“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
This age-old axiom by Benjamin Franklin is very applicable when it comes to preventing water damage within your home. Water damage can diminish your home’s value, increase maintenance costs, and cause a decline in indoor air quality.
You can prevent water damage from occurring by thoroughly inspecting and maintaining the systems in your home that involve water. Here are tips for maintenance and damage prevention for three main water-involved systems in your home – plumbing, washing machines, and water heaters.
The first key to preventing issues with your plumbing is knowing what type of pipes are in your home. Different pipes will develop different problems and challenges as they age. If you had a home inspection when you purchased your home, you can review the home inspection report to determine what type of pipes you have. If you don’t have an inspection report, a licensed plumber can do an inspection for you. Knowing what you have in your home will help you know the life expectancy of your plumbing system as well as what you need to do to prevent leaks, flooding, and potential health hazards.
Remember, these are simply guidelines. If your pipes are older than the lifespans listed above, that doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be replaced. If they have been well maintained, they may last longer. If they have been poorly maintained, or if your water has a high mineral content (also known as “hard water”), then they may fail sooner. With proper care, the majority of pipe materials will last for decades. However, when they have aged beyond their lifespan, they may begin to leak and exhibit other problems.
Some pipe materials commonly used in the past have been found to exhibit early deterioration and other problems that warrant immediate replacement of the pipes. These include polybutylene pipes and lead pipes.
Polybutylene piping is a gray, plastic plumbing material. Though it is relatively inexpensive and easy to install, it has been found to be extremely prone to breakage. It was commonly used from the 1970s through the 1990s in Sun Belt and Mid-Atlantic states as well as the Pacific Northwest. If you suspect you have this type of piping, schedule an inspection with a licensed plumber immediately. A simple visual check is not adequate. Standard water treatment chemicals (chlorine and anti-bacterials) can cause these pipes to deteriorate from the inside out which ultimately means they could fail without warning. This inner deterioration can also affect water quality as chemicals can leach from the pipe into the water. If you find you have this type of pipe, you will need to replace it. The pipe material cannot be repaired.
Lead pipe material was used in the early 1900’s. The life expectancy of lead pipes is 100 years; however, known problems with this pipe material indicate pipe replacement may need to be done prior to the 100 year lifespan. The problem with lead pipes is lead can leach from the pipes into your drinking water, which is a potential health hazard. If you think you have lead pipes, have your water tested. If the results show lead content of 15 parts per billion (15 ppb) or more, you will need to replace your pipes.
Broken water supply hoses account for more than half of water damage insurance claims related to washing machines. These claims can be very costly, with the average claim running more than $6,000. If unattended, a burst washing machine hose can spill hundreds of gallons of water an hour, causing a significant amount of damage in a very short amount of time.
There are various reasons washing machine hoses break, including:
- Age: all washing machine hoses will wear out over time. There is an increased risk of the hoses failing when they are more than five years old. Recent studies have found more than half of all washing machine hose failures occur before eight years, and nearly 80 percent occur before 10 years.
- Materials: there are a variety of types of washing machine hoses, and some are prone to lose durability earlier than others. Many hoses are made from reinforced rubber which tends to weaken as it ages and is more likely to crack, leak, and burst. The three main types of hoses are standard black rubber hose (good), plastic hose with braided stainless steel covering (better), and Floodchek hose (best).
- Improper Installation: installation errors can damage the hose and make it more prone to early failure. The most common installation error is failing to leave enough room to prevent kinks in the hoses, especially near the valve connections.
To prevent washing machine hoses from failing, it is recommended that you replace the hoses every five years. It is a good idea to replace with steel-jacketed hoses that can’t split open. When you replace the hoses, tag them with the replacement date so you won’t forget when they are due for a change. If you are unsure how old the hoses are, change them now to avoid the risk of flooding. Also, do a visual inspection of the hoses every six months to ensure the valve connection is secure and there are no signs of cracking or wear.
According to a study by the Institute for Business and Home Safety, one of the leading causes of water damage claims in residential properties is water heater malfunctions. These incidents can be very costly, with the average claim being $4,400.
The study also found the following:
- 69 percent of water heater failures were due to leaking or burst tanks.
- The chance of leaking or failure rises steeply in water heaters that are more than five years old.
- Nearly 75 percent of all water heaters fail before they are 12 years old.
- Very few water heaters last longer than 10 to 12 years.
Eventually every water heater will need to be replaced due to weakness developed over time. The useful lifespan of a water heater ranges from about five to ten years, but this depends on how high the mineral content is in your water, the intensity of use, and how well you maintain the water heater. Though you may be put off by the cost of purchasing and installing a new water heater when it seems your current one is working just fine, keep in mind that waiting until after a failure has occurred may cost more as you will then have to deal with the cost of repairing water damage as well.
Here are a few recommendations for maintaining your water heater to help extend its useful life and to help it perform more efficiently:
- At least once per year, flush the tank to remove sediment and debris. You can do this by hooking a garden hose to the drain valve and draining the water heater until the water coming from the hose is clear. In addition to helping the water heater run more effectively this will also help it operate more quietly.
- Check the anode rod (or “sacrificial rod”) every three to five years. This is an aluminum or magnesium probe inside the tank that collects corrosive elements. It should be replaced when it is caked or when more than six inches of the core steel wire is exposed. The cost to replace the rod is around $20. You can check the anode rod by loosening the hex head screw and removing the rod from the tank.
- Make sure there is at least two feet of clearance around the water heater unless the manual states a different specification.
Mitigating Risk of Damage to Your Home
These systems operate out of sight for the most part, so it is easy to put off maintenance and ignore any potential issues unless they actually fail. However, taking Benjamin Franklin’s advice and spending some time on prevention will save you a lot of time, money, and trouble in the long run.
In addition to following the recommendations in this article, it is a good idea to know where the water shut-off valves are in your home so you can easily turn off the water source in the event of a leak or problem. If a problem does occur, immediately remove standing water and all moist materials. Take action to prevent further damage when possible. Acting quickly will help minimize damage which means less time and expense for repairs.