Pipes: Identifying Water Stains

Water stains showing up on a ceiling or wall surface is a classic heart-dropper for homeowners and renters alike: Is it a roof leak? Is it the upstairs neighbor’s shower (or toilet!)? Do I have to call a plumber? Usually, there’s no need to panic, but there’s every reason to act quickly. Water not only damages structures, insulation and finish materials, it also leads to mold growth, which comes with its own set of problems for a house.

A Stain By Any Other Color

Unfortunately, you can’t identify the source of a water stain by its appearance. To get to the visible surface, the water may pass over and through all sorts of materials and come out as yellowish, orangy, brown…the color doesn’t mean anything. The trick, then, is to consider all of the most likely possible sources and narrow them down through investigation and elimination. But first, a quick lesson about water behavior.

The Gravity Question

Given the reliability of gravity, the source of a water leak should lie more or less directly above the stain, right? Well, this can be the case, but usually isn’t. Because water follows the path of least resistance, a drop landing on the back of your ceiling drywall won’t necessarily stay in that spot until absorbed into the material. More likely, it will flow along the slope of the drywall (however slight) in search of a low spot ... where it will pool with other drops and eventually soak through the material or trickle along a nail, etc. to get to the underside. Roof leaks are particularly deceptive because the water may wend its way through several layers (tar paper, sheathing, rafters, and so on) before it even reaches the ceiling.

The lesson here is simple: Look up first. If the source isn’t there, look around for telltale water trails (which might only be discoloration) leading back to the source.

The Usual Suspects

In total, there are many more causes of water stains than there are uses for water in the home. But chances are good that your leak is due to one of the following problems.

  • Roof leak: Any change or penetration in a roof is a weak spot for leaks: pipes, chimneys, valleys, wall-roof joints, skylights, etc. Ice dams in winter are very common causes of water stains.
  • Water supply pipes: Leaks here can include pinholes in solder joints, corroded steel pipes and leaky valves and other fittings. Excessive condensation on cold-water pipes can also cause staining.
  • Drain pipes: Runs of drain piping don’t commonly leak; more likely culprits are drainpipe connections to tubs and shower pans and the joints between removable pieces, such as P-traps, under sinks.
  • Shower and tub enclosures: Cracked tile and gaps in caulk joints slowly let water behind walls and down.
  • Toilets: A failed seal of the wax ring between a toilet and its drain opening can leak a lot of water into a floor (and a ceiling below).
  • Condensation in vent ducts: Bathroom vent fans ducted through cold spaces can create enough condensate inside the duct to run out and cause a stain.
  • Basements and garden-level rooms: Water has many opportunities here: foundation cracks, poor surface drainage, high water table, window wells and poorly sealed windows…That’s in addition to all the above possibilities.

What to Do About Water Stains

If you’re a renter, get on the horn to your landlord immediately after finding a water stain. A quick response is important for two reasons. First, if your landlord is like most and moves at the pace of a Federal agency, you want to get your name on the “repair” list ASAP. And second, it’s just good rentership to alert the owner of a water problem, because of the time sensitivity and damage potential.

If you’re a homeowner (or a renter who wants to help out), once you’ve found the source of the stain, stop or at least contain the water with any reasonable means, and begin to dry out the wet materials as soon as possible. You might have to resort to setting a pan or small bucket to catch dripping water; just make sure you don’t forget about it until it overflows or comes crashing through your ceiling.

If you can’t permanently fix the problem yourself, call a professional plumber or roofer right away.

Updated December 24, 2017.

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