FEELING LOW? HERE'S
HOW TO CURE THOSE
WATER PRESSURE BLUES
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Not since the infamous shower scene in the movie "Psycho" have there been such moments of dread.
You're in the shower and suddenly, unexpectedly, just as your body's all lathered and hair drenched in shampoo bubbles, your whole world takes a shocking turn for the worse. The water coming out of your shower head slows to a trickle. You scream to the party downstairs...
"Shut off the darned washing machine!" Or stronger words.
You are singing low water pressure blues. You are joined by a chorus that rings out in millions of American homes. What will stop the yodeling?
Something to consider right off the bat: Is it just your problem, or are your neighbors experiencing it too? If they are, be happy - not because misery loves company, but because the cause is probably a blockage or leak in a community water line, and that means you don't have to pay for repairs. Notify your local water department as soon as possible so they can get busy fixing the problem.
If it's not a neighborhood problem, you still could get off the hook if the leak or blockage is between what's sometimes called the "Buffalo Box" (B-box) and the community water main. The B-box is an underground valve located somewhere on or near your property. If a problem is outside the B-box, it's usually the community's responsibility. On the household side, it's yours. Water department workers use listening devices to pinpoint the leak.
In older communities, neighborhood water pressure problems also may be caused by calcium deposits that build up on the inside of water pipe to restrict flow. It's just like hardening of the arteries and is especially common with iron pipe.
All of this is the good news, relatively speaking. Remember, your city or village pays for any repairs on the other side of the B-box. Anywhere on the homeward side, and the bill is yours. Professional plumbers can perform a relatively simple test at the service valve to determine if the pressure is good as it enters your home. If it is, the problem obviously lies inside.
Sometimes there is a leak or blockage in the service line between the B box and where the service line enters your home. This calls for major repairs that involve digging up and replacing pipe. Often this type of repair runs several thousand dollars.
More often, though, the problem will stem from something inside the house, especially if it's an older home. Low water pressure is common in older homes for a couple of reasons. One is calcification. As years go by, just as with outside water mains (or human arteries), lime deposits build up on the inside of your home's water pipes, with hot water lines more susceptible than cold. Every plumber has tales of removing ancient pipe so clogged up you can barely see through to the other end.
Plumbers sometimes can remove this kind of blockage by blowing high pressure air through the water line. This is a relatively inexpensive task.
Home owners can tackle the job themselves with rented equipment, but proceed with caution. Inexperienced users often end up simply removing old rust that has built up on the inside. Yet that congealed rust may be the only thing stopping the pipe from leaking. Plumbers love it when home owners try to blow out their own water lines. They know that as often as not, a few months down the road the pipe is likely to start leaking like a sieve, which leads to piping replacement jobs costing thousands of dollars. As the saying goes, "You can pay me now...or pay me later."
Water leaks and blockages aren't the only cause of low water pressure. A more fundamental reason - again quite prevalent in older homes - is undersized water pipe. Many homes were built in an era when the typical house had only a single toilet and tub. Back in those day three-eighths inch diameter water pipe was the standard.
Since then many households have added a bathroom or two, along with many more water using appliances. Nowadays half-inch water pipe is the minimum you will find in modern homes, and three-quarters of an inch is recommended for many of them, especially multi-story homes.
Be mindful of this with any remodeling plans you may have. Many remodelers provide elegant designs and ultra-luxurious fixtures but know next to nothing about behind-the-wall requirements to supply those products. Tales abound of people excited to try out their new hot tubs or steeping baths, only to find out that it takes a better part of a day just to fill them.
Re-piping is expensive but often the only way to permanently solve a home's water pressure blues. Sometimes cost can be held down by replacing only the horizontal piping, which is most susceptible to build-up of deposits. If the risers also are involved, it becomes far more complicated. That's because to get to the risers plumbers usually have to poke holes in walls. (Hint: If at all possible, try to persuade your plumber to get at bathroom riser from outside the bathroom. You save money replacing plaster and wallboard as opposed to tile.)
The good news is that re-piping is a job that shouldn't be required more than once in a generation. If you can take the pain that one time, you can avoid a lifetime of blood-curdling screams from that second floor bathroom!
Oh, one more thing. If you suddenly experience slow flow out of a single faucet or showerhead, before you call anyone, check to see if it might be caused by granules in the aerator or showerhead openings. If so, clear them out. This costs nothing to fix.