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Thu, Oct. 17

Column: Ghostbusters needed to solve the Mystery of the Poltergeist Plumbing

This week, I have a question about "poltergeist plumbing" from James:

Q: "Am I the only guy with this problem? Our water pipes make outrageous noises in the cooler weather. Every morning when it's cold, the pipes sound off - a rumbling noise that gradually increases and then stops, only to begin again shortly. It stops right away if I turn on a tap. This has been going on for several years - quiet in the summer, and then it starts up in the autumn.

"We have a pressure tank on the water system at the water heater. The noises were there both before and after this was installed.

"They stopped temporarily when we had a toilet replaced a few years ago - as long as the toilet was not in place. There was no noise while the hole was open, and then there was noise again when the new toilet was installed.

"What to do?"

A: To answer your first question: yes, James, you are the only guy with this problem. At least that I know of. My first guess was "water hammer" or a defective faucet or fill valve, which can cause some unusual noises. But these occur when water is running, and James said the noise stops when a faucet is opened. It also does not explain why the noise would stop when a toilet was removed and the "hole" was open. The "hole" is a drain line and should not have any effect on the supply lines.

So we have a rumbling noise in the plumbing pipes in the morning, only when it's cold, and opening a faucet or a drain line will make it stop. Any ideas, anyone?

My next question this week is from Isabelle regarding heat pumps:

"In November 2009, we had a new heat pump and air conditioner installed. When the exterior temperature drops to less than 40 degrees, the heat pump is blowing cold air. The inside temperature stays at 66. Last year, we had the contractor out four times, and each time someone came in the late morning when it was warmer outside and inside the home. They couldn't find anything wrong with the thermostat and the unit was working well. But at night when the outside temperature gets cold, we are freezing inside. We are not using the heat pump and are using four electric heaters, which keep us warmer, but we don't leave them on when we go to bed.

"Is Prescott too cold for a heat pump? If so, why are they selling heat pumps here? What are the solutions?"

I can understand how frustrating this must be. When I see a heat pump in a home, I have the following comment in my inspection reports.

"The home is heated by a heat pump. A heat pump is (simply put) an air conditioner with a reverse mode. Heat pumps are under-powered for the area, and should have a supplemental or emergency heater. The thermostat has an emergency heat switch position on the cool/off/heat switch. Turning on the emergency heat turns on the supplemental heater and turns off the compressor. In most systems you should never have to turn the system to emergency heat; it will cycle on automatically if needed.

"It is possible the exterior unit could become iced up during very cold wet weather. If this occurs in newer systems, it should automatically turn on the emergency heat and defrost itself. In older systems, you may hear an unusual noise (from the fan not turning because of ice) or you may notice the supply air is only room temperature. If either of these occurs. you should turn the thermostat to emergency heat and call a heating contractor immediately."

I have a few suggestions for you, but I can't believe the heating contractor would not have checked these. Often when I hear a heat pump is blowing out cold air, in reality it's not. A gas furnace supply air temperature is usually over 120 degrees and will feel warm. But a heat pump supply air temperature is usually less than 100 degrees, and may not feel warm to a human hand, especially if you are checking the temperature a few feet away from the supply vent. However, if the heat pump is not heating the home, then this is likely not the problem.

When the heat pump is running, the outside compressor should be running (the large fan should be turning and the large refrigerant line should be hot). If not, then the heat pump is not working properly. When the heat pump is in "defrost" cycle, the compressor will not be running but the emergency heat will be on and you should still be getting warm air from the supply vents.

Your thermostat switch will have an "em heat" or "aux heat" position. Setting the switch to this position should turn off the compressor and turn on the "emergency heat." You should be getting warm air at the supply vents when the switch is in this position. So you should set this switch to "em heat" when the supply air is not warm.

If you are not getting heat in the heat pump mode or emergency heat mode, you may have multiple problems. It could be the thermostat, reversing valve, circuit board or some other component. I'm not a heating contractor, so all I can do is recommend a heating contractor to diagnose and correct the problem.

Of course, in this case the problem is that the heating contractor can't find the problem. You might try contacting the manufacturer. Most manufacturers have field representatives or engineers that make "house calls" when a local contractor cannot find the problem.

Randy West owns Professional Building Consultants in Prescott. He is a state-certified home inspector and has performed almost 6,000 home inspections in the Prescott area. West is past president of the Arizona chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors, and currently serves on the Home Inspector Rules and Standards Committee for the Arizona Board of Technical Registration. Contact him at

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