATED: Replace Leaky Bathroom Faucets

Campbell says many homeowners try to fix faucets themselves or call a general handyperson, only to end up with scratches and dents to the finishes or other issues such as cut bolts that force homeowners to replace the entire faucet. “Most homeowners don’t have the right tools,” he says.

Clogs. In the spring, roots come alive, Derkach says, resulting in a lot of damaged pipes that cause drains to back up. Low-flow toilets also have been known to cause drainage issues, according to Guy, who says that while water flow has decreased, the amount of waste going down hasn’t, which can lead to backed-up drains. “Drains need to be flushed with lots of water to remain clear,” he says.

Rocking toilet. If you sit down on the toilet and notice it’s rocking back and forth a bit, that could be an indication that there’s a leak beneath your toilet that’s rotting the wood below. Water stains on the ceiling below your toilet are another indicator, or, if there is no ceiling below, the grout lines around the base of your toilet could become darkened.

Water heater relief valve and radiant heat. This makes up a small percentage of problems but can result in an extremely high water bill because it’s not likely you’ll see any issues. Many water heater relief valves exit the house and drip in a bush or other area around the exterior of your home.

The same goes for radiant heat lines. If a line breaks in your radiant heat system and drains into the porous ground without causing any puddling, you won’t know it until that high water bill comes.

Frozen or burst pipes. If you live in a really cold region and head out of town on winter holiday and fail to keep the heat on in your home or weatherize your plumbing, you could come home to extensive damage from a burst pipe. This occurs when water freezes inside a pipe and expands, breaking the pipe open. When the ice thaws, water pours out wherever the incident occurred, which could be in your walls or ceiling. Special machines can unfreeze pipes by sending high-voltage electricity in to heat up the line.

If in the dead of winter you turn on the faucet and hear water moving but nothing’s coming out, you could have a burst line even if you don’t see the evidence of water, Derkach says. It’s time to call a plumber. And then study up on methods to winterize your home.

Leaking water heaters. This is an emergency, Campbell says. Once you notice enough water leaking out, it’s almost too late. Call a plumber immediately. That leak could last for another week, resulting in extensive flooding and water damage.

Dishwashers. Campbell says leaking dishwashers are another problem needing quick action, especially if you have hardwood floors. If you notice water dripping under the sink in a kitchen or around the base of the dishwasher, call a plumber before you risk damage to the hardwood floor.

Who to Hire

Plumbing problems typically are not something you want to try to address yourself or something you want to call your handy friend or relative to fix. Derkach says that only about 5 or 10 percent of people are capable of doing a good job of repairing or installing a faucet. He says 90 percent of the time that people try to fix a toilet, they create more mess. “It would cost them less money to call a pro in the beginning vs. trying to fix it themselves,” he says.

Campbell cautions homeowners about trying to take on plumbing work themselves. “What many people don’t realize is the damage that water could cause if you don’t have the tub drain on right or the toilet set right or the fitting in the wall isn’t glued properly,” he says. “Sometimes the damage done [costs] more than the other items you might be doing in the remodel.”

And you want to hire the right person based on the type of plumbing issue you have and in line with the four types of plumbers mentioned earlier. “I have a well at my house that I don’t touch,” says Guy, who has 40 years of experience as a plumber. “I have my own plumber who works on the well. You can’t be good at everything. Sometimes you have to face the music and hire someone to do the job right.”


Plumbing fees vary widely depending on region, scope of work and type of work.

Some plumbers charge service fees and by the hour. Other use a flat rate. Guy charges $146 for a one-hour initial service call, then in 15-minute increments after that, plus the cost of parts. If he or his crew have to leave the job site and return at another time, they put the time on hold and resume it once they return.

Derkach usually charges a $50 assessment fee for most general calls. If a customer proceeds with the work following the quote, which is usually $150 to $200 for basic repairs, he waives the assessment fee. If there’s a major problem, such as a ceiling leak, he charges a $155 assessment fee, plus the cost of repairs.

Campbell charges $65 for a half-hour diagnosis. Costs after that depend on the scope of work.

Permits Required

Permit requirements depend on the city and scope of work. If you’re moving plumbing around, you’re likely to need a permit. If you’re making emergency repairs with a licensed professional, it’s probably safe to skip the permits. But always check with your plumbing professional.

Original article on Houzz