Home & Garden Columns

About the House: In So Many Ways, We’re Getting Stupider and Stupider

By Matt Cantor
Thursday September 03, 2009 - 11:06:00 AM

I can recall the first time I inspected a turn-of-the-20th-century house and noticed one of those funny little doors in the hallway closet next to the bathroom and, upon prying it open, realized that this was a little repair access panel for the shower. 

The little door (go look, you may have one) gave access to the old galvanized water pipes. It isn’t of much value since there’s rarely a repair one could make in such a place, and, more important, it’s very unlikely that a leak would occur right in this spot, but the door also gave access to the drain fittings, which is why the door is there, really: it allows access to what we might call the “waste and overflow” fittings of the tub. This is an assembly that most tubs still have and is a sort of L-shaped assembly of fittings that mounts at the tub drain and then reaches up around the end of the tub to connect to the overflow hole that sits about 14 inches up on the side of the tub—this is always a hot-button issue for tub users since most overflows are set too low to fill the tub, and many people (like me) like to block them in order to get enough water in the tub. Special suction covers are made for these drains, which allow you to fill past the overflow but still allow water to spill in at the top, thus preventing the flood the overflow is there to prevent. 

A 1920s-era plumber actually stood a fair chance of getting to the waste and overflow and its various parts through these wooden doors and might well have gotten a chance to fix one of the most common leaks found in our homes. Today, architects and builders, largely, have no conception of such prophylaxis, so a plumbing job that requires accessing the overflow fittings often involves removing plaster, drywall and perhaps even tile. 

Builders of very large buildings sometimes get smart enough to figure out what repairs are going to be done to their buildings (usually when they also own the building), and I, periodically, see a similar little hatch in modern apartment buildings, though the reasoning behind them is somewhat different. 

Again, a leak at the drain (the waste and overflow) of a shower or tub is one of the most common plumbing leaks in our homes or apartments, but in the case of the apartment (or condo), it becomes a much messier affair, especially if you’re on the fourth floor. Decades ago, smarter builders (or smarter plumbers involved in the construction process) started installing these little hatches in the ceilings below the drains of the tub upstairs.  

Not surprisingly, this is usually right over the drain of the tub in the bath in the apartment below, since stacking bathrooms is a cost-effective way to build apartment buildings and condos. 

When it leaks on the fourth floor, it usually leaks right into the little hatch, which can be opened with a screwdriver to drain away the water and perform the repair. When the repair is done, it’s very likely that we won’t have sopping, moldy sheetrock to remove and repair (unless the slumlord owner or somnambulant H.O.A. membership just can’t get it together in a reasonable stretch of time) and everyone stays a lot happier. Just as long as we’re on the subject, you can install these hatches below your own drains either before or (hopefully) after the next time your tub drain tries to show you how it feels about you and your singing. 

These hatches are not necessary for ground-floor baths, since they will tend to leak, for years and years, into the crawlspace below you, thus rotting away flooring boards and joists. If you get someone under the tub once in a while (run the water first, so you’ll see the drip), you might just catch these before they’re fung-fests that costs lots of money. Nonetheless, we don’t need hatches here and homes usually have good access below the tub, except when built on slabs of concrete. 

But as usual, I’ve wandered way around the block so let’s get to what I really wanted to talk about, which is where and why showers (and tubs) leak. It’s sort of a list, and I offer it because, first, it happens all the time, and, second, because many people haven’t a clue as to where these things may be leaking. 

The bad news is that for tubs and showers, there are many possible places that leakage can occur, especially because of the way bathrooms tend to be assembled. Rather than having lots of good flashing (the folded metal, plastic or tar-paper elements that divert water away from where they might cause harm), many baths rely upon tight fit and caulk (neither of which remain for long) to prevent leakage through floors, drains and walls. A worthy aside at this point is to say that plastic one- or two-piece tubs and showers are far less likely to leak because they have far fewer conjoinments to contend with—fewer places where parts meet. I’m no fan of these low-cost “port-o-potties” of ablution, but they are really good at keeping the water from leaking into the wall. 

So with this as our preface, let’s take a minute to look at where showers (especially the ones built over a tub) leak. 

First and foremost is one that may seem a surprise but I find them all the time, and I found one last month at the home of an ace home-repair guy, Stuart and his wildly entertaining wife Katie. A leak occurred when the shower was running, and it dripped down in the basement (is this you?), but they could not locate it. First, it’s clear that this was not on-supply piping because when you have leaks on-supply piping, they’ll run all the time, although there are parts of the supply piping, such as the shower or tub extension piping, that will only leak when you turn on the valves. These occasionally leak, but its fairly rare, due to the fact that they are open at the spouts or heads and this relieves the pressure in the pipe. But the point is, it was clearly not in the supply piping. So, the first things I like to check are the escutcheons. Escutcheons are the cups that mount around the valves or handles where you turn the water on. These need only be very slightly loose or have very tiny gaps in order to allow spoonfuls of water to enter the wall during a shower. Testing is tricky. I had Stuart use his hand and asked him to deflect the water against the valves and along the walls all around the shower enclosure. When it he did this, it started dripping like Sarah Palin’s tears all over my head. When we shower, water bounces off our bodies onto the shower walls, runs down the wall and can slide right under these seemly snug escutcheons, leading to leakage and damage. This is always the first thing to check if you’ve first established that the leak is not at the drain. If you get below the tub, mapping the location of the drain is the first thing. A careful establishing of where the leakage is occurring is very important. 

Other places leakage can occur include the gaps between shower tiles and the edges of a tub. Most modern tubs have a lip at the edge that catches water and drives it back into the tub but some early tubs  

didn’t have these, including the “captive clawfoot” tubs I sometimes see. These are found in homes from the 1920s or earlier and involve a traditional clawfoot tub that has had framing built around its ovaloid shape as well as a skirt built across the front face. These details rely upon sealant and usually have at least minor leaks. Caulk is wonderful stuff but it’s not permanent. It’s fine for short-term fixes but we shouldn’t build anything that relies on it.  

With conventional tubs using tile, water can leak through poorly installed tile, especially when tile was installed over drywall. Marine grade or “green” drywall or sheetrock was, for a short while, specified by trade groups and was, in those fabulous ’70s, a common technique (but then, think about the clothes, the hair styles and the Pinto I used to drive). Green sheetrock didn’t work out very well and I’m still finding cases where it’s mushy and water is leaking through the tile. 

With shower pans (showers not built into the bathtubs), there are generally more failures, especially the older ones built on cement pans that were poured in place. As in the case of our one- or two-piece plastic model, a precast shower pan is not likely to leak unless the plumber really couldn’t manage the fairly simple task of installing the drain fitting properly. With handmade shower pans, there are so many magic tricks involved that I won’t bother with all the possible errors, but let it be sufficient to say that it’s not for the novice and is best left to the obsessive-compulsive professional (and you know who you are). 

Let’s not forget to cover floors. Water loves to run off the edge of tubs, often as a film too thin to notice and down to the floor where it can easy penetrate an un-flashed floor that lacks a bead of caulk (again, we don’t want to rely upon caulk for construction but most of us have to assume that these gaps aren’t competent (or continent). Water often leaks slowly through the floor joint and ruins the wooden substrates. This is often avoided by fastidiousness but we don’t all have that aspect in our soul so, for some of us, caulk must remain on the menu. 

Finding tub and shower leaks can be tough and you may end up with some professional help before you figure it out, but you’ll be surprised that with a bright flashlight, a measuring tape and some deep breathing, you might just conquer against these lesser invaders. I, and the people downstairs, will be pulling for you.