Plumbing for dummies

Posted by on October 15th, 2014

Many home owners just assume they cannot do any sort of plumbing repair on their own.

When something is plugged or leaking, they often call on professionals with the rapidity usually reserved for auto mechanics.

The term “plumbing” can be somewhat intimidating – engendering visions of an ever-more intricate network of pipes lying under the ground and snaking invisibly through the walls.

While major plumbing problems are best left to a professional, some boil down to simple physical concepts like gravity and pressure.

Plumbing is simply the science of moving water from place to place, and there are a few repairs around the house pretty much anyone can do. Mostly maintenance chores, they provide a real feeling of self-reliance, and can go a long way toward avoiding big future bills.

Unclogging a sticky drain

Probably the easiest do-it-yourself plumbing project is unclogging a stuck drain, whether in the kitchen sink, utility sink, bathroom sink or tub.

One of the quickest ways is to use a plunger. A plunger balances the pressure in the pipe by creating a vacuum on one end to get water going again.

With a double-sink, go ahead and plug one drain. Then go to work with the bell shaped side of the plunger – up and down – as if unclogging a stuffed toilet. With a single drain, use the plunger normally. Pipes and fittings can sometimes come loose with a lot of pressure changes, so check connections after the clog is cleared.

Someone who is a little less hands-on may not want to use a plunger. A drain cleaning compound from the grocery store is usually effective, but instead of pouring nasty chemicals to dislodge a plug, you could try this simple homemade formula.

A mixture of baking soda, salt and cream of tartar is often a cheap, and delicious (not really) way to get pipes flowing freely again.

Mix the ingredients in equal parts, then pour directly into the drain. Follow that with two cups of boiling water. Rinse with cold water about an hour later.

If that doesn’t work, dump a whole cup of baking soda down the drain followed by a cup of vinegar. The resulting fizz should clear out any remaining obstructions.

The best way to avoid plugs is to not put things down the drain in the first place. Only toilet paper and human waste belong down a toilet drain. Any other item besides water down any other bathroom drain should be avoided. Hair is supposed to go in the trash, not the sink, tub or toilet.

Also remember, “garbage disposal” is just a name for that appliance below the kitchen sink. It is not an actual garbage can. It isn’t meant to grind down anything except vegetable matter, and even then, isn’t particularly good with potato peelings or onions. And any sort of animal grease put down the disposal is a sure recipe for trouble. Check the disposal for any foreign matter before you use it. DO NOT TURN IT ON while checking it.

If none of these methods work, you may try snaking the drain with a commercially available tool, but beyond that, now is probably time to call the plumber.

Aerator theater

Aerators are the name of the cylindrical metal units that sit at the end of most faucet spouts. They contain a washer and screens designed to prevent splahing, reduce faucet noise and shape the water stream. Dirty or damaged aerator screens, or an aerator unit screwed on too tight, can restrict water flow.

Take the time to regularly check and clean the aerator screens to get better water pressure. Start by turning off the water supply to the faucet with the angle spouts under the sink.

Use masking tape or a dry cloth around the spout to protect the finish, because it will probably take pliers or a vice grip – and a whole lot of elbow grease – to get the aerator to turn. Once the unit is removed, there is a little washer inside with the screen. Might as well replace that, too, while you’re in there.

Soak the screen in vinegar for at least an hour and scrub it with a toothbrush before replacing the entire mechanism in reverse order. Often, aerator screens are so heavily damaged or corroded, replacement is the only option.

A water softener can help keep the faucet and the aerator in good condition.

Hot flushes

The hot water heater is something most homeowners don’t think about until they find themselves in an ice cold shower on a chilly morning.

Draining and flushing the tank once a year is a terrific way to extend the water heater’s life. Over time, sediment builds up at the bottom of the tank, which can lead to corrosion of the heating elements, or cause rusting and leakage in the tank itself.

Read the instruction manual before emptying a hot water storage tank. For a gas heater, turn the heat to pilot. For an electric heater, turn off the power at the breaker box. Let the heater cool down and open a hot water faucet in the house to prevent a vacuum from forming in the water lines.

Screw a garden hose onto the hot water drain plug, usually located near the front bottom of the tank. Open the valve and let the water drain through the hose and out onto a non-vegetated surface, unless you want to kill the plants. The water will be very hot and contains damaging salts. Run some more cool water through the heater until the water runs clear, then remove the hose.

Close the valve, replace the drain cap and refill the water heater. Turn the power back on or relight the pilot light.

As with aerators, installing a water softener can reduce the sediment build-up in the first place.

Stop, leak!

There are few things more tortuous than the steady “drip-drip-drip” of a leaky faucet. Usually, homeowners fight back for a couple months by trying to squash down the faucet handle in a variety of ways, which eventually proves futile. Now – either call the plumber or go to war against the underlying cause.

The battle waged is a little more advanced than plunging or draining, but it’s well worth the sense of quiet satisfaction when the drip is vanquished.

In a single-handle faucet, most every drip can be traced to some failed part of the faucet mechanism. Inexpensive kits contain replacement parts for all the possible culprits, and can be purchased at the local hardware or home improvement store. Most faucet makes take universal styles and sizes, but ask a clerk if things don’t seem to be going smoothly.

Begin, as always, by turning off the water under the sink. Lift the handle to completely drain the line. To start, some faucets have a protective cover on the back of the faucet handle you can pop off by slipping a flat head screwdriver into the groove and pushing up.

Almost every model has a set screw underneath that holds the handle in place. Remove the set screw with an Allen wrench and lift the handle off. Under that is either a cap or a locking ring that will have to be removed with a crescent wrench or a special tool provided with the replacement kit.

Depending on the style, you’ll next remove a ball, a cartridge or a disc, then check the underlying seals and rings, and replace parts as needed. It’s that simple.

Or one can just replace everything the kit supplies while the faucet unit is dismantled. Worse case scenario, there are spare parts you can use if something goes wrong later.

Reassemble the faucet in reverse order.

In the flow

Unclogging drains, fixing drips and cleaning aerators may not make you a plumber, but does help you build a rapport with your home.

And keeping the bad old repairman away for another day gives a homeowner a sense of real accomplishment that is difficult to achieve in an increasingly vague and virtual world.