How to Fix a Leaking Ceiling

Water Leaking Through Ceiling Light Fixture

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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 silver lining 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.

Immediate Responses to Leaky Ceiling Light Fixtures

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

Why Water Is Leaking Through the Ceiling 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 own 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, 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.

Sometimes, a circular or crescent-shaped bulge around the light fixture will precede drips. Piercing the bulge will expel the water trapped between the drywall and the paint layer, but it does not solve the larger 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 falls 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 push-fit 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
  • Frozen, clogged gutters that form ice dams, forcing snow melt 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 permanently fix the leak.

Repairing Your Damaged Ceiling

Water-damaged ceiling drywall and insulation should be completely replaced. 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 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 it inside of a receptacle 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.