Brief water leak through ceiling track lighting-- what now?
October 19, 2014 4:27 PM   Subscribe

Clueless new homeowners here. After a shower and a use of the toilet upstairs, water started dripping through a screw on the track lighting in the kitchen. It started maybe 10 minutes afterwards and lasted maybe 10 minutes, maybe a cup or so of water total, then stopped. What happened? What do we do now? Call a plumber, presumably, but how urgent? An electrician too? Is there danger because of the light fixture?

Presumably we call a plumber, right? Does it need to be tomorrow or can it wait a bit? It would be easier to take time off work later this week, or one of us has Friday the 31st off which would be even better. Is there danger of mold, or structural damage, or anything else, if we wait a bit? Or is it okay since it was only a little water and it's over now (and we'll stop using that bathroom until it's fixed so presumably it won't recur)?

Is there any danger regarding the light fixture? Does the fact that it came through the screw holding up the track and not the lighting head/can matter, or does electricity flow through the track too? (Image here. ) I've read stuff advising to turn off the power at the breaker, but that's really inconvenient since almost all our downstairs lights and other outlets seem to be on the same circuit. Should we turn the lights off? Is there danger touching the switch (it's a dimmer switch, if that matters)?

What will the plumber even do? Will they cut into the kitchen ceiling or the bathroom floor (how can you even do that when it's tile)? Or does someone else have to come do that? What might have actually happened here and how will they fix it?

More details:

The leak seems to be closer to being underneath the toilet than the shower but neither of us is very confident of that assessment. We didn't use the sink and didn't see any leaking from those pipes when it was still leaking. We couldn't figure out any way to see where leaking might be coming from the toilet or shower.

We've been in the house for 6 months but have only used the toilet upstairs sporadically and only just started showering upstairs regularly a couple weeks ago. Never noticed this before (but we generally use that bathroom right before leaving for work or going to bed, so there's a slight chance we just missed it.) We will obviously not use it again until this gets figured out.

(Probably unrelated, but when we ran the AC over the summer we would hear a dripping/trickling noise behind/inside the washing machine, which is maybe 2 feet from this leak. We figured it was probably just how the AC was set up to drain, but I was always a little nervous it was a leak instead. We only used the AC maybe 8 or 10 times this summer for a couple hours each time.)

Thanks so much, AskMe! We are totally out of our depth and appreciate any advice.
posted by EmilyClimbs to Home & Garden (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Water dripping into the track is bad - there are live, exposed power contacts in there. You do indeed need to shut off the breaker RIGHT NOW, and don't use that bathroom until this is fixed.

There is no danger in touching the light switch controlling that light.

Here's what I'd do, as a guy with no real training in this stuff but who has owned several houses over the past fifteen years:

Step 1: Shut off the breaker and confirm that the light fixture is off.

Step 2: By flashlight (or lantern), remove the light fixture entirely. Cap off the power wires in the box with wire nuts.

Step 3: If there is no water in the electrical box feeding the fixture (and no other similar fixtures in the vicinity), it is now safe to turn the power back on.

These three steps are the bare minimum you need to do tonight. The rest of this can wait until tomorrow, as long as you don't use the bathroom. And feel free to stop following these directions if you feel more comfortable calling someone. But you can save yourself a lot of money by following them - and even if you don't go all the way, just following the first few can make the plumbing call much cheaper.

Step 4: Using a stud finder, determine where the joists (long horizontal wooden beams that the ceiling drywall is attached to, and that also hold up the next floor's floor) are.

Step 5: You'll probably need to replace this drywall as it's almost certainly been damaged by water, but maybe you'll get lucky. Cut it neatly and you might be able to use it to repair the hole later. Consider the joists when cutting it, be careful not to cut into them. An Oscillating Multi Tool is great for cutting neat holes in drywall.

Step 6: Look up in there and see what you see. Water can travel a long way before it's noticable, but if you're lucky, you'll see limestone or - if it's your toilet leaking - other less pleasant evidence of where the leak is coming from. There are a few kinds of pipes you might see: small pipes carrying pressurized water (these will be less than an inch in diameter, and depending on the age of your house made of iron, copper, or plastic), or large pipes carrying wastewater (2-4 inches in diameter, copper or black plastic). The leak is probably coming from wastewater pipes. This is good as those pipes are not under pressure and are thus much easier to repair in place. Also, as long as you don't use the toilet or shower that's feeding that wastewater pipe, there will be no water in it and you will not have any leaks.

Step 7: If you can determine where the leak is coming from, decide your next plan. This may be as simple as putting some sort of pipe sealant onto the pipe (take a picture down to Home Depot and they can tell you what you need) or you may have to cut out and replace the pipe. If you're feeling adventurous, that's certainly within the realm of an amateur, but it sounds like you may feel more comfortable having a plumber do that.

Step 8: Once the leak is repaired, repair the wall. Either use the piece of drywall that you saved, or a new piece cut from a larger piece you bought at Home Depot (they sell 2x2 chunks, way easier to work with than the standard 4x8 panels...). If there's an exposed joist in your hole, screw the drywall to that, and if not, screw it to a 18-inch long 1x4 and screw that whole thing into the hole. Fill in the cut with drywall joint compound, sand, texture, and paint and it's as good as new. Alternatively, don't fill in the cut - and don't reattach the light fixture to it, just skip that screw if you can - so that you can get back up there if this sort of thing happens again.

After I wrote this, I realized that you should probably also check nearby closets and other rooms for access panels that may let you get into this space without having to cut a hole in the ceiling. There might well be one.

Don't hesitate to PM if you have any questions.
posted by Hatashran at 5:24 PM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Take down the whole big maybe 10-foot-long L-shaped track lighting thing? What is the danger of what could happen here, and how likely is it? Would it be okay if we just turn off the breaker when we go to bed tonight? (Could we keep doing that for a couple days, having the breaker off while we sleep or aren't home and on at night when we are home and awake?)

I don't understand what you mean by "the box", will some box appear behind the track lighting? I don't understand how, it's just a skinny track, wouldn't we see a box now if there was one there? And we don't have wire nuts. Does this mean we need an electrician first if we can't figure this out?

Thanks for all your advice!
posted by EmilyClimbs at 6:11 PM on October 19, 2014

Seconding that it's probably really important to get an electrician in FAST, and turn off the breaker. You don't want to mess with water in an electrical system.
posted by gusandrews at 6:45 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

For tonight, you're fine just turning off the breaker. Don't turn it back on until you've disabled the track lighting.

These are electrical boxes.

Electrical wires running around inside your walls terminate inside an electrical box. There is one behind every outlet, light switch, and light fixture in your home.

The track lighting connects to the main electrical wires inside there. Depending on how lucky you are, there might be a simple connection, just three wires to three wires, or there might be several connections inside that box, with that box serving as a junction to several other fixtures.

You don't necessarily need to take the entire fixture down, but at least take off the part that connects to the power. There will be a spot on the fixture that connects to the power. For example, look at this fixture at Lowes. The wide box is where power connects. Your track will have something like it.

You need to remove that cover, behind it you'll find the box. You don't need to remove the entire track, but you do need to get into that box and disconnect the power (WITH THE BREAKER OFF) if you want to turn power back on.

And as of this writing, it's 10:22 pm in Washington DC. As long as the power is off to that part of the house, you don't actually need to fool around with the wiring tonight. But don't turn the power back on until that track lighting is out of commission.
posted by Hatashran at 7:22 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Take a deep breath and relax Emily, this is not a huge deal. Don't go digging into the electrical box, you don't know what you're doing, or taking down the fixture, and I certainly wouldn't take a multi-tool and be cutting holes in my ceiling.

You need to get a plumber in first, and don't use the bathroom until it's repaired. Disconnecting the fixture won't achieve anything, with the switch off there's no power to it. There's a hot (live) wire that powers the light either at the light switch or the box the light is attached to, either way, with the switch in the off position there's no power to it.

If you feel the need to do something, I'd take an awl or pointy object and poke a very small hole in the ceiling sheet rock, next to where you saw the water drip out, to drain any standing water that could be there, this could be repaired with just spackle. But I doubt there's any pooled water, it's probably just damp now and will be dry by tomorrow.

I'd leave the breaker on and use the other fixtures, but not the one where you saw the leak. As to mold, if there was a slow leak unnoticed by the previous owners, there could be some. But don't go worrying about that now, call a plumber first and go from there, and relax.
posted by PaulBGoode at 9:48 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Chill. Don't go monkeying with the track lighting or god forbid a sawzall hacking up your ceiling . From the amount and persistence of the water I would not be surprised if the leak was from the shower surround or such and not from the drain pipe but who knows. You need a good service plumber or a competent handyman to take a look.
posted by Pembquist at 10:14 PM on October 19, 2014

We had a MASSIVE leak in an apartment due to a sprinkler failure in an above apartment that required MAJOR leak abatement.

The leak in our unit started through the light fixtures...

While the apartments effected had major abatement measures enacted - the lights were usable and the electrical was not even turned off. My memory on this is very accurate.

No worries. Get the leaks and any wood or sheet rock issues addressed.

Your electrical is likely fine.

Our leak effected FOUR apartments, the bottom aparent was totaled. I'm super likely not incorrect in this advice. The industrial dehumidifiers used in our unit used our electrical system. Again, our apartment was saturated, as were the units above and below.
posted by jbenben at 11:37 PM on October 19, 2014

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