Since leaving college, Paul has worked in a variety of roles, including: painter and decorator, general handyman, and freelance writer.
Plumbing issues come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. They can range from the relatively minor and inexpensive, such as a dripping faucet or running toilet, all the way up to a sewer system backup or a major pipe leak that's capable of causing severe structural damage to property, as well as destroying the contents of a home or business.
Although I'm not a professional plumber, I've been managing properties for many years and picked up a lot of practical experience and knowledge on how to assess plumbing issues, as well as some useful DIY tips for how to fix the easier problems yourself.
This article lists the most common issues that can require plumbing work. Prevention is better than cure, of course, and you can minimize the chances of problems from occurring, or becoming worse, if you know in advance the sorts of issues that are most likely to occur.
Below are ten typical issues, their common causes, and how they can be fixed. Some problems are relatively straightforward to deal with, provided you have some basic tools and a willingness to learn, while others will almost certainly require calling for help from a professional plumber.
The 10 Most Common Plumbing Issues
- Dripping faucets.
- Slow draining sink.
- Clogged bath or shower drain.
- Clogged toilet.
- Running toilet.
- Faulty water heater.
- Low water pressure.
- Jammed garbage disposal.
- Leaky pipes.
- Sewer system backup.
1. Dripping Faucets
Dripping faucets are so common that it's rare to find someone who hasn't experienced this issue. It's not just a source of irritation; the waste of water can push up your water bill and cost you money. A single faucet can drip away hundreds of gallons over the course of a year.
The cause of dripping faucets in many cases is an internal washer that has become stiff, torn, worn, or dislodged over time. If this is the problem then it can usually be fixed by someone with basic DIY skills and basic tools. The water supply to the dripping faucet is switched off, the faucet is disassembled, the faulty washer is replaced, and then the faucet is reassembled.
2. Slow Draining Sink
This problem is typically caused by a blockage that is restricting water flow. Your kitchen sink drain may contain things like congealed fat and food remnants. In a bathroom sink, the blockage is more likely to be caused by knotted hair and soap.
Methods for clearing a clogged sink might involve using a plunger, pouring down baking soda and vinegar or a chemical clog remover, or using a plumber's snake. If the problem isn't tackled, then it will likely worsen over time, until eventually the drain is completely blocked.
How to unclog a sink drain using chemicals
- Be sure to follow all the directions on the packaging and make sure not to use too much.
- Wear gloves and goggles for safety.
- Don't mix chemicals. This can produce poisonous gas.
- Pour chemicals down the drain.
Note: Chemicals can cause damage to your drainage pipes if used repeatedly, so I would recommend not resorting to this method lightly.
3. Clogged Bath or Shower Drain
As with slow draining bathroom sinks, bath and shower drains generally get blocked up by clogs of hair and soap. Clearing the blockage may require the use of a plunger or a plumber's snake. Baking soda and vinegar can sometimes dissolve the clog too.
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The problem will usually get worse over time, if not dealt with. The issue can be prevented or minimized from recurring by buying a drain guard to catch the hair.
How to unclog your shower drain using a plunger
- Adding petroleum jelly to the edge of the suction pad will improve the seal.
- Make sure there is enough water in the shower so that the end of the plunger is submerged.
- Plunge vigorously.
4. Clogged Toilet
When the toilet bowl fills up and doesn't drain away, you've got a clog. The blockage is normally caused by a mixture of paper and human waste. Clogged toilets can normally be fixed with a plunger. If that doesn't work then a sewer snake or drain auger can be used to loosen up the blockage.
5. Running Toilet
A running toilet can be costly; up to 200 gallons of water may be lost each day. The most common culprit is a faulty flapper valve which controls the water that passes from the tank to the bowl. This is fairly straightforward fix with a toilet repair kit available at any hardware store.
Less commonly, toilet runs may also be caused by sediment affecting the flushing and filling. If your water bills seem high, check for silent leaks by putting some food coloring in the upper tank and see if it makes its way to the bowl without flushing.
6. Faulty Water Heater
This problem may not be discovered until you are in the shower and the water suddenly goes cold. There are multiple issues that can cause a water heater to fail. The pilot light may go out, and you have to relight it. A build-up of sediment in the tank can also cause problems. Another time, it may be the thermostat that is at fault.
Generally speaking, you will want a professional to inspect, maintain, and fix your water heater, unless it's something very basic like the pilot light needing to be relit.
7. Low Water Pressure
If your water trickles out of the tap rather than gushes, this may be a symptom of low water pressure. This is often a problem in older homes. Low water pressure can be cause by a number of issues, a common one being leaking pipes that have become broken, worn, or corroded over time.
If it's low water pressure in a shower that's the issue, more often than not it's caused by a build-up of sediment and mineral deposits on aerators. You can soak the aerator in vinegar to clean it. If it's the shower that's the problem, then you need to either soak the showerhead in vinegar or simply replace it.
How to clean a showerhead with vinegar
- Dismantle and the clean off any dirt or soap.
- Use a toothbrush soaked in vinegar to scrub and loosen any mineral deposits.
- Use a safety pin or toothpick to poke off any loose deposits.
- Soak the parts in vinegar overnight to dissolve any leftover deposits.
8. Jammed Garbage Disposal
Garbage disposals are very useful appliances, but they do jam sometimes. Running them without water, disposing certain food substances such as cornhusks and potato peels, or allowing silverware to get inside can all cause problems.
Your first step to fix the issue should always be to hit the reset button, but if that doesn’t work, then you will need to open it up. If you have lost the key that comes
with the garbage disposal, then a 1/4 inch Allen wrench can be used to free the motor.
9. Leaky Pipes
Leaky pipes can be more than just a nuisance, they can cause damage to furniture and floors, and the dampness can encourage bugs like cockroaches. Leaks almost always happen at the pipe joints.
Tape, compounds, and fillers can often provide a temporary fix, but for something more permanent, you will need to replace a piece of pipe or the related fittings. This may well require the expertise of a plumber.
Leaks are more common in the winter when water can freeze, expand, and cause pipes to burst.
How to prevent pipes bursting in winter
- When the weather is very cold, allow the cold water to drip from the faucet served by exposed pipes. Running water, even just a trickle, helps to prevent the pipes from freezing.
- Keep the thermostat set at the same temperature both day and night.
10. Sewer System Backup
Sewer system backups are, frankly, a nightmare. They can be smelly, nasty, unhygienic, inconvenient, and expensive to fix. If you have multiple drains and toilets not working and a bad odor of human waste, this is likely your problem.
Responsibility for fixing the issue really depends on the location of the blockage. If it is on your property, then it's your problem. If it's out on the public road, then your water company should fix it. Unfortunately, you may have to pay for a plumber just to locate the blockage, though it's often worth calling your water company first if you suspect that the blockage is not on your property.
There are three common causes:
- First, the main sewer is clogged. You will likely need professional help to fix this. To minimize this happening in the future, watch what you flush down your toilet (no diapers, facial tissues, napkins) and avoid tipping grease down your drain.
- Second, tree roots have invaded the pipes. Roots can push through cracks in pipes or surround a pipe and crush it.
- Third, old sewer lines may break or collapse. Modern sewer lines are made from plastic, but they used to be built from cast iron, or clay, which are prone to decay over time.
5 Common Plumbing Problems in Old Houses
In addition to the plumbing issues founds in homes generally, older houses can present a number of particular challenges. Below are five common plumbing problems that I've encountered when living in, or managing older properties.
- Galvanized pipes. These were commonly used in American houses built before the 1960's. Galvanized pipes are made from iron and coated in zinc. Over time, the zinc erodes, leading to corrosion and breakages. Once the pipes are compromised, both the water pressure and quality deteriorates. Often the only solution is to replace the damaged sections of piping.
- Polybutylene pipes. These were common in homes built from the late 70’s to early 90’s, due mainly to their affordability. However, these pipes have the tendency to react with oxidants in water over time, causing them to weaken and fail.
- Previous bad repairs. When you get an old house, you are basically inheriting it from one or more previous owners. The quality of earlier repairs and plumbing work can therefore be variable. Due to previous owners avoiding the expense of employing a professional plumber, it is not unusual for to discover inadequate or bungled plumbing that will require more permanent solutions.
- Pipe bellies. The earth underneath houses is rarely completely static. Over time, the shifting around can cause the house's pipes to buckle or bow. These bends are known as "pipe bellies" and can interrupt the flow of water causing blockages.
- Old fixtures. Original fixtures such as faucets, valves, spigots, and handles are often compromised in an old house, due to years of wear. This can result in leaks, bad smells, and inflated utility bills. Often the only solution is to replace the worn fixtures.
3 Plumbing Issues in Apartments
There are some plumbing problems that are more likely to happen in apartments. Below are 3 common ones.
- Flooding from above or below. When an apartment bathroom or kitchen floods, it can cause damage to the apartment below too, usually to its ceiling, but sometimes more extensively. Problems can stem from clogged pipes, damaged water supply or drainage, or malfunctioning washing machines or dishwashers.
- Irregular or inadequate property management. In an apartment block, you are reliant on the building management doing their job properly, as well as other residents reporting problems promptly. Water heaters, pipes, and water tanks all need regular evaluation to minimize plumbing emergencies from occurring.
- Dirty water. This can occur for a variety of reasons and can be a particular problem in older apartments. Rusty pipes or other corrosion is often the cause. The problem is potentially dangerous to health, especially if it's a sewage line that's breaking down, and should be dealt with immediately.
3 Common Winter Plumbing Problems
These problems are more likely during the colder months of the year. Generally speaking, these problems will require you to call a plumber, should they occur.
- Frozen pipes - Pipes can freeze, which causes them to burst. Wrapping them in insulation will reduce the likelihood of this happening. I would also recommend allowing faucets that are fed by exposed pipes to drip during particularly cold spells, as moving water is less likely to freeze than standing.
- Water heater breakdown - Water heaters work harder during colder periods, and the resulting stress, particularly for older water heaters, can mean that there is a higher likelihood of them breaking down.
- Water lines split - Water lines expand and contract according to the temperature. During the winter months, changes in temperature can be bigger and quicker causing an increased likelihood of water lines forming leaks.
3 Plumbing Issues After It Rains
There are a number of plumbing-related problems that can occur after a heavy rainfall. Below are 3 common ones.
- Blockages. Flowing rainwater can pick up lots of debris, such as leaves, twigs, and small pieces of trash. This increases the chances of pipes and drains becoming clogged. Prevention is better than cure, and you can minimize the problem to some extent by making sure that you keep your roof and guttering free from leaves and other debris, as well as general property clean-ups.
- Sceptic tank flooding. Sceptics can be particularly prone to flooding problems after heavy rain. The area around the tank becomes saturated and drainage problems occur. You may have to adjust the settings of your sceptic system, or use less water until the drainage field has had chance to dry out.
- Cracked Pipes. Heavy rain can cause the ground to shift, especially if it occurs after a long dry spell, and this can cause pipe breakages. This problem is more likely to happen if your pipes are old, or made from galvanized steel.
What is a Plumbing Emergency?
Below are seven common issues that can occur in residential properties and are considered emergencies - most, though not all, involve flooding or the risk of flooding:
- Burst pipes.
- Leaky pipes or fixtures.
- Frozen pipes.
- Blocked drain.
- Sewerage back up.
- No functioning toilet in the property.
- Gas leaks.
4 DIY Plumbing Tips
- Always turn off the water main before attempting a plumbing repair.
- Plumbing is by nature a messy business. Always assume that you will get wet and dirty, and dress appropriately.
- The right preparation and tools are important. Ensure measurements are correct and that you have everything you need before you start your plumbing repairs.
- Always keep a professional plumber's phone number handy in case things go wrong and you need help quickly.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: My bathroom faucet is dripping. Could I fix the problem myself, or should I call a plumber?
Answer: Fixing a dripping faucet is not usually a difficult job, provided you have the correct tools. The problem typically involves replacing an internal washer, which has become worn or dislodged over time. There are plenty of informative how-to videos online that will take you through what you need to do.
Question: My sewer system is backed up, what do I do?
Answer: Responsibility for fixing the problem usually depends on where the blockage is. If it is on your property, then it's your problem. If it's out on the public road, then your water company should fix it. Unfortunately, you may have to pay for a plumber just to locate the blockage, though it's often worth calling your water company first, as they shouldn't charge you if it is their fault. Pipes can get blocked up for some reasons. They may be blocked by a build-up of debris and waste. Tree roots can sometimes work their way through cracks in old pipes. Old pipes may also fail due to general aging, metal pipes rusting, for example.
© 2018 Paul Goodman
Paul Goodman (author) from Florida USA on July 17, 2020:
Drains can be blocked at any point in the system, that can include beyond the boundaries of the property/out in the street. If there is a backup, then that usually means there is some sort of blockage somewhere, which is either limiting or preventing flow. Modern professionals use a camera that they run through the drains in order to locate the blockage and look at the general condition of the pipes. If the blockage is localized, you can sometimes make a reasonable guess as to where the blockage is located by trying out toilets, sinks, showers, etc. If a specific bathtub drains slow, for example, but everything else is fine, then it's likely to be a localized problem, rather than main drainage.
Maria A. on July 17, 2020:
Once a main drain is cleared, is there anything else that can cause back up?
Paul Goodman (author) from Florida USA on June 23, 2020:
I'm wary of giving online advice without seeing something, but if the cause and location of the leak is as you've described, then aside from changing the shower head, which you've done, you can try using pipe compound or wrapping Teflon tape (in a clockwise direction) around the threads where the head connects to the pipe to get a tighter seal. If the pipe is corroded, you may need to replace it. I would still use compound or Teflon tape with the connection to the new pipe to get a tight seal.
Ralex on June 23, 2020:
I have a leak at the stem of the shower head ( first connection point). It has been that way for a while and I tried changing the washer and even changed the shower head, but it still leaks. Could it be a problem with the “goose neck pipe”?
Larry R on April 22, 2020:
My toilet tank once full of water will run for about 20 secs, stops and does it again every 20-25 minutes just started yesterday. Any ideas?
TIM connolly hot tap squeak when I turn it on on March 14, 2020:
Hot tap squeak when I turn it on
Eugene Brennan from Ireland on March 11, 2020:
Lots of interesting info Paul! That joint I was making in the top photo is a bit messy though :)
Paul Goodman (author) from Florida USA on March 01, 2020:
That sounds like bad news, as this can often indicate that the blockage is a much deeper one than a simple drain clog. If you've tried everything in the list without success, you will need to call in outside help.
Robert Miller on February 28, 2020:
When I flush my toilet it backup in tub
Jeanie Pollack on January 04, 2020:
What can be done if kitty litter waste was dumped into toilet and flushed then causing a clog. Can I get a snake or flush system to push it thru or do I need to replace toilet?
Debby on January 03, 2020:
Why does my toilets make a pressure/bubbling noise every few minutes
James on December 30, 2019:
Some of the most common plumbing issues which are faced by both residential as well as commercial property owners include, water leak, clogged toilet, faulty water heater, slow draining sink, ripping faucets, and running toilet. Therefore, it is best to keep the number of a professional plumbing repair service on speed dial, to have them on call in case of an emergency.
Lee Hauser on December 06, 2019:
We snaked clean out with 100ft 3/4 snake tho sewer is 50- 60 ft away we put all 100 ft down with all 4 bits on 4 runs . both clean out lid opin . still have standing water in line ....there was no resistance at any time ...and drain in all new avs black pipe
James on November 29, 2019:
I think leaky faucets is a serious plumbing issue which must be resolved immediately, leaky faucets does not only increase your water bills but can also lead towards seriously damaging your property. In order to fix the issues you might need to replace the washer, however, it is quite hard to find a leak or leaks, therefore it is recommended to hire a professional plumbing company to do the job for you.
Al rugh on November 16, 2019:
Why wont a pump work with a bursted bladder in tank
Carolyn porter on August 17, 2019:
My front restroom bathtub is not getting cold water but is getting hot water what could it be and it doesn’t get used much
KD McMaster on August 14, 2019:
Help! My bathroom sink suddenly stopped draining almost a wk ago. It drained perfectly until that time. I have tried vinegar and baking soda, cleaned the trap, plunged, snaked and have tried commercial products twice. The toilet and shower are draining well. My home was built in the 50's and the pipe going into the wall is cast iron but after appx 1-1/4ft makes a 90° turn down so using a clearing bladder is impossible. Just spent several thousand $ a yr ago having the sewage line replaced from house to main on property line so i really need some ideas as to what else i can try. Thank you in advance.
Jeannette on June 30, 2019:
Ok my water got turned off and it was to late to get it back in and I needed water Soni got it from the water heater now that it's back on I have no water in any faucets cold or hot what do I do
Dean on June 02, 2019:
I recently installed a clawfoot tub in the bathroom upstairs, when the tub drains it drains exceptionally well but, the downstairs powder room sink spits water up through the drain in the sink. Is this a vent problem?
Dennis on April 17, 2019:
I have a combi boiler and the water pressure on the hot tap is very slow I’ve had the pressure tested by the water board and it’s ok up to the boiler the boiler is six years old do you have any ideas what the problem could be
Eamonn McDonagh on November 09, 2018:
Good ideas and easy to follow tips