Featuring America's Home Inspector: Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Barry Stone

Homeowner Burned by TV Plumber

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I’ve owned my home for 25 years and have never had a serious plumbing problem. But recently, the toilet has been running off and on for no reason. Several times an hour, the water runs in the tank for about 15 seconds, as though the toilet had just been flushed. I called one of the big plumbing companies that advertise on TV every day. The plumber arrived in a huge truck, tinkered for half an hour, and then told me the problem was high water pressure. He offered to install a pressure regulator for $3,800. I’m on a fixed income and cannot afford such an expense; so I paid the $58 service charge and sent the man on his way; my toilet remains unfixed. What do you think I should do about the toilet, and should I be concerned about the high water pressure?  Diane

Dear Diane: :  I was holding my breath until you said that you sent the plumber on his way. Thank goodness. Had you agreed to that $3,800 job, you’d have been badly cheated, and not surprisingly.

Many of the large plumbing companies that advertise on TV have reputations that would make a highwayman blush. Some are particularly known for monumental levels of overcharging, especially when dealing with single women and the elderly.

My grandfather, at age 85, was scammed by one of these sting artists. The TV plumber he called removed all of the drain piping from beneath the house, rendering the plumbing system inoperative. Grandpa was then told that the pipes were worn out and needed to be replaced immediately. He didn’t know where to turn, so he paid the $5,000 extortion fee to restore the habitability of his home.

Fortunately, your situation was not that serious. The problem with your toilet is common and simple. You have a leaking flapper in the tank. The flapper is the rubber stopper that holds back the water until you flush. When you press the tank handle, the flapper lifts, allowing the water to run into the toilet bowl. When a flapper leaks, the water in the tank slowly runs down and the tank valve turns on intermittently to restore the water level. That is why your toilet runs every so often. Any neighborhood plumber or handyman can replace the flapper for a nominal charge. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

As for the water pressure, the plumbing code limits residential pressure to 80 psi (pounds per square inch). Excess pressure can cause leaks at water supply connections, but it can’t make a toilet flapper leak. And contrary to what the scam plumber told you, a new regulator is not a major expense. A reputable plumber can install a regulator for between $200 and $300. But before you do that, have the pressure checked to be sure that it is really over 80 psi. Don’t let anyone charge you more. And whatever you do, don’t call anymore TV plumbers.

Who Is Qualified to Inspect Gas Fixtures?

The House Detective
by Barry Stone, Certified Building Inspector

Dear Barry: This is not a question as much as a comment. You occasionally discuss how home inspectors inspect gas-burning fixtures. In my opinion, home inspectors are not qualified to inspect gas appliances — period. Unless they hold the proper licenses to do actual work on those fixtures, they should not be inspecting water heaters, furnaces, or other gas appliances. You would better serve your readers by advising them to use licensed contractors for inspections of gas-fueled equipment. That way, the person doing the inspection will have the necessary knowledge and the proper license to make educated evaluations and reliable recommendations.  Jay

Dear Jay: If gas-burning fixtures should only be inspected by licensed plumbers and heating contractors, we will have to dismiss nearly all of the municipal building inspectors who inspect furnaces and water heaters on behalf of city, county, and state building departments. Those building inspectors, the ones who give final approval for newly-built homes, are code certified, but very few are licensed plumbing or heating contractors.

Repair skills are not essential when searching for defects. A doctor need not be a surgeon to diagnose a disease. Likewise, a competent home inspector can identify mechanical problems, without the expertise to repair them.

A qualified home inspector who inspects furnaces, for example, should be able to recognize inadequate fire clearances for furnaces and flue pipes, improper gas line connections, irregularities in the color and pattern of a gas flame, rust damage in burner chambers, visible cracks in heater exchangers, inadequate combustion air supply, back-drafting of combustion exhaust, and much more. In some cases, home inspectors have identified defects that were overlooked by the contractors and the gas company technicians who serviced the equipment.

Home inspectors who take their profession seriously participate in ongoing education in all aspects of real estate inspection, including the evaluation of gas fixtures. The annual education conferences offered by national and state home inspection associations typically include seminars whose instructors are licensed heating contractors or experts from major gas companies.

Contractor licensing is appropriate for those who install and repair gas-burning fixtures, but it is not essential for those who inspect these systems for specific defects involving function and safety.