Home Inspections and Plumbing
I know there are a bunch of great jokes about plumbers. Some funny, some not so much so, but none that I can think of that would be suitable for this article. Perhaps as an attempt to convert this clumsy introduction to a clever segue, we can say that there is nothing funny about having plumbing problems.
We are going to approach this article a little differently than the others. Water flow has a definite sequence as it is used in the house. A kind of journey takes place from the street, through the house and then out the drain lines back to the street. We will follow this path to help you understand how water flow works and what is involved as part of a plumbing inspection.
Most of us have “city water”, potable water supplied by the municipality in which we reside. The inspector should identify where the water enters the house, the type of water pipe material used from the street and where the water shut off is for the house. He/she will also check the water meter box to be sure there are no leaks and describe the type and condition of the piping used to deliver the water to various parts of the house. At some point the inspector will also measure the water pressure and make recommendations if it is not within a proper pressure range. If the house has a well, the accessible equipment is inspected but the rest of the inspection is about the same.
This may a good place to talk about polybutylene pipe so we can get it off our list. It will be a compressed discussion because a historical approach would be too long for this article, not pertinent to what is happening now and also quite boring. Problems with polybutylene pipe started showing up in the 1990s. A class action law suit was filed that has long since expired so there is no money available for damages resulting from the pipe’s failure. It has only been in the last few years that the plumbing industry has finally concluded that the product is defective and apparently deteriorates to the exposure to chlorine in the drinking water. That’s right, someone developed a water supply pipe that can be destroyed by chlorine. The good news is that if you have a well or live somewhere where the water is not treated with chlorine, you are probably fine. Many of the homes in metro Atlanta have had the Polybutylene pipe replaced but many still have not. If you have any questions about polybutylene, there are many sources on the web, or you can call and talk to one of our inspectors
The type and condition of the water supply piping is noted and all plumbing fixtures are turned on and checked for flow, leaks and to be sure the hot and cold water are connected properly. During the exterior part of the inspection, the hose connections are also tried. Hose faucets that have been winterized are noted.
The water heater is probably the one water device that has the most problems and comments on inspection reports. Consider a sealed steel container filled with fifty gallons of very hot water and steam under pressure sitting in the basement or your hall closet. This is something you want to be sure is operating properly, has all the required safety devises and that they are working correctly. This scary scenario gets worse when “Bubba the home owner” can go to Home Depot or Lowe’s, buy a water heater, bring it home and try to hook it up so it works. This is a job that should be done by a licensed plumber. The inspector has a lot to look at on a water heater and the report should list things like the type, size, age, location and general condition. If the water heater is gas, the available air supply and venting of the waste gases is a very important part of the inspection. Improperly vented gas appliances can allow gases back into the house. Any defects should be listed and an appropriate fix recommended.
So much for the supply side of our home plumbing, the next part will deal with drainage. The drainage system is less complicated than the supply side. First, the only water pressure is atmospheric or the weight of the water, the drains are not under pressure and everything flows down hill thanks to gravity. Sink, shower and tub drains are checked to be sure they flow properly and there are no leaks. Plumbing systems require venting to release sewer gases and to prevent water from being sucked out of drain traps. The type and operation of these vents should be located and an assessment made of their condition.
If the main house drain to the street exits the basement above the floor and there are basement fixtures that have to be drained, bathrooms or sinks, the material must be pumped up into the house drain pipe to join the rest of the household discharge. This is accomplished with the use of a sewer ejector. It is not uncommon to find these devises inoperable, improperly installed and not properly vented. Remember, this thing runs on an electric pump. Don’t use the basement bath during a power outage. The tank can fill and over flow. Enough said.
Most homes in the Atlanta area are on municipal sewer and there are usually few concerns after the drain line leaves the house. If the house has a septic tank, however, it is like having a 500 pound gorilla in the room. Most people have no experience with septic systems and have only heard the horror stories of them backing up on Thanksgiving Day when there was a house full of guests. This should not be the case. If used and maintained properly, the septic system will work every bit as well as a city sewer. It is when the system has been ignored that costly and yes messy repairs will have to be made. Your inspector can easily give anyone a brief primmer on septic operation to calm an anxious buyer.
Because of the number of vacant homes that have been closed up for extended periods, it should be noted that during the course of a typical home inspection there probably will not be enough water put into the system to fully determine if the drainage system is functioning properly. This may also be true for houses on city sewer. The inspector will spend the most time inspecting the septic system by walking the yard looking for wet locations, sewerage odors and strange weed growth.