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.

Avoiding Needless Septic Maintenance

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We received a letter from the company that pumped our septic tank when we bought our home last year. They recommended that a household of two people should pump the septic tank every 1 ½ to 2 years. They also recommended a septic additive that they sell for $30 per gallon. It’s supposed to break up the solids in the tank, and they claim it’s better than the kind you buy at the hardware store. According to my neighbor, the tank should be pumped every five years. What’s the best advice for maintaining our septic system? Larry

Dear Larry: The septic company’s maintenance advice is better for them than for you. It improves their bank balance and does nothing to benefit your septic system.

On average, septic tanks should be pumped every 3 to 5 years, depending on the size of the tank, the number of family members contributing waste to the system, and the kinds of solids that go down the drain. Most solids that enter the system are decomposed by the bacteria in the tank. Eventually, non-organic junk, such as sand and bits of plastic, accumulate on the bottom of the tank, while a layer of floating grease and scum accumulates on top. These solids reduce the efficiency of the system and make pumping necessary.

Larger septic tanks need pumping less frequently than smaller ones because they have a larger capacity for junk and scum. Likewise, the fewer people who use a system, the less often pumping will be needed. For example, a 1,500-gallon system being used by a family of four might need pumping every five years, while a smaller tank would require pumping twice as often. After the kids have grown and flown, a 1,500-gallon used by empty-nest parents might only need pumping every 10 years.

Garbage disposals can also affect the frequency of septic pumping because they increase the volume of solids in the system. And undigested solids, such as those from a garbage disposal, take longer to decompose.

Additives to septic systems are widely recommended, but their benefits are doubtful. Controlled studies have not shown them to improve the performance of septic systems in any significant way. Added enzymes and bacteria cannot break down non-organic sediment. And added bacteria must compete with the bacteria already in the tank. In most cases, the established bacteria simply eat the added ones.

So don’t let contractors sell you on needless septic maintenance. Their advice will simply add wasted money to the solid waste already in your system.

Home Inspector Overlooked Polybutylene Pipe

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When we bought our house, the home inspector said we have copper water pipes. But when we installed a new dishwasher, we learned that the pipes are polybutylene plastic. Two plumbers have said these lines should be replaced to prevent leakage. Worse still, our insurance company got involved and will cancel our policy unless we repipe the house. The home inspector did not have us sign a contract, so there appears to be no limit to his liability. But we’ve heard that he is no longer in business. If we can track him down, how can we make him pay for the repairs? Stacey

Dear Stacey: You apparently hired a home inspector who is not a true professional. Therefore, you may not be able to make him pay for repairs. The fact that he missed such an obvious condition as polybutylene pipe, that he did not have a standard home inspection contract, and that he is no longer in business, indicates that he is a “fly-by-night” inspector.

Polybutylene is commonly recognized by home inspectors as substandard water pipe because the lines are prone to cracking, and the connections often leak.

Your first step is to locate the inspector, if possible, and to notify him of your concerns. Invite him to your home for a reinspection of the plumbing. You should also get some bids for repiping so that you can document the likely cost of repair. And be sure to get some advice from an attorney so that you will know what remedies are available to you by law.

If the inspector is still available but is unwilling to address the problem, you may be able to get a judgment against him in small claims court. That might not cover the entire cost of repiping, but it could pay a large part of it, assuming that the inspector has any assets to collect.

Finally, if the home inspector was recommended by your agent or broker, that person shares responsibility for the lack of competent disclosure and should be notified accordingly.

Should Home Inspectors Inspect Septic Systems?

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We purchased our home 10 months ago and had it professionally inspected. The septic system was included in the home inspection, but our inspector missed some major problems. During the inspection, he was unable to find the D-box where the septic pipes are connected or the seepage pit where the wastewater drains into the ground. All he found was the holding tank, and he said that it looked fine. Now that we’re selling the property, the buyers hired a septic specialist, in addition to a home inspector, and the septic guy found major problems. The buyers are now demanding that the system be replaced, and the bid for replacement is nearly $25,000. How could our home inspector have failed to see these problems? Susan

Dear Susan: My answer to your question will arouse indignation among those home inspectors who offer septic inspections as part of their services. The truth, however, is glaring: Home inspectors are not equipped to inspect septic systems and should not mislead homebuyers in the belief that they are able to do so. There, I said it. Now the flood of irate email from those home inspectors can begin.

The reason for my firm position on this issue is simple: A home inspection, by definition, is a visual inspection only. Home inspectors report conditions they can see and nothing more. This eliminates septic systems from the scope of a home inspection because septic systems are not visible or accessible to home inspectors. In order to inspect a septic system, it is necessary to locate the tank, to excavate the top of it, to remove the lid, and then to pump out all of the wastewater and sludge. Once the tank is empty, the true inspection begins. The walls and baffles can be inspected for damage or deterioration, the capacity can be considered relative to the wastewater output from the home, and the rate of flow into the seepage system can be tested.

The reason that home inspectors cannot inspect a septic system is because they do not have the equipment necessary to expose the components that need to be inspected. Only someone in the business of installing and servicing septic systems is likely to have the tank truck and pump equipment that is needed to expose the bowels of the system. Anything less than this, as a means of inspection, is totally inadequate and reveals nothing about the true condition of the system. Home inspectors who purport to inspect septic systems, but do not pump the tanks, need to face this reality and to refer septic inspections to qualified specialists.

Getting to the Root of Sewer Line Problems

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: For the past several years, we’ve had ongoing problems with our old clay sewer main. The line has to be rooted every few months, and the cost to install a new line would be about $15,000. Why is this problem so persistent, and what, if anything, can be done to solve it without spending a fortune? Gayle

Dear Gayle: Tree roots typically invade older types of sewer mains, where cracks and loose fittings allow roots to enter. Old clay sewer mains are highly susceptible to root intrusion because the mortar that was used to seal the fittings has deteriorated with age and because old clay pipes often have cracks. As roots enter these openings, they grow thicker, causing increasing damage to the pipes and enabling further root invasion. Root growth into sewer pipes may increase during dry weather because seepage from the pipes may be the only available ground moisture. But regardless of wet or dry conditions, roots are attracted to sewer pipes because the effluent contains organic nutrients as well as water, and this provides an enticing meal for hungry trees and shrubs.

Clearing a clogged sewer line with a rooter machine provides a temporary respite at best because rooting merely prunes the root ends that have entered the pipe. Once the plumber’s machine is withdrawn, the roots begin to grow again, and six months later the plumber is back. Chemical products can be flushed down the drain to kill these roots, but such products are not nearly as effective as portrayed in advertisements

The most common long-term solution is to replace the old sewer lines — obviously a very expensive answer to the problem. A less costly solution, offered by some plumbing companies, is the installation of a special synthetic lining in the old sewer main. With this method, the cost of excavation is eliminated and the seepage that attracts tree roots is terminated.

Dear Barry: I’m preparing to remodel my bathroom and am wondering if I should take a permit for the work. Basically, I have two questions: If the bathroom changes are not structural, do I need a permit? And when the city inspector comes to inspect the bathroom work – does he have the right to inspect other portions of my property where work may have been done without a permit? Dave

Dear Dave: If the bathroom remodel involves changes to the plumbing or electrical systems, a permit is definitely required. Alterations do not have to be structural for the building department to have authority over the project.

The building inspector has the right to cite any noncomplying conditions that are observed on the property. However, when the permit involves a limited area, most building inspectors are not this far-reaching in their approach. In most cases, they consider only the work that is currently in progress. But don’t take refuge in that assurance. The inspector has the power to be proactive regarding conditions of noncompliance on your property. In other words, don’t expect the worst, but be prepared for it.