A plumbing emergency can happen to anyone at any time—including in the middle of the night or on holiday weekends. When you walk into a bathroom in the middle of the night groggy and find your socks soaking up water from a burst pipe, it can be tempting to call the first emergency plumber you can find. But there are things you can do before calling a 24-hour plumber.
A 24-hour plumber can charge hefty fees, and the truth is that a great many plumbing problems can wait until office hours open in the morning—provided you know what to do when the emergency appears. But what should you do first, how do you determine when you should contact a plumber, and what could the problem possibly be? Here are some answers.
Turn off the Water
The first thing you can do when you handle a plumbing emergency is shut off the water to prevent any further damage. When the water is clearly running out of a fixture, such as the toilet or faucet, turn off the water supply to that fixture. If you can’t identify the source, or if the fixtures do not have operating shutoff valves, you can turn off the water supply to the entire house at the water meter. Make sure you and every member of your family know where the fixture shutoff valves are located, and where the water meter and main shutoff valve are located.
Diagnose the Urgency
Assess the urgency of the repair before you make any calls. If it is an overflowing toilet, turning off the water will stop the damage and the repair can wait, as long as you don’t flush. And pretty much any other localized problem can usually wait until morning, provided you are able to turn off the water to the problem area and have other fixtures that can stand in for a short time. For example, a bathroom sink that springs a leak on Friday night can wait until Monday morning for a standard plumber, provided you can shut off the water and have a second bathroom or a kitchen sink that can be used in the interim. You can avoid paying a premium for a service call in the middle of the night or on a Sunday or holiday if you can somehow make do until regular business hours resume.
You Could Have a Rapid Water Supply Line Leak
It's the classic moment that triggers a plumber's visit: a water line bursts and causes major flooding throughout the house. While not common, this does occasionally happen. When it does, you need to be ready to act fast.
First, look for any intermediary water supply cut-off valves located near the leak. If you are lucky, you might locate either a knife (ball valve) or knob-style cut-off valve that shuts off water to the leak only and not to the entire house. Failing that, locate your home's main water shut-off valve and turn it off. After shutting down the water, locate a plumber that can come immediately.
What If There's No Water in the House?
In instances when water stops flowing within your house, it is localized around one area, such as a bathroom sink or shower. But rarely will water stop flowing to your entire house.
Check all water outlets within the house to confirm that none of them are receiving water. Be sure to check both the hot and cold water supplies. Often, if there is a problem with the water heater and hot water is no longer being delivered, the cold side is still operable.
If you still cannot get the water to run, you may have a serious problem. It is possible that the buried water pipe leading from the streetside water meter to your house has burst or has been severed, diverting water intended for your house. Or the leak may be centered around the water meter.
You Could Have a Rapid Drainage Line Leak
If your kitchen sink or bathroom sink leaks from the trap directly below the counter, that is a fairly common issue that most homeowners can fix with simple tools and materials. Simply turn off the water, get under the sink, and replace the trap. In kitchens, the leak may be emanating from the garbage disposal. In this case, fix or replace the garbage disposal.
But drainage lines extend far beyond the sink cabinets and are not always so accessible. When a drainage line is actively leaking and is sealed up behind a wall or under a floor, you need to take immediate action. Calling a plumber is the most expedient way to fix this problem and prevent further damage to the drywall, paint, subfloor, or floor covering.
You Could Have a Sewer Line Leak
A broken or blocked sewer line often manifests itself in your yard in the form of slowly accumulating pools of murky, smelly water or mushy soil. Or strange events happen indoors, like toilets filling when you run the sink or bathtubs filling with wastewater. You can always dig up the sewer line, locate the broken or clogged sewer pipe, then fix or replace it. But this type of do-it-yourself fix can take, at the least, several full days of back-breaking work.
The sewer line is the only line that carries all of your home's wastewater out from toilets, sinks, showers, tubs, dishwashers, and washing machines. Your home cannot function without this line; all activities are paralyzed until you can fix this.
This is why it is so important to call in a plumbing company for this repair. The company can do a sewer line video inspection through the sewer line clean-out entry point. Augering out the sewer line with a motorized drain snake may fix the problem. If the line is irreparably blocked or broken, it must be dug up and replaced.
Your Water Heater May Have a Natural Gas Leak
If you suspect any sort of gas leak from any source, call 911 or the fire department and leave your house immediately. Once you're at a safe distance, call your gas company. Once your home is deemed safe, you can return and investigate the source of the leak—and only then might you call a plumber to fix a potential issue with your water heater. Natural gas build-up is extremely combustible, so it's better to take the most cautious route.
What to Say When You Call a Plumber
If your plumbing emergency cannot wait, know what to say when you do call the 24-hour plumber. Try to identify the problem as closely as you can and make a note of what is working and what is not. If the toilet is overflowing, check to see if other fixtures in the house are also affected. Have a list of questions ready before you call so you can better prepare for a plumber's visit.
- Call several plumbers. Get several quotes before you schedule an actual service call; all emergency plumbers are expensive, but the range in prices can be significant.
- Give specific details of the problem. The more details you can give to the plumber over the phone, the better they can estimate the cost of the repair.
- Ask for a quote for the service call. Emergency plumbers charge a fee just for coming out during off-hours, even if the repair is very minor. Ask for the minimum cost ahead of time. Sometimes these fees are absorbed in the job cost if the repair turns out to be substantial.
- Ask for an estimate of the repair cost. Not everyone will give a quote over the phone but you may be able to get an idea of the cost you may be facing. Describe the scenario (such as a clogged toilet or burst pipe) and ask for the cost of repair.
- Ask to speak to the plumber. If you reach an answering service, ask for the on-duty plumber to call you first, so you can get a better estimate.
Major Problem? Check With the Water Company
Don’t assume that you will be responsible for the repair. If the problem involves a mainline water break, service line break, sewer blockage, or sewer manhole problems, your first call should be to your civic water or sewer service division. The water company will sometimes offer 24-hour service to respond to these emergency situations. Contact them first to see what they cover and to schedule any qualifying repairs.