Pink (or green) rings in toilet

Toilet Ring
Toilet Ring

Q.  I recall a column that talked about pink rings in toilet bowls and a potential problem with acidic water eating away at my pipes. I wondered if you had an opinion on what the acceptable range for tap water pH should be. I have made some inquiries and am hearing that 6.5 to 8.5 is an acceptable range. Should I invest in a neutralizer if my pH is below 6.5 or does it need to be less than that to justify the expense?

A.  The ideal and neutral pH is 7. A pH of 6.5 is quite acidic. The fact that you have pink rings in your toilet (usually the rings are more greenish, although another reader recently described them as blue) seems to indicate that you need to have your water checked by a water specialist.

Bubbles appear when toilet is flushed

Q.    Can you tell me why our first floor toilet emits a bubble each time we flush? We are on a slab with a septic system. The vent is not blocked. We are elderly in need of help.

A.    This is usually an indication of a venting problem. If this happens only in winter, it may be that the vent stack through the roof has too small a diameter and ices up. If it happens year around, then the venting problem is different. Does it bother you so much that you can’t live with it? If so, consider having an experienced licensed plumber check it out.

Blue (or green) water may corrode pipes

Q.  I have a well, and the water that comes into our toilet is blue.  The water in my bathtub is also blue, and it is hard to clean. Can you tell me why we have blue water? I have copper pipes.

A.  It sounds like you have acidic water — with a very low pH, although the color is generally greenish. The water is eating the copper pipes. If nothing is done about it, the copper pipes may eventually leak. You should have a water specialist test your water and recommend a treatment to bring the pH to a more normal 7. If you don’t, you may end up with a very expensive pipe replacement.

Sewer smells come from floor drain

Q. There has been a very unpleasant, sewer-like odor coming from the floor drain in my utility room. We have a 19-year-old tri-level with a basement (4 levels total), and the utility room is one level up from the basement. This drain runs from the utility room, underneath the garage floor, through the basement, then out the basement side wall.

Nothing ever drains into this drain, so the water just sits in the trap and has become very dark brown-grey and mucky looking. Sometimes there are small pieces of debris floating in there (don’t know what it is).

I poured a quart of hydrogen peroxide down the drain, allowed it to sit overnight, and flushed with water. After repeating this process the next day, the water in the trap was a nice clear color and the smell was gone. By the way, the water drains very freely down the drain; there does not appear to be any blockage.

However, after about one week, the smell is starting to come back and the water is starting to look brownish again. My questions are as follows:

  1.     Any idea what could be causing this odor? (it’s not a dry trap; there’s always water in it, albeit smelly and brown).  My theory is that the drainpipes from my toilet(s) might be tied into this pipe, and perhaps this part of the pipe has a “negative” slope, (due to settling?), and some of the toilet waste is sitting at that end of the drain pipe (in the utility room). In other words, water and some partial waste is sitting in the trap as well as in that run of the pipe.
  2.    Do you have any “preventive maintenance” recommendations to keep my drains (tubs, showers, sinks, etc) nice and clean, and odor-free?

Fortunately the only one that smells is the drain in the utility room, but I would like to “stay ahead of the game” with the other drains. I was thinking about getting a plumber to perform a video inspection and perhaps determine what the problem is, but I would really appreciate any input you might have.

A.    I doubt that the smelly and dark-colored water is from the toilets; if it were, you would see some gurgling when the toilets are flushed, among other problems. Any water standing for a long time in a trap is likely to turn a dark color from the rusting of the cast iron trap – and to have floating scale, and start smelling.

Inflatable Pipe Plug
Inflatable Pipe Plug

If this trap is not used and you have never had a problem with leakage from your washing machine, you may want to consider getting an expandable ball-shaped plug that plumbers use to block sewer gases from coming out; it won’t change the color of the water in the trap but it will block the smell. Buy one in a hardware or plumbing supply store. In case of need, it is very easy to deflate it and remove it.

Having your pipes videoed seems somewhat drastic under the circumstances; the problem does not seem to be that serious. The best preventive measure I know of to keep drains open and sweet smelling (if there is such a thing) is to pour a solution made of hot water and Super Washing Soda in the drains on a regular basis; follow instructions on the side of the package.

Laundry-room drain is backing up

Q.  My house is a 50-year-old small ranch with a full basement. It has no sump pump. About a year ago, my basement laundry room drain started to back up. About a gallon of water comes up, but goes back down within five minutes or so. If I am doing a few loads of laundry, the first back-up has a sewer odor.

About seven months ago, I had my plumber come and rod out the drain. He worked for about an hour trying to clear it but was not able to do so. He could only go about 22 feet.

The next day, I had a sewer man come over. He put a camera down my main drain. The pipes looked quite clean except for a few small roots for which he said he had some solution to kill them. He could not get the camera down the laundry room drain as the pipe is too small.

He put a transmitter down the drain pipe as far as he could, then went over the basement with something like a Geiger counter. It made a lot of noise by the foundation of my house so he said this is where the tile is broken from the weight of the house over the years. He said he could enlarge the laundry room pipe so he could put a camera down there to see what the problem is. Then he would have to tear the basement floor up at great expense to repair the drain tile.

I dread this as my basement is full of 50 years of living (my husband built the house). I am planning on having another sewer man give me a second opinion. The recent severe rains we had flooded part of my basement from the window wells. Because of the drain problem, the water did not go down fast enough. Your opinion and suggestion are really needed.

A.  Usually, the main drain from a house to the city sewer or a septic tank is made of cast iron. This does not break easily. Furthermore, a house should not settle if built on solid, undisturbed ground. If the house has settled, you would be able to tell, as cracks would develop in the walls, and windows and doors may be binding, etc.

Since your husband built the house, does he remember what he used for the drain pipe? Does your municipality have a building-inspection department that issued your husband a building permit and checked on the excavation before concrete footings were allowed to be poured? These are insurances that the house was built on solid ground.

You should have a Roto-Rooter or similar drain-clearing firm come and run its auger through the pipes – these specialists can go much farther than the 22 feet your plumber did. They have solved clogging problems where others have failed. Ask them if there is any charge if they do not succeed in clearing your drain.

The window wells may need to be cleaned. Be sure to remove leaves and any other debris that gets in the wells. More clearance may be needed between the soil in the wells and the window sills – a foot or more should be the minimum, and the soil should be covered with several inches of stones, still leaving a 6-inch clear space between the top of the stones and the window sill. The drain pipe may need to be shortened.

You may also have a grading problem, causing water to get in the wells from the sides. Check it out and correct any negative slope around the wells, so surface water runs away from the foundation.

But if rain came in through your window wells because of the failure of the drain in them, consider installing plastic covers over the wells to keep the rain from getting in them.

If it is determined, after all else, that the sewer pipe is broken, see if it can be repaired from outside. Some skilled plumbers and septic contractors have made such repairs by digging a small tunnel under the footing to replace a piece of pipe under a slab if there is a joint not too far back under the slab.

Pipes freeze after furnace is moved from crawl space

Q.  My wife and I recently bought a small ranch that had an old, inefficient furnace in the crawl space. During the fall, we disconnected the old furnace and decided to install a new furnace in our attic space and run new ductwork. Things seemed to be fine until we had a sustained cold and windy period which froze our water pipes. We did not take into consideration that the old furnace in the crawl space was emanating enough heat to warm the space and keep the pipes from freezing.

I purchased an electric heat tape and fiberglass insulation, and applied it to the area that I believe to be most susceptible to the freezing (along the foundation wall running almost the full length of the house). We again went through a cold spell and the pipes froze, despite the heat tape.

I have received many recommendations for fixing the problem ranging from heating the space to re-piping with technology that has the heating element within the pipe. Any suggestions you may provide will be appreciated.

A.    It was a mistake to put the new furnace in the attic. The heat it generates will cause snow on the roof to melt, thus causing ice dams to build up at the eaves. This can result in leakage inside the walls, wet attic insulation and damage to wall and ceiling finishes. There is also a loss of efficiency as the furnace is in a cold space that is presumably ventilated; any benefit from the furnace’s stand-by losses is lost. If the furnace had been left in the crawl space, its stand-by losses would warm the crawl space, keep the pipes from freezing, and warm the first floor.

Since it is unlikely that you will go to the expense of returning the furnace to the crawl space, and if the insulating you have done is not as described below, I suggest that your first step be to seal any cracks admitting cold air anywhere around the foundation; this will keep the wind out. You should caulk them.

If there are any vents in the foundation, please close them and place insulation over them. If you haven’t done so, this is how the crawl space should be insulated: put R-19 fiberglass between the band joists with a vapor retarder facing inside the crawl space; insulate the walls down to two feet below grade with either fiberglass or rigid insulation.

It is not safe to go below the two-foot level as it could result in walls cracking under the influence of deeper-penetrating frost. This should prevent further freezing of the pipes that are surely just under the first floor joists, as the earth’s warmth and the heat loss from the first floor should keep them above the freezing point.

You should also insulate the water pipes with neoprene insulation you can buy in hardware or building supply stores; they are easy to install. However, if you have already insulated as described above, and insulated the pipes, you may need to provide a modicum of heat. I know of old stone cellars in which pipes used to freeze until a simple 100 watt light bulb was kept on during cold weather and proved to be sufficient to keep the pipes from freezing.

One toilet gurgles when another is flushed

Q.    We have a 50-plus year-old Cape Cod home with a powder room on the first floor and a full bathroom on the second floor. For the last several years, when the toilet on the second floor is flushed, water gurgles up in the bowl of the toilet in the first floor powder room. What could be causing this? Do we have reason to be concerned? If so, how should we proceed?

A.    Such gurgling sounds are usually caused by a venting problem. The vent stack that goes through the roof (or should, if yours does not) may have gotten partially or totally plugged over the years. This is more of a problem in very cold regions where the moist gases freeze over the winter and can cause the vent stack to be completely closed.

If this problem is year around, it may be that the vent stack has a small diameter and that a build-up of scum and corrosion has narrowed it to the point where it is affecting its proper functioning. You may want to have a plumbing contractor get on the roof and check it out; it may need to be cleaned out. He or she should also check for other possible causes, such as absence of venting, which may be remedied with interior venting, using one of the several appliances available.

Toilet flush followed by water hammer

Q.    Following replacement of toilet shut-off valves and some other plumbing work, we now have a loud water hammer when the toilet abruptly shuts off when filled. This will also happen if we shut a faucet off quickly. The hammer is in the basement. What do we need to do to correct this problem.

A.    Have a plumber install a water hammer arrester.