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10 Silent Signs Your House has a Major Plumbing Problem

We've all been there: late at night, laying in bed and drifting off to sleep when suddenly the drip-drip of a faucet or swirling sound of a running toilet lets you know you have a plumbing problem. But how do you know you have a potential plumbing emergency when the issue doesn't make any noise? Here are 10 silent warning signs that it's time to break out your plumbing toolkit and deal with an issue before it becomes an emergency.

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Discolored Pipes

The next time you’re in your basement or poking around under the kitchen sink, take a long look at your pipes to see if there are any signs of discoloration, especially around a union. If so, it’s a strong sign there’s moisture present. This may be caused by dripping from a sink or drain line, or something more serious, such as a slow leak in the supply line. If it’s the latter, then you should definitely put this at the top of your to-do list. Plumbing supply lines are pressurized, which means that a slow leak has the potential to turn into a big mess fast! If you are seeing discoloration and build-up, here’s how to stop leaks in plumbing joints.

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Sewer Odor

Without getting too far into building science, a general plumbing rule of thumb is that every drain needs a trap, and every trap needs a vent. All those traps and drains are designed to prevent sewer gas from entering your home. The vents in your home should channel sewer odor up to the roof, while drain traps create a “water plug” that acts as a barrier stopping sewer odors from coming through the sink drain. If you smell sewer gas in your home, that means either a trap has run dry or a vent line has cracked. A dry trap can be fixed as easily as refilling it with water, or you may need to examine it for signs of the leak. Tracking down a cracked sewer vent can be much more difficult, as they are often enclosed in a wall, and will require a bit of drywall surgery in order to find and repair. Here’s where you can learn more about how to eliminate sewer odors.

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Weak Water Flow in Multiple Locations

A slow stream or low water pressure indicates an issue in distribution. If it’s only occurring at one location, it’s usually an issue in the faucet aerator—which is usually an easy fix. But if the water pressure is low in several spots around your home, that’s the sign of a bigger problem. In that case, you’re looking for a problem at the water main, in the hot water heater, or (worst case) an active leak in the supply line. If you’re seeing low water pressure in conjunction with some of the other items on this list, such as bubbling wall paint, it’s imperative that you take action right away. If you simply would like to have a stronger flow at your faucets, here’s how to boost the water pressure in your home.

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Slow Drain

It’s no surprise that a slow drain is a sign of a problem in your plumbing. Depending on where the issue is, it may be an easily removed clog near the drain, or it could be an issue farther down the line that will require significant snaking to resolve. Luckily, a little bit of detective work should help zero in on the problem. Cleaning out a simple clog is a great DIY fix, but slow drains throughout the home are often an indicator that there may be a major issue, like tree roots, in the sewer line. Here’s how to unclog a sink drain without using chemicals.

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No Water in Winter

If your water pressure suddenly drops or completely ceases in the middle of winter, there’s a chance that your pipes have frozen. This is a major issue and needs to be dealt with immediately.

An especially common problem in homes where the supply lines run through an attic, crawlspace, or other unheated space, frozen pipes hold the biggest danger once they thaw. That ice is acting as a plug, holding back the water from rushing out any splits that may have occurred. If you think you might be dealing with this issue, step through the troubleshooting carefully, and prepare to deal with a leak. If you get lucky enough to have the frozen pipes thaw without issue (copper pipes can expand slightly without bursting), don’t count on being that lucky the next time. Take steps immediately to fix the situation. Here’s how to prevent frozen pipes with a combination of insulation and warm air.

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Spiking Water Bills

A sudden jump in your water bill is more than just a pain in the wallet. It’s also a sign that something has changed in your plumbing system. If you haven’t done anything to justify an increase in water usage (such as filling up a pool or watering your lawn more than usual) you should begin troubleshooting to find out if you have a leak. The most common source of the water bill jump is a running toilet. Many homeowners don’t appreciate how much water a toilet uses; the toilet valve is essentially a garden hose going at full blast, and it’s not unusual for a single running toilet to waste hundreds of dollars of water. That’s why you need to know how to stop a running toilet!

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Bubbling Ceiling or Wall Paint

If the paint on a wall or ceiling suddenly begin to bubble or peel off, it’s most often a sign of moisture. The most common cause of this headache is a leak in either the roof or plumbing system. Should you see paint bubbling or blistering, or brown spots appearing on a ceiling or wall, it’s time to begin the investigative process to find out what’s wrong. Here’s more great advice on how to find and repair hidden plumbing leaks.

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Green Patch in the Yard

One common sign of a sewer issue is one section of your yard that’s much greener than the areas around it. This is especially true if the patch falls between your house and the street, which is the most common path for a city sewer line. Leaking sewer drains can also create sunken areas in the yard as the additional fluids cause the dirt around them to compact. Whether caused by degrading materials or invasive tree roots, this silent damage to the exterior portion of your plumbing system will need to be nipped in the bud. Check out this Family Handyman article for ways to stop tree roots from plugging sewer lines.

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Wobbly Toilet

If your toilet wobbles when you sit down, it’s a sign that something isn’t quite right. Hopefully you simply need to tighten the seat. But if the bowl itself is wobbling, examine the bolts that hold the toilet to the floor. If those bolts are tight and the bowl still wobbles, then there’s a chance that the wax seal around your toilet drain has failed, and water is eating away at your sub-floor. Replacing or reseating a toilet may seem like a major plumbing project, but this article breaks down the steps and shows it’s not that complicated and you can do it yourself.

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Shocking Water Color

If the water coming out of your faucets isn’t clear, it’s an indication there’s something going on. Excessively cloudy water is often caused by air in the pipes, while yellow or brown water indicates rust. (Note that on occasion water can come into your home tainted by these materials; in older systems for example, there can be an onrush of rust in nearby homes when the fire department flushes the hydrants.) Less frequently seen is a green tint caused by extensive corrosion in copper pipes. This is a sign that it’s time to inspect the system ASAP, as pipes in that state of degradation usually begin to leak outside the system relatively quickly!