Plan ahead to flush out toilet emergencies

Plan ahead to flush out toilet emergencies

With tickets in hand and sporting their best black and gold, Indianapolis Angie’s List member Aaron Bradshaw and his wife, Katie, set out in the still-dark hours of a December morning, like thousands of other Boiler Nation faithful, driving from Indiana to Detroit to root for Purdue University in the 2011 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. As any family would before a trip, Bradshaw says he and his wife used the bathroom, checked the lights, locked the doors and hit the road.

Crafty play helped Purdue snag a 37-32 win over Western Michigan in the bowl game, but tricks of a different sort played out in a bowl the Bradshaws left behind. For more than 24 hours, a faulty toilet overflow valve kept water running from the tank into the bowl and over the sides, flooding the bathroom floor then seeping out into the hall, soaking the carpet there.

“It was a mess,” Aaron says, adding he reached first for the shut-off valve on the toilet, then for the phone to call A-rated Ciriello Plumbing in Beech Grove. “We immediately called a plumber because I had no idea what was going on.” Bradshaw’s actions stopped the flow, but failed to curb his unease as he imagined a worst-case scenario. “You definitely have this vulnerable feeling, thinking, ‘This could be a $100 or $1,000 repair. And I’m not in any position to know which is the right price.’ ”

It's all in the plumbing

Leaks, clogs, overflows, equipment malfunctions — when it comes to toilet emergencies, reviews by Angie’s List members indicate they’ve experienced them all. In Indianapolis, plumbing is one of the highest reported categories, with just over 1,900 reviews in 2011. While 90 percent report good experiences with their plumbers, facing an emergency can raise blood pressures and lower bank balances if consumers aren’t smart about who they hire. According to Angie’s List research, the average hourly service charge for a plumber ranges from $70 to $160, but can go up by a minimum of about 50 percent for after-hours or weekend calls.

So what’s a consumer to do? Experts advise staying on top of routine maintenance by establishing a good working relationship with a licensed, bonded and insured plumber well in advance of any emergency situation. It’s also important to know where the water shut-off valves are. Bradshaw feels fortunate the flood he came home to was easily controlled — and the fix was a manageable $100, since he delayed the plumbing repair until normal business hours thanks to his quick thinking to turn off the shut-off valve. Using fans and his Shop-Vac, he still dealt with cleanup, but all in all, as Bradshaw sometimes says about his beloved Boilermakers, “It may be ugly, but a win is a win.”

Laura Ciriello-Benedict, president of Ciriello Plumbing and the Indiana Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors, understands the trepidation homeowners feel when they have to call in an expert, especially for emergencies. She advises finding a trustworthy plumber before an emergency arises. “You want to find someone you’re comfortable with,” she says. “That’s true of anyone you would bring into your home.”

In addition to using Angie’s List to track down a highly rated plumber, Ciriello-Benedict suggests verifying your plumber’s licensure through the IAPHCC or the Indiana Professional Licensing Agency. Indianapolis requires plumbers to file a copy of that license with the city. What’s more, experts say reputable companies are not only licensed, but bonded and insured. Plumbers in Indiana must hold a state-issued license, which requires four years of work experience, and more than 8,000 hours of classwork and on-the-job training. Keeping up with routine maintenance is a good way to forge a relationship with a trusted plumber, Ciriello-Benedict says, but she acknowledges that oftentimes a homeowner’s first call to a plumber occurs when they’re staring at a leak in their ceiling, standing on soggy carpet … or worse.

The exploding toilet

In the case of Carmel resident Dave Witucki, much worse. On the night of April 21, less than a minute after his 9-year-old son finished prepping for bed, Witucki’s second-floor toilet exploded.

“It sounded like a bomb went off,” Witucki says. A pressurized mechanism inside the tank, manufactured by Flushmate and designed to improve the flushing effectiveness of the unit, malfunctioned and allowed pressure to build until the force shattered the porcelain tank. Witucki raced to the bathroom to find water shooting to the ceiling, and jagged chunks of porcelain strewn about. After shutting off the water, he surveyed the damage. “That’s when the gravity of the situation hit,” he says. “Those [shards] could have gone into my son.”

The next day, Witucki posted a video on YouTube detailing the incident and calling on Flushmate to issue a full recall. Online research revealed other homeowners had similar problems, but Flushmate and parent company, Sloan Valve Co., still hadn’t issued a recall. Witucki says after he reported the incident, Flushmate quickly paid the few hundred dollars for repairs and he hired highly rated Joe’s Plumbing in Indianapolis to make them.

By June, after 304 confirmed explosions and reports of 14 laceration and impact injuries, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and Health Canada announced Flushmate’s voluntary recall of some 2.3 million Flushmate III Pressure-Assisted Flushing System units in the United States and 9,400 units in Canada. Good news to Witucki, though he says he wishes the company would have acted sooner. “They were putting money ahead of safety and it was disturbing,” he says. “They knew there was a problem.”

Flushmate representatives aren’t willing to speculate as to whether the recall could have come earlier. However, company spokesman Paul DeBoo says the company puts customers first. “We’re working cooperatively with the Consumer Product Safety Commission,” DeBoo says. “The safety of our customers is a primary concern.”

Don't wait 'til it's too late

Flushmates’ 2.3 million-unit recall represents a fraction of the toilets in use in the United States. According to the 2010 Census, some 128.9 million American homes have at least one fully functioning bathroom. So while the exploding toilets are horrific, accidents are rare. More often, members say, they must repair failing valves, cracked seals or clogged pipes — and those situations often come when homeowners least expect them. “I’ve been to a lot of Christmas dinners,” jokes Russ Graves, owner of A-rated Pipe Dream Plumbing in Indianapolis. “That’s when emergencies happen — when your system is getting pushed to the max.”

Graves says some customers wait too long to call a plumber. “Usually when you get noises or bubbling [in the toilet], something is going on,” he says. “When your feet get wet, that’s when people react.” Being mindful of routine maintenance needs and not using the toilet for things it’s not designed to do can stave off many emergencies. Graves says his emergency calls start at around $150. “By the time it’s all said and done, you’re probably close to paying twice the price,” he says. “It’s not intentional, it’s just the majority of companies don’t have a man sitting on a bench waiting for a bell to ring. It’s a plumber who has worked all day, and he’s getting out of bed to go to work.”

So taking care of everyday issues means money saved. For instance, experts say most toilets need fill valves and flappers replaced every five to seven years, but sooner if corrosive cleaners such as bleach tablets are used. And never underestimate the problems that can come from things ending up in a toilet. Monica Koehl of A-rated L.E. Isley & Sons Plumbing in Westfield says she’s taken calls from homeowners wrestling to remove toys or eyeglasses, and Ciriello-Benedict says she’s responded to calls from homeowners who’ve tried to flush bananas or orange peelings. “That’s not a great idea,” Ciriello-Benedict says. “It’s not a garbage disposal.”

That clog might also be the result of a sewer line problem, which can run into the thousands of dollars for repairs. Insurance experts say those types of emergencies might make a special policy addition worthwhile. For about $40 to $50 
a year, homeowners can add a sewer backup endorsement to a typical policy, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Dave Springer, with the highly rated Allstate Insurance agency of Ranj Puthran and Tim Harpold in Carmel, says he encourages anyone with a basement to consider an endorsement that covers water damage caused by issues like sump pump failure. Heavy rains are often to blame, Springer says, and when water enters a finished basement, damage and restoration costs can jump into the thousands. For $75 annually, Springer’s clients can get $5,000 worth of coverage; $150 a year buys $10,000 worth of coverage.

Still, despite an owner’s best intentions, sometimes as the saying goes, sh…err…stuff happens. Westfield member Debbie Gold says she’s savvier about her home’s plumbing after an emergency call made one Sunday night, when she noticed a water spot forming on 
the ceiling of her dining room.

“You panic at first,” Gold says. 
“You think, ‘Oh my gosh, what is the problem?’ ” Gold’s husband shut off the water to a master bathroom toilet, securing the situation for the night and affording them the flexibility of waiting until the next morning to have a plumber investigate. Diagnosing a wax gasket issue, licensed plumber Steve Morin of A-rated Michael Beltrami & Steve Morin Plumbers in Carmel, fixed the problem for $143.

Now, Gold pays attention to details — making periodic trips into the basement to eyeball the water heater and sump pump, and checking shut-off valves to ensure they remain in working condition. “I do think I try to be more diligent,” she says. “To make sure that what might be a small repair now doesn’t create a major problem.” She says the worst thing in the world to hear from a plumber is, “if we’d only caught this earlier.”


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