Plumbing emergencies, like the definition of beauty, are often in the eye-of-beholder classification. Which is to say that what the customer calls an emergency and what the plumber calls an emergency might not necessarily be the same thing.
For many homeowners, any time the plumbing does not work as it should – which includes anything from water lines spewing a flood throughout the house to the toilet “making a funny noise” – is cause for alarm and a frantic phone call to their plumber.
This is doubly true for do-it-yourselfers who get mid-project before they find themselves flailing around in uncharted waters (no pun intended).
The Definition of an Emergency
At a base level, an emergency would be declared:
- Any time there’s a disruption of water flowing into or waste flowing out of the dwelling (i.e., in most cases, a broken water line or a sewage stoppage)
- In situations when delaying the repairs will cause further damage (i.e., if the escaping water could cause significant damage to floors, walls, electronics or furniture)
When one is determining whether the case is an actual emergency, two issues are worth considering:
- The time needed to respond (how long you can safely wait for the problem to be repaired)
- The extra cost of requesting an immediate response (how much you’re willing to pay for rush service)
Most plumbing companies provide emergency services for situations in which the repair cannot wait. They also typically charge extra for after-hours and weekend work. This can help with the customer’s decision-making about whether it’s a true emergency.
Case in point: If a homeowner recoils from the idea of paying double for a plumber to come out to his house and can wait for Monday, it’s almost certainly not an emergency.
Common Plumbing Emergencies
The following are almost always considered true emergencies that must be handled immediately:
- Broken water pipe: You’ll know this is the case because either pools of water are appearing or the sound of water flowing is obvious. If this situation isn’t handled promptly, it could result in significant damage to the walls, floor, ceilings, electronics or furniture.
- Clogged sinks/toilets/tubs/drains: The first sign of this is the water not draining as quickly as usual or gurgling/bubbling in the drain. The cause may not be immediately known – it could be an object blocking the drain line, an overflowing toilet, an overloaded disposal or a malfunctioning tub drain that won’t open. Until a plumber checks the lines, the cause will not be known for certain. If the clog is restricted to one fixture, it would not be an emergency – only an inconvenience. If all fixtures are clogged, that would constitute a larger problem, hence an emergency call.
- Sewer line stoppage: If the sewer line stops up, it will affect every fixture in the dwelling. This would definitely be considered an emergency, as the outflow of waste is being hindered.
- Damaged water heater: If the water heater is not functioning as well as expected, it may not be a true emergency, but rather an inconvenience. If the water heater has developed a leak or burst – causing flooding – this would be an emergency, as the flooding could cause subsequent damage. If the malfunctioning water heater is in a restaurant or a hotel, this would be considered an emergency, as the business would need hot water for sanitary reasons (e.g., washing dishes, washing laundry, washing hands, etc.).
While You Wait
If there’s a leak, the water should be shut off. The homeowner (if an individual home) or the manager (if a business) should know how to turn off the water, whether it is the main shutoff or individual fixture supply line. They may be able to turn off the water before the plumber gets there, which will help to minimize the damage. Best practice is for everyone in the home or business to have full knowledge of how to turn off the water at the main shutoff or the specific fixture supply valves.
If there’s a sewer stoppage, everyone in the dwelling should avoid using any plumbing fixtures, as that would only make the problem worse. This homeowner/manager should also know where the cleanout caps are for the drain lines, as this will speed up the emergency repair. This individual can inform the plumber upon arrival where these are located.
In the event the plumber cannot arrive as quickly as needed, the water company or the fire department can turn off the water in an emergency to protect the property.
In addition, if water has appeared on the floors or walls, if would be advisable for the homeowner/manager to contact a water remediation company to begin extracting the water and cleaning up the excess water and/or waste, in order to save the hardwood flooring, carpets, etc. These companies can typically also perform mold testing and can monitor the moister readings in the walls, floors and ceilings following the emergency.
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