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

Repairing Leaky Pipes With Epoxy

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:   Our home is only 20 years old, and we just had a pinhole leak in a copper pipe above our dining room. Our insurance will pay to repair all of the damage, but we’re worried about this happening again. Next time the damage could be worse. We’ve heard that leaky pipes can be repaired by coating the insides with epoxy. Is this a good idea, or would you recommend installing brand new pipes throughout the house?  Camille

Dear Camille:  Coating leaky pipes with epoxy is a repair method that has been gaining popularity in the United States since the 1990s. Its use is still subject to debate among plumbing professionals, but many plumbing systems where epoxy coating has been used have withstood the test of time.

Most people have probably never heard of this method for repairing leaking pipes, so here are the basics. The procedure for lining water pipes with epoxy involves the following four steps:

1)  Preparation: All valves, stops, fixtures, and water heaters must be disconnected to prevent them from being damaged by the epoxy and to enable the entire piping system to be drained of water. Hot air is then blown through the pipes to dry them completely. The pipes must be totally dry to enable the epoxy to adhere.

2)  Cleaning: The interior surfaces of the pipes are then scoured of corrosion and scale by means of sandblasting. This is done by forcefully blowing abrasives through the pipes.

3)  Coating: Epoxy is blown through the pipes to coat the entire system. This seals all joints and prevents further corrosion of the metal. Excess epoxy is then blown out of the pipes and steam is injected to cure the new synthetic coating.

4)  Reconnection: All of the valves, stops, fixtures, and the water heater are reinstalled.

The total cost for this process is approximately 80 to 85 percent of the cost to replace all of the pipes in the building. On the positive side, the epoxy method is much less intrusive than repiping because no holes are cut into walls and floors, as would be done if new pipes were installed.

Expected longevity is also an important consideration. Epoxy coatings are usually guaranteed for approximately 10 years, which is much less than the life expectancy for new pipes. If you plan to stay in your home for many years, this would be a significant consideration. If you go with epoxy, be sure to research the companies you may hire. Find a contractor who has been doing this for many years and who has a reputation for high quality work.

Plumber Disagrees With Home Inspector

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:  I am a real estate broker and am trying to resolve a difference of opinion between my plumber and my favorite home inspector. The inspector routinely cites water heaters that are installed without a drain pan, especially when the water heater is on a raised platform in a garage. He says a pan will prevent water damage if there is a leak. The plumber says there is no code requirement for a pan. Who is right, the home inspector or the plumber?  Leila 

Dear Leila:  Your question raises two separate issues. The first involves the plumbing code – whether or not the code actually requires a drain pan under a water heater. The second issue is the wording in the home inspection report. Did the inspector say that a drain pan is required by code or merely that a pan is advised to prevent water damage?

First, let’s look at the Uniform Plumbing Code (UPC). According to UPC Section #510.7: “When a water heater is located in an attic or a furred space where damage may result from a leaking water heater, a watertight pan of corrosion resistant materials shall be installed beneath the water heater with a minimum three-quarter inch diameter drain to an approved location.”

This requirement names two situations where a drain pan is required under a water heater. The first in when the fixture is installed in an attic. Why a person would install a heavy water heater in an attic is a challenge to common sense, but that is not relevant to this discussion. The second and more pertinent situation is when a water heater is installed in “a furred space where damage may result from a leaking water heater.”

A “furred space” is a wall, ceiling, or floor surface that has been extended with additional construction material. An example of a furred space is a raised platform in a garage, on which a water heater is installed. When a water heater leaks onto the wood and drywall of the platform, moisture damage is likely to occur. To prevent such damage, a drain pan with a ¾-inch drainpipe is required by code.

Most home inspectors do not specifically cite building codes in their reports. Instead, they disclose conditions that are defective, unsafe, or that pose potential problems. Regardless of whether your home inspector mentioned the plumbing code, the recommendation for a drain pan under the water heater was valid, and the plumber should be made aware of section #510.7 of the code.

Aside from code requirements, it is hard to understand why a plumber who is installing a water heater would choose not to include a ten-dollar pan under the fixture. Sooner or later, nearly every water heater ends up leaking. A drain pan, known in the trade as a “smitty pan,” is very cheap insurance when you consider the costs of repairing and replacing damaged building materials, not to mention the potential consequences of mold infection. Instead of debating what is or isn’t required by code, plumbers should recommend smitty pans to all of their water heater customers and should agree with home inspectors who recommend drain pans.

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.