How to Know When a Pipe Bursts Before Water Takes Its Toll

Knowing is half the battle (a really important half)

Lawrence Bonk
Written by Lawrence Bonk
Updated January 9, 2023
A master bathroom with two sinks
Photo: Joe Schmelzer / Corbis Documentary / Getty Images
Difficulty

Easy

Simple project; big impact.

Time to complete

1 hour

Time varies depending on the size of your home and the number of problem spots.

Cost

$0

Troubleshooting only costs your time.

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What you'll need:

TOOLS

  • Flashlight
  • Tool set

SUPPLIES

  • Towels
  • Paper
  • Pen

Burst plumbing pipes are a nightmare scenario for any homeowner, so learning how to know if a pipe burst is essential. Unchecked burst pipes lead to soaked carpets, ruined drywall, mold growth, appliance damage, and too many nuisances to count. Contacting a local plumber is a good way to fix the pipes, but the damage to your property already exists. Don’t lose hope; there are some simple ways to suss out the integrity of your pipes before a leak evolves into its final form: a dangerous burst pipe.

Prepping to Inspect Your Pipes

The following process doesn’t cover every inch of your plumbing system, as many pipes are hidden behind walls and rest underground. These steps take a more holistic approach to your system, as leaking or burst pipes create issues at numerous points throughout the home. In other words, this is something of a game of whack-a-mole. 

Prepare by gathering common tools like a flashlight and screwdriver. Grab some paper and make a list of every bathroom, kitchen, and basement water fixture in your home. Finally, get an accurate list of recent water bills to look for any alarming patterns. Now you’re ready to put on your detective’s cap and get to work. 

  1. Check the Water Bill

    Collect water bills for the past several months. If you have the paper copies, just arrange them in order. Otherwise, pull up the last few months via the utility company’s website or dedicated app. You’re looking for sudden and unexplainable increases in usage. Burst pipes release a massive amount of water into your home or the surrounding property, leading to higher-than-average bills. If you spy a sudden jump in usage, that is a fairly significant clue that a pipe is damaged. 

  2. Test the Water Pressure

    A woman checking the water pressure
    Photo: Thomas Barwick / DigitalVision / Getty Images

    As indicated on the water bill, spikes in usage often come with shifts in water pressure. Water reaches the tap with less pressure than intended if you have a burst pipe somewhere in the system. Continue sleuthing by checking every single water fixture in your home, one by one, and looking for signs of 

    Remember, a home plumbing system is complex, and not every fixture will be impacted by a burst pipe. Some may continue to work, while others will struggle. Turn on each fixture and let it run for a few minutes, analyzing the water pressure. Jot down the results of each test, as a local plumber can easily track the malfunctioning fixture to impacted pipes. 

  3. Look for Water Spots

    Another obvious sign of burst pipes? Water spots on surfaces, such as ceilings and walls. These spots are darker than the surrounding area, so break out the flashlight. Go throughout the home and check every ceiling and wall. 

    However, most homes have a water mark or two, and not all of these spots indicate current issues with the pipes. A recently-made water mark is cooler and squishier than the surrounding area. Throw on some protective gloves before touching off-colored squishy marks on your ceiling. If the watermarks seem recent, you likely have a burst pipe.

  4. Use Your Ears

    Close-up of silver shower fixtures
    Photo: Catherine McQueen / Moment / Getty Images

    Water rushing through burst pipes is not exactly a quiet affair. Turn off every fixture in the home, including every shower and faucet, and start listening for anything out of the ordinary. Damaged pipes come with a telltale dripping noise. 

    Jot down where any sounds are coming from and what they sound like. A persistent drip indicates a leaking pipe, but clanging sounds may be hot water making its way through the system. Tighten any loose fixtures to see if this alleviates any unwanted noise.

  5. Use Your Nose

    Another simple way to find leaky and burst pipes is to use the old snout. Whenever pipes burst, microorganisms thrive at the source of the leak. These organisms include mold spores, mildew spores, and other moisture-loving nasties. Once firmly entrenched, the organisms replicate and release weird, funky, and foul odors that are hard to miss. 

    Walk throughout the home and use your nose to track down noticeable odors. Look out for any signs of mold growth in your home. Jot down the likely source of these odors, which indicates damp areas and possibly damaged pipes.

  6. Hunt for Puddles

    Random puddles near plumbing fixtures are a telltale sign of a water leak or a burst pipe. Start your search with exposed pipes, underneath sinks, and in the basement. Move from there to the upper floors and corners of the bathrooms and kitchen. 

    Don’t ignore any puddles during this search, as even a small puddle in the basement tucked away from pipes could originate two floors up from the bathroom. Keep an eye out for signs of a hidden bathroom leak. Any unexplained water accumulation in the home likely indicates an issue with a pipe in your plumbing system. 

  7. Smell, Inspect, and Taste the Water

    A young man drinking water from a glass
    Photo: supersizer / E+ / Getty Images

    Finally, there’s the tap water itself. When pipes burst in the ground, dirt and other contaminants mix with the water, leading to rust. These rust particles impact your water supply in several ways. It gives the water a brownish tint and a slightly metallic taste and smell. 

    If the burst pipe has a direct line to the sewage system, you risk even more dangerous contamination. Water with a rotten egg odor can indicate leaking sewage. Use your senses, and if something feels off with the water, do not hesitate to contact a pro.

DIY Pipe Inspections vs. Hiring a Pro

The whole point of these DIY inspections is to present a qualified plumber with actionable data. Hiring a plumber costs $45 to $200 per hour, so performing the above steps helps cut down on labor costs by cutting down on inspection time. 

Have all the information you collected ready to present to the plumber, so they can quickly rule out other potential issues and get to the root of the problem. The cost to repair a burst pipe ranges between $150 for small areas of pipe and up to $5,000 for installing new pipes underground or repairing water damage.

Frequently Asked Questions

Different plumbing systems may sound different when a pipe is about to burst, so sounds alone are not a definitive indication of a burst pipe. However, dripping sounds typically indicate a leaking pipe, and it is a thin line between a small leak and a bursting overflow. Also, metallic sounds like clanging and rattling are common when a pipe bursts, though they can also indicate a normally functioning hot water system. 

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