Many Washington households under state order to stay home this month are putting home plumbing systems to the test. You depend on your plumbing for safe, sanitary living conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. If a pipe breaks or a sewer pipe clogs, it’s a true emergency.

Fortunately, plumbing companies are considered essential businesses under Washington state’s current stay-home order. They’re among the services deemed “necessary to maintaining the safety, sanitation, and essential operation of residences.”

“A leaking pipe or fixture is not just going to drive up your water bill, it can lead to extensive damage to ceilings, walls, and flooring — including mold,” says Gale Bellows, a journeyman plumber and service manager with South West Plumbing. “An overflowing toilet or broken sewer line can be a health hazard as well as a mess.”

Know your systems

Bellows points out that you streamline the response to a plumbing emergency — and minimize damage — if you know in advance the location of key components of your plumbing system.

If a side sewer pipe is blocked or broken, it helps if you can point the plumber to the cleanout access. In newer homes, this short, capped 4-inch-wide pipe is usually just outside the house, near the foundation. But in older homes, it could easily be under a pile of debris in the basement. Identifying it in advance will make it easier to address a sewer problem.

If a water pipe is broken or an appliance springs a leak, you can limit the damage by shutting off the water. For a toilet, sink, or washing machine, you can probably find a local shut-off nearby and stop the leaking well before the plumber arrives. For a broken pipe, you will need to shut off the water system for the entire house. However, that assumes your house has a shut-off valve in a logical location — and that you know where to find it.

David Schlosser was moving into a house in Redmond when he discovered a serious plumbing problem — the water to the house wasn’t working. When the plumber arrived and asked Schlosser where the shut-off was, he had no idea.

“Turns out the shut-off for our house was on another street,” Schlosser says. “It was on the other side of our neighbor’s house, in a ditch and half-buried under the collapsing retaining wall of the neighbor of our neighbor.”

Karen Seymour was slightly more fortunate. She found the shut-off for her Phinney Ridge home in the basement. However, it was inaccessible because a large water heater had been installed in front of it. Her husband had to construct a special tool so they could reach back into the narrow space and access the valve.

While these stories are amusing in retrospect, being unable to get to the shut-off while water is pouring down through your ceiling is not.

“You’d be surprised how many customers don’t know where their shut-off is,” Bellows says. “Or maybe one person in the household knows, but they aren’t at home when the emergency happens.”

He suggests finding and labeling your shut-off valve before you experience a plumbing emergency. And it’s a good to share that information with other adults in the household, and even to put it in notes for a house sitter.

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How to spot problems

While no one expects an emergency, it’s often possible to look back and see that there were warning signs that something was likely to go wrong. For that reason, Bellows urges people to address their household plumbing problems before they reach the level of emergencies. And to take steps to prevent them.

“Being careful what you put down your toilets and sinks will go a long way to helping your sewer pipes,” he says. Paper towels, tissues and sanitizing wipes, even ones labeled ‘flushable,’ should not be put into toilets.

Bellows recommends keeping an eye out for symptoms of plumbing issues such as dampness on walls or floors, slow-draining toilets, drains backing up, a malfunctioning water heater or the smell of sewer gas in your home.

“Proactive repairs are easier to schedule and a lot less disruptive for the homeowner,” Bellows says. “And they’re sure less expensive than having to pay for cleanup after a major leak or a sewage backup.”

South West Plumbing has been serving King, Pierce and Snohomish counties for more than 35 years. We work evenings and weekends at no extra charge. We are open for business! And we will get through this time together.