News center
Boasting modern processing equipment

Ask the Builder: Be ready

May 02, 2023

April 5, 2023 Updated Fri., April 7, 2023 at 9:42 a.m.

Water dripping silently through the night caused thousands of dollars of damage, including warping this hardwood floor. (Tribune Content Agency)

You might think that everything is rainbows and unicorns at my house. After all, I’m a home improvement expert. What could go wrong?

Answer: The exact same things that go wrong without warning at your home.

Several nights ago, a disaster unfolded in my home in the middle of the night. It actually started hours before, but my wife didn't alert me to a tiny clue she had felt earlier in the day. As it turns out, a mouse gnawed at a plastic PEX water line that was running from the basement up to a second-floor bathroom. The pipe passed through an oversized hole created by the plumber more than 20 years ago. Had the plumber installed caulk to fill the hole, I’d not be typing this.

As I often remind readers, I didn't build the house I currently live in. Had I done so, I can assure you no mice would be inside, and even if they did somehow sneak in through an open garage door, they’d not be able to travel through the walls and ceilings at will as they currently do. The builder of my home was a dunce. I was only supposed to live in this transitional house for two years, but now I’m going on year 14. That's a story for another column.

The mischievous rodent ended up nibbling through the plastic pipe just enough to create a silent leak that reacted to gravity. Water soon ponded under the hardwood floor in our bedroom, causing it to swell. My lovely wife felt a new bump in the floor as she walked on the oriental rug that covers the floor but didn't think too much about it.

Hours later, in the middle of the night, I had a nature call to the bathroom and felt a much larger hump in the floor that had never been there before. In my sleep-walking state, I noticed it but crawled back under the covers thinking I’d inspect later to see what toy the cats might have shoved under the edge of the carpet. When I woke up at dawn, I immediately saw we had a serious problem. By then, the water had traveled to a basement bedroom, ruining the ceiling and laminate floor down there.

Even though I couldn't see the leak, I deduced that the water had to be leaking above the master bedroom. The only water above that room was a second-floor bathroom. I immediately turned off the cold and hot-water valves on the manifold in the boiler room, stopping all water from going to that room. By then the damage was done. I know it could have been so much worse.

What are the lessons here?

First and foremost, you need to know how to shut off the water in your home in case you have a leak. Just knowing the location of the valve is not good enough. When was the last time it was exercised? I’ve been a master plumber since 1981, and I can tell you that valves need to be exercised just like your body. You need to turn them on and off at least twice a year. You may discover that when you go to turn a valve off, it doesn't turn or you break the valve.

In our case, my wife and I were lucky that we didn't lose any irreplaceable or sentimental items. Will you be so lucky? Do you know where the hidden water lines are in your home? Where do they run across ceilings? If a water leak happens, what will get wet below?

Now is the time to move family treasures in your home to new locations where water, heat or sunlight will not damage them. Think about placing extremely valuable things in waterproof containers.

What happens if you can't get a plumber to come to your rescue immediately? Based on the email I receive from homeowners like you, qualified help is getting harder and harder to find at a moment's notice. Are you able to make emergency repairs to your water lines yourself? My guess is you have no idea how to solder copper water lines.

The good news is you don't need to know how to solder copper. Or, if you have PEX tubing like me, you don't need to have special tools for the most part to stop a slow or catastrophic leak.

Should you have a catastrophic full-pressure leak, you can cut the copper pipe, slide on an open ball valve and use a press tool to crimp the valve onto the copper tubing. It takes seconds. Once it's crimped, you turn the valve handle and the water stops flowing. The only issue is you have to have the valve on hand and you need the special, expensive crimping tool. They can be rented, but hundreds or thousands of gallons of water could have flooded your home before you get back from the tool-rental business.

Believe it or not, there's an even easier way to repair leaking copper, PEX, PE-RT, and CPVC water lines. You can cut the pipe, remove any burrs and push onto the end of the pipe push-to-connect fittings. My go-to choice is TotalFit ones made by Uponor. I have Uponor PEX in my home. If you can put the cap back on a Sharpie permanent marker, you can install these magic push-to-connect fittings.

It's key for you to have an assortment of them on hand as well as the correct tool to cut the pipe cleanly. You might also get the special inexpensive de-burring tool. Once you see how easy it is to make an emergency repair, you’ll sleep like a baby.

Subscribe to Carter's newsletter at Carter offers phone coaching calls if you get stuck during a DIY job. Go here:

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.