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Renovating Older Homes: Addressing Drainage Issues and Blocked Drains

Published October 14, 2023
Updated: October 14, 2023
Est. Reading: 9 minutes

Many homebuyers on the market seek out old properties for their unique charms. Some old houses are highly sought after because of their desirable location, while others come with a fascinating history and classical appeal. Then, renovations and improved interior design breathe new life into the property and further its chances for value appreciation.

Giving an old house a new look goes beyond superficial or aesthetic improvement. Renovations should also restore the house’s functionality and integrity. This includes improving its structure and utilities, including its drainage systems. However, if you’re dealing with homes that have been around and lived in for a long time, the drainage systems may have deteriorated or incurred damage.

Identifying drainage problems can be tricky for homeowners, and even some renovators, especially since damage or deterioration may be difficult to detect behind walls, buried under ground, or run through floors and ceilings. For this reason, it’s essential to perform a pre-purchase home inspection and consider drain systems cleaning, repair, and even possible replacement should it be required.

Checking and improving the drain systems could entail extensive work and resources, but they’re essential to ensuring that the house will be fully functional and safe for future occupants.

There could be many causes of blocked drains and other damage in older homes that may not have been addressed over the years. Here are some of them:

Common causes of drainage issues in the kitchen

  • Accumulated fat and grease from cooking: Drains clogged with fat and oil may be among the most challenging issues to resolve when keeping the system functional. These substances can quickly accumulate within the pipes, especially with heavy kitchen use.

When left unresolved, blockage in the kitchen pipes can cause mold growth, foul odors, infestation, leaks, or flooding.

  • Trapped food scraps: While many households use garbage disposal to manage solid food waste in the kitchen, having trapped food scraps in the kitchen sink remains a possibility, especially for older homes.

If the previous owners didn’t perform routine drain cleaning, it’s highly likely for the pipes to accumulate food waste over time.

  • Broken garbage disposal: A broken garbage disposal may affect a sink’s ability to drain completely. Aside from this, a damaged disposal unit may cause other problems, such as foul odors in the kitchen and leaking pipes.

It’s important to note that garbage disposals usually have a life span of around 10 years, so if you’re working with an older home, check if the disposal unit needs a replacement.

Common causes of blocked drains in the bathroom

  • Hair: Hair fall can block the shower and bath drains and quickly accumulate without regular cleaning. While hair can easily flow out of pipes, it usually gets trapped by other sediments from the bathroom, like soap and oily substances.

Hair clogs can become a persistent concern requiring drain and pipe disassembly, which plumbing professionals usually perform. This process is generally done when chemical solutions or drain snakes can’t resolve the clogging completely.

  • Foreign objects: Some of the most common foreign things trapped in bathroom drains include coins, toys, bottle caps, and other non-biodegradable packaging.

Initially, small foreign objects trapped in the sink or drain may seem minor if they don’t cause significant blockages. However, these objects can become barriers to the water flow, especially when mixed with other sediments.

Other types of drain blockers

Around the home, various other forms of drain blockage can arise, each presenting distinct challenges. Scale and mineral accumulation pose a common threat, gradually impeding the flow of water. Additionally, the accumulation of chemicals can add to blockages, leading to issues in the drainage system.

Leaves and twigs, often carried by wind or rain, can clog drains and hinder water passage. Furthermore, structural damage to the drainage infrastructure can make blockages worse, leading to more severe issues. These diverse factors highlight the importance of regular maintenance and prompt addressing of drainage concerns to ensure optimal functionality.

Signs of drainage issues

As with any other instance of household damage, drainage issues are best tackled early on. However, it’s highly likely to come across years of drain blockage and other problems when you’re renovating an old house.

Here are some signs of drainage issues you’ll have to look out for:

  • Leaking gutters: A damage-free, fully functioning water channel on the roof should remain dry on an average day. Any unnatural water flow in the drain or downspouts means some collected rainwater has remained stagnant due to blockage. Water damage may present itself in signs such as muddy water streaks around the gutters or peeling paint on the walls.

Leaking gutters can further weaken or damage walls, sidings, paint, and even the home’s foundation, so it must be addressed promptly.

  • Heavy water flow from downspouts: The primary function of downspouts is to drain water directly to the troughs and channel it away from the house. It’s a sign of a drainage problem if the water from the gutters flows too close to the house’s foundation or walls.

If your downspouts are faulty, you may notice water pooling near the sidings or on certain spots around your lawn. Over time, the uncontrolled or stagnant water flow can seep into the foundation and damage the basement. Your furniture and other items in your home may also be exposed to excess moisture.

If you’re planning to renovate your homes exterior, ensure either you, or your chosen contractor ensures that the new gutters and downspouts have good flow and drainage to avoid damage.

  • Structural damage to foundations and walls: You can observe cracks on the foundation or flaking on the walls if they’re constantly exposed to moisture or water. If the drainage system isn’t fixed promptly, the damage could worsen over time and pose safety risks, especially in older homes.
  • Water stains: Another example of damage caused by faulty drainage is water stains. Watch out for surfaces marked with water streaks, discoloration, or signs of rot or decay. These signs indicate exposure to moisture or leaks.
  • Mineral deposits: The minerals from hard water collect on pipes and other surfaces where water flows. Calcium or limescale deposits are the most common causes of buildups that create blockage in drainage systems.
  • Excessive humidity: Here in Alberta we have fairly dry air, especially in the winter. If you notice that the air in the house feels heavy or muggy, drainage issues must be causing it. The extra moisture mixes with the air inside the house and, with poor ventilation, affects air quality.
  • Mold growth: If you notice earthy or musty smells inside the home, it might be a sign of mold growth. These smells might emanate from faulty drains and pipes, and you might also notice a visible growth of mold around the area.

Mold growth is a health hazard, and it’s crucial to hire professional services for mold testing and remediation before working on renovations.

  • Sewer smell: Drainage systems are designed to not only rid the house of wastewater but also to remove the unpleasant smell and dangerous gases associated with it. If you notice foul odors in areas with drainage systems around the home, this may be a sign of blockage or damage. Be careful in this scenario because inhaling sewage gas can be harmful for your health.
A person in a pink glove addressing blocked drains while cleaning a sink in an older home.

Why you need to address drainage problems

  • To maintain comfort, functionality, and convenience in the household: No matter how beautiful a house is, it will be challenging to stay in if you have drainage issues. Using the bathroom, kitchen, and other parts of the house can be uncomfortable or inconvenient if pipe leaks, foul odors, or blockages occur.
  • To avoid health hazards: Blocked drains and other drainage problems could expose occupants to harmful substances. For one, wastewater is unsanitary and could impact indoor air quality. Drinking water and food would also be at risk of contamination.

A blocked drain can cause sewage water to stagnate and release harmful gases. These gases can cause various issues, including shortness of breath, fatigue, headaches, poor concentration, dizziness, and loss of appetite. Long-term exposure to these toxic gases can lead to more severe health complications.

  • To prevent pest problems: A faulty drainage system means that your home could harbor pollutants or contaminants from wastewater. This unsanitary state could attract pests, which can threaten the health and safety of your home’s occupants.

Many insects thrive in dark and moist environments. Excess moisture in dark areas of the home could cause an infestation. Water pooling in gutters and other parts of the house can also become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which poses health hazards for the household. Meanwhile, the foul smell that comes from sewage water can attract rodents and other pests.

  • To minimize property damage: This may not be as visible as the other consequences mentioned, but drainage and blockage issues can cause severe damage to a property, particularly one that’s quite old. The presence of stagnant water or exposure to excess moisture can cause many parts of the house to deteriorate.

For instance, drainage issues on the lawn can kill plants and erode the soil in the garden. The excess water can cause plant roots to rot, while flowing water from the downspouts can displace soil from garden beds. This will impact the garden’s appearance and prevent it from thriving.

Meanwhile, water damage can slowly impact the structural integrity of a house. Water leaks in the walls, either from rainwater or sewage, can seep into wood and insulation materials. If they’re constantly moist, the walls will weaken, and the insulation will lose its effectiveness.

Aside from the reasons above, it’s also important to note that a faulty drainage system can be a financial liability for new homeowners. You might face expensive repairs, permanent damage that would require complete overhauls, and in extreme cases, a decrease in property value.

Because of this, owners or potential buyers need to consider the quality of the drainage system before putting a property on the market, before purchasing an older home, or when in the process of renovation.

The key to making your home renovation project work despite drainage issues is to know where to look, be prepared, and get expert help. It will also help you allocate your resources where they would be most beneficial.

When to call the experts

As you renovate an old home, you might encounter a mixed bag of drainage problems. Some issues may have done minimal damage to the structure, while others may be more labor-intensive or complex.

Depending on your skills and experience, resolving some drainage problems unaided may be possible. However, it may be wiser to call the experts if you find yourself in any of the following scenarios:

  • Extensive or multiple blockages: A DIY solution may not be enough if the drainage problems involve several pipelines in the house or the root cause is difficult to determine. The water channels and drainage design can be unique for each household, and resolving certain problems requires a certified plumbing expert’s trained eye and skillful hands.

It’s best to call a professional if you’re dealing with complex or extensive damage; this ensures you’ll get the right results and avoid the risk of further damaging the drainage system.

This is also applicable if the previous homeowners have complained about persistent blockage issues in specific parts of the house. Repeated blockage issues may be an indication of structural errors that are best left for professionals to resolve.

  • Foul-smelling and discolored water: Another scenario to leave to the professionals is water contamination. If you suspect that you have toxic water running through the household pipes or drains or if you notice an unusual odor or color in the tap water, it’s best to avoid contact.

Sewage water in any area of the house should be considered a severe health risk. Contaminated water may contain toxic substances, chemicals, and waste, which could be harmful when inhaled, touched, or ingested. It’s best to halt any renovation until the house is cleared of potentially toxic water.

  • Blockages that cause sewage backup and indoor flooding: Sewage backups can pose high risks of gray and black water exposure. If your sinks or toilets are clogged, the wastewater can spread to other parts of the house. Furthermore, you may be exposed to the gasses and substances that emanate from the water. This can be harmful to your health, so it’s best to have experts with the right skills and tools to resolve the issue.


If you plan on renovating your home, especially an older home, ensure that you’re focusing not just on how it looks. Ensure that you or your contractor is addressing any outdated, damaged or deteriorating utilities in the home. Should you find yourself either beginning a renovation or remediation project due to drainage issues, or you’ve just begin work on an interior renovation and discovered issues once you started opening the walls, ensure that you let the experts guide you through any drainage problems that need to be addressed before you upgrade your property. While dealing with drainage and blockage issues may require more work and resources, it’s highly doable if you know who to call for help. It’s the wise thing to do to protect your health, safety, and investment.

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