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How to Fix a Broken Underground Water Pipe (Water Main)

I am not a plumber. Actually, I'm a computer guy. My only experience with plumbing has been with a few under-sink pipes that I've replaced, and even then I didn't really know what I was doing.

So, the story begins with a wet spot under the faucet in front of my house. It had been there for a few years, but my water bill was always very reasonable, and the leak "went away" in the winter, so I wasn't too horribly concerned. But in the past two months my water bill shot up. This is probably partly because of summer waterings and pool topping off, but the bill really got high. So, I decided that it was time to fix the problem.

(BTW, ads are informative if they show you a product or service you actually need. Glance at the ads on this page, because they may show you plumbers or building supplies in your area.)

I'm currently self-employed, so my income is erratic. But I now have a lot of flexibility with my time, and I really couldn't justify paying a plumber a few hundred dollars to fix something that I know I'm fully capable of fixing. So, it was time to get busy digging.

Digging into water-drenched mud is just awful. And since the leak had persisted for a few years, the ground was teaming with roots. It was very much like a sponge made of roots in some spots. Also, there were some roots in this area that were about 3/4 to 1-inch in diameter. AND, to make things worse, there were very large rocks littered throughout the soil. Many of them were over 5 inches wide. And since I didn't know where the pipe was, I couldn't just lay into the ground with brute force. It wouldn't have been a tough hole to dig if I wasn't worried about breaking a pipe, but because of the situation I was digging all day. I wasn't even sure where the pipe or break was. I assumed I'd start at the center of the puddle.

It took me about 8 grueling, messy, nasty hours to dig down to the leak and fully uncover the pipe.

Be prepared to get filthy. Wear clothes you don't mind throwing away. And have a LOT of paper towels an arms-length away. You'll need a standard shovel, and probably a pitch fork. I also used a trowel, steak knife and a small saw (for the roots.) Turn off your water at the meter, otherwise you'll be digging in a constantly growing pool of water. And bring a throw-away cup. I also used a 1/2-gallon milk jug with the top cut out to scoop the water faster. AND be sure to have some fresh water stashed in cups, bucket, empty milk jugs, or wherever, because you'll want to keep your water shut off, and you will be an absolute filthy mess in need of an occassional hand washing.

So, I dug down to the pipe. As I was digging (which seemed utterly futile, since I dug for hours before even seeing the pipe for the first time) I eventually started to see clean water bubbling up through the muddy water. This led me to the pipe. Without it, my job would have been a lot harder. So you may want to leave your water on just a TINY bit. Just enough to give you a hint which way to dig.

When I finally got to the pipe, it took another hour or so to completely free it from the mud and roots. I used a spray bottle to clean the pipe off. There was a large, extremely dense mass of roots surrounding the crack. It was a lot hard than dirt. I had to chop it off to expose the broken part.

It was the main water line that was broken. There was a cracked plastic 3/4-inch male to PVC pipe adapter screwed into the copper pipe leading into the house.

DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT PATCHING A CRACK. From previous experience with a cracked pool filter, I can tell you that it is almost impossible to successfully patch a crack in a high pressure line. When the water is not spraying out of these cracks, these cracks are almost invisible. It is amazing how much water can spray out of a very small crack. Just replace the part. It's a small price to pay to ensure that you don't have to make this repair again. The total price for the parts needed for this repair is as follows:

$0.70    One 3/4-inch male to 3/4 PVC adapter
$3.00    One 10-foot 3/4-inch PVC pipe (they don't sell shorter lengths because the stuff is so cheap)
$4.50    One small can of PVC cement
$3.50    One small can of PVC primer
$0.99    One roll of teflon tape

TOTAL: $12.69

That's a lot cheaper than a plumber. Sure, I "wasted" a whole day of my life on this chore, and it was painful and frustrating, but I saved at least $400 by not hiring someone to do it, and I get to brag that I'm a "real man." ;-)

You will need a hacksaw to cut the PVC pipe. I also used a monkey wrench that I just happened to have from one of my sink repairs. It's amazing how tools that you need but don't want to buy pay for themselves in the long run. I'm not sure what I would have used if I hadn't had the monkey wrench.

I had to replace the broken part by gluing 6 inches of 3/4-inch PVC to a 3/4-inch male threaded adapter. This would screw into the copper pipe that is leading into the house.

I've never glued PVC before. It's not rocket science, but this is a REALLY important part and I didn't want to mess it up. I DO NOT want to dig this thing up again. So, I was very careful. Before putting parts together, make sure that the ends of the pipe are clean and free from stray PVC. Make sure the pipe is smooth and both parts are clean. Rough pipe or foreign particles could weaken the joint. Make sure the parts fit together BEFORE glueing them, but don't force them together too tight or you will have a hard time separating them. I used primer on the pipe and the socket because I wanted the best connection I could possibly get, given how awful it would be to make this repair again. It evaporates almost immediately. It melts the PVC just a tiny amount, so that the PVC cement will bond everything together nice and tight. As far as I understand, the PVC cement actually melts (or welds) the parts together. So, the primer helps start this "melting" process. Wear gloves, because if the primer gets in even small cut, it burns like fire. I didn't use gloves. This is how I know. (And it's purple, and will get all over your hands.) Also, put down some newspaper, because this is messy. Put a layer of cement on the pipe and in the socket, but don't drench them them with cement. You don't want to see it pooling or running off. Immediately after coating the parts with cement, join them together with a 1/4 twisting motion (this helps spread the glue throughout the joint). Then hold the parts together for 15 seconds to make sure they stay fully connected. Then let the cement "dry" (cure, actually) for about 2 hours. I waited the full 2 hours, because of how critical these parts are, and because of how much pressure they have to endure. What is really going on in the bond is that the solvent in the cement is working its ways into both parts, and is also evaporating out of the edges. Once the solvent is completely gone, the plastic is at full strength.

USE TEFLON TAPE ON ALL PIPE THREADS. This acts as a gasket to prevent leaking through the threads. It's cheap.

I unscrewed the compression joint with my monkey wrench. (A compression joint is just a large pipe intended to connect two smaller pipes. The idea is that that it is removable for repairs and adjustments. The two pipes go into the compression joint, and each pipe will have a rubber gasket. Then, you tighten a cap on each side of the joint, and this "compresses" the gaskets tightly so that there will not be any leaks.) Then I unscrewed the broken 3/4-inch male threaded adapter, and tossed it to the side hurling expletives at it. Damn thing. Anyway, I reassembled the pieces using my new 3/4-inch male adapter glued to 6 inches of PVC pipe. I tightened everything with my monkey wrench, making sure that everything was nice and tight, but taking great care to not tighten things so tight that they CRACK. That would have been awful.

Then I turned on the water SLOWLY, just in case of a catastrophic failure of the joints. I expected some leaks from the screwed-on portions, but nothing leaked. I was surprised and delighted. I will wait several days before burying the pipe, just in case. When you finally bury the pipe, bury it like it is a delicate glass sculpture. Don't give that pipe an excuse to fail by haphazardly dropping stones and clumps of dirt on it. Gingerly surround the pipe with dirt, so that it's protected and supported by soil on all sides. Once it has a decent layer of dirt protecting it, then you can start dumping a little more aggressively.

One thing I didn't mention was that I replaced the 2-way compression joint with a 3-way compression joint. I did this so that I could send a PVC pipe to the surface for a new sprinkler system for my yard. This was the PERFECT opportunity to do this. However, the original 2-way compression joint was still good and will live in a drawer for spare parts (hopefully I will never need it.) The new compression joint cost $3.50. It just amazes me how cheap this PVC stuff is.

That's it! Good luck. And try to time this for a weekday, so that you can call a Dr. DRiP in case you have a catastrophe.

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