How to Troubleshoot and Fix Ceiling Leaks

A woman holding out a bucket to stop a leak

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Discoloration, sagging drywall or buckling plaster, and dripping water from your ceiling might make you think that the ceiling itself is leaking. In reality, water coming from the ceiling is a symptom of some other home system that is actually leaking. When a ceiling shows signs of water damage and dripping water, the place to look is in one of two home systems: the roofing system or the plumbing system.

Water dripping from your ceiling or visible signs of water damage on the drywall or plaster above your head is nothing to take lightly. There is very likely much more water at play than you can visibly see, and ignoring a leak can lead to structural damage and ​mold and mildew growth.

Ceiling leaks may be evidenced by actual water dripping down, but before the problem gets to that point, you may see blistered or peeling paint, or discoloration over a spot in the ceiling. Ideally, this is the time to look for the source and fix it—not after the ceiling has sustained substantial damage.

Identifying Roofing System Leaks

If there signs of water damage or dripping water coming from the ceiling that is directly below an attic space or directly below the roof surface itself, there is almost no question that the true cause is a hole or other type of damage in the shingles or other roofing material that make up the roof system. There are rarely any plumbing pipes or fixtures running through an attic, so signs of water damage in a ceiling below an attic or roof are always caused by a roof problem. In addition, roofing system leaks will make themselves known through other symptoms:

  • The leaking occurs during or shortly after a rainfall. It may take some time for the water to appear, but if it appears during or after a rain, the roof is the place to look for the source
  • If there is active water dripping, it will often be brown or dirty if it comes from the roof. Water making its way into your home often picks up dirt and impurities along the way.
  • In cold climates, if ceiling leaking or damage coincides with the presence of ice buildup along the eaves of the house, you likely have ice dams that are causing ice and water to back up under the shingles and down onto the ceiling. Because ice dams occur along the edges of the roof, the ceiling damage or leaking is often near the edge of the room, or may even appear on an exterior wall, since the water may be dripping directly down into the walls.
  • In the attic, you may find damp and soggy insulation. Gain access to the attic and look for areas of insulation that show signs of wetness. Do not assume, however, that the roof damage is directly above this part of the attic, because water can flow for quite some distance down along sheathing or a roof rafter before it drips down onto the insulation and through it to the ceiling surface. If you spot damp insulation, pull it back and examine the drywall or plaster lathe beneath. It may be obvious that you've found the source of the ceiling leak.

    Identifying Plumbing-Related Ceiling Leaks

    Another major source of water damage or leaks coming from the ceiling is a problem with plumbing pipes or plumbing fixtures in your home. If the leaking ceiling or visible water damage appears below a bathroom, kitchen, or inside ceiling spaces where you know plumbing pipes are located, there is a very good chance that the source of the problem lies either with water supply pipes or drain pipes that have developed leaks. Other identifying symptoms include:

    • Water leaking from the ceiling is often clear water, rather than brown and dirty, if a faulty plumbing pipe is the culprit.
    • Leaking will usually be quite steady if the ceiling leak is plumbing-related. Especially if a water-supply pipe is to blame, the water dripping from the ceiling may be never-ending. Problems with drain pipes may cause more intermittent leaking, but unlike roof leaks, there is no correlation to weather conditions.

    Choosing Techniques and Materials for Fixing Ceiling Leaks

    There is no one method for correcting ceiling leaks since the causes are so diverse. The way in which you address the issue will depend on the cause. Roofing leaks will require the carpentry and roofing skills and materials, while plumbing leaks will require the skills and materials used by a professional plumber.

    First, Minimize Further Damage

    Whatever the cause of the ceiling leak, when you first notice discoloration or the first signs of dripping water, be aware that there may be much more hidden water spreading over the drywall above. You can minimize further damage and avoid widespread replacement of ceiling surfaces by drilling a hole in the ceiling in the center of the damaged area and allowing any pooling water to drain down into a bucket. Damp drywall will dry out just fine if you get the water out of it quickly, but if water pools for any length of time, the paper backing will begin to disintegrate or become food for mold. It is much easier to patch a small area of drywall ceiling than to replace entire drywall panels overhead.

    Tools and Supplies You Will Need

    • Drill and 1/2-inch twist bit
    • Plastic sheet
    • Bucket

    Instructions

    1. Spread a plastic drop-cloth over the floor beneath the dripping or water damaged area.
    2. Place a bucket below the damaged area of the ceiling or where dripping is occurring.
    3. With a drill and 1/2-inch twist bit, drill a hole in the center of the damaged area. If there is active dripping, drill at exactly the spot where the water is dripping.
    4. A steady stream of water may now flow down into your bucket. This is no reason to panic. You are actually releasing the pooled water and preventing further ceiling damage.

    Fixing Roofing Leaks

    Roofing leaks can be relatively easy to fix, requiring no more than a bit of roofing cement to close a small area of shingle damage; or they can be very complex, possibly requiring the replacement of an entire roofing surface that is old and no longer shedding water. For the sake of our project, we will assume that the leaking is localized and can be repaired with simple patching of a hole in the roofing surface, or at most, replacement of a single shingle.

    Tools and Supplies You Will Need

    • Flashlight
    • Small piece of wire (a metal clothes hanger works well)
    • Ladder
    • Roofing cement and caulk gun
    • Putty knife
    • Replacement shingles (if necessary)
    • Flat pry bar (If necessary)
    • Roofing nails (if necessary)
    • Hammer (if necessary)

    Instructions

    Identify the Location of the Roof Damage

    If you have access to the attic space, enter the attic and look for the spot where water is dripping down from the roof sheathing above. The actual roof damage may be located directly over this spot, or it may be located further up the roof line if the water has been flowing down the sheathing or a rafter before falling to the floor of the attic. You may be able to see discoloration or actual running water on the sheathing or rafters. When you find the spot where the water is entering through the roof, poke a metal wire through the hole so it will be visible from the exterior surface of the roof.

    If there is no visible damage, the cause of your leak is likely due to a problem with your flashing, shingles or vent gaskets.

    Decide Between DIY or Professional Repair

    While small areas of damage or a single puncture to a roofing shingle can be handled by a DIYer, roofing repairs, in general, are nothing to take lightly, since they involve working on a roof many feet above the ground. Most homeowners prefer to a roofing specialist or skilled handyman handle such repairs, and for good reason: Each year, more than 164,000 people visit emergency rooms for ladder-related injuries, and there are about 300 deaths annually in the U.S. from falls from ladders.

    If your roof is very high, or the pitch is quite steep, it is best to have a roofing specialist make this repair. If your roof is low and relatively flat, though, you may be able to do this repair yourself. Repairs to flashings, shingle replacements, and vent gaskets may be best left to pros, no matter how accessible the roof.

    Using a Stable Ladder, Gain Access to Your Roof

    Do this in dry weather. Never climb on a wet or icy roof. Look for the spot where you marked the roof damage from inside the attic (see above). Assemble your repair tools and supplies for repair near the damaged area.

    Patch the Damaged Area

    Apply roofing cement the damaged area. With small punctures, the repair can simply be made by dabbing roofing cement over the hole to plug it. Larger damage may require you to carefully pry up surrounding shingles, remove the roofing nails using a flat pry bar, remove the damaged shingle, then slide a replacement shingle in place and attach it. Nail the new shingle in place if you can. This can be difficult to do, however, so you can also simply glue it in place with roofing cement.

    Addressing Ice Dam Problems

    If the leaking appears to be caused by ice buildup on the edges of the roof, this likely will need to be handled by a professional ice-removal crew. Ice dams are generally fixed by a crew that uses steam to melt away the ice buildup, allowing melting snow to drain off the roof rather than back up under shingles. Long-term prevention of ice dams is accomplished by increased removing roof snow and by increasing attic ventilation, which will prevent snow from melting, flowing down, and refreezing along the roof edges.

    Fixing Plumbing-Related Leaks

    Repairing plumbing pipes or fixtures that are causing problems with the ceilings below can be complicated since there are many potential causes. This overview addresses how various circumstances can be approached.

    Tools and Supplies You Will Need

    • Drywall saw (for removal of ceiling surface)
    • Flashlight
    • Various wrenches (channel-locks pliers and adjustable wrenches are typical)
    • Replacement pipes and fittings, as required
    • Plumber's putty
    • Thread-seal tape
    • Silicone caulk
    • Grout and grout sealer
    • Wax ring for toilet (where needed)
    • Drywall repair materials

    Instructions

    If your leak is directly below your bathroom, plumbing fixtures like toilets and showers are likely to blame. Survey your bathroom to identify the position of your fixtures relative to the ceiling problems below. Mark off the affected portion of your ceiling and remove it to get a better look at your leak. Be sure to avoid cutting into joists, wires and other pipes as you remove the ceiling surface. With the damaged ceiling section removed, look for signs of leakage. Water damage will likely be centered around the faulty fixture. To double-check, recreate the leak by running your shower or toilet and then inspecting the open ceiling for leaks. If you see water dripping, you’ve identified the source of your leak.

    Bathtub Leaks

    Begin by checking your bathtub or shower insert for cracks. If you don’t notice any damage, run your bath or shower and inspect your ceiling leak. Here are some likely reasons for a bathtub leaking onto the ceiling below:

    Faulty Drain Gasket

    Dripping that appears to be coming from the front of the tub often originate with a faulty drain gasket. This can be repaired by disassembling the drain trap and removing and replacing the drain assembly. Tools and materials required include channel-lock pliers, a tub drain tool, replacement drain assembly and gasket, and plumber's putty.

    Leaking Drain Trap

    If the drain trap below the tub has loose connections or has corroded through, the drain pipe may be leaking water. You will likely see the water dripping down from the drain trap when running water in the tub. Sometimes fixing the problem is simply a matter of tightening the drain connections, using channel-lock pliers. If a metal drain trap assembly is corroded through, replace it with a new plastic drain trap assembly.

    Leaking Faucet Valve

    If the faucet valve in the wall behind the tub is leaking, water may be dripping down through the wall cavity to the ceiling below. Such a leak will be quite steady. Open the access panel behind the bathroom wet wall to inspect the bathtub's water valves. Repairs here will vary depending on the nature of the leaking, but the first step will be to turn off the water supply so that the leaking stops and you can address fixing the valves. Repairs can be as simple as repairing loose connections or as complex as replacing fittings or even the entire faucet valve set.

    Leaking Water Supply Pipes

    This is perhaps the most serious of all leaks: when the water supply pipes have corroded through and are leaking. Leaking will be constant and may be quite heavy. It constitutes something of an emergency, since a great deal of water may be pouring into the wall cavity. Shut off the water supply immediately to stop the flow of water. Repairs can occasionally be as simple as tightening mechanical pipe joints or re-soldering copper pipe fittings, or as complex as removing entire sections of pipe and replacing them. This repair is for which many homeowners choose to call in a professional.

    Shower Leaks

    Leaks below a shower can be caused by all the same reasons as for a bathtub as noted above. In addition, ceiling leaks below a shower can be caused by:

    Faulty Shower Door Seal

    After opening up the damaged section of ceiling, spray water along your shower door and look into the ceiling cavity. Dripping water will confirm a faulty shower door seal. To fix this problem, install a shower door sweep—most designs snap onto your door—and run silicone caulk along the base of your shower. If your sliding shower door track is leaking, run a line of caulk along its base. Call a pro if your leaks continue. This could be a sign of further plumbing issues.

    Shower Surround Caulk Failure

    If the caulk seals around the base of the shower or along vertical seams between fiberglass surround panels have broken down, water may be seeping through and down onto the ceiling below. The fix here is to re-caulk the seams around the shower.

    Leaking Tile Grout

    If tile grout has broken down, water may be entering the wall through cracks between tiles, allowing a small amount of water to enter the wall cavity and drain down to the ceiling below. The solution is to re-grout and reseal the tile. However, if the leaking has been going on for some time, the tile wall may be compromised, requiring a more major repair.

    Toilet Leaks

    Most often ceiling leaks below toilets are caused by drain problems. The common problems and solutions are:

    Failed Wax Ring

    Toilets use a wax ring to connect the toilet outlet to the drain pipe. Over time, these rings can age or crack. After opening up the damaged section of ceiling, have someone flush the toilet while you inspect the ceiling space below the toilet. If you see water dripping, the problem is very likely a failed wax ring. Replace the wax ring to eliminate your leak. Call a pro if you continue to have leaks. Sometimes this is a sign of other plumbing problems.

    Leaking Shut-Off Valve or Supply Tube

    Although rare, if the toilet's shut-off valve or supply tube bringing water to the toilet supply valve develops a leak, water may seep through the floor below the toilet tank and into the ceiling below. This will be quite evident on the floor below the toilet tank, where water may be puddling. The fix here is to tighten the valve and supply tube connections or replace them if they are faulty.

    Kitchen Fixture Leaks

    Leaks below kitchen fixtures are rarer, but when they do occur, the causes and solutions will be the same as for bathroom fixtures. Look for leaks in drain fittings, shut-off valves, and water supply pipes.

    Water Pipe Leaks

    Where ceiling leaking appears to be occurring in areas where there are no plumbing fixtures directly above, there is a possibility that a water supply pipe or drain pipe inside a ceiling cavity has developed a leak. This is not common, but it sometimes occurs if you have older metal pipes that have corroded. The fix here will be to open up the ceiling cavity where the damage is evident and look at the condition of any pipes running through the space. Any leaking you see will need to be repaired by replacing faulty pipes or fittings. While DIYers are capable of doing such repairs, many homeowners opt to have pros handle such work, since it may require fairly extensive replacement of plumbing pipes.

    Notes on Patching Ceilings

    Once repairs to the roof or to plumbing fixtures have been completed, it is best to leave the removed section of ceiling open to the air for several days, or even a week or more, to give the ceiling cavity a chance to dry out completely before you patch the ceiling. If you can create some ventilation in the ceiling cavity, it will speed the drying-out process. Closing in the ceiling too quickly may trap moisture that can foster the growth of mold and mildew. Water-soaked drywall often will dry out fine if it gets proper ventilation. But if, after it dries, the drywall feels loose or spongy to the touch, it should be removed and patched in with a replacement piece of drywall.