Water Leaks, Polybutylene Pipes, and Mold – What to Do

Photo courtesy of Grotuk via Creative Commons

Today’s regularly scheduled post has been interrupted by a leak in our laundry room.

I hope my misfortune is your gain. These are the things I’ve learned about burst pipes, polybutylene pipes and mold. If you are a homeowner, soon-to-be a homeowner or even if you rent, this post is for you!

It all started when Pretty Handsome Guy and the boys came home from the beach. Shortly after they got back the mudroom began to faintly smell like a men’s gym locker room. But, I shrugged it off. Even little boy’s feet are funky. The next day it was worse, but I just ignored it and added “Buy Kids New Sneakers” to my to do list.

By Tuesday the stench had continued and after everyone left for school and work, I began my job as CSS (Chief Sneaker Sniffer.) I found the offending pair, or so I thought and threw them in the garage. But, several hours later the stench continued. When I went to do laundry, I thought I heard water running in the house (never a good sign in an empty house.) As I pressed my ear to the wall, sure enough I could hear water running, dripping, spraying or something like that in the wall. Total panic and disbelief set in. NO! It couldn’t be. We had just had a leak in the laundry room several months early. Luckily it was on an exterior wall and a patch and some new drywall fixed the problem.) My eyes sank to the floor where I saw the undeniable glistening of water along the baseboard.

 

How to Shut Off Your Home’s Water:

I ran to shut off the water in the house. Do you have a whole house shut off to your home? We do now because I had one installed. I can’t stress how important it is that you know where your home water shut off is! Usually it is in a closet or the pantry of your home. And it looks like this:

If you don’t have one inside your home, your’s may be under the house (which is a stupid place to install one if you ask me.) It is actually easier to shut off your water from the meter if there isn’t one in the house. Do you know where your meter is? This is what it looks like and it is usually at the corner of your lot.

You can remove the cover by simply sticking a screwdriver in the hole in the cover and lift up.

Plumbing supply shops sell a special tool for shutting them off. You simply set the key over the valve on the meter and turn it 180 degrees.

If you don’t own a water meter key, you can turn it off with an adjustable wrench and a screwdriver like this:

Now that you know how to shut off your water, it is good practice to shut off the water if you go away for several days. A water leak can ruin your home…trust me on this.

 

Now What? 

And this is where any normal homeowner would call a plumber. But, I hesitated. I mean, I’m Pretty Handy Girl, right?! I even have a whole section of tutorials under Don’t Hire a Plumber!

But, I was also in the middle of the bonus room renovation. And frankly, I was concerned because this leak was between the laundry room and our kitchen which had two walls of cabinets that back up to the now water logged wall. My doubts continued, and I texted my fellow DIYer Sawdust and Paper Scraps to help me deal with my guilt.

And so…this is what I did:

 

The Word Every Plumber Loves: Polybutylene

Yup, Pretty Handy Girl hired a plumber. What ultimately tipped the scales? Well, I knew that the pipes in our laundry room wall looked like this:

 

Those my friend are polybutylene pipes. {cue the PSYCHO music} If you are a potential new homeowner, this is one of the last words you want to hear from your home inspector. Polybutylene pipes were manufactured from 1978 – 1995. They were installed in almost 10 million homes at a substantial savings over the conventional copper plumbing pipes. Within 10 years or less, homeowners started witnessing leaking or burst pipes and sometimes catastrophic damage from them.

Polybutylene pipes are often gray, and this one is labelled with a PB for polybutylene.

It turns out that polybutylene can break down if you have chlorine in your water (which is used in many water treatment centers to kill harmful bacteria.) Can you guess why plumbers love polybutylene pipes? Yup, job security!

In 1995 there were several class action suits against the manufacturers of polybutylene pipes (Dupont, Qest, Vanguard, and Shell.) To my knowledge (and limited research online) all the class action suits have since been closed, the last claims were to be filed by 2008.

I had our plumber replace all the polybutylene pipes in our house, which were luckily limited to the laundry room addition. He finished replacing all the polybutylene with PEX pipe. Then he handed me a bill and walked out the door leaving gaping holes in our walls.

Honestly, this is what you want your plumber to do. Your walls will need to dry out completely before patching the drywall. I aimed a fan at the holes for 3 days.

This is where I had hoped the story would end, but sadly that is not the case.

The Smell that Wouldn’t Go Away!

Yesterday morning as I shooed the kids out the door for school I sniffed the air and thought to myself, “No, it couldn’t be.” But, in fact it was true. An hour later, the smell of mold was undeniable.

I cut another hole in the drywall. (It’s true. I really wanted to test the Dremel Multi-max using the drywall saw attachment.)

The drywall was slightly damp, but not too bad. I aimed the fan in the wall cavity and went back to work. A very short time later as I was refilling my coffee mug in the kitchen, the smell of mold was intensified. I opened the base cabinet doors to look for mold inside. There were no visible signs, but the smell was definitely stronger.

So, I did what any handy gal would do. I strapped on my knee pads grabbed a flashlight and descended into the bowels of our house: the crawlspace. Everything looked okay until I yanked down the stuff that reminds the kids of pink cotton candy. Beneath the insulation, on the underside of the subfloor, was the undeniable sight of dark moist plywood. And, on the edges—you guessed it—MOLD!

Who Ya’ Gonna Call?

At this point, I knew that we needed to call our home insurance company. And get a company in to give that mold a fatal smack down.I couldn’t easily access or physically see under the kitchen cabinets and I didn’t have one of these cool gadgets.

The moisture detector picked up high levels around the base of our kitchen cabinet. And so my good friends, I sit here and wait for the mold remediation team to pull my ENTIRE kitchen apart. Our house will soon look like the plastic draped home in E.T. I am just praying that the kitchen cabinets are okay or my upcoming kitchen project may get a LOT bigger.

 

What To Do If you Have a Water Leak, Polybutylene Pipes and/or Mold:

  • DO NOT EVER ignore the tell tale signs of a water leak:
    • Smell – Wet stinky men’s gym sock smell, moldy or musty smells
    • Sight - Floor tile or boards that are popping up or warping. Wet carpet spot or glistening steam of water along a baseboard. Popped, bubbled or wrinkled paint. Warped baseboards or baseboards that are separated from the drywall. Dark wet stains or mold spots on wall. Ceiling bulge, falling plaster or popcorn ceilings.
    • Sound – A ticking sound like a clock or water driplets. Water spraying or water running sound.
    • Feel – Cold damp walls, squishy or soft drywall. Wet or damp rugs or floor. Springy floor boards.
  • Investigate any tell tale signs of water leaking until you find the source. The sooner you catch a leak the better.
  • Call a trusted plumber. (Talk to your friends or neighbors and get referrals for a good electrician, plumber, roofer and any other service professionals that you might need in an emergency.)
  • If the walls are wet and no mold has formed, air it out. Run a fan on the damp area until it is dry.
  • If mold is present, DO NOT USE A FAN!!! This can only blow the mold spores around your home. Call a professional immediately.
  • Consider filing a home insurance claim, especially if you think your repairs may exceed your deductible. The insurance company will refer you to companies that specialize in disaster restoration and mold remediation.

 

What Every Homeowner Should Know (A Quiz for You):

  • Do you have polybutylene pipes? If the answer is yes, you will most likely have them fail without warning. Get estimates from several plumbers to have them replaced. If you are considering buying a home that has polybutylene pipes ask the sellers to lower the price to reflect the cost you will have to pay to replace them.
  • Does your home have a whole house water shut off valve? If so, where is it and how does it work?
  • If your home doesn’t have an interior shut off valve, do you know where the water shut off is and/or the water shut off near the street?
  • Do you have the tools to shut off the water from the meter? Either a water shut off key or a screwdriver and adjustable wrench will work.
  • Have a plumber’s number on hand in case of an emergency. Does this plumber offer 24 hour service? And are they licensed and insured?

 

Extra Credit:

  • Turn off your water if your house will be vacant for several days.
  • Put a pan under your washing machine if you don’t have a drain in the laundry room floor.
  • Check the supply lines under the sinks, behind the toilet and in the laundry room to make sure they are on tight and are not dripping or showing signs of wear and tear. Consider replacing ALL your interior water supply lines with braided metal ones. These are less likely to burst.
  • Wish me luck as I get through the next few days(…to be continued.)

I hope you never need the information I just gave you. May your house always be dry!

 

You can read more about our kitchen disaster and renovation in these updates:

Comments

  1. I love that you share these not-so-glamorous moments with us. When I read your post title, I immediately thought, “Gee, sounds like my house and my luck!” I really appreciate your honesty and ability to help us help ourselves. Here’s to getting that laundry sink back in order!

  2. Yikes!! I am so sorry you are going through this & Kuddos to you for sharing/educating the rest of us. I found the info really good however, if anyone out there is on well water with an automated water softener or treatment system be sure this won’t mess up your system. Since we live in a cold climate we make sure the heat is on while gone and that a neighbor has our contact info in the event the power goes out.
    Hope the rest is fairy simple and not to costly to you! Hang tough!

  3. I AM SO SICK OF WATER ISSUES!!!! And thanks to you I have the answer to why my RV pipes keep failing! Replacing these pipes is now on the list! My sympathy on the water leak damage. My story? I didn’t even notice a leak on ours until our city water department called to notify (warn??) us that our bill was going to be nearly $3,500!!! We had a leak that was dumping 12,000 gallons of water a DAY! We just built this house and there was no evidence of a leak! I had to hire a leak detection company. When all was said and done, it was determined that the leak was in the original water supply line about 6 feet under where we built the house (no trace wires or city permit drawings available) so the water was filling the ground BELOW the house. We had to actually bypass the pipes with new trench, pipes etc around the house. May I say with all the gratitude I can muster… Thank Heavens for insurance!!!!!! Since our meter is about 1,000 feet away from the house, I am actually going to increase my insurance coverage to include the supply line, which is usually not covered under homeowner’s insurance. I also loved seeing the water meter key… I’m going to get one and hang it on the tree next to the meter. It takes 10 minutes to walk to our meter and knowing me, I’d forget the tools! :-) Good luck with the reno!

    • Debi,

      Oh my gosh! I can’t even imagine what a mess that was and that could have damaged your home’s foundation too, right?! And yes, I’m thankful we have homeowner’s insurance. They are warning us that this could be over $5,000 dollars worth of damage. Gah!

      • Brittany,

        Yes, we’re still waiting for that part of the process. First they will dry out the crawlspace, then send in the geologist and do soil tests, etc. This was compacted fill (mostly gravel and silty soil) so we’re hopeful that we won’t have to jack up the house and put in pilings! It’s been about $6,000 so far for the water line, plus (bless them!!) the insurance will also pick up the water bill! Do you know how much they will have to do to your kitchen??

  4. I am so sorry, I feel your pain!

  5. I am so sorry. I’ve dreaded that happening in my home. I watch the water bill monthly and listen closely to everything. In my case, the air conditioners line that emits the humidity from the house ran between the roof and my ceiling. All of a sudden I started seeing this ring in the ceiling. Low and behold it was leaking from the air conditioner. I had it sealed off and put the line on the outside on top of the roof. All the mold had to be removed and dry wall reapplied to the ceiling in the bathroom. I’ll be thinking about you while you are going thru this.

  6. Good luck with your repairs. I hope you can do a follow up post about mold removal. I had a water leak in the basement of the house i recently moved to and I’ve been noticing a lot of mold or the signs for what I think mold is. The clothes in the suitcase we keep in the basement were ruined, some old sheetrock had mold on the inside and the newly installed door in the basement now has some kind of odd green tint on the bottom. I’m not sure whether it is dirt from the construction or possibly mold from the previous leak. Thanks!

  7. Oh my goodness, Brittany – what an ordeal! Mold is nasty stuff, as you well know. Hope you get it taken care of soon!

  8. Oh man! That awful. I hope it isn’t too bad and can be a quick fix. We actually let an offer to purchase fall though on a house when the inspection turned up PB piping. It was on the short list of deal breakers along with hardboard siding, asbestos and lead paint. As a DIY’r those are out of my comfort zone and more of a headache then they are worth. Hopefully you don’t have any other pipe failures anytime soon! Fingers crossed the cleanup goes quick! Hang in there.

    • Kim…um…what if I told you that we have masonite siding as well ;-(. You never would have bought our house! ;-D. Regarding the hardboard (aka masonite) siding. It has held up for the most part, but we’ve slowly had to replace each side of the house. We’re left with just the back and the first floor of the front still to do. But, I love our house regardless. Thanks for your comment.

  9. So sorry you are going through this. I had an incident where mice chewed through my shower drain pipe. I took a shower, ran out the door to hop in the car and wondered why I had water running out of my garage!!! Had to call the hubby home from work to pull down the ceiling and insulation in half of the garage.

    Sorry to hear you have mold. I hope no one in your family is allergic. I am severely allergic to mold and knew almost immediately at a few houses we looked at when buying. I hope they take care of the mold quickly and efficiently without tearing up your house too much.

  10. Eva Stephen says:

    Aww I can feel your pain Brittany. Hope the smell goes out now.
    I’ve come across the thing for the first time, polybutylene pipes. Got some knowledge about that.

  11. Oh my gosh Brittany! I haven’t had time this week to read blogs and I just read you posts! What a horrific week you all have had! I’m so sorry. I just can’t even imagine. Great advice everyone should know. I’ll be sharing your post on FB. Hang in there girlfriend!

  12. When you locate the in house water shut off valve, LABEL it! With a big tag, showing which way is off. Write on the wall above, HOUSE Water shut off valve. Then inside a cabinet door, leave a big sign with the location. Tell all your kids over the age of six how to do it. That way if there is a leak or flood when a baby sitter is there, someone will know what to do. It also doesn’t hurt to show the kids the shut off valve behind the toilet, right? You are so lucky you found it early. You all could have gotten really sick with this. Benefit, you will get up to code and get a new kitchen and laundry room? Please, get an antique sink or an old one for the laundry room. I can not operate without a laundry sink. I just bought a new top loading washing machine At Costco! Same one as at Lowe’s or Home Depot, which didn’t have them. I read all the reviews on the front loaders and decided not to participate. If the water doesn’t reach your clothes, you have to start over which doesn’t save any time or energy. I think this might be an E-Book. Ann

  13. Hi Brittany -
    So sorry to hear about your mold problems. Your post is so well written and one that every homeowner should read. Water leaks happen in every home – sinks, toilets, water heaters, pipes etc… I know as it has happened in a few of the houses I have lived in. I hope you can move back into your house soon. Hang in there. :)

  14. It stinks (no pun intended) that you’re going through this. Here’s to hoping the mold problems are soon resolved.

  15. Wow, that is a powerful message about water pipes and leaks, thank you so much for taking the time to share the information when it must be so busy for you now.
    Even in a time of disaster you have such a upbeat attitude. Your remarks put a smile on my face every day!
    Keeping you in my thoughts and prayers that all works out.

    • Christie,

      Thank you sooo much for taking the time to comment. It’s been a rough week/weekend. We are currently out of the house until they can get rid of the mold (and subsequently discovered asbestos.) I have been trying to remember that this is only temporary and it really could be a LOT worse. But, this morning the reality is starting to sink in. We may still be at my in laws until Halloween. But, hopefully the house will be better than before when we move back ;-).

      Have a great week!

  16. Oh man. We are currently in the midst of mold remediation too. I couldn’t believe your post and it is making me feel better to know someone as sharp and handy as you & Pretty Handy Guy are going through this. We are ending up with new floors (better than our old ones, ’cause we’re bargain hunters!) and took advantage of the empty house to do some much needed painting. But six weeks into the repairs, it’s getting tough to look on the bright side. So thanks for sharing your story – it helps! :) Sarah

    • And good luck with all of it! I cringed when I read about the fan… hope you’re getting it all cleared out. My only advice – be a pest! Nag the insurance, nag the remediators, nag the contractors. It’s your home and you need to feel safe when you move back in!

  17. Brittany, I hope the mold repair work is going well. Sorry to hear about your house being like the one in ET. But if anyone can make a comeback it’s you. After all, you’re Pretty Handy Girl :)

  18. Nooooo this is awful! You seem so upbeat about it though!

  19. You are a saint and godsend to all us housewives who end up figuring out how to save our homes from our most dreaded nightmare….water leaks ! This post was immensely well written and so helpful and educational. Thank you so much.
    Now I have to get to work trying to figure out where the leak is coming from, that is causing the baseboard to come loose from the wall and the corner of the toilet closet too show water marks.
    Wish me luck that I don’t go bankrupt or crazy in the process of dealing with my insurance company, plumbers and putting my life on hold till this gets fixed.
    Thank you enormously for your wonderful post… my heart bleeds for you and what you went through. God bless you for thinking of others at a time like this !

  20. Thank you for this post. We were looking at a house with polybutylene pipes, so I started doing some research on what that actually meant. I’m not sure if this is something we’re willing to deal with. Sadly we might be walking away from this house. :-( Thankfully we haven’t made an offer yet.

  21. Miles H says:

    Just stumbled on your blog and impressed by how much you have learned from this debacle. Sorry for your troubles!! I am facing a mold remediation issue this month and wondering what kind of costs you are looking at. Can’t get a ballpark estimate out of anyone until they’ve seen it. Mold only appears to have affected one room in the house. Sounds like a similar situation to yours?

    • Miles, it truly depends on your specific situation. For example, we failed our second mold test due to complications from the asbestos abatement. So, our total was about $12,000. But, we also had to have our entire kitchen gutted. And mold spores had spread to other areas of our house, so there were many HEPA filters running for a long period of time.

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