PLUMBING/DRAIN/WASTE

My bathroom wall is all wet again and I just fixed it. There is a window in the shower is that a problem?

Shower walls can be very frustrating and hard to keep dry. One problem I see most often is having a window in the shower stall. It is not impossible to keep the water out of the wall but is very difficult. When you consider that amount of moisture around the window it is not surprising. Here are some things I have tried in the past. The easiest thing to do is to put a large vinyl shower curtain over the window. Even this is not enough but it might surprise you how many people don’t even do this. Another thing I have done is to run a thin coat of silicon all over the window ledge and trim where water may leak in. If you are careful and use clear silicon it is not noticeable. Changing the type of shower head to a straight down water fall type may spare the window some as well.

I moved to an acreage and have had nothing but trouble with my septic tank pump out line freezing. How do I stop this?

Over the years I have had my fair share of this type of frustration myself. One problem I found was that my electrical ground fault was tripping when the pump in the tank started. Years ago the electrical code required that the electrical connections to the septic pump be on a ground fault circuit. This requirement was changed because of the very problems I just alluded to. A second problem I have experienced a few times is the lack of a weep hole in the discharge line. In both cases the discharge line gets water in it and freezes the line. It is critical that the discharge line drain back so it does not freeze. Please feel free to call for more information of this topic as it is not easy to cover all the possibilities in a small space as this. The picture is a poor example but it gives you the idea. The weep hole sometimes gets plugged and the water cannot drain back into the tank. In a pump out the water must not stay in the  discharge line as it is above the frost line and it will freeze. In an emergency you could place a trash pump in the lid of the tank and pump the effluent above ground to where it is normally pumped out to get you by for a few hours until you can get the line thawed. This will require a very long hose. I am not suggesting you do this for more then a day. You need to put ethanol in the pump out line which may clear the line. Secondly you need to check to see if the weep hole is clear. Finally hire a vac truck to drain the tank if you can’t free up the line within a few hours of discovering a full tank. You will then need to get a steamer to melt the ice. Once you get the line clear it is imperative to make sure the weep hole is spraying out water, thus draining back when the pump shuts down. septic tank pump out

: I live in an older home. Recently I had my pipes freeze under my kitchen sink. Why might this happen and how can I prevent it in the future?

In older homes the heat source in the kitchen was often placed on an inside wall because it was easier. Today we place the heat source primarily on the outside wall under or near the windows or doors. By not providing heat near the sink in some older homes you often ended up with problems. The original cabinets often had louvers in the doors under the sink to allow room air in. Over the years the cabinets were changed and the new cabinets had solid doors. Often the pipes froze while the family was  away and the house temperature was turned down, making the sink area that much colder. My advice is to add heat or allow room heat to get in under the sink another way. 

Sometimes I smell sewer and it seems that the drains are slower. What might be causing this?

It is not often that you will smell sewer in your home in the city. I have however come across a couple situations where conventional thinking did not find the source of the smell. My normal procedure is to check the traps in the basement floors as it is likely they may have dried out. Next I would look for venting issues. If a vent is not properly designed it can cause a trap to syphon a trap dry and the sewer gases will travel up through the open trap. Finally I check the actual sewer line for breaks. If none of these things look to be the source I check the vent on the roof. In the winter season the vent stack can frost over and plug the vent off. If the pressure in the sewer system is great enough the sewer gases can apparently travel through the water in the traps causing the smell.

My toilet is loose and rocks back and forth on its base. Do you have any suggestions for correcting this?

A tippy toilet is a cousin to a leaking toilet, if left alone it will begin to leak soon. I usually recommend tightening the floor bolts first to see if this helps. A word of caution here, do not over tighten the bolts or you may crack the base of the toilet flange that holds it to the floor. You may already have a cracked flange which likely means you will need a plumber or do some plumbing changes yourself. If tightening the bolts does not help it is possible that the flange is not level with the floor. The drain plumbing and floor may need to be cut open to make the necessary repairs. Hopefully this is not the case as changing the drain plumbing which is all glued in place becomes a fairly large job depending upon where the toilet is in the home. Good luck.

The linoleum around my toilet is turning dark, I am afraid the wax seal is leaking. Can you explain how to change a wax seal?

Yes you are likely right about the wax seal. I have also seen sweating toiler tanks and leaking tank bolts cause wet floors so have a close look there before removing the toilet. To change the seal start by turning off and disconnect the water supply, hopefully there is a shut off valve. Then flush the toilet and hold the flush handle down until no more water is moving. Next get a plastic disposable pail to bail out the remaining water in the bowl. You can also use a plunger to try to force the water out of the toilet. Now loosen the floor bolts and remove the nuts. Remove the tank lid so it does not fall and break. Get a piece of cardboard to lay the toilet on. Using a friends help gently lift the toilet straight up and place on the cardboard. Finally clean the wax seal in the toilet and flange. Finally put in the new seal and once again gently replace the toilet straight back into position careful not to move the toilet too much in the process. Reassemble.

I have been given conflicting information about grout sealing my tiled shower stall. Can you explain the best approach?

I recently read an article by a prominent inspector that confused this issue as well. My understanding and opinion is that you want to initially seal the tile with a proper deep penetrating grout sealer during the install. There are many polymer type grouts out there that help keep the water out. None the less I would reseal the grout about every six months to a year. The idea that we should not seal the grout so the tile can breathe makes very little sense to me, it like closing the door after the cat runs out. If in doubt contact a tile expert as I have to clear up this issue. 

What is “GRANDFATHERING” and how will I be affected by it.

Grandfathering, what is Grandfathering.

The past two weeks I have heard the phrase “grandfathering” a few times with respect to septic systems. First of all I’ll explain the term.  According to Wikipedia, a grandfather clause is a provision in which an old rule continues to apply to some existing situations, while a new rule will apply to all future cases. I thought I would clear up this idea that if an acreage has an existing septic system, regardless of its condition it will be “grandfathered”. I will tell you that I spoke first hand with a public health inspector in Saskatchewan and this concept of grandfathering is way overrated.

The concept that an unsafe and unhealthy septic system is “OK” is not accurate. The only time a grandfathering clause can be invoked is when the old system is not posing a health or safety concern to the public or to the environment. I can tell you that some of the systems I have inspected in the past two weeks are neither safe nor healthy. If the seller is telling you the system is existing and therefore grandfathered you had better get that in writing from the authority having jurisdiction or you may end up with a very large bill when you have to install a new system.

As an onsite waste water design consultant I have some insight into what constitutes a proper sewage system. These systems are no longer a metal barrel dropped into a hole with an overflow  pipe running down the hill. You will need a design plan before even being granted a permit to install a new system. The requirements are stringent and the costs to install a system that will be safe and effective are large. So before you sign on the dotted line be sure to give some thought to this.  As always I am here to help if I can.

Get your sump pump ready for spring.

For anyone who follows my blog you will know I have some concern about this year’s runoff due to the high volume of snow we have received this year. In this issue I want to talk about sump pumps. For some homeowners the sump pump is a critical component in the home. I have inspected homes that have $25,000.00 backup diesel generators in place so the sump has power at all times. Sound like over kill, well I am sure it is not to the home owner that keeps having water backing up into the basement.

Most of our homes are water tight but in years when the water table is high and there is an expectation of a substantial snow melt it is prudent to be prepared for the possibility of water intrusion. If your sump runs several times a day on a regular basis you may want to take some steps now to prevent a disaster this spring. By this I mean it is critical to make sure that the sump runs every day without failure. If the power goes off or if the pump fails do you have a backup plan, no pun intended? In the case of a home where the sump runs regularly it is likely that the water will over flow the sump in short order if the pump does not work for some reason.

There are a lot of things to be said here but I will try to narrow the focus down to the most common issues I come across and solutions I can recommend. First of all I always recommend having a back up pump ready to install if the first one fails. It is difficult to find a pump when we have just been hit with 5” of rain in three hours, and yes this happens sometimes.  Secondly I recommend installing a sump alarm. The sump alarm will tell you if the water level is rising too quickly for the pump to handle or if the pump fails. Be sure to test the sump and float soon, it it hums but doesn’t turn it is time to get it fixed.  Thirdly it is a good plan to have a generator or battery back-up nearby to keep the pump running if there is a power failure. You shouldn’t need a $25,000.00 unit but if you have chronic water issues it is smart to have something handy to keep the water moving.  Newer homes have better set-ups with an overflow to the city sewer or separate water course but most of us have to deal with the old hole in the floor type sump. Even the best preparation may not be enough but at least you will know you did all you could.  My best advice is, be prepared!

Dealing with cold weather water issues.

Here in the Midwest we have suffered our fair share in this bleak artic tundra this year. Ok, its not that bad but it seems to be when your fighting through the snow drifts. This week I tried to help a friend deal with a frozen hydrant on a local acreage. We added hot water and a propane heater to no avail. So this issue I will talk about how to avoid the cold weather blues when dealing with outdoor watering devices including hose bibs.
Water equipment that is designed to withstand the cold will provide a steady flow even in the most extream weather provided a few precautions are taken and the installation is correct. First of all so long as the water is flowing at a reasonable rate it will not freeze within the hydrant or the hose bib. The freeze ups occur when the water is turned off and the piping doesn’t drain completely . These devices have drain back provisions that allow the water in the pipe to drain back to a warm area or in the case of the hose bib to drain outside while the valve is turned off inside the warm part home.
If installed properly these cold weather adapted water supplies should remain frost free all winter long. Some of the common issues with freeze ups in these components are found when the drain back system is hampered. On a hydrant this occurs when the weep hole deep in the ground is plugged or the clay soil around the base becomes saturated. On a hose bib the two most common problems are improper slope of the drain which causes water to stay in the pipe after the hose bib is turned off and when a hose is left on the bib. When the wall can’t drain away quickly after the water is turned off it will freeze. This year alone I have come across at least two homes that were damaged by hose bibs that froze in the winter and split open. In the spring the hose bib is turned on and water begins leaking into the wall without anyone noticing until it comes out on the floor. So make sure the hose bib is sloped downward so the water drains outside and you will save yourself a lot of grief.