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Steam Pipe Leak in Ceiling

wildragewildrage Member Posts: 82
Ugh :(.

It's 15 degrees today in PA, and as I was fixing dinner I heard "drip drip drip" coming from the dining room. I immediately braced, not knowing what to expect.

Leak in ceiling. Didn't know what to make of it at first - it's in a bathroom that isn't used, but there is a radiator directly above it. As you can see from the picture, it had been repaired in that spot once before.

I called the old owner, who had been in the house for 30 years, and he told me there was a pinhole leak in the pipe going to that radiator in that same place fixed about 12 years ago, and told me to call the plumber that fixed it (who I have used before).

I started the boiler, sat at the dining room table, and yup, it started dripping. I'd venture probably a cup of water per cycle.


Questions:

1. Doe it do any good turning that radiator off? I tried that out, and it doesn't seem to be making any difference.
2. Should i be worried that every pipe in my 110 year old house is going to leak very soon?
3. The water dripping out is cold - that surprised me. Does it surprise you?

Thanks :(.

Jim in PA
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Comments

  • MilanDMilanD Member Posts: 981
    The water had time to cool by soaking through the plaster.
    Is this 1 pipe steam? You can try turning the vent upside down. It should buy you some time. Check if it isn't the radiator union between the valve and the spud. They often can back themselves out and then drip down the pipe. Otherwise, you may have to open up the ceiling. Are pipes buried?
  • FredFred Member Posts: 5,564
    Have you checked in that bathroom and felt the floor around that radiator? It is possible the valve or connection between the valve and the radiator is leaking and can be fixed by tightening the packing not on the valve or the nut between the radiator and the valve. It is not typical for steam pipes to rust through, unless water pools in them so I wouldn't be concerned about the rest of the steam pipes. Wet returns in the basement may spring a leak but even that is not typical and normally takes many, many years. It is strange that this particular location springs a leak twice in twelve years. Check the floor in that bathroom. I'm thinking it is leaking there and seeping through the floor, especially since it is cold water.
  • KC_JonesKC_Jones Member Posts: 3,271
    If it was replaced 12 years ago and it is indeed corroded through in that time period you have another problem.

    No way should it corrode out in that time frame unless its holding water, which it shouldn't be.
    2014 Weil Mclain EG-40
    EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Boiler Control
    Boiler pictures updated 2/21/15
    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10202744301871904.1073741828.1330391881&type=1&l=c34ad6ee78
  • gerry gillgerry gill Member Posts: 2,687
    Look carefully at the radiator valve to make sure it isn't just a packing gland leak or a union leak as MilanD said.
    gwgillplumbingandheating.com

    Serving Cleveland's eastern suburbs from Cleveland Heights down to Cuyahoga Falls.

  • wildragewildrage Member Posts: 82
    edited November 11
    Thanks for your comments guys. It's a 1 pipe system. Yea, the first thing I did was check the bathroom floor - zippo. It looks like someone siliconed around the valve to floor area, which is odd.

    I've had slight water hammer in this radiator since i've moved in, and never was able to cure it. Nothing major, a few light bangs when the steam would first come up.

    I guess on the plus side, someone already opened up the ceiling and did a relatively shitty job concealing it, so I'm assuming it was closed with drywall, so it should be easier to open up again.

    I put a garbage can under the leak for now, and I'll call the plumber on Monday. I'll also pay special attention to water levels in the boiler. Any other pointers of what to do until then? Will turning the radiator off (vent upside down) help my situation at all?

    In the mean time, I'm going to check that packing nut again.

    Thanks again for your help guys.
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Member Posts: 6,887
    No -- turning the radiator off won't make much difference. Sorry... I'd be very inclined to suspect the packing nut or union, but it is remotely possible that one of the threaded joints in the ceiling has come slightly adrift... wouldn't take much.
    Jamie



    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England.



    Hoffman Equipped System (all original except boiler), Weil-McClain 580, 2.75 gph Carlin, Vapourstat 0.5 -- 6.0 ounces per square inch
  • MilanDMilanD Member Posts: 981
    Yes, turning the vent upside down should create an air pocket and steam won't be able to come up thus no condensate dripping out.
  • FredFred Member Posts: 5,564
    When the leaky pipe is replaced, if it is a horizontal section of pipe, make sure the plumber understands it needs to have a slight pitch back towards the vertical riser so that it doesn't hold water, which is probably the cause of the rust through and the banging. I wouldn't be surprised if, when you open that ceiling up you find that they repaired the old pipe with a saddle clamp or a rubber patch and a couple clamps.
  • MilanDMilanD Member Posts: 981
    I'm assuming pin-leak is small enough not to vent enough air out with each cycle.
  • wildragewildrage Member Posts: 82
    edited November 11
    I wish it was the packing nut. A cycle just ran, and I can't feel any water anywhere. I'm assuming i'd feel it under the valve or on the floor or something.

    So my experience with this plumber is that he is very thorough, but who knows. The former owner told me it was "Completely fixed by the plumber the right way"....but who knows. The former owner was a cardiologist but also a cheap-skate...and the house has a lot of ornate woodwork that is a PITA to work around...maybe they just slapped a patch on it and hoped for the best.
  • MilanDMilanD Member Posts: 981
    edited November 11
    Coincidentally, I was called today with exact same drip off the rad riser in our building, 1922 vintage... Haven't seen it yet. Our pipes are exposed and I'm hoping it's the nut on the rad that was dripping. If not, I'll try (since pipes are exposed) 2-part epoxy, self-sealing rubber strip and a clamp. Otherwise, out comes the sawsall and wrenches. Yay.

    Without seeing through the walls, yours could be anything from old sagged horizontal pipe developing a leak, to a leak on a thread of the ell and pipe... I am afraid that over time you will slowly have to deal with more of these, maybe not often, but they will creep up from time to time. 100 year old pipe is 100 years of air and moisture slowly rusting it away, also 100 years of condensate slowly running down the pipe.

    The Grand Canyon was cut out of the rock with water.
  • FredFred Member Posts: 5,564
    I don't know @MilanD , My steam piping is 115 years old and all original (Knock on wood). I had reason to pull one apart a couple years ago to put a new flange gasket in one of the flange joints and I was amazed at the condition inside those pipes. They looked like new. I saw no signs of erosion what so ever. (Knock on wood, yet again!)
  • gerry gillgerry gill Member Posts: 2,687
    you says the pipe or radiators hammers? Hammering can pop a hole in a pipe that is weakened by age, erosion, corrosion etc.
    gwgillplumbingandheating.com

    Serving Cleveland's eastern suburbs from Cleveland Heights down to Cuyahoga Falls.

  • wildragewildrage Member Posts: 82

    you says the pipe or radiators hammers? Hammering can pop a hole in a pipe that is weakened by age, erosion, corrosion etc.

    Yea, I know. Wasn't a terrible hammer, but nothing i did could fix it.
  • wildragewildrage Member Posts: 82
    MilanD said:

    Coincidentally, I was called today with exact same drip off the rad riser in our building, 1922 vintage... Haven't seen it yet. Our pipes are exposed and I'm hoping it's the nut on the rad that was dripping. If not, I'll try (since pipes are exposed) 2-part epoxy, self-sealing rubber strip and a clamp. Otherwise, out comes the sawsall and wrenches. Yay.



    Without seeing through the walls, yours could be anything from old sagged horizontal pipe developing a leak, to a leak on a thread of the ell and pipe... I am afraid that over time you will slowly have to deal with more of these, maybe not often, but they will creep up from time to time. 100 year old pipe is 100 years of air and moisture slowly rusting it away, also 100 years of condensate slowly running down the pipe.



    The Grand Canyon was cut out of the rock with water.

    Understood. I came to that realization when I bought a 110 year old house. You take the good with the bad. I'm just hoping everything doesn't fail at once...but then again, that's not likely.

    Since I noticed the leak, the boiler has run 2 or 3 cycles (it's 15 here in PA right now - arctic blast), and I've lost maybe a cup of water. I tested the boiler to make sure the low water switch is working, so I guess I'll just sit tight until then.

    One thing I just remembered. My autofeed was stuck on earlier this week and the system got flooded pretty badly (I had to take about 40 gallons out of the boiler). I wonder if that caused whatever patch or weak spot in the pipe to fail? Since that same spot leaked 10 years ago, my money is that it's a failed patch or a leak at a union, depending on how it was fixed.
  • FredFred Member Posts: 5,564
    @wildrage said: Since that same spot leaked 10 years ago, my money is that it's a failed patch or a leak at a union, depending on how it was fixed.

    I'm with you on that. I bet it's a union that needs to be tightened up. I can't believe a new section of pipe would rot through in 10 or 12 years.
  • EBEBRATT-EdEBEBRATT-Ed Member Posts: 2,703
    I know you said the leak is from the boiler but seeing it's under a bathroom it is possible (indeed more likely) that it's a plumbing leak.

    Also you said they silicone around the pipe. Are the kids splasing water out of the tub.

    Look for obvious things first. Since the ceiling is wrecked anyhow it probably makes no difference
  • MilanDMilanD Member Posts: 981
    Well, @wildrage, stay warm and see if turning the vent upside down turns off the rad (if it's a vent with a float - most are - if you blow through and slowly rotate it upside down and it is closed, it is a float type). I'm pretty sure it will - at least depending on how long your heat cycle is. Keep us posted on what it was - we're all invested now :smiley: I wouldn't worry about pipes failing. I was told 10 years ago, after one leak on the main, get it ripped out and do gas hot air as "it's down hill from here". Since then we had exactly 4 issues with pipes, 2 of which I was able to fix my self, one I had to hire guys to do as it happened in the middle of winter, and one is still waiting to be fixed, with vents turned upside down. :smile: Plenty rads on that space, 2 being off is not even felt, so I'm being lazy about it.

    @Fred - so glad your system is looking good. Must have gone in well and the system was kept up over the years. It's encouraging to hear. Our 1922 pipes have sprung leaks here and there over time, two-three on a main and a few on a riser in the past 20 years. Most were at the threads by unions or ells, and one was a few feet before an ell. All on horizontal runs, all sagging. Now, the building did stay vacant and unheated for about 8 years back in the 80s and I'm not sure if that would have had adverse effect too. I think, like it was mentioned, if the pipe is to sag and sagging is not addressed, over time water pooling there will rust the pipe through, plus what Gerry said about erosion. Sometimes even the slightest gurgle of a hammer needs to be addressed.

    I think, overall, if one can maintain the pipes themselves esp. by him/her self, and fix sags first and then also any leaks as they develop, it's really not a big deal. One still can't beat steam heat.
  • wildragewildrage Member Posts: 82
    edited November 12
    @EBEBRATT-Ed So I live in a large victorian house with 9 bathrooms....I haven't used that one in a month, so it's def not the toilet or shower. The last owner said that it leaked in that same exact place from the steam pipe, and it only started dripping when I started using the heat, so I'm fairly certain that's what it is...but thanks for the ideas!

    @MilanD I inverted the vent to see what happens. I fear it may make things worse though...won't that just trap steam in the risers and make it leak worse? Or do you think the risers will fill with air as well, and it won't make it up? My house is a little unique....it's a 3 story victorian that has a steam system, and a former gravity fed steam system that has been converted to forced air on the first 2 floors (first floor is mostly forced air, second floor is mostly steam, and 3rd floor is all steam)...so atleastI have a little redundancy. Replacing the entire system would be....challenging to say the least!
  • MilanDMilanD Member Posts: 981
    What leaks is most likely the condensate returning down the pipe. My hope is that the air trapped in the run via closed off vent will stop the steam from rising into the riser and that steam will prefer other radiators. Any air coming out of the hole will hopefully also be slow enough not to ever see steam. As I mentioned, I have 2 radiators on a leaky riser that is closed in under some wooden stair-like theater seating chairs in one auditorium which I manage. I had water stain/bubbling on the ceiling below, and it stopped after I turned the vents upside down. That riser stays cold regardless of the length of the heating cycle. So I'm pretty sure this turning upside down of vents works.

    Wow, 9 bathrooms? That's awesome - you can definitely have as many daughters as you wish, and still not have to wait to use a bathroom, ever! Lol.
  • wildragewildrage Member Posts: 82
    edited November 12
    @MilanD lol yup, I can use a different bathroom every day of the week. I see what you mean - if the steam doesn't go all the way up, there won't be anything to leak down. We shall see. The ceiling already needs to be opened up, so besides making sure that the boiler doesn't run low on water, there's not much else I can do at this point anyway. As i said before, atleast the plaster ceiling had been open in that same area anyway, so it should be easier. I have a 250,000 BTU boiler with 12 radiators attached to it.
  • MilanDMilanD Member Posts: 981
    If it were me I'd be so curious I would be removing the old ceiling patch myself to see what is going on. A few strategically placed hammer blows will give you access, or gentle sawing with a drywall saw. Heck, the plumber will charge you for demo work too! Lol.
  • MilanDMilanD Member Posts: 981
    Btw, let us know if stopping the air via upside down vent stops the dripping. I'm curious.
  • wildragewildrage Member Posts: 82
    edited November 12
    MilanD said:

    Btw, let us know if stopping the air via upside down vent stops the dripping. I'm curious.

    Will do. I just heard my radiator starting to hiss, so a new cycle is starting. I'm really tempted to start tearing into the ceiling, but at the same time, I probably won't be able to stop once I start looking. How is this typically set up? Riser going through the wall, then an elbow bringing it into the ceiling where the radiator is? The leak is about 1 foot from the wall. Also, does each radiator get its own riser, or could it be looped into another radiator? Sorry for the N00b questions, I've never thought about that before.
  • wildragewildrage Member Posts: 82
    @MilanD - So oddly enough the radiator still got fairly hot even with the vent turned upside down. I went ahead and closed the valve on it, which I know isn't an awesome idea.
  • MilanDMilanD Member Posts: 981
    Could be any one of the scenarios you mentioned. Usually one riser per radiator, sometimes 2. It really depends.
  • MilanDMilanD Member Posts: 981
    edited November 12
    Well, that vent didn't close in upside down position. Which vent is it? Btw, valve MAY still let the steam in (if vintage matching the house), in which case you may start getting a geyser out of the vent after a few cycles..
  • wildragewildrage Member Posts: 82
    edited November 12
    @MilanD , @Fred, @Jamie Hall , @KC_Jones
    So turning off the valve prevents the radiator from getting hot. It doesn't look like it totally stops the leak though...although I think it is much smaller, and ends much more quickly after the cycle (about 2 ounces each cycle).

    So here's a question. I know there's no way of actually knowing until you open up the ceiling, but here's a picture about what I know, and I was hoping I could get some opinions.

    Red line on left indicates known steam main. I know this becuase I had to have that wall open due to another plumbing issue. There is a radiator right above it.

    Looking at the location of the leak, do you think the route is to the closest wall (blue line, 2.5 feet away), or all the way to the furthest wall and other steam main (green line, 12 feet away). The black box indicates where the ceiling had been opened in the past, so I'm guessing it leads to a main in the closest wall.

    As you can see, the room is pretty...complicated, so I'm just trying to estimate the Demo needed, and if i could possibly do this myself.

    Thanks!


  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Member Posts: 6,887
    Much more likely to be the shorter path -- but I'm not going to guarantee it.

    If the drip is much less with the radiator turned off, that's a pretty good clue. Steam will still get up in the riser and condense, but nowhere near as much of it.

    It would be in a room which was as nice as that one, wouldn't it? They always are.
    Jamie



    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England.



    Hoffman Equipped System (all original except boiler), Weil-McClain 580, 2.75 gph Carlin, Vapourstat 0.5 -- 6.0 ounces per square inch
  • wildragewildrage Member Posts: 82

    Much more likely to be the shorter path -- but I'm not going to guarantee it.

    If the drip is much less with the radiator turned off, that's a pretty good clue. Steam will still get up in the riser and condense, but nowhere near as much of it.

    It would be in a room which was as nice as that one, wouldn't it? They always are.

    Yup. I had to open up the wall in the adjacent room to fix an old cast iron drain, and believe it or not, it was 5x more 'fancy' than this one. I'm really beginning to hate plaster!

    I'm trying to gauge if I can do this myself if I have to. The plumber that did this fix originally is a really good guy and well known in the area, but notoriously busy...and I'm gonna guess even moreso than usual this time of year.

    What would the setup most likely be? Elbow from the riser to horizontal pipe, then elbow from horizontal pipe to radiator?
  • FredFred Member Posts: 5,564
    @wildrage , Beautiful home! I love it. My guess would also be that the radiator is piped from the shorter route. Having said that, I wouldn't think you would need to open any side walls, unless you see signs of a leak in that area, in the basement. I would guess the piping configuration might be : riser up to the underside of the floor, maybe two elbows, horizontal pipe and very possibly another two elbows so that they could pitch the horizontal pipe and still keep the pipe up to the radiator straight/vertical. I'm still guessing the plumber cut out a section of pipe and put a union in or he patched the pipe in some way, otherwise he would have probably had to open a channel in the ceiling all the way over to the wall to get to the location where the horizontal connects to the elbow(s). If you do nothing else, you can open the ceiling up where it was patched before so you can see exactly what he did. If you are lucky, you may just need to tighten up a union.
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Member Posts: 6,887
    And I will add one suggestion which you may not like: that is a beautiful place. After you get your little drip fixed, do yourself a favour and spend a little extra money and patch the ceiling with real plaster -- not wallboard or sheetrock. There are folks who do that pretty much everywhere, but they are a bit thin on the ground and you may have to search. But if you get a good one, the results are much better.
    Jamie



    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England.



    Hoffman Equipped System (all original except boiler), Weil-McClain 580, 2.75 gph Carlin, Vapourstat 0.5 -- 6.0 ounces per square inch
  • MilanDMilanD Member Posts: 981
    Sorry - spent my day cleaning the basement after summer of projects around the house, so I'm just now getting to this thread.

    Glad the condensate decreased. For good measure, keep an eye on that radiator. It is possible water is now pooling in it and it may get filled and out the vent with one of the future cycles. Seen it happen.

    As Fred said, let's hope the fix was a union that'll need tightening and not some kind of saddle coupling/patch.

    As to demoing plaster, the easiest way I found to cut it is to tape around where you will make a cut, with stronger masking tape and a bit more of it out and away from the where the cut is made. Then, you can also try to screw a few screws with washers (pre-drill it!) on the side that's not being demoed, along the proposed cut, to affix it to the lath and give it a bit more support prior to cutting. Then, score the cut line with a strong blade, or a box cutter, essentially digging into plaster with each pass a few times to break the top coat. Then use an oscillating cutter with wide blade. It's the best tool for this job as it won't shake the plaster loose as the lath is being cut. In my opinion, noone will be as careful taking the patch off as you will.

    I still can't get over you having 9 bathrooms... Lol.
  • MilanDMilanD Member Posts: 981
    One more question: what vent is on that radiator?
  • wildragewildrage Member Posts: 82
    edited November 12
    @Fred Thank you. When I bought the place 2 years ago, I knew that it would be a labor of love to some extent. Personally, I jsut want it fixed right. I don't care if it costs $100 or $1000. It's so hard to trust people working on your house - that's the only reason why I contemplate doing it myself. I checked the basement and didn't notice any water. Also the boiler hasn't shown any significant water loss (oddly enough, it seems that the water level has gone up - and I've disabled the autofeed...I'm not going to try to think of that too much) Here's a proper picture of the place:


    @Jamie Hall I completely agree with you. The only silver lining here is that the previous patch was done so crappily, that iv'e been contemplating getting it fixed the right way anyway. I did have another ceiling fixed with drywall (channel had to be cut for a drain pipe), but it was a popcorn ceiling, so in my mind, it didn't matter as much. I would have ideally wanted to use plaster, but they contractor looked at me like I was crazy...they ended up doing a good job though.

    @MilanD How dare you prioritize your own life over my thread? Just kidding! Hope everything cleaned up nice. I'll keep an eye for water pooling. I can say that when a cycle starts, I dont' hear loud water hammer, but I do hear some slight clicking. I have a Maid O' The Mist on there. I believe it's a medium to larger sized one. My biggest thing is getting a pro in who knows what they are doing, will come when they say they will, and do a good job. I'm cringing for when I call my plumber on Monday...I know he won't have any availability. I'm only hoping he'll take the job since he's the one that fixed it in the first place, but who knows.
  • FredFred Member Posts: 5,564
    @wildrage , absolutely beautiful home. I am a Preservationist, by nature. I have been the Chairperson of the Landmarks Commission for the City I live in for over 20 years now and I live in one of our 14 Historic Districts. This is my home, which I lovingly restored some 26 years ago:

  • jumperjumper Member Posts: 1,038
    How do we know original repair failed? Could be adjacent to repair.

    If it's a clamp how does it hold at all with temperature swings? Same question for a Baker coupling?

    And with a failed repair how much will leak? The rad condenses less a gallon per hour. How much of that will leak?

    Either the floor above or the ceiling has to be opened to see what is going on. Maybe leak where ever & whatever it is runs along something and isn't even where it shows.

    I hope OP will let us know.
  • FredFred Member Posts: 5,564
    edited November 12
    @jumper , yea, we don't know, at this point. We are waiting for the OP to either open the area where the ceiling was previously repaired from a leak about 10 or 12 years ago and see exactly how the plumber repaired it and if the leak is at that repair. We are all hoping it is maybe a union that has loosened up a bit but that's an unknown. The OP has said he only looses a couple ounces of water during a heating cycle, none between cycles. We're all waiting with bated breath, lol.
  • jumperjumper Member Posts: 1,038
    Why hasn't the ceiling been opened? Water spreads.
  • MilanDMilanD Member Posts: 981
    @Fred @wildrage

    Wow - beautiful homes, guys! Can I get a tour?

    In homes like yours, anything less than keeping it as close to original (but with modern needs, sure) would be sacrilege.
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