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How To Deal With Plumbing Emergencies In An Apartment: Leaks, Clogs, and Hot Water Heaters In The City

Updated on August 24, 2011

There are plenty of plumbing "how-tos" and guides out there, but it seems like all of them are targeted at home owners. Well, as a city dweller and long time apartment denizen, I can safely assure the plumbing mavens of the world that people who rent use toilets, showers, and sinks just as much as anyone else.

Dealing with a plumbing emergency in your apartment is a unique problem. You may not have access to vital tools or parts of your plumbing infrastructure that someone who owns a home would be expected to. Your apartment's clogged drains or broken pipes could cause major problems for downstairs neighbors that you'll never know about until it is too late. In many cases, you will have to rely on the availability of your neighbors, building maintenance crew, or the landlord even if you are planning a do-it-yourself fix.

If you're like me and take care of your own plumbing problems in a rented building or apartment complex, read onto get some handy tips for dealing with broken pipes, clogged toilets, and poor water heating.

Typical toilet valve's look like this. Turn it all the way to the right to close off your water flow.  Rust may make it stiff so put some muscle into it if it does not turn right away.
Typical toilet valve's look like this. Turn it all the way to the right to close off your water flow. Rust may make it stiff so put some muscle into it if it does not turn right away. | Source

What to do when your toilet overflows in an apartment?

We've all been there at least once in our lives. The toilet has broken and won't stop spewing water everywhere. It might be because of a clog, a broken valve inside the toilet, or something as simple as a lever that won't depress correctly. Whatever the cause, it needs to be taken care of quickly.

Why? Because your downstairs neighbors will be bearing the brunt of the problem in just a minute or two. Especially in the case of severely clogged pipes, a torrential downpour is likely to occur on the floor directly below you. This might be in their own bathroom, their living room, or maybe the expensive storefront that occupies the street level. Either way, your soggy bathroom floor is nothing compared to the thousands of dollars of damage a leaky pipe might cause the folks down stairs. Depending on your lease, you may be responsible for the cost of some or all of the repairs. So: don't dawdle.

The first thing you want to do is shut down the water. Most of the time you can do this closing the valve. There should be a switch or valve with a water pipe that runs directly into your toilets bowl. Turn it as hard as you can to the right until the water stops running. You should hear the water stop almost immediately. It may continue to overflow for another 30 seconds or so but not much longer than that.

Because you are in an apartment, chances are your bathroom will be extremely cramped. You may need to jump into your bathtub or reach around the toilet to get a good grip on the handle. Although you might get a little wet, do not hesitate! Stopping the water is your number one priority.

What do I do when turning off the valve doesn't stop the flooding?


If you've correctly turned off your water valve and you're still flooding, you have a very serious problem on your hands. A pipe is likely broken deeper in the system that needs to be turned off at the main or sub-main. This can be tricky in some apartment buildings. Read on to find out how.

If you live above a business, you may need to request special access from the proprietor to access things certain pipes, valves, and water heaters.
If you live above a business, you may need to request special access from the proprietor to access things certain pipes, valves, and water heaters. | Source

Shutting Off The Water To Your Apartment And Accessing The Water Heater

Some plumbing jobs might require you to turn off the water to your entire apartment. Sometimes it is because you are replacing pipes that are constantly pressurized. Sometimes it is because there is a leak that won't stop. Unfortunately, apartments often are not arranged to allow tenant's easy access to these amenities.

Sometimes, they are simply in a supply closet or a first floor apartment. A maintenance person will have access to the supply closet or it might simply be unlocked. If it is in another tenant's lodgings, however, you might need to wait until they get home or call the landlord for access. If there is a plumbing emergency that requires shutting off the water for any period of time, it is best to call the landlord regardless.

Most commonly, however, you have to go to the basement to turn off the water. Like the previous example, some are located behind locked doors in the complex. Many apartment buildings, however, do not give residents easy access to the basement at all. Usually there is an attached store front or a similar building which has the basement. You will have to ask them for permission to pass through their property and enter the basement.

Typically, your neighbor will allow you access. In fact, the terms of their lease may require them to. This will require you to enter during a time when they are available. If your emergency hasn't occurred during typical business hours, you might need to make a call to the landlord's office ASAP to get someone to unlock the building.

See Also: The Apartment's Water Heater

Your apartment's water heater is typically located near your building's sub-main. Many apartment buildings have two or more water heater's to make sure that every keeps an even flow of hot water. BE SURE to check which one is yours if you are trying to re-light or adjust your hot water heater in any way. A careless mistake could cut off hot water or gas to your neighbors with no warning! If the numbers of the apartments the heater is servicing isn't readily available, speak with an apartment manager about it before you begin your project.

When working in the basement, be sure to bring along

  1. A Flashlight - Many apartment basements are have no lighting or inadequate lighting. If you are planning to do anything in the basement be sure to bring an alternate light source.
  2. Wrenches - Many times, a sturdy wrench will be required to turn off water to an apartment. Although some buildings make it as simple as a small valve or sometimes even an electric switch, most buildings are older and need some more coaxing.
  3. A lighter or long matches - Space is at a premium in apartment's and your building's hot water heater probably wasn't designed for easy access. The longer the match's, the easier it will be to turn your hot water heater back on.


When all else fails, get others involved

If you can't reach your landlord or neighbor when you need them in case of an emergency, don't let the problem get out of hand. Call a plumber who is available for emergency calls. You may need to pay them out of pocket, but most landlords will pay you back for the cost of burst pipes and similar problems. They will either cut you a check equal to the cost of the work or waive the amount from your next rent check.

Living in an apartment setting offers some challenges when it comes to plumbing, but it doesn't have to be the end of the world. Keep cool and keep these tips in mind and you can take care of your apartment plumbing emergency in a New York minute.

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    • CloudExplorer profile image

      Mike Pugh 

      6 years ago from New York City

      How about flooding issues such as that we all just experienced on the east coast recently, any tips on how to best solve the flooding issue, after a huge storm. Nice hub by the way.

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