Many homes have access panels for the rough-in plumbing of showers. The access panel is an opening, usually covered with a rectangular piece of wood, and sometimes surrounded with decorative trim for aesthetics. The purpose of the opening/panel is to provide fast and easy access to plumbing in the event of an emergency or for other work that may need done at any time; and most homeowners attempt to make the access as visually appealing as possible since visible plumbing isn’t exactly attractive.
The balance between concealing things that are unsightly while still providing easy access to them is a difficult but important one. If you have an unfinished basement, a majority of your plumbing is exposed and accessible. This may not look good, but it’s very practical. Likewise, an access panel on a first or second floor may be a slight aesthetic drawback but may prove vital if quick access is ever necessary.
As a home inspector, I generally consider practicality more important than looks while recognizing the importance of attempting to balance the two as best as possible. And what I’m about to suggest is not a common practice but is one I would encourage you to consider to prevent unwanted problems at any point in the future.
A while back, the second floor bathroom toilet in my own home leaked due to an old rotted flange. The drain exists above a dining room, and I ended up replacing the entire drywall ceiling in the dining room with a wood ceiling (after first repairing the toilet). In addition to that work, though, I decided to also do something else to make life easier moving forward. I created a small hinged access panel in the new wood ceiling beneath the toilet so that if a leak occurs again in the future I can quickly access the area and provide an opening for water to drain through, as opposed to water damaging the ceiling with no easy way to escape.
Now, most homeowners wouldn’t be thrilled with the idea of having a visible access panel in a first floor ceiling. In fact, that’s the main reason they aren’t nearly as common as shower access panels that exist in walls, and often in relatively concealed areas like closets. You may be surprised, though, by how inconspicuous ceiling access panels can be with thoughtful planning and good installation. Most of our visitors never notice the access panel in our dining room ceiling because it blends in very well and the hardware is very small. Granted, this is more easily achieved with wood than with drywall, but ceiling access panels can still be added in a way that doesn’t greatly diminish appearances.
I wouldn’t recommend carving out sections of ceilings beneath drains just to have access. After all, you may never have a leak that causes noticeable damage and couldn’t be identified and repaired quickly. If you do have a leak that requires repair work to the ceiling below, however, I would encourage you to consider installing an aesthetically appealing access panel at that time while the area is already open so you can lessen or remove future trouble.
Beyond being fairly simple to install, drop ceilings are popular – especially in basements – because ceiling tiles can be quickly removed for easy access to plumbing. Some homes have dropped ceilings on the first or second floors, but most homes have fixed ceilings – typically drywall – so access requires removing a section of the material that would need repaired rather than simply removing a panel or two that can easily be put back in place.
We all want an aesthetically appealing home, but it’s important to also ensure that your home is practically designed to enable quick access to areas and components that are prone to possible defects. Achieving this goal is easiest and makes the most sense during the time when a repair is actually being made. If you ever encounter a leak from a second story, consider installing an inconspicuous access panel beneath the drain in the ceiling at that time. It will likely go mostly unnoticed, and you’ll be very glad you did it if and when another leak occurs.
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