Summer holds a special place in most people’s hearts. It’s a sacred time to be outdoors, take vacations, go swimming, play baseball, ride bikes, visit with friends and do all the fun things we like to do when the weather is nice.
Children are out of school, and there are summer barbecues and gatherings of friends. We host family reunions, graduation parties, wedding celebrations, visits and other occasions. We go on vacation and look forward to all the warm-season fun.
All of the activities mean increased traffic in your home, including many more flushes of the toilet, loads of clothes to wash and dishes to clean. You’re bound to use the hose more in the summer to fill pools, water flowers and sprinkle the lawn. Many people also need to take more showers during the summer months.
Too often, we run around worrying about the meat rub and tablecloth color for our parties and never question whether the home’s utilities are ready for all the extra summer traffic. Plumbing remains as one of the most important of those utilities, because the system of pipes and pumps that brings water to us and sends it away are essential to basic sanitation and nutrition. One unpleasant plumbing problem can cancel out the best food and most beautifully appointed table.
Trouble with the pipes can range from common and simple to unusual and complex:
- Clogged toilet, garbage disposal or drain
- Running toilet
- Leaky facets or spigots (often need an O-ring)
- Low/declined water pressure
- Loose toilet, sink or other fixture
- Incorrect grade of drain pipes
- Improper support of pipes, which sometimes makes a hammering noise
- Pipes to outside not sealed sufficiently
- Water heater fails, leaks or doesn’t heat
- Pipes burst or crack
- Pipes won’t flow due to obstruction
There are many proactive, preventative plumbing measures you can take to prepare for the warm months and make sure you spend most of your time enjoying them instead of worrying about leaks, clogs, low pressure and other plumbing problems. No matter the concern, it’s best to figure it out and address it early before it becomes a big, expensive problem.
Besides, most good hosts want to avoid summer plumbing issues and make sure they have working facilities for their guests. Start summer by doing what you can to make sure your plumbing is up to the increased workload warm weather brings.
Inspect for Leaks
Summer is the best time to check for leaks, since a long winter can have an impact on plumbing that we can’t even see, and you want a chance during warm weather to take care of any issues before it gets cold again.
Individually inspect each of the elements that use water inside and outside of your house: Faucets, pipes under the sink, shower heads, bathtub spigots, drinking water line, water softener, hot water heater, outdoor spigots, sprinklers, pool and more to see if they are in good working order. Look for rust, corrosion, leaks, broken or bent parts or other signs of trouble. Grab a bright flashlight to see underneath cabinets and in dark corners. It also helps to have a towel to wipe your hands and a few tissues to help you detect moisture.
For the toilet: Put food coloring in the tank to see if it leaks to the bowl without you flushing the toilet. Check the tank floater and the valve it’s attached to. The rubber float and its arm-like hardware wears out over time, and more quickly in hard water situations. The floater valve must be seated correctly, or it allows water to leak out and your toilet to run — It probably makes noise while it does so.
Straddle the toilet and with both hands and try to wiggle it back and forth and see if the floor feels soft or spongy. If so, it might indicate a leak underneath at the crucial wax seal between the toilet and pipe that discharges waste to the sewer or septic system. It’s not uncommon for these to be seated incorrectly or erode to the point where they leak.
In the bathtub: See if the grout is all around the edge and securely sealed to the wall tile. Any little chip or missing portion of the grout enables water to leak into places it should not, like underneath the tub or onto and into the wall. Press on the wall tiles of the shower where they meet the bathtub and make sure nothing moves and the wall does not feel soft. If you detect loose tiles or a spongy wall behind them, it can be an indicator of an unseen water leak.
At the water heater: Check the water heater for signs of leakage, rust or other problems. Look at the hardware and other parts and see if there is any corrosion. Use a bright flashlight to inspect underneath and around the bottom, and/or you can run your hand all around and under the base to see if you feel water. A typical, tank-type water heater lasts 10-15 years depending on the model, level of maintenance and the kind of water running through it.
Hard water can cause mineral deposits to build up and impede water flow, so it helps to clean off any accumulated materials occasionally. Sediment builds up on the bottom of the hot water heater tank but can be flushed out every so often by releasing a few gallons of water from the bottom of the tank. It is also possible to change the anode rods in a tank water heater as a means of maintenance or service. If you are constantly running out of hot water and you find it’s time for a replacement, consider moving to the next-largest tank and/or having a heat-on-demand system.
If summer means you will leave the house for a short- or long-term vacation, you can either turn off or adjust your water heater to save money. Why pay to heat water you won’t be there to use? Most water heaters have a switch or dial toward the bottom that might have a setting that says “vacation” or “low,” and nearly any model can be turned off. Also, if summertime at your house means everyone wants a shower not quite as hot as during the cool seasons, you can bump down the temperature of the hot water heater a few degrees and save money on electricity or whatever fuels the heater.
For the overall system: If you suspect a leak but can’t see one, there are a few ways you can test the water system in your home. Pick a time when nobody will be home for at least 15 minutes, if not an hour or two, and a time when nothing that uses water needs to be running. Before you leave the house, check the water meter and jot down the numbers. If the numbers are the same when you return after a while, there probably aren’t any unseen leaks. If the numbers change, it can indicate a problem. Another way is to track the gallons and other usage statistics provided on your water bill.
If your yard seems saturated in one particular area, it’s possible the water is coming from the buried water pipes. In that case, you would want to consult your water utility or a licensed plumber, because it’s never good to just start digging without a professional assessment. Plumbers can run a video camera through any water or sewer pipe to inspect them, which doesn’t take long but can reveal a lot. A video inspection would show, for example, calcium deposits, cracks or breaks within the water line.
Pinpoint the Pressure
With all the activity that your shower, washer and other utilities will see in a summer season, it’s even more important to maintain good water pressure. You can check and measure the household water pressure with a store-bought gauge that you attach to an outside spigot. Generally, the household standard is 40-45 pounds per square inch and should not exceed 60 psi.
Between your home and the main water line is a pressure regulator to keep the high-pressure water supply from bursting into your home. A typical regulator is preset for 50 psi. You, your water company or your plumber can adjust the regulator if, for some reason, it’s the culprit for pressure that’s too high or too low. If you elect to do it yourself, you should have a partner at the spigot to test the pressure as you adjust it. If you’re trying to increase the pressure, you don’t want to go too far with it, or you risk damage to your water utilities and appliances.
There is also the less precise testing trick of turning on the bathtub and kitchen spigots at the same time to see if the water runs more slowly in either place. That can be an indication that a pressure problem exists. If you determine your water pressure is low, consult your local water utility and ask if they’re doing any work in the area or have had complaints about low pressure. Often, there is a project or other temporary effect that causes the drop, and it returns to normal after a period of time.
Check Sprinkler Systems
Check sprinkler systems thoroughly for leaks — plus, inspect and clean the sprinkler heads at the beginning of the season. If you find any that are broken, not working, rusted or damaged, you can remove the head and replace it. Take the old one to the store with you or have it in front of you if you’re shopping online. Check for any letters or numbers it may have on it.
Sprinkler are notorious for wasting water because they sometimes spring leaks underground, where we can’t see that they’re leaking. Besides driving up your water bill, a faulty sprinkler or line can kill your grass, because it can’t survive on too much or too little water. Re-open the system slowly at summer’s start and then test the zones one at a time as you watch the sprinkler heads and the direction of each. You don’t want water running to the foundation or onto the home itself.
Some sprinkler systems may have a rain sensor already, and you can add one to the others. This helps avoid the silly scenario of having your sprinklers running during or right after a big rain storm.
Get to Know the Main Water Valve
It is always good to know where the main water shutoff to your home is located and how to use it. Some homes have a shutoff valve within the structure, such as the basement, garage or utility closet. Others have one outside in the yard or near the water main in the street, curb or sidewalk. You can also consult a plumber during your next call and ask them to show you where it is.
The main valve typically looks like a wheel with spokes that you turn to the right, or a lever that you turn until it’s perpendicular with the pipe it’s connected to. You can always turn it off and then go try to run water somewhere. If the water does not run, you were successful in shutting off the main valve.
Should anything happen with any of your water-using appliances or areas of the home, you want to be able to stop the water so you can deal with the emergency. If you leave home for any length of time, like for summer vacation, the best insurance you can have against water mishaps and flooding while you’re gone is to turn the water off at the main valve before you leave.
Plumbing runs through the walls and under the house and can cause costly damage if a pipe or part of a utility springs a leak or bursts while you’re gone. If the main valve is open, the water will continue to spew, but not if the main valve is shut. Another reason some people want or need to turn it off is to protect against water theft.
If you have some utility that requires you to leave the main valve open, such as a swimming pool or sprinkler, then it’s a good idea to just have someone check occasionally and make sure nothing goes awry inside the house.
You can also cut off the supply to most of your water-using appliances somewhere at the individual appliance. At the toilet, it’s usually a lever or faucet handle behind it near the wall, and the same with the washing machine. Most sinks have a valve in the water line, which are usually underneath in the cabinet, near the wall.
Learn the cause of any slow drain or weak flush issues during warm weather, and prepare for routine clogs with plungers and even an inexpensive three-foot auger for when the plunger doesn’t work. The auger should be used carefully, so as not to crack the vitreous china of the toilet, but it or the plunger will handle most normal clogs. If they don’t, you probably need a professional to snake or inspect it and find the problem.
If your toilets flush slowly, or you’ve seen grey water gurgle into the tub during or after a heavy rain, that’s probably cause to call a professional for an inspection. Tree roots are drawn to the nutrients in septic or sewer lines, and can grow into them and cause trouble.
Cracks can also develop in the pipes that will allow water in and prevent the pipe from doing its job. The worst-case scenario is the sewer or septic pipe backing up into the bathtub, and sometimes other drains. It’s a scenario nobody wants to envision, but can happen and smells very badly if and when it does.
Most parents feel happy when their child gets past the diaper stage and takes to the potty. Many experts suggest that the training should continue for small kids, so they know how much toilet paper to use, and to reinforce the lesson as they begin summer vacation. It helps for them to know little things, like the difference between facial tissue and toilet paper, and how one goes in the trash can and the other goes in the toilet. Naturally, parents teach their kids not to put any foreign objects down the toilet, but there are toilet lid locks to help until a child has outgrown that temptation.
For kitchen sinks, many times the clog forms in the U-shaped part of the pipe beneath the sink. You can try a pitcher or pan of very-hot water to get the clog moving and then try a clog-clearing chemical product after you read its warning label and directions. If you first turn the water off, either the main valve or just that sink, you can unscrew the p-trap and sometimes clear the clog manually, since that u-shaped part is often where kitchen sink clogs form.
For bathroom sinks and some bathtubs, beware of hair clogs either just inside the drain or further down the line. Sometimes, you can clear the ones near the top by hand or with a firm grip on a big pair of tweezers. You can also try a drain-clearing product before calling a plumber — just be sure you read the product label and find one that matches your needs.
Clear the Gutters
You might not associate clean gutters with common summer plumbing problems, but they actually play an important role in keeping water away from the foundation of your home. In order to work right, gutters need to be free of debris such as leaves, twigs and other material.
Another measure for keeping the foundation dry is to make sure you move several feet away from the house to use the water hose for common tasks, as well as make sure sprinklers are pointed away from the foundation. It is not unheard-of for people to call a plumber during summer because they have water in the basement, only to learn that one or more sprinkler heads are the source of it.
Pump to Stay Dry
If you have a sump pump, test it before summer storms arrive. First, be sure it has power and is turned on. Then, pour a bucket of water into it. The pump should turn on and begin to process the water, but you can shut it off and remove the water once you’re sure it’s working properly. Testing the sump pump helps ensure that you’re ready for summer thunderstorms and any extra water they send your way.
Many people who don’t live in a flood-prone area mistakenly believe they don’t need a sump pump, but the general rule is this: If any part of your home is below the ground level, you probably need a sump pump. A sump pump sits in a pit in the lowest part of your home, usually the basement or crawl space, and prevents water from flooding it. It pumps water out of the low spot and through a discharge pipe to the outside. At a cost of about $300 to $500 each, a sump pump is a lot less expensive than cleaning up a flooded basement.
Save Water, Save Money
Not everyone may be motivated to save the planet and conserve water, but it’s safe to presume that everyone cares about saving money. The Environmental Protection Agency states that if an individual household has some kind of water leak, such as a bad toilet flapper or dripping faucet, that household stands to save up to 10% annually on its water bill by correcting the leak.
A leaky faucet, for example, dripping hot water at a rate of one drip per second, can waste up to 1,661 gallons of water in one year, as well as waste up to $35 in electricity or natural gas charges. The EPA estimates that household leaks can collectively waste more than one trillion gallons of water annually. Everywhere we turn we find strong arguments and advocacy for saving as much water as we can — to conserve rather than waste. We use it without thinking, and may not realize how much of the finite resource gets used each day and how quickly a small, dripping leak in our faucet turns into a multi-gallon accumulation on our water bill.
There are so many ways to conserve water:
- Turn off water when your brush teeth and save four gallons a minute.
- Choose new appliances with the Energy Star logo that signifies efficiency.
- Wash the car at a car wash, where water is recycled.
- Don’t run water over food to thaw it.
- Avoid watering the lawn on windy days, and set a timer if your sprinkler is not automatic.
- Check faucets to be sure each one has an aerator on it: The little mesh screen-like thing inside the spigot.
- Soak dishes rather than working off stuck-on foods under running water.
- Lather hands with the water off.
Defend the Disposal
Summer brings lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, but not all of them are good for your kitchen garbage disposal. A sink-side container comes in handy for things that could start a compost pile instead of possibly giving your garbage disposal trouble. Avoid foods that are stringy, such as celery, banana peels and corn husk, as well as hard melon rinds, chicken skin or meat fat and vegetation from carrots or other produce.
These and other bulky, starchy or tough items can form clogs and get wound around the blade. Grease and oil are not good for the garbage disposal or your home environment for summer. Oily substances tend to stick to the inside of your pipes, solidify and leave a gunk that not only attracts roaches, but also bulky materials that build up and form clogs. You can absorb oils with paper towels and throw the paper towels away to avoid pouring it down the drain or garbage disposal.
It helps to think of your disposal as a convenient place to catch crumbs and bits that come off plates — not so much to consume large amounts of material. You can aid the disposal by (a) Using cold water in it as a rule, and (b) Starting to run the cold water about 15 seconds before sending in the food waste. If the garbage disposal starts to develop an odor, you can try running some citrus peel through it, along with cold water and a few drops of dish soap if you like.
Even those who don’t have a disposal should be conscious of what’s going down the drain. Avoid pouring oil, grease or juices heavy with it either, down the drain, and try to prevent bits of food from reaching the drainpipe. You can buy inexpensive sink strainers to place in the drain to catch anything that comes off your plates or other dishes.
Watch the Washer
While some people would swear that winter generates more laundry, since we might wear several layers, summertime brings a deluge of dirt and, as a result, laundry, too. Kids play outside and go to the pool. We get dirty in the yard and garden as well as with other projects. Guests visit and need linens. Everyone gets dirty and sweaty, then showers and changes clothes, and all of it generates more work for the washer.
Start summer with a springtime inspection of the washer and all its parts. Pull it away from the wall and check the connections and appearance of the hoses. Are there bulges or cracks? Do you see water, mold, mildew or other evidence that something is getting wet either constantly or occasionally? You should replace any hoses that are cracked or look distressed, and you can consider a stainless steel hose, since it is stronger and lasts longer than rubber, which has an average life of five years.
Assess the Sweaty Pipes
It is normal to see a little condensation on pipes, faucet heads and other utilities when the cold water is running or has just been run. The moisture results from the cool water causing the room-temperature or warmer pipes to react and temporarily produce condensation. Usually, the droplets and condensation stop after you finish with the cold water.
If it is constantly present, you might have cold water continuing to run somewhere, such as a leaky faucet, running toilet or improper main valve adjustment. And if the normal condensation worries or bugs you, there are insulated wrapping products available that will prevent the moisture from forming at all.
Consider the Code
Any project, repair, remodel or other endeavor that involves plumbing must be done to a certain code of standards, whether you live in a city or rural township. States usually set the code and licensed plumbers know and adhere to it. They also know what kind of projects require some kind of permit from the city, county, state, local water board or other entity. If you need a permit for the work, it will be inspected by some kind of building official from the county, city or applicable agency.
Most plumbers would confirm that the code and standards are to protect public health and safety. Summer is peak home-buying season, and it surprises some sellers when buyers research public records and see if a permit was pulled for any major work.
So what is major and what isn’t? The answers depend a lot upon your local agencies and water or building authorities, which is usually based upon where you live and the rules in your specific city, county, township and state. Sometimes it depends on the dollar value of the project. Generally, a bathroom remodel or home addition would probably require permitting and inspection, whereas a sink or toilet replacement would not require one.
Plumbing Maintenance Tips Good for Summer and Any Time:
- Replace whatever kind of stoppers or cushions are on the bottom of your toilet seat to keep it from slamming into the china bowl.
- In places where you have hard water and mineral deposits, use hot, soapy water or a decalcifying solution occasionally to remove the deposits and buildup on shower heads, bathroom spigots, spray nozzles, faucet washers and washing machine fixtures to keep the water running freely through them.
- Maintain a nice finish on the kitchen and other sinks and surfaces with regular cleanings using products that specifically say “non-abrasive.” Avoid permanent stains by not leaving certain items in the sink, like citrus and other fruit or juices, coffee, tea and tomato-based sauces, among other substances.
- Provide a lined trash can in each bathroom to avoid any unwanted situations and prevent any foreign objects from getting flushed down the toilet.
- Keep a toilet plunger in sight near each toilet and make sure family members know how to use it. If you buy them, be sure you’re getting a plunger for toilets, which have a higher, rounded hood and extended flange than plungers for sinks or other uses. You need at least enough water in the toilet to cover the plunger, and can add some if needed.
- Don’t ignore odors, because they’re not normal. A quality, correctly operating plumbing system runs without odor, so any unpleasant smells indicate a problem. Sewer gases, for example, can cause headaches and minor discomfort. Common culprits in stinky situations are leaks or cracks in the traps or vent piping of a septic or sewage system, bad seals, a defect or a failed component.
- Don’t stand for standing water in the yard, basement or anywhere in the house. It indicates a problem that you’ll want to resolve, because it can be a breeding ground for bacteria and insects like disease-bearing, pesky mosquitoes. Watch the grass for any spots that are soggy or greener and fuller than others, as that can indicate an underground leak either in a water line or the septic system.
Wrap Up After Summer
Maybe you have a summer cabin or home and leave when the hot weather does. In that case, reduce your chances of mishap over the winter by turning off the water at the main valve and then draining all the water from any drains, toilets, sinks or other utilities where it could stand. Open the spigots until water stops running, and if there’s a valve in the basement or garage, use a bucket or other container to drain it, too. Be sure to remove the garden hose from the spigot.
You can open the p-trap of the drains under your sinks to drain the water from them, too. To winterize the traps, apply mineral oil, antifreeze or windshield wiper fluid as a non-freeze agent. You will rest easier if you drain the hot water heater’s tank so there is no chance it will leak or burst while you’re gone. Extinguish the pilot flames of any gas appliances such as the furnace or stove.
Good Plumbing, Happy Summer
Whether you are winding summer up or down, you can count on I&C Mechanical – Plumbing & Heating to fulfill your plumbing needs. We will help with everything from emergency calls and clogs to pre-summer inspections and small or large maintenance items.