How to Fix a Leaking Ceiling

Leaking ceiling


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Water leaking into your living area through the ceiling light fixture isn't just a cringe-worthy annoyance to be fixed later when you feel like it. Ceiling water leakage is a minor disaster that portends a major disaster that can ruin flooring, walls, appliances, and furniture.

The good news is that water leaking through the ceiling light fixture is your early warning system. Knowing why water is coming through the ceiling light fixture, where it is coming from, and how to fix it allows you to step in quickly and avoid those devastatingly expensive contractor-driven repairs.


To prevent electric shock, do not touch the light switch. Even though the light switch is visibly separate from the light fixture, within the ceiling they are physically connected by electric wiring. Instead, shut off the circuit breaker to the ceiling light fixture at the electrical service panel.

Immediate Responses

  1. Shut off the circuit breakers controlling all light fixtures and wall receptacles located in the room.
  2. Turn off all light switches in the room.
  3. Shut off the water main. Typically, homes will have a water main shut-off valve inside the house and facing the street side.
  4. Remove as many valuables as possible from the room. If you can remove furniture, do so.
  5. With a wet-dry vacuum, suck up water and debris located below the leaking ceiling fixture.
  6. Lay 6-mil-thick clear plastic sheeting on the floor, extending up the walls as high as possible. Tape the sheeting to the walls with duct tape.

Common Ceiling Leakage Problems

Ceiling leakage often falls into certain predictable categories:

Water Leaking Through a Light Fixture

Your home's exterior is designed for managing water, directing the flow of water along the lines of gravity and away from your house. In contrast, your home's interior has no such water management system. In bathrooms and kitchens, where water is expected, tubs, sinks, and waterproof flooring contain the water and keep it moving along. In the rest of the house, though, water will carve out its route by following the path of least resistance.

The weak point in the ceiling is the hole in the drywall that contains the ceiling light fixture's electrical box, as well as the light fixture itself. In the lifecycle of a ceiling water leak, water will pool on top of the drywall, between the joists, for a surprisingly long time before you notice it below. Ceiling blown-in cellulose or fiberglass batt insulation compound that problem, since they soak up water like a sponge and slow its downward flow. Acrylic-latex ceiling paint forms a thin waterproof membrane that contains the water for a short while.

String of Water Coming From the Ceiling

When a thin string of water is moving across the ceiling by capillary action, it can be difficult to find its source. Locate a flashlight, then turn off the lights. Standing on a chair, move the light across the ceiling. The water should show as a bright line. Track the water back to its source, then look upward from there. Supply pipes from a bathroom or laundry room located above may be leaking.

Bulge or Bubble of Water in the Ceiling

Sometimes, a circular or crescent-shaped bulge in the ceiling drywall will precede drips. Piercing the bulge will expel the water trapped between the drywall and the paint layer, but it does not solve the more significant problem.

If the water is clear, this is a new leak. If the water is brownish and smells moldy, the leak has been building up for a long time. The light fixture may short out and stop working because its circuit breaker tripped.

Sometimes, the fixture will continue to work even as water drips around and through it. At this point, you need to take immediate, short-term measures to ensure your safety and mitigate further damage to your home.

Common Sources of Ceiling Fixture Leaks

Water that leaks through and around ceiling light fixtures fall into two broad categories: plumbing leaks or natural water leaks from rain or melting snow. Common sources within those categories:

  • Copper pipes that have burst or have developed pinhole leaks
  • Faulty pipe connectors that produce water leaks
  • Ill-fitting upstairs bathtub or shower drain assemblies
  • Leaking drainage pipes leading from tubs, showers, and sinks to the sewer stack
  • Rain leaking through exterior flashing around the chimney, skylights, or plumbing or venting protrusions in the roof.
  • Frozen, clogged gutters that form ice dams, forcing snowmelt under shingles and into the attic

Permanent Repairs of Ceiling Leaks

Once you have protected your home and located the source of the water leak, you have more breathing room to fix the leak permanently.

Repairing Your Damaged Ceiling

Water-damaged ceiling drywall and insulation should be replaced entirely. Neither material can return to its same dimensions.

  1. Remove all insulation that soaked up water, packing it in contractor's bags and removing it through the attic access door. Extend the removal area by another couple of feet to give yourself working room.
  2. With the power shut off, remove the ceiling light fixture.
  3. Inside the attic, pull back the electric wiring several feet beyond the work area and safely cap the electrical wiring inside of an electrical box covered with a blank faceplate.
  4. Remove all water-damaged drywall.
  5. Cut back undamaged drywall to the joists.
  6. Replace the ceiling drywall.
  7. Replace the ceiling light fixture and insulation.