Given that the whole reason humans started building houses in the first place was to protect ourselves from the cold and wet, it’s no surprise that water is the natural enemy of our homes.
True, we wouldn’t get very far without it. Whether it’s for drinking (are you getting eight glasses a day?), washing, cooking or pumping through your radiators keeping everything nice and warm, we need water in our homes - but like all good things, we need it in moderation.
Water damage can attack our home from all angles, from insidious long-running problems to massive, urgent disasters. The damage caused can be widespread and very costly - so we’ve prepared the ultimate guide for protecting your home from the H2O.
Water is always present in our homes, running from the mains, through a network of pipes, under our floors and behind our walls, into our boilers and out of our taps.
Spotting a leak when so much of our pipework is hidden can be tricky, but there are a few signs you can watch out for:
- If your boiler is dropping pressure, it can be a sign that there is a leak somewhere in the system that might be worth tracking down with a heating engineer.
- Keep an out for any wet patches on ceilings or walls that might indicate a leak - areas where paint has darkened, or which feel cold and damp are warning signs.
- Water pooling on the floor that can’t be explained by splashes from sinks or baths might indicate a slow drip coming from above, potentially from a light fixture.
- If sinks are slow to empty, check the traps and u-bends, since blockages can put pressure on joints in the pipes and lead to leaks.
If you do spot a leak, it’s crucial to act quickly to stop further damage.
The first port of call should be to turn off the water coming into your home with your stopcock, a valve that controls the water flow into your property.
Your stop cock might be under the kitchen sink, in the bathroom, a cupboard under the stairs or in a more obscure spot, but knowing where it is is very useful.
Your home will also have an external stopcock, usually just outside your property boundary on the street, with a metal cover marked “W”, “water” or “Stopcock” which should stop water for your entire building.
In winter, sub-zero temperatures naturally cause water to freeze. As any school child knows, water expands when it freezes, meaning that if your water pipes are filled with water with nowhere else to go, when they freeze, they're liable to burst.
This means it’s vital that any pipes which might be at risk are well-insulated.
While most of the pipes in your home shouldn’t be at risk of freezing temperatures, there are places where it’s more likely.
External water pipes - for example if you have an outdoor tap - are prime spots for damage, as are pipes in lofts, attics and garages.
Insulating or lagging the pipes with simple foam can make a huge difference, and help avoid a costly disaster, while insulating your loft will bring a host of other benefits as well as protecting your pipes.
Splashbacks and sealant
Realising water has gone where it isn’t meant to is one thing - trying to work out if there’s a problem when something is meant to be wet is another.
However, one of the most common issues with water damage comes from places like showers, baths, sinks and worktops.
These parts of our home are designed to deal with a daily deluge, but the problems can come over time when things start to break down and fail.
Cracked tiles or mouldy, worn grouting and sealant can all lose their waterproof qualities, and slowly let water seep through.
Ultimately this means your splashback or bathroom tiling becomes basically useless, slowly soaking the plaster, brick and wood underneath.
Because these issues can be hard to spot, it’s worth keeping an eye out for the first signs of problems. A tiler will be able to replace damaged tiles and update worn sealant and grouting.
There’s plenty of water that’s meant to be in our home, but rain should definitely stay on the outside.
It can be relaxing to hear it hammering on your roof when you’re snug and cosy indoors, but that snugness will quickly turn to stress if you find out it’s somehow getting inside and causing chaos.
Slipped and broken roof tiles are the most likely source of rainwater getting inside, where it can cause all kinds of problems - damaging joists, insulation, electrics and whatever else it can find.
The next most likely place is through the flashing, the traditional lead edging which is used to make a seal around chimneys and other roof features. If the flashing has become stripped away, it leaves a gap where water can get it and start causing its problems.
Flat roofs are also vulnerable. Modern flat roof surfaces are made to last, but should regularly be checked at the seams and at the edges, such as around skylights, to make sure it hasn’t failed.
Sheds and outbuildings which might have older and cheaper roofing are particularly at risk
A roofer is the best port of call to check things over - they can look at your tiles, flashing and flat roofs and take photos of any damage, to let you know what work might need to be done.
It’s easy to ignore our gutters and downpipes - they’re not exactly the most glamorous part of any property - but as with lots of overlooked things, when they go wrong, they can really go wrong.
When it comes to gutters, the problem is usually simple - blockages.
At this time of year, falling leaves in particular love to clog up gutters and madly maintained downpipes, leading to water building up where it can run against our home’s rendering and brickwork and lead to issues with damp.
Fixing it is a simple matter of clearing it out - and a guttering expert, used to working at height, can do it in no time at all.
They can also check for more significant damage, for example cracks or deformations, or if brackets securing the pipework are failing or becoming loose.
As with soffits and fascias, these parts of our home can work perfectly for years without drama, but keeping an eye on them can help head off problems before they start.
Every part of our home that is exposed to the elements faces some risk from water damage, and that goes for our walls just as much as our roofs, especially when British rain can sometimes seem to fall sideways as much as it does down.
Brickwork is meant to be slightly breathable - a hermetically sealed home would cause plenty of other problems - but should still defend against water coming in.
If the mortar is becoming loose, crumbling, or falling away when touched, it’s a sign that the water resistant brickwork has been breached, meaning water could be getting in.
A brickworker can repoint walls and replace damaged bricks if needed.
If your home is rendered, the render provides another layer of protection but that can also be liable to problems.
Look out for places where it may have discoloured, cracked, or bubbled, to try and spot issues before they reach a head.
A plasterer can help with advice and attention.
Windows and doors
Water likes to find the weakest spots to attack. Just as it creeps into our coats through our zips, windows and doors are natural spots for moisture to squeeze through.
If you can feel any draught coming from your windows or doors, that means air is coming through, and if air can, moisture will usually follow.
Modern doors and windows should be energy efficient and are built to keep in heat, which means they should have a good seal that protects from any water coming in.
If you see moisture inside the two panes of double glazing, it's a sign that the insulation has failed and the window will need to be replaced.
If you have doubts about yours, speak to a window fitter who can advise you.
One of the main ways that water can cause headaches in the home - sometimes literally, if mould is involved - is damp. Damp affects many homes, and is particularly prevalent at wetter and colder times of year.
It comes in different forms, which all present their own problems and have their own solutions, which we’ve broken down below:
The most common form of damp is caused by a build up of moisture in the home which leads to condensation.
This is generally due to poor ventilation - think of all the steam that builds up when you shower or cook, or if you’re drying clothes indoors, imagine where all that water goes.
If you don’t have your windows open, which you may not when the weather turns cold, all that water vapour collects inside, typically turning back into liquid when it finds a cold surface, such as a window or exterior wall.
Over time, this water forms damp patches which can start to develop black mould, particularly on surfaces like wood, plaster and silicone sealant.
Luckily, the problem can usually be fixed with a few lifestyle changes.
Keeping windows open when cooking, showering or drying clothes can make a big difference, as can installing efficient extractor fans.
Maintaining a steady temperature in the home can also help.
If problems persist you can invest in either passive or active dehumidifers which work to draw moisture from the air, which you can then simply pour away.
You can also monitor moisture levels with a digital hygrometer.
Penetrating damp is the usual result of many of the issues listed above, just as leaks, damaged roofs and broken gutters.
When water is being channeled into a particular spot, it can work it's way through the different materials that make up your home.
Ultimately, it will make it's way into your rooms, and you’ll start to notice the warning signs - damp patches on the wall, discoloured areas of paint or plaster, and bubbling wallpaper.
Thankfully, fixing the source of problem will fix the damp, whether it's repairing a broken gutter or resealing a damaged window - however, you may need to help to replaster and redecorate to get things back to how they should be.
Rising damp is the most complex form of damp to deal with, and occurs when moisture soaks into your home from the ground.
Homes are typically built with what is known as a damp proof course (DPC), a layer of slate or plastic that sits a few rows of brick above the ground, and acts as a barrier to water being drawn up into your home.
However, if the DPC fails, water can be absorbed throughout the brickwork, doing damage to your floors, skirting boards, and walls.
Fixing rising damp means repairing the DPC. This can be done by injecting the wall with special chemicals, or by stripping back the plaster and inserting a new course - a fairly costly and intensive job.
Speaking to a damp proofing expert will help you identify the source of the problem and the best solution for fixing it.