kitty playing with faucet

cat playing with tapDo you have pipes that bang, whistle or shriek? It’s not a ghost, we promise (at least we’re pretty sure….). Seriously, though, if you find you have loud or high-pitched noises that coming from your plumbing there may be a problem that needs attention.

Read on to find out the causes of most squeaks, shrieks, bangs and burps (OK, maybe not the last one).

Banging or Vibrating Pipes

If you hear your pipes banging within your walls (called “water hammer”), pay attention to when it happens. Does it happen only when you shut off a tap, or does it happen when the water is allowed to flow?

If it only happens when after you shut off the water, it’s usually because the valve in the tap shuts very fast, and forces the water to come to a very sudden stop. The water carries a lot of energy, and since water doesn’t compress the impact creates a vibration almost like an earthquake in your pipes. We see this a lot especially with modern washing machines.

Often the best solutions is an anti-hammer device or hammer arrestor, which acts like a shock absorber for your plumbing. There are many types of anti-hammer devices, but they are all basically sealed balls or tubes filled with air. They provide an extra space where water can escape, and the air inside them compresses as needed until the energy in the water flow dissipates. Some hammering noises can be stopped by clamping the pipes to the studs in the wall more securely, but this involves opening the walls even further than with installing an anti-hammer device.

Where things get complicated is when there is more than one cause for the noise. Generally speaking we usually try an an anti-hammer device first, as that fixes the issue most of the time.

Whistling Pipes

If the banging or whistling happens with normal continuous water flow, the problem may be a valve naturally creates its own vibration when combined with the flow of water in your pipes. Every valve has a different flow rate, and some resonate if they happen to be at the right frequency.

Pipes can also whistle when the water supply is forced past an obstruction in the pipe or if the pipe narrows. The causes for this can be different depending on where you live. If you live in the city of Ottawa, dirt and/or corroded metal can be loosened by work on the water mains, and it can make its way into your home’s plumbing and become trapped. This can happen quickly or it can build up over time. Outside the city of Ottawa, many wells supply “hard” water, which means it contains minerals like calcium. Over time these can build up inside your plumbing and cause the diameter to narrow.

In either case the only solution is to open up the plumbing, unfortunately. If there’s mineral buildup the pipes will need to be replaced, but if it’s just a blockage it may be possible to clear it without having to put new pipes in.

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Whistling Taps

Whistling can also be caused by a loose washer in the faucet itself. The tap may need to be taken apart and the washer repositioned or a new washer put in.

Whistling or Hissing Toilets

If the whistling noise happens after you’ve flushed the toilet and the tank is refilling, the problem is usually the ballcock assembly (parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 in the diagram below). This ballcock is the mechanism that uses a float to shut off the water once the tank is done refilling. It makes sure there’s enough water but that no overflow occurs.

toilet tank diagram
Parts of your toilet tank: 1. float, 2. fill valve, 3. lift arm, 4. tank fill tube, 5. bowl fill tube, 6. flush valve flapper, 7. overflow tube, 8. flush handle, 9. chain, 10. fill line, 11. fill valve shaft, 12. flush tube
Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons. For attribution please see below.

If the noise continues after the tank is full, water is probably escaping down the overflow pipe (#7 in the diagram). In this case, the ballcock needs to be adjusted so that the water stops at a slightly lower level and doesn’t go down the overflow tube.

Can I Ignore Plumbing Noises?

While a noise isn’t always a problem on its own, if it’s caused by a vibration in your pipes the result can eventually be a leak. This is because vibrations can loosen the pipe supports or worse, the joints between pipes. To avoid the possibility of leaks we recommend dealing with the problem if the noise keeps happens every time or keeps getting louder.

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In most cases, solving the problem involves opening up your plumbing fixtures or even your walls. Your best bet is to save time and trouble and hire a licensed plumber to take care of it for you, just in case the noise turns out to be a sign of something more serious. If you want to try a DIY approach you should read this first.


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Image credit:

Toilet tank diagram by KlorkOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2052898

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