Odd house noises can signal trouble, or deceive

Perplexed looking man stares at ceiling​Homeowners who hear bumps in the night often grow uneasy, not because they fear spooks or prowlers.

They fear leaky pipes, balky furnaces, vermin in the attic, and other trouble that can harm their homes and bleed their budgets.

I had such a scare last week. It vexed me for days, stealing attention from family and work. But before I explain, think for a moment about your own home.

Have you ever been baffled by a noise you couldn't explain? Perhaps it's a scratching sound in the ceiling, or a banging in the walls, or a whistling around the heat vents. Or the entire home seems to creak and pop randomly.

grey mouse with pink feetScratching sounds are distinctive, and regrettably, they often indicate rodents inside your walls or above the ceiling. Mice, rats, and other critters can harm your home by shredding insulation, chewing wires, and dropping feces. You're right to be alarmed and you should expel them right away, preferably with traps – rat poison might leave you with rodent carcasses decaying inside your home.

Banging or thumping often indicates air in your water pipes, or surging water being stopped suddenly, what's called "water hammer." Does it sound only when you open a faucet, or flush the toilet? If it's trapped air, you might try bleeding your plumbing and see if that purges it: Turn off your main water valve, then open each faucet in the house until they all run dry. Reopen your main valve and see if the banging disappears. If not, you might have water hammer. Call a plumber to see if installing arresters would help.

Whistling around heat vents simply might mean you have a clogged furnace filter, and what you hear is air being forced through tight spaces around the filter. Solution: replace your filters, which you should do about every three months.

man looks for noise inside heat ductCreaks and pops can startle you, because some homes do it loudly. Generally it's harmless, caused by wind gusts or contraction or expansion as the heat fluctuates inside and outside your home. Often it's heard during the first sunny, toasty days of spring or summer, or the first fall frost – a time when furnaces might cause clanking as the dormant ductwork expands and contracts.

If you hear running water when no one is using water in the home, chances are you're in the bathroom. Check your toilet to see if your flapper valve is worn out. If it is, the float valve inside your toilet tank will keep feeding water to compensate what's leaking past the flapper. Test this by putting a few drops of food coloring in the tank, then return later to see if there's colored water in your bowl. If so and if you're handy, replace the flapper and float assembly. It's easy, and they're fairly cheap at any hardware store. However, if you hear running water elsewhere in the home, it might signal a broken pipe. That happened to us once – it was an outside irrigation pipe.

What alarmed me last week was a water leak. I was sure of it. Sitting at my computer alone in a quiet house, I heard drip-drip-drip emanating from the ceiling near a wall. I'd never heard it before, and it was loud enough to draw my attention.

I looked for water and telltale stains on the wall, floor, and ceiling, but found none. I flushed the toilet upstairs to see if the noise disappeared. Instead, the drip seemed to accelerate. I rushed to the main water valve for our house (ours is in the laundry room) and closed it, then spent the next two hours opening and closing faucets and valves all around the house to discern cause and effect. In hindsight, the drip-drip sound fluctuated. I couldn't detect a pattern.

black plastic drain pipe like whats found in homesI phoned a plumber, who wanted to know if I saw any water. Nope. He was dubious I had a leak – typically, leaks reveal themselves visually, not by sound. He asked me to put my ear to the wall and ceiling and try to pinpoint the source. I found it inside a wall. Then I realized the drip-drip-drip might actually be more of a tap-tap, or tick-tick sound. The plumber said that's consistent with contraction and expansion of pipes rubbing against wood studs.

Then I went under the house into my crawlspace to look for signs of a leak. Nothing … but I heard the dripping or tapping sound, then isolated it to a black plastic pipe that connects with the sewer drain pipe. It might be a vent pipe that extends vertically all the way to my roof.

Does the sound emanate from inside that pipe, or the outside surface of that pipe? Beats me! It's a troubling noise, for sure.

Today, five days later, there's still no sign of water. And today the noise is entirely gone! Baffling. I'll write an update if I discover anything useful for other homeowners.

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