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posted: 3/31/2012 1:00 AM

Home fix: Mineral deposits in pipes reduce water flow

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By Dwight Barnett

Q. We installed a new electric hot-water heater. I thought maybe the old one had collected sludge in the bottom and was cutting water pressure to the faucets upstairs. This didn't work.

The water pressure is the same as before. We have a -inch line to the bath and kitchen in the basement, then half-inch lines to faucets. Is there anything available to increase pressure to faucets, or is this what electric water heaters do? People I know with gas water heaters don't have this problem unless I've missed something when looking at their hot-water heaters.

A. Because your problem is on the hot-water side of the system, I must assume you have older galvanized water pipes. Over the years a crust of mineral deposits will collect inside the galvanized pipes, reducing the amount of water flow to the faucets. This happens to both the cold- and hot-water pipes, but hot water increases the accumulation of the crust more than the cold-water pipes.

You may also discover this crust forms mostly in the horizontal pipes and not so much in the vertical pipes. Why is this fact important? Horizontal pipes are more readily accessible than vertical pipes, making them easier to replace.

What you need to do to increase water flow is to replace the older horizontal pipes with either copper or PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic. Vertical pipes are in the walls of the home and replacement would require removing the drywall or plaster to get to the pipes. Horizontal pipes will be in the basement or crawl space of the home and are much easier to access.

If you choose copper for the water lines, there are quick-connect compression fittings to reduce the amount of soldering required to join the pipes together. Also, soldering requires working with a torch in some tight areas where an accidental spark could ignite the home. PVC is easy to work with and there's no torch involved.

This is a project for the more experienced do-it-yourselfer, so you might want to call in a professional to do the work.

Q. I had a contractor install pop-up gutter drains. They were supposed to be dug 10 feet out. He only did this for one at the back of the house. The other three are only 4 to 5 feet out. I wasn't aware of this and wouldn't have realized this wasn't proper. I am now convinced that this is the reason the gutters at the front overflow. Am I right?

A. Having the buried drains closer to the home's foundation will not cause the gutters to overflow. As long as the drains are at least 6 feet from the foundation and the yard slopes away from the home, the pop-up drains are properly installed.

Gutters overflow because the drains or the gutters themselves are clogged. Gutters should be cleaned and maintained annually; if you live in a heavily wooded area, the gutters may need to be cleaned every four to six months. Leaf-clogged gutters can lead to foundation flooding and possible structural damage, so it is important to keep the gutters free of debris.

When working from the roof area or from a ladder, make sure you stay clear of all overhead wiring. If you must lean a ladder against the gutter, use a short piece of a 2-by-4-inch board placed inside the gutter to prevent crushing damage from the ladder.

Make sure the feet of the ladder are on a solid footing and that it does not lean to the left or to the right. Wear rubber gloves, a long-sleeved shirt and eye protection when scooping debris from the gutter.

Rather than dump the debris on your lawn, use a small bucket hung from a rung on the ladder using an old coat hanger bent to make a hook.

Cover shrubs and flowers with a tarp to prevent damage from loose and falling debris. Once the gutters are clean, use a garden hose to flush the downspouts until they are running free and clear.

If the downspouts are clogged, they will need to be removed, cleaned and reinstalled. After the gutters are clean and have had time to dry, you should caulk and seal all joints and seams against future leaks. It would be a good idea to install a leaf-guard system to prevent leaf and debris from getting into the gutters in the future.

Most important contractors: electricians, plumbers

After performing more than 10,000 home inspections, I've come to the realization that two of the most important contractors in the home are an electrician and a plumber.

The problems I generally see are in the more rural areas, where codes are lax or not enforced at all.

If an electrician makes a mistake, the results are usually immediate, resulting in blown fuses, tripped breakers or house fires.

If a plumber makes an error, outside of a leaky pipe or a supply line, the error may take a lifetime for you to discover. What I'm talking about, in general, are viruses and bacteria that exit the waste system.

Lately, I've seen several sinks and fixtures that have an "S" trap drain. "S" trap drains have been prohibited for decades and have been replaced with a "P" trap drain. To visualize an "S" trap drain, just look under your sink to see if the drainpipe forms an "S," with the drainpipe going down through the cabinet floor almost directly under the sink. A "P" trap drain will form a "P" shape to maintain a water seal, and the pipe will either go through the wall behind the fixture or extend several inches away from the sink drain before exiting through the floor.

The mechanical purpose of the trap is to hold water to prevent sewer gases containing viruses and bacteria from entering the home through the drain. With an "S" trap drain, the trap is easily siphoned dry with each use and the water seal no longer exists. A properly installed "P" trap will always maintain a water seal. If you have an "S" trap drain and you notice odors in the room, you can run the water slowly for a short time to fill the "S" trap to maintain a water seal so the sewer gases can no longer escape to the home.

Plumbing drains also require a venting system that extends beyond the roof of the home to vent sewer gases to the outside and to provide atmospheric pressure to the drains to allow the drain water to flow freely. An example of a vent would be to place your thumb over a straw in a glass of water. You can lift the water inside the straw until you take your thumb away and the water drains out. If a vent is improperly installed, if it's too short at the roofline and can be covered by snow or debris, or if it terminates inside the attic, your fixtures may either drain slowly or not at all.

Plumbing repairs should always be performed by a licensed plumber. The plumbing inside your home is so critical that every jurisdiction in the United States requires plumbers to be licensed.

I would also strongly recommend that electrical work be performed by a residential electrician. However, not all jurisdictions require licensing of electricians. When in doubt, contact your local building official or county health department. Always get more than one bid, and get three references from the contractor you select. There should be no down payment before the work starts. For small jobs, payment should be made upon completion. If you're building a new home, however, you'll most likely pay as the work progresses.

Remember: No professional contractor should ask for money before starting the job.

• Dwight Barnett is a certified master inspector with the American Society of Home Inspectors. Write to him with home improvement questions at d.Barnett@insightbb.com.

Scripps Howard News Service

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