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Critical issues from frozen pipes to sinks…

Sewer gas smell in basement

I can smell sewer gas in my basement near the hot water tank. Any suggestions fellows? There are a few possible solutions. Often in houses older that 15 years the “p” trap in your floor drain will be dry because it is not primed with water by a trap seal primer. A trick of the trade is as follows: pour half a cup of cooking oil down your floor drain. This will seal the trap and stop sewer gases from entering the basement. Cooking oil does not readily evaporate, unlike the water that was sealing your seldom-used floor drain. So you won’t need to do this again for a year or so.

In newer houses your trap seal primer may be broken. The primer is a small in line valve on a cold water line that trickles water into the floor drain trap whenever water flows in the pipe. They are easy to replace if they are accessible or consider resorting to the old-fashioned cooking oil trick.

Sink gurgles

Several sinks in our house gurgle and drain slowly no matter how much drain cleaner I use. Why are these sinks causing problems and other sinks in our house are fine?This is a common problem with sinks that are not plumbed properly. If you look under the sinks at the drains there is probably a drain pipe configuration that resembles an “S” . These “S” trapped sinks will cause the sort of problems you have mentioned because the drain lacks venting air. The water will gulp air on the way down the drain in much the same way a soft drink bottle gulps air and drains slowly when it is turned completely up side down.

The “S” trap drainpipes probably have no vent pipes. Often the vent pipe was omitted because it was difficult to find a route for it through walls, ceilings and attic en route to the exterior. The problem can be corrected with an auto vent installed on the topside of the “S” trap under your sink. Auto vents are available at local plumbing supply stores. They are not a Plumbing Code approved solution to the problem but they do work because they allow air from room into the sewer piping whenever water runs though the drain pipe past the vent. The vent valve then closes, eliminating the possibility of sewer gas escaping into the room. However, these vents will need to be replaced periodically.

Frozen water pipes

The hot and cold water pipes under my kitchen sink have both frozen during this recent cold snap. None of the other water pipes throughout the house have been effected. Can you suggest a reason for this and possible solutions?There are several possible sources of cold from the exterior that can cause water pipes to freeze. Because the pipes at your kitchen sink are the only ones that have been affected this may indicate that a small portion of the water piping travels through a section of exterior wall before the pipes reach your sink. Occasionally, for convenience or appearance, plumbers will install a small portion of the hot and cold piping in an exterior wall just before it comes into the sink cabinet. Insulation installers in turn, split the insulation batts around the piping which ensures that only half of the wall insulation is installed between the piping and the exterior siding. This means that the piping is protected by R10 instead of R20 insulation. During a cold snap this is often insufficient protection to prevent pipes from freezing.

If during your investigation you find that this is the case consider relocating the pipes closer to the inside warm surface of the exterior wall. Also, increase the amount of insulation on the cold side of the wall by installing high-density ridged insulation behind the pipes, which has a higher R-value per inch of thickness than traditional Fiberglas insulation. You can also consider installing heat tape on an exposed portion of the pipe near the area of freezing. Purchase a good quality, thermostatically controlled tape because it will last longer and conserve electricity by coming on only at lower temperatures. Check you heat tape every fall for function before relying on it to protect your pipes.

There are other possible causes for frozen water piping. Sometimes a set of water supply pipes will travel through a floor cavity that is located above an unheated area such as a garage, carport or cold storage room. Again, increasing insulation, re-routing the pipes and / or heat tape are the most common solutions. Until the frozen pipes are thawed leave you kitchen sink taps open. Try a quick fix by installing a portable electric heater under the sink (away from flammables) and leave a remote cold water tap trickling to help forestall other water pipes in the house from freezing until the problem is rectified with a permanent solution.

Sewer pumps

We’re planning on building two bedrooms in our unfinished basement to give us and our teenagers a bit of much needed space. Since we have only one bathroom on the main floor, we’d also like to install a second bathroom as part of the project. The problem is that our sewer drain is about five feet above the basement floor. I’ve heard that you can install a sewer pump but I’m wondering what the complications might be and if this will detract from the re-sale value of the renovation?Given the elevation of your main building sewer drain, your only alternative for draining the waste water from the new bathroom is a sewer pump. The good news is that sewer pumps are very simple machines, durable, relatively inexpensive and easy to service and replace. As well, the cost of purchase and installation of a pump is often offset by the costs you do not incur cutting through your concrete slab to connect new drain piping to a gravity sewer.

This is how a sewer pump is installed. Discuss the best location for the pump with your plumber. Then, you will need to cut a hole the size of the pump holding tank in your concrete slab and dig a hole the depth of the tank (about 24” in diameter and 30’’ deep depending on the exact size of the holding tank). Your plumber will take care of the pump installation and piping which is quite simple to install. The pump will be able to handle all the waste water from the toilet, shower and sink by simply pumping the sewage up from the holding tank into the gravity sewage drain.

There are some folks who are concerned about sewer pumps possibly because of the potential for power failures, a fear of all things mechanical and costs for repairs. So, there is some credence to the argument that a bathroom served by a sewer pump has less re-sale value than a gravity feed system. However, the fact that you have added a second bathroom adds significant value to your home, and the potential for years of reinvigorated family relations is priceless.

Tankless water heaters

I’ve heard that Canada’s known natural gas reserves will last about 8 years so I’m thinking of getting rid of my old hot water tank and replacing it with a tankless water heater to save on the gas bill. What are your thoughts on these tankless water heaters?Without question, you will save money on your monthly gas bill. One of our Firm’s partners recently installed one of these “in-line” tankless heaters, and he reports a $30 savings on each recent monthly gas invoice. To provide a bit of background, this is how the tankless heater conserves energy. Conventional water heaters continuously heat a full tank of water, 24 hours a day, all year long. An in-line tankless heater heats only the water you use at the instant you use it. When you turn on the tap, the gas burner ignites, and the water passing through the heat exchanger warms instantly on its way to your tap. The moment you shut the tap off, the gas burner shuts off. So you’re heating and paying for exactly the water you use rather than the full tank of water. This is where the savings are vested. The heater is small, about the size of a microwave oven hanging on your wall, so you’ll gain some additional floor space as well.

Some folks are concerned that these on-demand water heaters are not capable of supplying more than one hot water tap at a time. I think this notion has its roots in experiences throughout Asia, Europe and South America where these systems have been used for years. The lack of volume can be attributed to what we might feel are undersized heaters. If you are concerned about having sufficient hot water supply to run a shower, washing machine and a sink faucet simultaneously, simply purchase a tankless heater with the capacity to provide the volume of heated water you feel you need.

There are some performance differences between tankless heaters and conventional water tanks that you may be interested to hear about. For instance, because tankless heaters stop heating the water when you turn the faucet off and don’t start heating the water for a few seconds after it is turned on again, there is a “sandwich” of cool water between each on / off cycle to the faucet. In conventional heaters this “sandwich” effect is mitigated by the continuous supply of heated water from the tank through the water lines. So when you repeatedly turn the tap on and off, you get a relatively consistent supply off hot water. You may find that you adapt more conservative habits with a tankless system. For instance, rather than rinsing each dish individually after washing, you may run a basin of rinse water to avoid this “sandwich” effect. As well, most tankless water heaters can accommodate a small re-circulating loop that eliminates this “sandwich” effect if you find this difference irritating. Tankless heaters uninstalled cost about $1200 compared to conventional heters at about $400. The extra cost will be recovered in your gas savings over time. If you live in rural area where natural gas or propane is not an option, electric demand heaters are also easily installed. However, you will probably need at least a 200 amp service panel to accommodate the breaker size required for the tankless service wire. If you are shopping for a tankless gas heater, look for a high-efficient model with a plastic vent pipe. This feature eliminates the heat loss and space requirements of a conventional “B’” vent chimney and increases the heater efficiency to about 85%, providing you the best gas savings possible.