DIY Plumbing Guide
Problems with the plumbing in a house are an almost routine occurrence and many a times it does not need one to go searching for a plumber to fix it and pay out large sums in the process. A little knowledge on how to deal with the problems independently can indeed make life a lot easier.How many times has someone asked you "Know a good plumber?" Would you even recognize a good plumber if you fell over one? Most of us give little thought to the health of our home's plumbing, never mind the maintenance of our pipes, hoses, toilets, sinks, tubs, hot water heaters or garbage disposals until we are in the middle of a crises, like when the engagement ring goes down the garbage disposal or the hot water heater gives way suddenly and floods the basement.
At one time or another, each of us has probably experienced at least one of the following common plumbing problems:
The toilet in your mother-in-law's home won't flush, the bowl won't fill and you are expected at the dinner table momentarily.
You are scalded in the shower when your wife flushes the toilet.
You run out of hot water when showering and finish in a shivering rise of cold water.
The leaky faucet or the running toilet keeps you up at night.
You turn on the faucet to the hose expecting the water to come out the end of the hose; instead, the water blasts directly at you from the hose-faucet connection. Whoops, unexpected bath.
You feel guilty wasting water at the kitchen sink but you run it anyway waiting for it to become hot.
You try to scrub the tub, but the water takes so long to drain that you are always left with a puddle of grunge at the drain. Yuck!
Your toilet overflowed while you were away and now you are standing in 2 inches of water.
Plumbing problems and emergencies are no joke, especially when you are in the throes of attempting to resolve one. When you need a plumber, who will you call? How will you know if your plumber is qualified to resolve your issue?
What It Takes To Become a Plumber
In a nutshell, the trade of plumbing involves working with pipes and equipment that are specifically designed to transport and drain water. As simplistic as this definition seems, the trade of plumbing includes a large number of specialties: pipe laying and fitting; HVAC, septic and sprinkler (interior and exterior) installation; and the management of drainage for public works projects (roads, bridges, developments) and utility providers. To further complicate matters, there are specialties within specialties too, each requiring specific training.
Plumbers work in commercial and residential settings and at infrastructure sites like highways and tunnels. They can be self-employed, work within an industry like construction or be hired as a contractor by a plumbing company or a government entity.
Career counselors report that successful candidates for the trade of plumbing typically exhibit high mechanical aptitudes, above average manual dexterity, solid math and problem-solving skills, and an ability to tolerate working in cramped spaces.
You might be surprised to know that plumbers are among the highest paid technicians in the construction industry, a fact that is directly related to the years of education and experience that are required to become a licensed plumber. Plumbers are expected to complete a professional training curriculum in a trade or vocational school, a 4-5 year apprenticeship and in most states, a state licensing exam.
Plumber licensing requirements vary from state to state and some states delineate between levels of plumbing expertise by correlating years of experience with various licensing levels. The most typical licensing levels are: apprentice, journey plumber, and master plumber.
There are two important factors for consumers to consider when hiring a plumber other than making sure that he/she is properly licensed. The first is to determine the plumber's experience level and the second is to match the plumber's specialty with the task you want done. For example, there is no point in hiring an expert pipe fitter if what you really need is a general household plumber to unstop a drain.
Protecting Your Plumbing
As much as you may admire your plumber, if you care about saving money there are a number of things that you can do yourself to protect the functioning and longevity of your home's plumbing systems.
To clear a jam: Turn off the motor and the water. Find the disposal unit under the sink and insert a ¼ inch Allen wrench into the hole at the bottom of the unit. Move the wrench back and forth until it can be turned in concentric circles. After freeing the moveable parts, use tongs to remove the item that caused the jam and then push the red reset button.
Always run COLD, not hot, water into the drain from your faucet when using the disposal.
Avoid overloading the disposal. If you have to dispose of a large amount of food, dispose of it a little at a time.
Don't put high fiber foods such as celery, corn husks, artichoke leaves or onion peels into a disposal.
Coffee grinds should not be dumped into a disposal.
Eliminate odors caused by food particles in your disposal by running it every time you put anything into it. If odors remain, combine lemon or orange peels with ice cubes and turn your disposal on for a few seconds, then flush with cold water.
Keep a degreasing product for disposals handy just in case.
Children are especially hard on bathroom drains dropping everything from toothpaste caps to bubblegum down them. For this reason, always use screens on all your bathroom sink drains. These screens will keep objects from disappearing down the drain and trap hair and soap chips too. But you must remove the screens every now and then and clean them thoroughly.
Use a strainer in your kitchen sink to trap debris and keep the disposal orifice covered when it is not in use.
It is preferable to unclog a drain by mechanical means whenever possible. Chemical drain cleaners should be used sparingly, especially if you have brass, steel, or cast iron pipes which are easily corroded by the chemicals.
Keep a bottle of vinegar and a box of baking soda near every sink and once a month pour one cup of the baking soda followed by one cup of the vinegar down the drain.
It is also good idea to pour 2 or 3 gallons of boiling water down shower, tub and kitchen sink drains once a month to loosen grease and flush away trapped particles like hair.
Pop-up stoppers in sinks and tubs should be removed twice a month and rinsed off.
If your shower drain clogs and you have already removed and cleaned the trap and poured boiling hot water down it, try using a plunger to see if that will add the extra push needed to unjam the clog. Follow with more hot water before turning to a chemical drain cleaner or if you have a plumber's snake, first try inserting that into the shower drain to see if it will remove the clog.
Every bathtub has an overflow drain which also collects debris. Remove the overflow plate on the drain every 3-4 months and pull up on the pop-up assembly. Locate the spring or rocker arm, clean it and replace.
Your washing machine hose should have a lint trap installed at the drain outlet to prevent lint clogs.
Caring for Faucets and Pipes
Always repair or replace a leaking faucet immediately because even a slow leak can waste huge amounts of water (as much as 15-20 gallons a day). You may need to replace the faucet altogether or just the dirty or worn seal. An unattended leak can not only ruin floors and cabinets, but if the leak is caused by a worn seal, the faucet itself may become damaged and eventually require replacement.
Keep an outdoor faucet from freezing by removing the hose from the faucet, closing the shut-off valve to the pipe that leads to the outdoor faucet, and draining the pipe of residual water by turning the faucet on again.
Indoor frozen pipes can be a real headache and serious damage can result if they break. To prevent freezing, leave cabinet doors under the sink open on very cold days or when you will be absent for long periods to expose the pipes to the heated air in your home.
Make sure that all pipes are well insulated to protect them from freezing temperatures and wind. This includes pipes in your unheated garage and in your basement. Keep the garage door closed to the outside on very cold days and leave the basement door open to the heated air in the rest of your home. In severe cold weather, faucets can be allowed to trickle slowly into sinks, but this practice should be avoided unless absolutely necessary so as not to waste water. If your pipes do freeze, you may be in for a long wait. Here's what you should try before calling a plumber: (1) turn off the main water supply to your home (2) turn on all your faucets to relieve the pressure that can build up as the ice melts and (3) try using a hair dryer or heat gun to thaw the pipes. NEVER USE A BLOW TORCH!
You should replace the washers in all of your interior hoses twice a year and once a year for exterior hoses. In hard water areas, lime and other compounds can buildup on the inside of washers causing them to leak or squirt.
Hoses will last longer if you run cold water through them after using hot water.
Plumbing-Related Problems and Resolutions
If your gas or oil-fired water heater frequently runs out of hot water during your shower or bath leaving you shivering and cold, you may need to investigate a larger unit. However, you want to be sure that you don't buy a size larger than your needs require because keeping large quantities of water hot is an expensive proposition. Before you contact a plumber or HVAC specialist, you may want to estimate the size you think you will need to enable you to compare the prices of units that meet your estimated size requirement and then budget as necessary for a new one. The chart below will help in estimating the size you will need based on the number of gallons of hot water that you will use in an hour when your system is a peak capacity.
Shower 10 to 15 gal.
Bath 10 to 25 gal.
Shaving 2 gal.
Hair washing 4 gal.
Washing hands and face 2 gal.
Preparing one meal 5 gal.
Dishwasher Load 12 to 15 gal.
Washing dishes by hand 4 gal.
One load of clothes set on warm wash/cold rinse 10 to 12 gal.
When thinking about purchasing a new water heater, always look for the ASRAE/EIS energy rating. A rating of 90 or above means it is an energy efficient unit, but if the rating falls below 90, you should consider wrapping your water heater with insulation to prevent heat loss and improve its efficiency. Twice a year you should drain the sediment that accumulates at the bottom of the water heater. This is accomplished by opening the drain valve and draining about 5 gallons into a bucket until the water runs clear.
Checking for Leaks and Your Water Bill
Checking for leaks is an important part of plumbing maintenance and preventing those leaks is vital to your water usage bill. In addition to checking for dripping faucets and leaking water under sinks and around drain pipes, there are three other possibilities: a leaking toilet, an underground leak or another leak inside your home that you are unable to detect.
You can check for leaks in your toilet by adding a few drops of food coloring or several tablespoons of Kool-Aid or instant coffee to the toilet tank. Allow the toilet to sit unflushed for 30 minutes. When you return, look in the toilet bowl. If the formerly clear water has any color from the substance that you put in the tank then it has a leak and probably will need a replacement stopper and valve seat.
If your water bill suddenly takes an unexpected leap and you have ruled out the toilet and other visible leaks as sources, you may have an underground leak or a leak inside your home that you are unable to detect. There are several ways to check for a leak that you cannot see. Turn off the main water valve that serves your home and then check your water meter. If it continues to turn, you may have an underground leak. Alternately, if you plan to be away from your house for a period of time, write down the numbers on your meter before you leave and compare them to the numbers on your meter when you return. If the numbers have changed, there may be a leak somewhere inside your home.
Children sometimes mistake toilet bowls for personal marinas, floating everything in them from ducks, boats and fish to bars of soap. If the toilet in a bathroom is close to the sink, items like toothbrushes and toothpaste caps can also find their way into toilet bowls. To prevent unwanted doo-dads from clogging your toilet, train your children to put the lid down when they have finished and to use it only for toileting purposes. Never leave a small child unattended in a bathroom.
If your toilet is clogged try using a plunger first, then a plumber's snake (if you have one) to unstop it.
In some cases where there is a low level of water in the toilet bowl, pouring a bucket of water from chest high level into the bowl will force a flush. You should repeat this several times when the water in the bowl returns to a low level.
Shower Scalds and Toilet Flushes
The need for the now infamous shout, "Don't flush, I'm in the shower!" can be permanently done away with by correcting the pressure drop that accompanies the flush of a toilet. There is a valve at the base of every toilet which adjusts the degree of pressure with which the water runs into the toilet tank. If it is wide open, cold water rushes into the toilet tank nearly as fast as water rushes out of a faucet that is turned to the full on position, robbing the shower of cold water momentarily. There is no need for a toilet tank to be filled at lightening speed so by turning the valve off first, then opening it half a turn, you will no longer be needed to apply burn ointment to shoulders.
Homeowners often forget about the health of exterior drainage pipes, but these pipes are instrumental in removing waste from your home. If one becomes clogged, your plumbing system may backfill disgorging the waste into your sinks and tubs.
Keep tree roots away from drainage pipes. If roots become a problem, once a year or more often if necessary, call a professional who will use an electric auger to cut out the roots and clear the pipes. As long as the offending tree is alive, you will probably continue to have problems.
If you happen to be up on your roof cleaning gutters and downspouts, flush the drain-waste and vent systems too by running you garden hose into them for several minutes at full flow.
If you have ever lived in an old apartment building or home that is heated by radiators, then you have experienced the dubious privilege of hearing the full radiator serenade?such clanging and banking, hissing and squeaking at all decibel levels, the likes of which you will never forget. Very few homes today continue to use radiator heat, but pipes can still bang and squeak even in new homes. These problems are usually caused by loose pipes, water logged air chambers or water pressure that is too high. If the problematic pipes are exposed, you can often anchor them yourself or cushion them with insulation blankets, but other remedies such as anchoring pipes that are concealed inside walls, floors or ceilings may require a professional.
A common pipe noise that you can repair yourself is referred to as a hammer noise, named after the sharp "clunk" sound that is heard when water to an appliance or faucet is shut off quickly (washers are notorious hammerers). The sound is created by the water slamming to a stop in the pipes. The cause of the noise is usually a faulty air chamber, meaning that the length of pipe installed behind an appliance is filled up with water rather than air. To restore the air chamber to cushion the shock of a quick, water shut off:
Turn the water off at the main shutoff valve.
Drain the system by opening all faucets and letting them run dry.
Close the faucets and turn the water on again. The air chambers should fill with air.
If you have restored the air chambers in the faulty pipe and you still hear a hammer noise, you may have water pressure above 80 pounds per square inch (psi). If this is the case, you may want to have a plumber install a pressure-reducing valve which will take care of the problem.
Wasting Water in the Kitchen
If it takes a while to get your water to flow from cold to hot and you hate the idea of wasting water, consider installing an instant hot water heater on your kitchen sink. This will help reduce both water heating costs and your guilt.
Sinks, drains, toilets, pipes not the stuff of which memories are made, unless of course something goes wrong. But if disaster strikes, you will have more memories than you care to remember. Save yourself the agony and pay attention to those pipes.