Can You Diagnose These Plumbing Problems?


By: Ian Fortey

7 Min Quiz

Image: Henrik Sorensen / DigitalVision / Getty Images

About This Quiz

Archaeological evidence has shown that ancient settlements in Scotland from as far back as 3000 BCE may have set up systems of running water that could have functioned as very rudimentary indoor toilets. That also means there's a good chance the very first clogged toilet dates back to around 2999 BCE. The history of plumbing has had a lot of ups and downs with the technology being lost and found again, devised in different places at different times throughout history all leading up to what we have today, which is still not even standardized all across the world. Some people have bidets in their homes, others have toilets. Some places have urinals, others have outhouses still. Maybe you have a tub or just a stand-up shower stall that takes very little room. There are lots of fixtures and probably a dozen problems that could crop up for each one.

No one wants to deal with a plumbing problem, but you can't pretend they don't exist. From sewage in the basement to exploding pipes to mysterious knocks in the walls, there is a lot to know about when it comes to issues with your plumbing. Let's see how many problems you can actually diagnose!

Your toilet just won't stop running. What's the problem?

The valve that seals the water in your toilet's tank is called the flapper because, you guessed it, it flaps up and down. If it doesn't seal down properly the water keeps draining out, which causes the toilet to run in a constant effort to refill the tank. Fix the flapper, stop the running.


All of your drains are gurgling and stuff starts backing up in your house. What could cause that?

If every drain in your house starts gurgling and they start back up into your house, it's a good sign that the entire line has a clog in it out in the main sewer where it connects to your house. That may be an issue the city has to fix for you, but the exact location of the clog needs to be identified.


When you try to plunge a clogged drain and dirt and debris come up, what could have happened?

When all your drains are slow-moving or totally clogged and plunging brings up debris you're sure never went down your drain in the first place, there's a high likelihood that some tree roots have busted into your pipe outside and are now causing the clog.


What's the likeliest culprit if all your drains are flowing fine but when you shower you end up ankle-deep in water?

More than any other drain in the house, the shower drain gets abused by hair. Hair clogs will build up over time with soap, grease and other residues to make some impressive and also rather disgusting clogs that need to be forcefully pulled out or chemically broken down.


You just came back from vacation and your kitchen absolutely reeks like sewage. What's going on?

Every drain has a trap under it, a curve of pipe that holds water. That water prevents gases flowing back up into your house. But if you've gone on vacation and no water has run for a while, that water can evaporate, giving you a dry trap that allows sewer gases to waft into the room. Run some water and fix the problem.


What happened if your water bill doubled in a month but you haven't done anything different in how you use water?

If your bills skyrocketed for no reason, you can figure out then you need to go hunting. There's a good chance your pipes are leaking somewhere, and it will continue to cost you a lot of money until you find it and fix it.


After washing your dishes the water in the sink is barely moving at all. Do you know why?

You always need to consider what a fixture does when figuring out what's wrong with it. Your kitchen sink has a lot of food matter in it so when it's not draining the most likely culprit is a trap clogged with food particles. A plunger, a snake or a chemical cleaner could get it flowing again.


What do you think is going on when you flush the toilet and the water starts rising instead of draining?

Few things are more terrifying than watching the water in your toilet rise up and potentially overflow. The most common cause of this is just a clog in the pipe that drains out below the toilet. This is especially common if you use something like baby wipes and flush them instead of putting them in the garbage.


When you see bubbling paint on your ceiling, what could be causing it?

If you're finding paint bubbling, especially on a ceiling, and it feels slightly damp there's a good chance you have some moisture leakage that hasn't fully turned into a large leak yet. Maybe some joints aren't properly sealed or a solder joint is weakening. Best to fix it soon before it gets a lot worse.


When your basement ceiling is showing condensation and the room is too warm, what could have happened?

Sump pumps are installed in most new houses, but they can break down sometimes. When the sump overheats, because it does have an electrical supply, you'll notice condensation buildup on the ceiling and a humid room that can lead to damaged paint and wood as well as mold.


When you're washing dishes only to see that the water is running orange, what could be going on?

Hopefully, this isn't an issue if you have a newer home but if your water is running orange there's a good chance you're dealing with a rusty pipe or water heater issue. This happens if the water heater is older and has started badly corroding inside.


Which of these is the likeliest culprit for black-colored water coming out of your faucets when you're trying to get a drink?

If your water is running black or brown, even from the cold water, then that's a supply issue likely coming from the city. Either some work is being done on the line near your home or it goes all the way back to the source. Don't drink it, but do make a phone call to find out how long it will last.


What should you look at if your bathroom sink has a slow, steady drip all night?

Although several things can cause a faucet to leak, a good place to start is the washer since that's often the most common cause. Either at the spout where the water comes out or in the seat where it attaches physically to your sink there will be a washer that, when working, prevents leaks. If it's ill-fitting or warped, water will start to drip.


If you just ran the dishwasher and the bottom is full of gross water when you open it, what's going on?

The most common cause for a dishwasher not draining after a cycle is the filter being clogged. Every dishwasher should have a filter of some kind, whether it's a screen or one that looks like a small column you can twist free, meant to prevent large particles from getting further into the machine. if they aren't cleaned regularly, they'll clog up and impede water drainage.


Which of these could lead to your basement flooding with sewage?

Line clogs, whether from obstructions in the pipe or roots, can cause sewage to turn right back around and come up in the basement. A backwater valve installation can prevent this from happening, which is why most new homes have them by default.


What kind of plumbing problem is going to cause a patch of super vibrant, healthy-looking grass on your lawn?

Though a vibrant, healthy lawn seems like a great thing if it's isolated to one very specific spot, over your septic tank, that's an issue. That means your tank is likely leaking, which is great for your lawn but can also lead to a sewer stink and back up sewage in the house.


When the ground around your house's foundation feels soft and soggy and there is pooling water, what could cause that?

Your house should have weeping tile around the foundation, which is generally just a porous pipe that draws rainwater away from your foundation to prevent flooding. If the weeping tile is installed improperly or somehow clogged, the water won't drain and you risk water damage to your home.


Have you ever heard a knocking in your pipes? What causes it?

The water in your pipes moves thanks to pressure. When the pressure gets disrupted and the flow gets messed up by leaks or otherwise you'll hear rattling, knocking and what is known as "water hammer." If you shut off the main supply, drain your pipes, open the spigot in the house that's farthest from the intake then turn it back on again, it should be fine.


What problem can lead to pipe corrosion?

Pipe insulation is great for, you know, insulating your pipes, but it needs to be maintained. Old insulation that has been exposed to too much moisture can start to rot and lead to quick and severe breakdown of the pipes


You're washing the dishes and hear a dripping sound. Under the sink, you see a steady drip. What might be the cause?

If water drips under your sink when you're doing dishes but not when you're just filling a glass, consider that it could be a result of the water splashing out of the sink and leaking under the faucet due to a weak or broken seal.


There's mildew, but it's just on the wall around the shower. What's up with that?

Assuming you have proper ventilation in your bathroom, if you're still experiencing mildew around the shower, especially high on the walls, there's a good chance your shower head is actually pointed too high up. Water splashing up the walls is causing the mildew growth, so consider replacing or repositioning the showerhead.


Do you know what's the likely cause of your garbage disposal just making a grinding noise?

Every so often, your garbage disposal gets jammed with more junk than it can handle. Sometimes it's bones, maybe even something metal that fell in there by mistake and needs to be pulled out. Make sure the power is off before ever trying to fix a disposal unit.


Where are you going to find a leaky hose bib?

Some people just call this an outside spigot or tap, but the hose bib is your outdoor faucet where you'd connect a hose to water the lawn, for instance. Like any other faucet, it can leak but it may go unnoticed for a lot longer so it's always good to check and make sure it's OK.


Your sump basin fills with water, the pump turns on, but nothing drains. What happened?

Sump pumps need maintenance just like anything. If the power is still working, the pump still turns on and sounds like it's trying to drain but it's just not working, consider giving the whole pump a cleanout. The pump could get jammed or it may even just be remarkably grimy and in need of a cleaning.


When you're halfway through your shower and the hot water vanishes, what just happened?

If you used to have more hot water than you do now, there's a good chance a heating element is on the fritz. You usually have two elements in a water heater and the bottom one does most of the work while the top one just sort of maintains the temperature. If the bottom one fails, you'll have far less hot water than you need.


What makes your hot water gritty and less hot than you want it to be?

Water is full of minerals and your water heater will build up a large quantity of mineral sediment over time. On a long enough timeline, you could look at half of your tank being sediment and half water, which greatly decreases the hot water available and also means you'll have grit and sediment visible. You can find easy instructions online for flushing your water heater to remove this buildup. Do it twice a year!


What could be causing low water pressure to all of your fixtures?

If water pressure is an issue throughout the whole building, one of the first things worth your time to investigate would be the valve at the water meter, which is usually outside the house. If the valve isn't parallel to the pipe, it's not open all the way and that could be decreasing pressure.


All your drains are flowing fine but there's still a sewage stink in the house. Which of these could lead to that?

If sewer gas is coming into the house but everything is still draining properly, then it may not be the drains at all. You have the main stack in your house through which gases vent to the roof of your house. If a bird builds a nest in there, for instance, that gas may back up in your house again.


You wake up on New Year's Day and there's no water. Where'd it go?

If you live in a cold climate, then you need to worry about frozen pipes in the winter. If your home dropped below freezing for some reason then your pipes have likely frozen up and will need to be warmed slowly and carefully to get them flowing again.


Few things are more terrifying than a toilet that refuses to flush. What's a simple cause of this happening?

On most toilets, when you push the lever down to flush it raises a chain inside the tank that lifts the flapper, allowing the toilet to flush. If that chain broke or came loose, pushing the lever does nothing at all and the toilet won't flush. Luckily, it's a very quick and easy fix.


It's a cold winter day and your radiator heaters are clicking like a tap dancer. What's the problem?

That knocking in your radiator is caused by air bubbles running through the system and could be a simple fix. Your radiator should have a valve on it that can be opened to release the air.


When your backyard stinks something awful, what could be the cause?

When your outside stinks in the backyard and you're on a septic system, it's a pretty safe bet that the septic tank has sprung a leak or is in desperate need of being drained because it's overflowing.


You can hear water dripping in the wall behind your shower. Why's that happening?

If you hear dripping in the wall behind the shower it's most likely because the faucet seat is leaking. Where the hot and cold taps actually attach to the pipes inside the wall is called the seat. There could be a worn washer in there or some other issue that has caused water to start leaking.


What's a possible cause of serious corrosion where two dissimilar pipes meet?

If someone improperly connected a copper pipe to a steel pipe, then the result is going to be one of the messiest, ugliest rusted pipe situations you've ever seen. It's caused by galvanic corrosion and can be prevented if you use the proper fitting between the pipes so the unlike metals don't touch.


What might cause your toilet to only partially fill every time you flush?

Your tank has a ball inside it called the float ball. As the water fills your tank between flushes, the ball rises until it pushes down a lever to stop the tank from filling at the correct volume of water for a flush. If the ball is on a rod that is bent, it will close the valve at a low volume of water and give you less water per flush.


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