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Tips to Avoid Drilling Into Pipes or Wires

A light switch is installed in new home construction.

From time to time, certain projects require drilling holes into the walls of a home. For example, drywall anchors, commonly used for hanging pictures and other décor, typically require a hole to be predrilled before anchor installation. Drilling holes may also be required to hang heavier items such as TV mounts, surround sound speakers, and mirrors, to name a few, so they can be securely anchored into the framing behind the drywall. Care must be taken when drilling into the walls of a home, as hazards may lie just below the surface. Common in-wall hazards include electrical wiring, hot and cold water lines, drain pipes, and natural gas lines—the following aims to shed light on these potential hazards and how to avoid drilling into them.


Typical Wiring Patterns in New Homes

Electrical wiring exists as the most widespread hazard when it comes to drilling through walls. Every outlet, light switch, wall sconce, etc., has at least one run of wire going to and from it. As a general rule of thumb, wiring for light switches runs vertically up the wall to the ceiling above, where it is routed to the appropriate light fixture. Wiring for outlets around the lower wall section can run either vertically down from the ceiling or horizontally through the studs from one outlet to the next. In multi-level homes, these wiring runs may come from the floor below instead of coming down from the ceiling.

Holes should not be drilled directly above, below, or to the side of any electrical switches or outlets. Per the 2018 International Residential Code, electrical wires should be set back no less than 1-1/4 inches from the edge of the framing lumber.1 Limiting drilling depth to less than 1-1/4 inches is a good start to reducing the risk of damaging wiring behind the drywall.

The 2018 International Residential Code also requires steel plates or sleeves to be installed to protect wiring that is run horizontally through the studs in the wall.1 These plates are applied where the wire passes through to prevent drill bits or fasteners from contacting the wire at stud locations. Therefore, if significant resistance is encountered when drilling through the drywall at a stud location, it may be due to one of these protective plates, and drilling should be stopped.

How Are Pipes Run Through Walls?

Like the electrical wiring running throughout a home, plumbing tubing and pipes are hidden just behind the drywall. Every plumbing fixture in a home, whether a shower, sink, washing machine, or others, has water supply lines and waste drain piping running to and from them. In addition to water lines, HVAC refrigerant lines and natural gas plumbing are also located in many homes’ walls. Therefore, the same care taken to avoid electrical wiring must also be considered to avoid plumbing lines.

Plumbing pipes are installed in new home construction.

In general, plumbing lines run either down from above or up from below to supply fixtures and appliances. There are exceptions, such as multiple fixtures in close proximity on the same wall and restrictive floor plan layout. In some scenarios, the plumbing lines may be run horizontally through the wall framing. Much like the safeties in place for electrical wiring, the 2018 International Residential Code also requires plumbing lines to be protected by steel plates in locations where they pass through framing members and are closer than 1-1/4 inches to the edge of the framing member.2

It is important to remember that plumbing fixtures may not be visible from both sides of a wall.  Prior to any drilling, ensure the wall cavity is free from any plumbing fixtures by inspecting both sides of the wall at the proposed drilling location.  This inspection also extends to exterior walls, as a hose spigot may be located on the exterior of the home.

Helpful Tools

Having a couple of standard tools on hand can significantly reduce the chances of drilling into wiring or plumbing. The first and simplest tools are a tape measure and a piece of masking tape. Generally speaking, the sheetrock used for wall application is ½ inch thick. Therefore, an easy way to limit drilling depth is to measure just over half an inch back from the drill bit’s tip and apply a masking tape “flag.” With a tape flag applied, a consistent, safe drilling depth is achieved efficiently. If you’re installing drywall anchors using a longer screw, it is best to drive it by hand using a screwdriver.

Another great tool to keep on hand is a stud finder. Many of the stud finders on the market today are sensitive enough to register not only the framing lumber behind the drywall but also the signature of electrical wiring and even some plumbing. Of course, a stud finder is not a foolproof way of identifying every electrical or plumbing hazard in the wall. Still, it may pick up a signal strong enough to warrant further investigation.

The type of drill bit being used must also be taken into consideration. Standard twist drills with a 118-degree or 135-degree cutting angle are preferred in most applications. Spade bits and Forstner bits cut more aggressively and can more easily damage wiring and plumbing below the surface of the drywall. Using the tape flag described above on a standard twist drill is a safer choice.

Best Practices

  • Before drilling any holes, ensure access is available to the water and gas shut-offs for the home.
  • If applicable, turn off breakers for the electrical circuits feeding the work area (ensure additional lighting is available if required)
  • Do not drill any deeper than is needed (1/2-inch for typical residential drywall)
  • Do not drill directly above, below, left, or right of any switches, outlets, or plumbing fixtures
  • Inspect both sides of the wall for possible hazards prior to drilling

Final Thoughts

Installing a big screen TV, a mirror, décor, or family photos on the wall is a great way to make a house become a home. Many of these items require holes to be drilled into the home’s walls. 

While there is no “one size fits all” rule for drilling holes in the walls of a home, the guidelines presented above should significantly reduce the chances of encountering the hazards that lurk behind the drywall. 


1https://codes.iccsafe.org/content/IRC2018/chapter-38-wiring-methods

2https://codes.iccsafe.org/content/IRC2018/chapter-26-general-plumbing-requirements

How much weight can a drywall anchor hold?

Without drywall anchors, our homes and businesses would look quite peculiar and drab without the many frames, décor, and other items that adorn their walls. Though the introduction of drywall has led to reduced material and labor costs and lower home prices, drywalls alone are not good at supporting the weights of objects that are mounted to them. This is because nails or screws driven through drywall can easily slip out with just a few pounds of weight. While lighter objects such as calendars and small décor can be successfully mounted to drywalls with nails or screws, what about larger objects?

Drywall anchors – special fastening devices that allow items to be mounted to walls without the need for studs – are the answer and were introduced to safely and secure heavy items to drywalls. In this article, we dive deep into what exactly drywall anchors are and how they work and discuss vital information regarding the different loads on both drywall and drywall anchors.

How do Drywall Anchors Work?

Different types of drywall anchors have different methods of securing into drywall. However, all drywall anchors work by gripping the drywall one way or another. By doing so, anchors can counteract the weight of a hung object safely. First, a pilot hole with a diameter that is recommended by the drywall anchor manufacturer is drilled into the drywall at the desired location. Then, drywall anchors are placed into or through the pilot holes. Once placed, screws can work with the anchor to create a secure connection, whether that is through expansion of the anchor within the wall or by forming a clamping force between the anchor and installed object.  

Rule #1: Always Look for a Stud

When mounting heavy objects, it is always preferable to screw at least 1” into a stud. If you can find at least one stud to use for mounting an object, you can be assured that you have a secure, reliable connection.

If you’re mounting something heavy and can’t find a stud, think about using a wood backing behind the drywall or adding a simple wooden mount that connects between two studs. All of the above do not require a drywall anchor.

Although drywall anchors are a convenient solution, using drywall anchors can be dangerous and cause serious injury if not used or installed correctly. It’s important not to surpass the recommended weights for drywall anchors when mounting objects. If you ever have doubts or reservations that a particular drywall anchor can support a specific weight, then consult with a professional. This article is presented for informational purposes only, and should not be used to exceed manufacturer recommendations.

Important Load Considerations When Using Drywall Anchors

While it can be easy to install drywall anchors, hang objects, and call the job done, it’s important to have an understanding of the different loads that act on an anchor when an object is mounted. By doing so, you can be more aware of the potential pitfalls of using drywall anchors and ensure safe usage every time.

When objects are mounted onto a drywall anchor/screw assembly, two main forces are developed: tensile and shear forces. Tensile forces are forces that act parallel to the shank of the screw and cause the screw and anchor to be pulled from the wall. Shear forces are forces that act perpendicular to the shank of the anchor and pull downwards. For objects mounted flat onto walls via a drywall anchor, the weight of the object is the shear force. If you mounted a hanging plant on a straight hook, there will be a tension force trying to pull it out of the wall. When evaluating the loads on an anchor, assess each force by itself.

While this discussion only considers simple loading, load analyses for drywall anchors can quickly become complicated with distributed loads or loads applied at noticeable distances from the wall.  Listed below are two key considerations when using drywall anchors:

1. Shear Forces

Shear forces are normally accounted for by the weight of an object. If an object is too heavy, it may dig into the drywall and enlarge the bottom opening of the hole. Depending on the type of anchor, this may create a situation where you find the anchor easily slips out of the wall. If you’re using a wall anchor that relies on a tight fit within the hole you drilled, you just lost much of your holding power. Typically advertised weight ratings will incorporate a safety factor, but even so, it is always best to work below the rating. This helps account for imperfect installations and unexpected, variable loads that may be placed on the object you’re mounting.

Consider using multiple drywall anchors to evenly distribute heavy loads amongst them so long as the partitioned load is still lower than the manufacturer’s recommendation. Be mindful of the placement of drywall anchors as placing them too close to each other or using an excessive amount of drywall anchors can actually compromise the strength of the drywall. Although you may come across data that shows ultimate load capacities for your anchor type, without perfect knowledge of testing conditions and your own materials you’re working with, don’t assume they are directly applicable to your installation.

2. Cantilevers and Tension

A cantilever is a structure, typically a beam, that is fixed and supported on one end while a load is applied on the opposite, free end. When an object is mounted at a distance from the wall, the drywall anchor/screw assembly effectively functions as a cantilever. Hence, torque is developed on the fixed end of the anchor that can pull the anchor out of the wall if loads are too high.

The weight distribution of a hung object can have a big impact on the forces experienced by the anchor. A common use for drywall anchors is to hang floating shelves or plant hanger hooks. These usually have items placed along the same axis as the anchor. For shelves, all you need is for one of a pair of anchors to be improperly installed for undue stress to be placed on one side of the mount. Therefore, the entire assembly can act as a cantilever. Objects placed on the end of the shelf or hook can create a “crowbar effect” in the drywall anchor which could rip the anchor out of the wall.

If you’re mounting a shelf with minimal bracket support, distributing the load will reduce the tension placed on the drywall anchor.

It’s recommended to distribute weights evenly between the wall and the edge of a floating shelf to prevent this effect. This is because distributing the load actually produces less torque at the wall which can be proven through an engineering static analysis. Consider using L-shaped brackets with drywall anchors to help bear some of the load and prevent the crowbar effect, too.

Will the Drywall Anchor or Drywall Fail First?

Drywall anchors have a max load that they can experience before failure. But what about the drywall?

According to the Gypsum Association, the flexural strength of various drywall types and thicknesses was found to be between 50-100 lbf, depending on the type and thickness of the drywall. Drywall samples were tested in accordance with ASTM C473. In this test, a horizontal piece of drywall is fixed while a testing apparatus pushes down on the center of the drywall to make it flex and eventually break. Additionally, the nail pull-out resistance in drywall was found to be anywhere between 40-100 lbf, depending on the thickness of the drywall.

If you’ve ever taken a close look at the test data for a particular type of drywall, you may notice that the flexural strength varies depending on whether it is installed parallel (vertically) or perpendicular (horizontally) to the framing. When you take into account that you could be dealing with 16” or 24” stud spacing, you may find that drywall can be much stronger (or even much weaker) than you might expect.

Drywall anchors and the holes with which they are mounted are small relative to the size of an entire drywall panel. Because shear forces and moments created by drywall anchors are localized, the drywall should not fail so long as drywall anchors are installed properly and not too close to each other. It’s more likely you may have to contend with some localized crumbling due to variable forces placed on a particular anchor.

Final Thoughts

Drywall anchors are exceptionally useful fastening devices if they are used with an acknowledgement of their limitations. Our offerings include self-drilling anchors in diecast zinc or Nylon and toggle bolt assemblies. For more information check our latest guide How to Choose a Drywall Anchor to see which drywall anchor is right for your project.

How to Choose a Drywall Anchor

Drywall anchors make for easy installation of paintings, pictures, shelves, and much more. Unlike drywall screws or nails, drywall anchors don’t require a stud behind the drywall panel. This allows you to securely install them without damaging drywall, which is a soft material.


Sheetrock vs Drywall vs Gypsum

Before we jump into drywall anchors, let’s take a look at drywall itself. Sheetrock, drywall, and gypsum are popular terms used to refer to the same thing – drywall panels.

Sheetrock is actually a brand of drywall, but it’s a term typically used in a generic way (known as a proprietary eponym or generic trademark). Gypsum is the material you find in drywall panels. It’s a soft sulfate mineral. When referring to drywall, each term has its place. Remember that gypsum is a component of drywall panels and Sheetrock is a brand of drywall. Many contractors use these terms interchangeably.

Drywall is a popular material for building homes, offices, and more. It allows for the effective creation of flat walls. It’s usually fastened to wood studs with drywall screws or nails. As mentioned before, drywall anchors are ideal in situations where there isn’t a stud in the location. Drywall anchors help secure any number of items, including picture frames.

Types of Drywall Anchors

Drywall anchors are extremely handy. But which drywall anchor should you choose? Here are different types of drywall anchors (and their respective applications).

Self Drilling Drywall Anchors

Want to secure something 10 to 25 pounds in weight? Self-drilling drywall anchors are great for light-weight applications. These anchors typically come in two options: self-drilling plastic drywall anchors and self-drilling metal drywall anchors.

KapToggle

As a type of snap toggle anchor or toggle bolt, the KapToggle drywall anchor is ideal for securing fixtures to drywall (as well as masonry). This anchor is three times stronger than typical wall fasteners. It is made of a combination of nylon and zinc-plated steel.

Expansion Anchor

A Sammy Sammy Rod Hanger Drywall vertical anchor (aka Toggle Bolt) is ideal for heavier items like ceiling fans, shelving, and cabinets. For example, a ½” Sammy Bolt can safely hold approximately 100 pounds. Note: we recommend the use of Sammy Nut Drivers with the installation of Sammy Screws.

Zinc Plated Toggle Wing Anchors

Great for hollow wall applications (meaning there’s space on the other side of the drywall), Zinc Plated Toggle Wing Anchors are usually used as replacements for spring wings in toggle anchor installations.

Plastic Toggle Anchors

Need to hang drapery rods, towel bars, soap dishes, and the like? Plastic toggle anchors are the go-to option when it comes to drywall applications. One benefit is that the single-piece anchors stay in place, even after the screw has been removed from it.

If you’re hanging lightweight art, consider using a classic picture hanger.

How to Install Drywall Anchors

There can be slight varieties to these steps depending on the type of anchor. Here are the basic steps to install a drywall anchor:

  1. Use a measuring tape and pencil to mark the location of the drywall anchor.
  2. Make what’s called a pilot hole with a drill with the proper size drill bit.
  3. Place drywall anchor into hole and tap into place with a hammer.
  4. Make sure anchor heads are flush to the drywall surface.
  5. Install screw with a screwdriver.

How to Remove Drywall Anchors

Need to remove a drywall anchor? Whether relocating shelves or prepping a clean wall surface, it pays to know how to properly deal with anchors (and patch the drywall surface). Below, you’ll find four ways to remove anchor screws.

Before you start, you’ll need some common tools. Here’s a list:

  • Needle-nose pliers
  • Hammer
  • Utility knife
  • Drill (and cutting wheel)
  • Screwdriver
  • Nails
  • Protective eyewear
  • Drywall compound
  • Drywall knife or spatula
  • Sandpaper
  • Microfiber cloth or rag

Method 1: Pull Out Anchor

This method is pretty intuitive. With the help of needle-nose pliers, you can oftentimes safely pull out an anchor. Use a back-and-forth motion to gently wiggle the anchor out of place. If for some reason this doesn’t work, don’t force it. Check out the other methods.

Method 2: Back Out Anchor

This approach requires a screwdriver. Use one that fits snugly into the anchor. With a counter-clockwise motion, turn the screwdriver until the anchor comes out of the drywall. If this doesn’t do the trick, move on to Method 3.

Method 3: Cut and Hammer Anchor

Make sure to use protective eyewear. Using a drill with a one-inch cutting wheel, carefully cut off the anchor head. Next, tap a wide nail with a hammer on the mouth of the anchor. This should cause it to sink behind drywall. Be careful while using a cutting wheel.

Method 4: Recess Drywall Anchor

Sometimes the best approach is to recess the anchor instead of removing it. Begin by scoring the drywall surface with a utility knife. Then, take a screwdriver wider than the head of the anchor. Tap lightly with a hammer until it’s sunk down enough. Finally, patch it.

How to Patch Drywall Anchor Holes

Removing a drywall anchor is the first step. Next, it’s time to smooth it all out. How do you fill drywall anchor holes? Follow these three steps for a clean repair.

  1. First, grab a hammer. Tap gently around the edges of the anchor hole. Once the edges are flush with the surrounding surface, wipe down with a microfiber cloth or clean rag.
  2. Using an “X” pattern, fill the hole with drywall putty. You can use either a drywall spatula or knife. Remove excess compound and make flush with the wall. Let it dry overnight.
  3. Last but not least, use medium-grit sandpaper to smooth out the surface. Wipe down with a rag or microfiber cloth. Then, you can apply touchup paint.

Final Thoughts

Drywall anchors are a fantastic way to ensure your home fixtures and other items are properly secured to walls and ceilings. From art to towel racks to cabinets, these anchors provide easy application and peace of mind.

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