Shaka, When the Walls Fell
June 9, 2009 5:26 AM   Subscribe

Leaking something in an upstairs bathroom leads to ceiling falling in. Now what?

Last night the ceiling under an upstairs bathroom in the townhouse where I am staying collapsed with a torrent of water. It's cleaned up and not currently leaking. I think the water is coming from the toilet or close to it. I shut the water off on the tank, I don't see any other water flowing or dripping. The drywall around this new hole is wet and sagging and the wood above looks wet/rotted/gross/moldy. Now what?

I am clueless with home repair, but it looks fairly serious. There's the leak to be fixed, drywall to be repaired, and god knows what else if the wooden floor beams are damaged. I'm especially worried about mold in the walls and hidden damage elsewhere.

My question is what kind of person do I want to take a look at this? Bonus points for recommendations in Montgomery county maryland.
Also what should I expect or ask of them? do we talk costs upfront or after they've done stuff. The house is insured - do we call an inspector like when it was storm damaged? Is it better to eat a grand or two repair bill or make an insurance claim?

I'm at a bit of a loss about what else to add. Ask anything that you need. Thank you.
posted by anti social order to Home & Garden (12 answers total)
If you can find a competent general-purpose handyman type, that might be a good way to go. It sounds like you're pretty freaked out and don't quite know what you're looking at, so you need someone to take a look and give you a sense of the whole problem. Obviously all the wet drywall will come down and be replaced (this is easy and fairly cheap), and some sort of plumbing repair is in order. If the framing is rotten then it could become a bigger project.
posted by jon1270 at 5:43 AM on June 9, 2009

Best answer: The linkage between the toilet and the sewer pipe may be the source of the problem; it sits on a wax ring, and if it was installed incorrectly, it can leak over time.

I'd call your insurance company and see what they say- they can help figure out what's covered under your policy, and probably can make a recommendation for a local contractor to evaluate the work involved.

However, I'd call a plumber before doing anything else- you need to make sure this is solved before any drywall repair work can happen.
posted by jenkinsEar at 5:45 AM on June 9, 2009

Seconding the wax seal. I had one leak and it just stained the ceiling underneath it. Anyone can replace it but it's a kind of a PITA and you don't know for sure if you got it right for a little while. And ceiling drywall isn't exactly fun either.

It doesn't sound like your leak went on very long, which bodes well for the framing, etc.

Hire a qualified guy to replace the seal and fix up your drywall.
posted by jdfan at 6:21 AM on June 9, 2009

Yes, call a plumber first. He has seen plenty of instances where this sort of thing has happened, and is sure to have names of people to call to fix the ceiling, after the leak is cured.

Don't call a major plumbing or home repair chain. They always charge too much. Look for a local self employeed plumber, instead.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 6:21 AM on June 9, 2009

I live in your area and have a hole in my ceiling from a similar problem. I called these people to fix the leaky toilet. I've been calling them for years to fix various things and they'll give you cost estimates before starting work. They, and several other plumbing companies, have coupons printed in the Yellow Pages. You could also check Washington Consumers' CHECKBOOK at the library for other recommendations.
posted by hoppytoad at 7:01 AM on June 9, 2009

Thirding the wax seal.
posted by RichardS at 7:29 AM on June 9, 2009

Some plumbers will run a bead of caulk along the bottom of the toilet where it meets the floor. This is a bad idea, because it just seals in the water if the wax ring happens to leak and you don't find out about it until something like this happens. Just something to consider. I also think it's the wax ring.
posted by Ostara at 8:44 AM on June 9, 2009

It's not the wax seal, if the ceiling collapsed with a torrent of water.

It could be anything from a bad stop valve (that you used to turn the water off
to the tank) leaking, to a cracked toilet tank that is leaking. You might end up
replacing the toilet as well as repairing the damage that was done by the

Turn the water to the toilet back on, and observe it until you see what is going
wrong. It would be a good idea to have someone downstairs on a ladder looking
at the underside of things, with a towel or six, as well as someone upstairs to
operate the stop valve and manipulate the float valve in the toilet.

Take a look at the shower pan. Showers are a much better source of water for
a leak, and if you have chronic wetness from around the shower (because of bad
flashing or just bad design), the floor can rot underneath, shift, and cause other
leaks to occur in the shower pan drainage.
posted by the Real Dan at 10:45 AM on June 9, 2009

It's not always easy to determine the cause of a leak, so I'd call a plumber who's seen it all. And, recommend that you don't repair the ceiling until you are sure the leak is gone and everything in there is bone dry. Don't want to make a nice nest for mold to grow.
posted by x46 at 11:05 AM on June 9, 2009

Response by poster: Yeah, torrent comes pretty close. I'd guess just under a gallon of actual liquid came down with the ceiling. Huge mess; it even filled up a light fixture (about a cup or so) that was next to the hole. It didn't smell of sewage so I'm unsure where that much came from at once. There were no stains or other leak signs that anyone noticed prior to the collapse.

I'll be contacting a plumber directly. Thanks everyone, you're all especially awesome.
posted by anti social order at 12:13 PM on June 9, 2009

We had a plumbing problem with similar symptom in a townhouse of mid 1990s vintage. The problem turned out to be a certain type of plastic water line that was used during that era, and which is known for developing leaks. Polybutylene pipe is what it's called. There was a class action lawsuit over it, but the filing period to claim damages under that lawsuit just expired.

In our case, this material was used for the line feeding clean water into the toilet. It leaked into the subfloor of the second floor/ceiling of the living room. We had a bulge in the living room ceiling - full of water. Called the plumber who came and carefully cut open the ceiling, allowing the water to drain into a big bucket, and then cut away a big section of ceiling (well beyond the part that was waterlogged) to allow the whole area to dry for a couple of weeks. He explained about the polybutylene pipe, fixed it quickly and easily. Replacing the ceiling was done by a handyman several weeks later once we were confident that the area above the ceiling was well and truly dried out.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:22 PM on June 9, 2009

Response by poster: It was an improperly installed wax seal installed during a tile flooring upgrade. The plumber installed a correct seal, and repaired all the damaged drywall. Even replaced the fixture with a new one.

Thanks again everyone.
posted by anti social order at 1:23 PM on July 10, 2009

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