Figuring out what a noisy house is trying to tell you


May 07, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

All houses have their distinctive noises -- particular floorboards that creak, the whoosh of the furnace coming on, the whir of the sump pump. . . . Sometimes these noises are comforting, but if they seem to be murmurs of trouble, they can be downright annoying.

That's probably the case for a reader in Baltimore who writes: "I currently live in an old house with an old plumbing system and, frequently, the drains will bubble and burp, which I have been told is due to a lack of air in the system. The drains are also slow-running.

"Could you please comment on the need for air in a plumbing system and how it can be restored."

Plumbing fixtures need air for the same reason as old-fashioned soda cans -- remember the kind you had to open with a church key? You made one hole to drink out of, and another to let air in as the liquid drained out. If you didn't replace the air, the liquid wouldn't flow freely.

Plumbing fixtures that drain water also need air to flow properly. They get it by means of vents, usually pipes that run from the fixture through the walls and out through the roof. In some new construction, fixtures are placed close to a drain, which can also be used as a vent, or close to a wall, so they can be vented through the wall. In older construction, the main drain for the toilet continues through the roof, to vent sewer gases. Sometimes other fixtures were connected to their own vents; but occasionally the toilet drain is the only vent for all the fixtures.

Fixtures that are inadequately vented make a bubbling sound because the system is trying to pull the air it needs through the drain traps. Inadequate venting also makes drains slow-running.

Vents can get clogged with leaves and other debris, and that can reduce or halt the air flow. If that's the case, a plumber might be able to clear them out and restore air to the system.

However, if the drains burble because there simply aren't enough vents -- and that's common in old houses -- the only way to add them is to tear out walls and ceilings and make new plumbing connections. And that's a messy and probably expensive project.

It may be worthwhile just to accept the bubblings as part of the house's conversation.

Remember the reader who wrote in asking how to solve a problem with water running in brown streaks down bathroom walls wheneversomeone took a bath or shower? We suggested more ventilation in the room, and later another reader wrote in to suggest using a squeegee to wipe down the walls. A reader in Odenton thinks there may be another answer:

"I am writing in response to a reader's question. . . . He complained about brown streaks running down the walls of his bathroom when condensation formed on the walls. You advised better ventilation, but until he stops smoking in the bathroom or washes the walls regularly, he will still have a problem. The brown streaks are from cigarette smoke-nicotine film on the walls."

If the reader with the streaks isn't a smoker, and doesn't have a smoker in the house, it's possible someone who lived in the house before smoked. It's probably worth washing the walls, though.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N.

Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278.

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