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Water source requires detective work

QuestionRecently I purchased a home with 48 acres. The property has been empty for about seven years so I don't have a lot of background on it. So far I have located 10 water hydrants around the property in the yard and garden and water to sinks in two outbuildings: an apartment and a summer kitchen. In the summer kitchen I can see a black pipe for a drain and both have copper pipes coming from the walls. One above-ground faucet attached to broken galvanized pipe appears to be connected to a black plastic pipe that emerges from the ground near a faucet coming from the backside of the main house but its poly-pipe has been cut off. Our water meter is a half-mile away from the house, water is turned on to the home, and there is no water to the outside buildings or faucets.

The main water line appears to run up the driveway, turn into the backyard, and follow the home's backside where the copper pipe comes up through the basement concrete floor. I have found a couple of 5-foot poles in the yard that look like they can turn off a valve I assume is buried deep in the ground, but I find nothing in the area of the poles. I also don't see any other copper water lines leaving the house except for the faucet on the back of the home mentioned earlier. I know it's winter, but how do I locate the shutoff valve for the water to these exterior fixtures?

AnswerI commend you on the "water detective" work you have done so far to locate your pipes. Your question provides some good clues.

Your inability to find any other water outlets from the home except for the sill faucet on the backside suggests that the main line has a "Y" or "T" fitting that could be feeding the outbuildings. The cut-off poly irrigation tubing suggests that someone has installed a watering system in the yard and/or garden using poly-pipe to run the lines and galvanized pipe as risers that come out of the ground to attach to hose bibs (faucets).

The cut poly-pipe near the home's outside faucet also suggests that possibly the water supply to these areas was hooked directly to the faucet. If so, this system would not meet either the Uniform Plumbing Code or the International Plumbing Code without an approved backflow prevention assembly to protect the water supply. A combination system of copper or galvanized and poly-pipe to reach the outbuildings would also not be an approved system because poly-pipe is not approved for plumbing use. PVC is allowed outside below grade as an approved plumbing material but cannot be used within a building.

The long poles you found are "curb stop keys" and are used to turn off curb stop ball valves located in underground road or valve boxes, normally below the frost line. You found two; perhaps one is for turning off water to one or both of the outbuildings and one is for the yard or garden or both.

Since both buildings have copper and at least one has black pipe as a drain, it suggests that the black pipe is ABS and that these two buildings were plumbed according to the UPC. If this is the case, and I'm just speculating, it's possible that you have two branches coming off the main line: one going to the backyard while the other perhaps goes to the front yard.

Definitely something other than the sill faucet on the back of your home is feeding the outbuildings and/or hydrants, otherwise you wouldn't have curb stop keys on the property. Knowing that there are copper pipes to the outbuildings will help when it is time to map the water lines because it provides a place of origin, i.e., a starting point from the back door.

Since the Water Department is only responsible for water lines up to the property line, they will not be able to locate and map the water lines on your property. Doing it yourself without all the proper equipment will be difficult. I recommend that you bring in a professional locating company to help map these lines—they will have the equipment necessary to locate both metallic and non-metallic lines.

Expect a locating company to charge a standard minimum amount, hourly rates that vary from $65 to $125, and possibly travel time. While they are generally quite successful in mapping water lines, there are no guarantees. For example, if a pipe locator is being used, a transmitter will be attached to a metallic pipe that puts a frequency on the line so the locator can pick up the signal. However, if someone has repaired the water line using a rubber coupling and doesn't run a jumper wire from one pipe to the other, then the continuity will be broken, stopping the signal. The locator wouldn't be able to pick up the signal on the pipe beyond the repair.

It takes a plastic pipe locator to find PVC and poly irrigation tubing, a device that is one step up from water witching. An impulse generator is attached on the side of the line that sends an intense sound in the water and down the line where it is picked up by a ground microphone and headset. The overall system works better if the water is running so it carries the sound down the line. In your case, the poly-pipe will need to be repaired so it can be hooked up to the faucet.

A metal detector is also used to find the lid to a road or valve box. However, if someone installed a plastic box or lid, then a rod will be used to poke the ground to find the lid.

Expensive equipment is required to locate water lines. While some of this equipment can be rented, the equipment will not be of the same quality used by a professional, and, of course, it takes experience to properly and efficiently use this equipment and understand the results. My recommendation is to hire a professional to locate these lines.

Begin by looking under "Leak & Pipe Locating" or "Utilities Underground-Locating" in the yellow pages of the phone book. Professionals can map in the middle of winter, but wait until spring since you don't have any history on the property. Let me know how it all works out.

Those with water issues should contact their city or county water department for answers. If you are unsure what water district services your area, they should also be able to refer you to the proper water district.

Copyright © 2005, 2006, & 2008 LAF/C.R.S., Inc. All rights reserved.
Question answered by Leon A. Frechette.

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