Home inspection findings by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck, Professional Real Estate Inspector TREC# 9073

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What Can Cause a Toilet to Overflow?

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There are a few concerns that need to be checked when dealing with an overflowing toilet.

I received a call from a nice lady in Florida this week that I thought would be good to share. First, I should apologize for not posting consistently recently; it seems that many people are trying to take advantage of the tax credit for buying a home before it ends, which means that I have been quite busy. Back to the call. The question was really about what damage can happen to a winterized home’s plumbing system, and would it cause a back flowing toilet. With so many people buying foreclosed homes which have been winterized, this may be a concern for many new home buyers. However, this applies to any home that has been winterized, which quite a few homes for sale have gone through, even when they are not a foreclosure.

What kind of damage will the plumbing suffer in a winterized home? Sometimes none at all. The process of winterizing is meant to prevent damage. In the case of my caller, her home had been left in its winterized state for a year. Someone should have required a home inspection to ensure that no damage was done (in my opinion). To access your water, you turn a handle which controls a valve. The valve has an inlet and outtake side for pipes that have gaskets or seals. These can dry out over time, which lets the water leak. These gaskets or seals are at different locations in the piping system. Basically anywhere the pipes or valves may be removed, like under a sink, will be good places to have leaks due to dried out gaskets. The seal under the toilet can also dry out. The idea of pipes bursting because of a home being winterized is misleading. Pipes burst because they have been weakened or damaged, which does not happen in a properly winterized structure. I have noticed damage done to a winterized home that causes a burst pipe, but this was not due to the winterization process.

Why does a toilet overflow? Simple answer is that the water cannot flow by gravity through the drainage system, so it comes back out when more water is added. Your plumbing system works by pressure to deliver water to the fixtures, and by gravity to take the water away. The pressure comes from pumps in either a private well or the city’s utilities. For water to flow away by gravity, you need a pipe that will let water run down without interruption. If a pipe is not at a great enough incline to allow the water and/or debris to move by gravity they will sit in the pipe. Adding more water by flushing a toilet could cause that more water to go out the toilet bowl. This can happen due to an improperly installed plumbing drains or by movement in the foundation or ground around the building. Another mean for the pipes to be moved to prevent even flow is tree roots. You may have seen tree roots lift sidewalks; this happens to pipes under the ground as well. Another problem with trees is that their roots can grown into a pipe, causing a blockage. The last item that cause the overflow is blockage from items put into the toilet. My three year old daughter, who is learning how to use a toilet, will overfill it with toilet paper. I have seen diapers, toys, and bundles of dog poop stuffed into a toilet. Not a wise idea. What can happen over time is toilet paper building up in the lines causing a clog. This is a real problem with private sewage systems. For this normal use buildup to occur would take more than a year.

How do we fix these problems? The tool used for clearing a clog from a toilet is called a snake. A basic snake is around five feet long, and it cleans out the immediate toilet drain. You can rent longer snakes from a home improvement center. If you use a twenty foot snake, you are probably clearing the main drain area under you home (for the average American home). If this does not work, you need to clean the drain all the way out to the street. The 100 foot long snakes will take care of this for most homes. Be careful when using a snake, because they can damage the toilet bowl finish. If the pipes have been pushed up by tree roots or by ground/foundation movement, the system needs to be rebuilt. Tree roots in the pipe also require the pipe to be rebuilt. A plumbing inspection will determine if a tree or ground movement is a problem. Part of this inspection could involve a video camera being sent through your system to see the problem. This would beyond the scope of most homeowner skills. Snakes on the other hand can be done by homeowners.

Well, these are the basics of toilet overflowing. Of course, a plunger would work on immediate clog. As touched upon, winterizing may lead to problems for homes that have been left alone for some time. Unless debris is in the line drying out, you should not have a problem with the toilet overflowing through a winterization process.

« « How to Improve Your Home’s Gutters| Did my Home Inspector Perform All the Necessary Tests? » »

© Frank Schulte-Ladbeck Professional Home Inspector Houston, Texas
Frank Theodor Schulte-Ladbeck
home inspector, TREC# 9073
Houston , Texas , 77063 United States

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