What Counts as a Plumbing Emergency?

Mariel Loveland
Written by Mariel Loveland
Reviewed by Joseph Wood
Updated May 30, 2023
A plumber fixing a leak under the sink
Photo: AleksandarNakic / E+ / Getty Images


  • Ruptured pipes and water heater issues are common plumbing emergencies.

  • Sewage backups and sump pump issues are also worth an emergency visit.

  • Always turn the water off before calling an emergency plumber.

  • Emergency plumbers cost around $70–$400 per hour and/or a flat fee per visit.

Get quotes from up to 3 pros!
Enter a zip below and get matched to top-rated pros near you.

When you hear a drip, drip, drip late at night, it’s hard to know if the leak constitutes a plumbing emergency or if the problem can wait until regular business hours. Instinct may have you rushing to the phone in a panic instead of calmly assessing the situation. But let’s keep a level head here, shall we? Here are some quick questions to help you determine what is a plumbing emergency and what can probably wait. 

6 Common Plumbing Emergencies

Common reasons to call an emergency plumber, including ruptured pipes or sump pump failure
Photo: Melissa Ross / Moment / Getty Images

There’s a big difference between a few drips and a burst pipe—but sometimes, a small problem can swiftly decline. If you think you’re dealing with a plumbing emergency, turn off the fixture or (in severe cases) your home’s main water line, ASAP. This will help limit water damage. Here are some common plumbing emergencies to look out for. 

1. Ruptured Pipes

Most homeowners know a burst pipe by a rush of water leaking from a wall or ceiling, but it’s not always that dramatic. Either way, it’s still a plumbing emergency. A burst pipe can release gallons of water, which can compromise the structural integrity of your home, such as collapsed ceilings and weakened walls. 

The best way to deal with a burst pipe is to shut off your home’s main water line and call an emergency plumber immediately. If you live in a cold climate, your home is at an increased risk during winter, when pipes can freeze—though older or rusted pipes can burst, too.

2. Water Heater Leaks or Failure 

Since many water heaters are tucked away in a basement, homeowners may not notice a water heater leak until it’s a major problem. This can cause significant water damage, among other issues. Water heater issues become an emergency when:

  • There’s a significant leak.

  • You live in a cold climate.

  • You smell sulfur or rotten eggs, which signals a gas leak.

Luckily, there are some signs your water heater is about to fail, so you can try to catch the problem before it’s a plumbing emergency. 

3. Overflowing Toilets 

Most homeowners can fix an overflowing toilet with a plunger or use a different bathroom until their plumber can schedule a visit, but sometimes, the problem is a little more serious. If you can’t get rid of the clog, don’t have a second bathroom, and your toilet is overflowing with no signs of stopping, switch the water shutoff valve at the base of your toilet and call an emergency plumber.

4. Sewer System Backups

Backed-up sewage is a health hazard that warrants a speedy fix. Typically, a clog causes the issue—especially if your household flushes paper towels, wipes, or feminine hygiene products. That said, tree roots can grow through cracks in old pipes and cause blockages, too.

If you’re dealing with this kind of plumbing emergency, you’ll typically smell it. The scent of sewage will permeate through your home or around your property, and you may notice gurgling sounds coming from the plumbing or sewage seeping up from your drains. For example, water might pool in your shower when you flush your toilet.

5. Sump Pump Failures

Your sump pump is an essential line of defense against flooding, which is particularly important if you live in a swampy area or a location prone to heavy rainfall. Some soil types drain better than others. Either way, when your sump pump fails, your home becomes vulnerable to serious water damage.

If your sump pump is failing, you may notice strange noises and vibrations, irregular cycles, or continuous running. Try to catch the issues before it totally fails. If not, you can troubleshoot your sump pump failure on your own, but bring in a pro ASAP if you can’t resolve the issue.

6. Other Major Leaks 

Leaks aren’t always a major issue. For example, if you have a small leak under your sink or a drippy showerhead, you can simply avoid using the fixture until your plumber arrives. Unfortunately, big leaks can cause big problems. If the water reaches electrical wiring, it becomes a fire hazard. Significant water damage can weaken walls and ceilings. Even a small leak can harbor dangerous mold.

If you start noticing water damage on your walls or other signs of a major leak, call an emergency plumber and use these plumbing emergency tips. Keep in mind that some leaks, like a washing machine hose leak, might immediately pour out gallons of water, but other leaks are silent. You’ll only notice them once a significant issue arises. 

Know When to Call an Emergency Plumbing Service 

How do you know when to hire an emergency plumber? Obviously, if water is pouring down your wall, you might feel a little panicked. Turning off the water will buy you some time to think and assess the damage. Ask yourself a few questions before calling an emergency plumber near you.

Do You Need to Use the Affected Plumbing Right Away?

A flooding basement obviously warrants an emergency call, but that broken toilet or clogged sink? It could probably wait until morning to schedule a plumbing appointment. In this case, make sure your household knows to avoid using the fixture until further notice (even if it’s a bit inconvenient). Tape a note on the wall, toilet, or faucet, or block off the room entirely to avoid late-night forgetfulness.

Can You Turn the Fixture Off?

If you have a minor leak at the sink and can shut off the water to that fixture, then it’s not a plumbing emergency. Look under the sink or behind the toilet for the shutoff valve. You might have to turn off the main water line to the house for bigger issues, though. The main shutoff valve is likely located near the water meter in the lower level of your home on the street side. 

If the leak is more like a trickle, you might be able to temporarily fix a leaky pipe for a few hours with items like tape, rubber bands, and hardware store solutions.

How’s the Weather?

Oddly enough, the weather will factor into whether you need plumbing services ASAP. If it’s the middle of a hot summer day and you don't have access to water, that’s a health concern. If the outside temperature is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit and your water heater is struggling to turn on, call in reinforcements.

Will Leaving the Problem Alone Cause More Damage?

You could try using buckets to collect water, stuffing rags in the pipes, and other stopgap measures on a slow leak to carry you through until regular business hours. But when one bucket isn’t enough to last through the night, your leak is more serious. Significant leakage can affect the floor, ceiling, and all adjoining walls in your home. If stopping the flow of water isn’t possible or the water has the potential to do significant damage quickly, it’s time to pick up the phone.

Is It Your Responsibility to Fix the Problem?

In some cases, the emergency may not be something you can fix even if you wanted to. For example, your water company may offer to send a plumber to repair a problem with the sewer main, a blocked sewer, or the main water line. Try them first before calling your own plumber to the scene. City employees might fix issues with city water supplies at no cost to you unless you need to pay for the cost of repairs to a main water line near the house.

What Happens When You Call an Emergency Plumber?

A man in his bathroom calling a plumber
Photo: SolStock / E+ / Getty Images

Emergency plumbing problems are a stressful event. There’s no way around it. Try to keep calm and mitigate the plumbing emergency. Start by looking for the shutoff valve to the fixture. Then assess the situation and call a top-rated plumber near you if needed.

It pays to shop around for local plumbing repair services, especially if you don’t already have a plumbing company you trust on call. Calling three companies for an estimate over the phone (if time allows) will help you pinpoint a fair price. 

Remember to ask questions, even in an emergency. Before saying yes to emergency service, describe the problem you're having to the company and ask for a ballpark cost estimate. That includes the regular cost of the service plus any extra fees incurred for a night or weekend house call. Know that the cost might increase once your contractor sees the extent of the plumbing issue.

How Much Does an Emergency Plumber Cost?

Expect to pay at least time-and-a-half for a late-night, weekend, or holiday plumbing repair. Companies might charge a flat fee of $100 to $350 for emergency visits. This could be in addition to a higher hourly rate, usually $70 to $400.

Additionally, the plumbing pro might get the situation under control in the off-hours and then come back with specific parts later. For that, you might be billed an additional visit plus the regular hourly rate. Be sure to ask for these specifics when choosing a contractor.

Candace Nelson contributed to this piece.

Need professional help with your project?
Get quotes from top-rated pros.