Home Inspection – A Bit of Advice From a Licensed Plumber
The home inspection business has really taken off over the last 5 years. There are quite a few factors that have led to this explosion, one of which is the huge turnover of homes due to the housing crisis and the other is that people are just way more informed. The new potential homeowner is more demanding than ever. As home inspectors you have to know a little about every system in the home including but not limited to electrical, HVAC and plumbing. I have been in the plumbing business for 21 years and I’m an actively licensed plumber in Illinois so I thought I’d take a little time to expand upon some of the things you need to know about plumbing as it relates to home inspections.
Through reading some of the state standards in home inspection I’ve seen that they are fairly thorough in their inspection criteria but they are lacking in detail and leave a few things out that could potentially be dangerous. Here are a few things you as a home inspector should be aware of while inspecting the plumbing for a potential home sale and some clarification on several plumbing issues to better help you understand their significance.
Location of Water Meter and Water Shutoff:
- Water Meter Location – Locating the water meter is significant for a couple different reasons. The first of which is to make sure the house has one. I know that may sound a bit silly but with the housing market being what it is, seeing a house sit vacant for more than a year is not uncommon. I’ll bet I’ve been in ten vacant homes in the last 3 years where the water meter has been removed or stolen. You can imagine the mess you’d have when water service is activated.
- Water Shutoffs – This guideline can be different from state to state. There should always be a main water shut off somewhere on a property. It is usually in the front of the house somewhere. We call it a B-Box or Buffalo Box. The city has the key (but so do most plumbers) so they can shut off the water in cases of non-payment of the water bill. In my area having main shut off out in the yard and a drain down inside the home is good enough, however it is good plumbing to also have a main water shut off inside the house. If any work needs to be done on the home water system or the meter you are not hamstrung by the city or town to shut the water down. Again some states or municipalities want a main shut off valve inside the home but it is not universally required.
Static Water Pressure – Some of you may wonder why this is so important so I’ll tell you because there is a fairly simple reason. Most plumbing fixtures have minimum pressure requirements to operate properly and having water pressure above a certain P.S.I. can be dangerous. So if water pressure is too low a booster pump may be needed to boost pressure or it may be indicative of a larger problem with the water service like a faulty B-Box or a water service leak. If the pressure is too high a pressure-reducing valve (P.R.V) will need to be installed.
Expansion Tank on the Water Heater – This is significant because it is a fairly new requirement. There are thousands upon thousand of homes in every major municipality across the United States that do not have expansion tanks. I don’t have one in my home and it is 13 years old. Home sellers can get rather prickly about having to install something for a buyer that wasn’t required at the time of the original purchase. An expansion tank is another line of defense supplementing the T&P valve to combat thermal expansion. It is basically a tank with an air cushion providing space for water to expand.
Fixture Shut Off Valves – Although this seems like common sense I’ve seen many houses that had no shut off valves or more commonly referred to as angle stops for any fixture in the house. So every time a toilet needed to be worked on or a faucet needed to be worked on or changed the water to the house had to be shut off. It’s a huge pain in the butt and that is why isolation valves or angle stops are required at each fixture or bathroom.
**Author’s Note** Because of the increasing popularity of PEX water piping more and more plumbing contractors are using manifolds to control the water supply to every plumbing fixture and faucet in the house. Having a PEX manifold is the ultimate in water control.
Plumbing Issues That Could Be Dangerous Or Cause Serious Damage
Lack of Dielectric Unions – I am painting this with a broad brush because galvanic action can happen several different ways. I am not going to go into the science of galvanic action but it is what happens when you join dissimilar metals in a plumbing system. If you have a copper water supply system and you have galvanized nipples coming out of the water heater you can compromise the entire water supply system. It may take years or it may happen in months but the copper will eventually break down. The most common scenario for home inspectors to watch for would be look for dielectric unions at the water heater. Some water heater companies now install dielectric nipples on the inlet and outlet of the heater therefor dielectric unions are not required.
Also be on the look out for repairs to a plumbing system in which copper is replacing galvanized piping. Dielectric unions should be used between the repair and the existing water piping. Most times the repair was done by the homeowner but I’ve known plumbers that have done it because it’s fast and cheap and they never expected to be back in the house. I have literally seen it hundreds of times so it’s not uncommon. A system with evidence of galvanic action can be completely compromised. In fact I wouldn’t agree to repair a home piping system with this issue without tearing out every piece of water piping in the house and starting from scratch. I do not make that statement lightly; for me there is no other way to assure a new homeowner of the integrity of the water supply system.
Water Softener or Water Filter Discharge Piping – This is one of those problems that most home inspectors do not pick up because it seems like common sense. I’ve come across so many water softeners and water filters that have their discharge piped directly into the house sewer, most times over head. Water Softeners and filters/iron tanks discharge or regenerate using a good amount of water. Some approach 11 GPM. If the floor drain to which the discharge is piped can’t handle the water the basement or home floods. So what does the homeowner do? They pipe it right into the sewer or get someone to pipe it directly into the sewer. Can you see a picture beginning to form in your mind where this can turn into a dangerous situation? What happens if the sewer ever backs up? You run the very real risk of cross contamination between the sewer and potable water supply. Maybe that homeowner or plumber went the extra mile and installed a check valve on the discharge piping. Bravo to them, however do you trust a $3.00 check valve to protect the health and safety of your family? If you see this immediately make the existing homeowner repipe the discharge piping using an indirect connection to a floor drain or cleanout.
Thank you in advance for reading. If you have any questions regarding this article or any other written by me leave a comment here or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit me at my own site www.theplumbinginfo.com.