Restoring water flow in lime encrusted plumbing
Out-Of-the-Box DIY is a new feature of JuicyMaters, beginning with this post. It occurred to me that the Family Homesteading section of JuicyMaters was woefully lacking in specific how-to articles on how to FRUGALLY do DIY projects around the ol’ homestead…things that most folks, even homestead types, might hire a professional for because a simple, frugal fix is not apparent. Whether it is a planned project or a sudden fix-it emergency, sometimes a frugal DIY type solution is not easily found, and this topic area will, hopefully, take care of at least a little bit of those issues.
This first Out-Of-Box DIY article will tell you how to restore water flow in plumbing in an older home with pipes that have become partially blocked with lime, usually because the potable water is supplied to the house by way of unfiltered water coming from a well that produces hard, mineral-filled water.
Most of you who read JuicyMaters on a regular basis (or as regular as possible with my poor posting schedule) know that I recently got married and moved (temporarily) to my bride’s home so her daughter could finish the school year in the town where they lived, before moving back to the yurt this summer. What I found at her home was a plumbing nightmare.
Her place wasn’t ancient, but it wasn’t built yesterday either. It was about 30 or so years old and, as described above, the water source was extremely hard well water that was delivered to the home unfiltered. Over the years lime buildup inside the pipes had all but completely blocked water flow.
- Of two bathrooms, one shower did not work at all…not a single drop of water would flow…and the one that did have some flow had so little it was a major, 20 minute chore to shower and try to get all the soap rinsed off.
- Like the two showers, one toilet was completely blocked and the flow to the other was so bad that it took overnight to refill the tank after a flush. In order to flush either toilet you had to fill a pitcher…several times…from the kitchen sink, the only fixture that worked fairly well.
- Doing laundry was a nightmare. Filling the washing machine took about 3 hours…and after the wash cycle it had to be done all over agaain for the rinse. Needless to say, clothes were cleaned well but retained soap due to incomplete rinsing, bad for clothing AND bad for the wearer’s skin.
- Water flow to the kitchen sink was bad too, but compared to the rest of the house it seemed like heaven. It took about 60 seconds to fill the carafe for the coffee maker, so you can imagine what it was like washing dishes…or filling a gallon pitcher multiple times to flush the toilet. I have never been a fan of the extreme environmentalists saying of “If its yellow, let it mellow. If its brown, flush it down”, but the plumbing situation in the house ALMOST changed me…LOL.
My first thought when I saw how extreme the issue was was to think, “Oh God…there goes a chunk of money I had planned for adding on to the yurt…this is gonna be a major plumbing job beyond my skills, involving a plumber and a lot of materials.” I was sure that the only solution was to re-plumb the entire home.
My second thought was, “Wait! I can replumb the home. It shouldn’t be that hard…one story home, all plumbing run under the house in the crawl space (I HATE any crawl space I cannot stand up in, and this one was about two feet tall), and except for the washer and shower connections none of the plumbing is in the walls…it all runs through the floors to the cabinets the fixture is mounted in.” It would be a major job, but one I could handle. There would still be a good bit of cost…Pex-A tubing is not TOO expensive, but the Shark Bite fittings I intended to use are about $15.99 each. Oh well…at least the $65.00/hr plumber gets cut out.
Then I had a thought. Was there a way to clean the crud out of the plumbing so there would be no re-plumbing to do? I knew you could auger out piping that was clogged, but all I had ever heard of was augers for larger pipes, not the 3/4 and 1/2 inch water lines in this home…and, that would bring that high-dollar plumber back into the equation as I certainly didn’t have access to that specialized equipment, even if it did exist.
My high school chemistry kicked in. Limestone (CaCO3) isa base and is dissolved by vinegar, diluted ascetic acid, which, as its name implies, is an acid. I figured that if vinegar dissolved limestone, surely it would dissolve lime deposits in plumbing. The only questions remaining were:
- The actions of an acid on a base produce, among other things, heat. Would enough heat be produced to damage the plumbing?
- If the answer to the previous question were “No, it won’t get hot enough to hurt the plumbing”, how long would it take for the lime deposits to dissolve?
- How strong of a vinegar solution should I use?
- What tools and materials do I need?
- Step-by-step, how do I accomplish the project?
The answer to the first two questions is no, there is not enough heat produced to present a danger from fire and it takes about 4 hours, perhaps a bit less, for the vinegar solution to do its job.
Some research and a TINY amount of experimentation showed good results using a 2:1 water:vinegar solution…but I didn’t want to get the job done well enough to know it works but not really done well and have to do it a second time, so I decided to use a 1:1 solution. It is a strong enough solution to be totally sure to get the job done and done well and it will not damage any plumbing. Another consideration in favor of using a vinegar solution rather that any of the commercial mineral dissolvers, like CLR (at over $20.00 a gallon), is the fact that you don’t have to worry about contaminating your water…after all, vinegar IS a food product (not to mention a GREAT chemical free sanitizer).
Tools and Materials
- My estimation for the amount of solution to fill the entire water system in a 1 story, 1000 sq. ft. home was 6 total gallons, 3 of water and 3 of vinegar. As it turns out, it only took about 2 1/2 gallons to fill the system. Vinegar is cheap so I would still suggest buying 3 gallons just to be sure you don’t have to make another trip to the store for more.
- You will need two 3/4 inch male plugs to plug the water inlet and outlet on your water heater so you are filling only the water lines. Otherwise, the siphon effect you want to work to your advantage to fill the lines will also be filling the water heater. If you don’t disconnect the heater and plug the lines (as I did at first) you will need A LOT MORE VINEGAR!
- Three gallons of vinegar.
- The list of necessary tools is short. One pair if slip-joint pliers (Channel Lock pliers), a small to medium sized screwdriver,a medium sized funnel that the spout will fit in the end of the hose attached to the cold water washer connection and a roll of plumber’s Teflon tape, Also sufficient jugs/pitchers. bowels to hold 3 gallons of water. Don’t forget, once you start you will NOT have a working water supply in the house until you finish. You need to make sure you have MORE than enough water on hand when you start to finish the job.
Out Of the Box DIY how to, Step-by-Step
- Turn off the power to the water heater. Be SURE the breaker you turn off is the correct breaker. If you don’t, not only do you chance being electrocuted but you will burn up the water heater element and will have to replace it, an additional cost of $12.00 to $18.00, depending on the element. That cost could double if you have one of the heaters with a lower AND an upper element…then you have to buy two.
Don’t ask me how I know this!
- Shut off the water supply. On a system fed by a well the shutoff will be near the well expansion tank, probably in the pump house. If you are on a municipal water supply with a water meter the shut off should be JUST barely in the water line on the house side of the meter.
- Choose the fixture that is the lowest one in your system and open it to drain as much of the water in your house system as possible. The lowest fixture will probably be an outside hose bib at floor level, or even below at a level of the crawl space.
- Open both the hot and cold valves on every fixture in the house. ALL of them. Any additional hose bibs outside, any utility sinks in a utility room or basement, washer connections, kitchen sinks, bathroom lavatories, showers, toilets, tubs…EVERYTHING…to drain your entire system.
- Open the over-pressure relief valve on the water heater. This is usually a brass valve on the top or on the side of the tank near the top of the water heater. You will recognixe it because it has a hose or pipe attached that runs down the side of the tank that is simply an overflow drain, not feeding water to anything.
- The second water line attached to the top, or side near the top, of the tank is the hot water outlet. Disconnect this line from the tank and plug it with one of the 3/4 inch male pipe plugs listed above in the Tools and Materials section.
- There is a water line attached to the water heater at the bottom, the cold water feed that is the same size as the hot water outlet. CAREFULLY disconnect this line and plug it with the other 3/4 inch male plug described in the Tools and Materials section, above. Be careful and disconnect this line slowly. MOST of the water in the system and the heater tank will have drained out by now, but there may be a bit left in the tank, so go slowly and carefully so you don’t wind up having a huge mess to clean up.
You now have an empty system. It is time to fill it with the water-vinegar solution
- Everything to this point is easily done by one person. Everything in steps 1-7 is a do things one at the time thing. From this point forward everything CAN be done by one person, but it would be difficult and two people working together will make things go much easier (and faster)…with the exception of the waiting time, waiting for the vinegar to soften and loosen the lime deposits.
- First close every fixture you have opened EXCEPT the highest one in the house, usually a shower fixture (not tub/shower combination, a fixture where the ONLY outlet is high, like the shower head. Leave this highest fixture open, and the lowest fixture, usually either a floor mop sink or a toilet (the toilet should have been flushed prior to this and the tanks should be empty). DO NOT FORGET TO CLOSE OUTSIDE HOSE BIBS!
- Go back to the washer’s cold water filler hose and open the cold water valve and, while holding the end of the filler hose high, use the funnel to pour the 50-50 water-vinegar mixture into the end of the hose to begin filling the house water system. Either go back and forth between the washer and the lowest fixture, or station the second person at the lowest fixture, and watch for the water-vinegar mixture to start to flow from it as you continue adding more mixture at the washer connection. When this happens, close the shut-off for that fixture.
- Go to the next lowest fixture and repeat, adding the mixture at the hose connection until mixture comes from the fixture, and close the shut off for that fixture.
Pay attention to how quickly the mixture can be added to the system. As the system fills, while the speed at which you can add mixture may slow A TINY BIT, the overall speed at which the mixture can be added should not change significantly. If it does it is because the air in the system is not escaping through the open highest fixture mentioned in #9, above, OR the shower head is completely clogged with lime…unlikely, else you would have known it already.Don’t be impatient…as long as air is escaping through it at any rate there air pressure will be escaping, albeit slowly, so the siphon effect will allow the system to fill, just slowly.
- Continue adding the mixture to each higher fixture as the previous fixture starts leaking the vinegar water and is shut off. At some point, perhaps when you get to the last, highest fixture, the shower, you will have to hold the end of the washer connection hose up high, above the level of that last fixture. At this point close the washer connection valve and you will have a water system whose cold water side is full of the mixture and it will be time to do the most important part of the entire process.
- Be patient and wait. I suggest waiting a minimum of 3 hours, but in my opinion it is worth waiting an extra hour or two to make SURE the vinegar water does its job. You don’t want to have to repeat this process in any less than another 25 or so years.
- After several hours have passed, go back and do what you did to start draining the system of water in the first place. As in step #4, open all of the fixtures in the house (with the water service still shut off) and let the water/vinegar mix drain out. Don’t forget the outside hose bibs.
- After the system has drained, close all of the fixtures.
- Go to the lowest fixture and remove the stem from the fixture. You see, the vinegar water does not dissolve the lime deposits so they are powdery and suspended in the water like they were when they were first introduced into the system by way of the well. The lime will slough off the inside of the pipes in flakes and chunks, and these chunks are too large to pass by the stem when the fixture is turned on. The stems must be removed so the water that comes through the system will blow them out through the open pipe when that line is pressurized. While shielding the end of the open line to divert the water that will come blasting out, have the second person turn the water on at the well or water meter. Let the water run for 10 seconds or so or until chunks of lime quit coming out and the water runs clear, then turn the water off again.
- Replace the stem in the fixture.
- Repeat this process at each fixture in the same order as you did when filling the system with the vinegar water. Water off, remove stem, water on to blow the lime chunks and other debris out, water off, replace stem. Repeat at every fixture in the house.
Time consuming? Yes…a bit, but it takes no longer than it would for a licensed plumber, at $65.00 an hour (and up) to do it, and you save the plumber’s costs and would have to be there with the plumber anyway.. Besides, for the four hours you are waiting for the solution to do its work you can plan other DIY projects that the saved plumber’s fees will finance!
If you have any comments or suggestions on this project, or if you have other out of the box thinking projects to tell us about OR ask about, let us know down in the comments…We love hearing from you!