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PLUMBING

Plumbing is my least favorite of systems to work on. Mostly because any attempt to fix a slow leak tends to become a flood. The sound of rushing water is anything but soothing when it's coming from under the sink. Over the years my golden rule of plumbing repair has become "Replace Don't Fix".

Small leaks very easily become big leaks.

Image = small leak

Maybe not quite this big, but when the flood breaks loose, even a 1/2" pipe can spray a virtual flood in a very short time.

Replace Don't Fix

Three simple words that took years to learn. My normal approach to most repairs is to find and fix "the problem". The reason plumbing repairs seemed so difficult is that "the problem" that got my attention was always just the beginning. Bad plumbing is not fixable, it has to be replaced. Plumbing repairs may be the only case where the first and best option is to just buy new parts. Study the problem, take pictures, and make a list of adjacent pipe and fittings that appear less than perfect. Start with the assumption that pinhole dripping leak is just the first sign of a much bigger problem. Any repair will soon fail if not attached to good solid plumbing.

As with any other repairs, a brief on-line search will provide enough references to understand what needs to be done and how to do it. Several sites such as thisoldhouse.com provide detailed, step-by-step plumbing repairs. They are better than most, but it is still important to find several sources to weed out the bad advice. Simple things like editing for grammer can create bad information in an article that may have been written correctly. The web author and graphic design department often know nothing about the subject.

Main Water Supply Shut Off

Even if you know nothing about plumbing and never intend to do any repairs, everyone should know where the main water supply comes into the house/apartment and how to shut it off. Even a small pipe can quickly make a flood. Closing the main water supply could save thousands of dollars in water damage while you look for a shutoff closer to the problem or wait for a plumber. In most cases there will be a shutoff valve close to the fixture that is leaking. Isolate that fixture, and you can still use the rest of the plumbing until repairs are made. This can give you time to buy parts or shop for reasonable plumbing rates on a regular weekday.

Others may recommend researching local codes, but simple plumbing repairs do not usually require an intimate knowledge of the codes. For larger remodeling jobs and additions, all work must be code compliant.

Simple plumbing repairs require a few basic tools and some special tools.
Adjustable Wrench
Pliers
Screwdrivers
Basin Wrench
Caulk
Plunger
Pipe Thread Sealant
Pipe/Tubing Cutter
Pipe Wrench
Plumber's Putty
Plumbing Snake
Propane Torch
Rosin
Solder

SLOW OR CLOGGED DRAIN

Most of us have already dealt with this one. If your normal method is to dump some drain cleaner product in there and wait, stop. The best tool for any slow or clogged drain is just a plumger. The proper way to use a plunger is to push the plunger into the drain then suddenly pull back. This creates suction that should pull the clog material out of the trap. Using the plunger to suction the drain clear it also not going to blow the plastic compression type fittings apart. Using pressure to clear a drain may only blow the fittings apart. It's a bit annoying to think the drain is clear, only to have dirty water run out of the cabinet on your shoes.

When the clog is suctioned loose it may just go right back where it was. After a couple tries it usually goes on down the drain. Be prepared to see some icky stuff. A good plunger may pull the clog right into the sink. If so, scoop it out and toss in the trash. Don't try and make it go down the drain. Once the drain is clear, run enough clean water to flush it out. Pour some boiling water in sinks once in a while to dissolve soap scum and greasy buildup. Most of the time the only tool you need for a drain problem is the plunger. Chemical drain cleaers are nothing but bad news. They are caustic, toxic, and can damage pipes.

If the plunger did not do the trick, the clog may be stuck too good to move. Many plumbers will use a snake next. A plumbing snake is a long flexible auger that can be twisted as it is fed down the drain and thru the fittings. Manual types are usually 8 to 12 feet in length. Professional power augers will have a much longer length on a reel. Spinning the auger as it goes down the drain bangs against the pipe and helps knock deposits loose. Most of the time I prefer not to use a snake. The manual types are a lot of work and they can go right thru the bottom of an old P-Trap making a big mess.

If the plunger does nto work, my next step is to just get a bucket and take the P-Trap off. Look under the sink. Right at the bottom of the outlet from the sink will be a U shaped piece, usually with one leg of the U slightly longer. Most modern fittings will use connectors that do not require tools. Look for tabs that will allow them to be easily unscrewed. Metal drain pipes will usually have fittings with flats for an adjustable wrench or channel-lock pliers. There will be water and icky stiff in the pipes. Before taking fittings loose clear the area and put a bucket under there. When it comes loose, the P-Trap can be dropped in the bucket and taken outside to be dumped and cleaned up.

If the clog was in the P-Trap is should be obvious. Clean it out, put the P-Trap back on and it should be flowing again. If no clog was found, the problem is further down the pipe. Now get the snake and feed it into the outlet pipe. The manual snake is a lot easier to use without having to go around the first few fittings. Run the entire length down the pipe. If it's a power auger just run about 10 or 12 feet. Put the P-Trap back on and see if that did it.

If no obvious clog is found, and the drain is still slow, the problem may be a clogged vent. Plumbing drains must have places for air to get into the pipes. If the vent is clogged, the drain can act the same as putting your finger on a straw will keep liquid from running out the other end. It may be time to call a plumber at this point unless your are comfortable going to the roof and running the snaks down the vents. There will usually be two or three pipes about 2" diameter sticking up thru the roof. Birds may have built a nest on top or bees may have built inside the pipe. Bees are another reason to let the plumber tackle this one.

Finally if all the drains are slow or stopped up, the problem could be tree roots in the drain outside, or a problem with the city sewer or septic tank. It's probably time to call a plumber at this point.

TOILET PROBLEMS

Toilet problems are easy to diagnose. The top of the tank usually lifts right off. Clean water flows into the tank, so everything in there should be clean and safe to stick fingers in, unless you use chemicals in there. First, is there water in the tank? You should see a line where water level normally fills to. If water is very low, look for a float that is stuck at the top of it's travel. Some float valves use a float on the end of a shaft to turn the water off. Other flush valves use a float that rises up on the body of the valve assembly. Knock the fload down if it's stuck, and water should start filling the tank. Figure out why the float stuck and un-stick it. If the tank seems full, but toilet won't flush, wiggle the flush knob and look for a lever and chain that sould go down and connect to a flapper valve. Pushing the flush knob should raise the flapper, allowing water to flow from the tank into the bowl. The lever may have broken off the fluch knob. The chain may have come loose.

Another common problem is a toilet that won't stop running. Why do they always do that at 3:am? If you have been wiggling the flush handle for several months to get it to stop, it's past time to fix it right. Usually the flapper valve has deteriorated and no longer seals properly. Jiggling the handle can re-seat the flapper so it seals and the tank fills up. Another issue would be a float that doesn't float or doesn't shut the water off before it's flowing down the overflow tube. Try pulling up on the float to see if that shuts the water off. If so, the flost can be adjusted by bending the shaft or adjusting linkage for the vertical type. Adjusting the float for a lower water level in the tank, will use less water for each flush. This is a good way to reduce water use with older toilets. With newer models, most of them barely flush right with all the water they will allow in the tank.

This is another plumbing repair where it often seems best to just replace everything in the toilet tank at the first sign of trouble. Take photos outside and inside the tank, especially any names or numbers. The local hardware store should be able to match-up compatible flush valve, flapper, and flush knob replacements that will restore everything in the tank to like new.

One other thing to check with a toilet that seems to flush slowly is the jet that starts the flush flowing down the drain. Hopefully the toilet bowl is reasonably clean. Look in there and flush. What should happen is a jet of water should shoot from front to back of the outlet. If the flush just comes in at the top and lazily starts to swirl, the flush jet may be clogged. Use a bent piece of stiff wire to knock anything loose from the small hole on the front side of the outlet. This is more often a problem with older toilets. It usually takes years for calcium deposits to get bad enough to clog that passage.

LEAKY FAUCET

This is another one that ecomes most noticable in the early hours when we most want to sleep. Drip, Drip, Drip, .... The easy fix for this one is to prop something in the sink or drape a washcloth over the faucet to silence the drips and go back to bed. Many faucets have washers or a cartridge that can be replaced. Looking up the make and model of faucet on-line can turn up several videos how to disassemble it. Before going that route, look at the faucet. Is the finish like new? If not, it often makes more sense to replace rather than try to fix many modern faucets.

REPLACING A FAUCET

This is a job that can usually be done with nothing more than a pair of common pliers. A basin wrench makes the job much easier, especially for deeper sinks usualy found in the kitchen.

Image = Basin Wrench

The basin wrench head swivels, so it can be used to tighten or loosen. The spring loaded jaw will grip just about any size and shape of fastener. The length allows one-handed nearly full 360 degree turns of any fastener. This is much easier to use than only getting a tiny part of a turn with a pair of pliers.

Most faucets can be replaced by shutting the water off using valves under the sink, disconnecting two hoses, then unscrewing the nuts that clamp it to the sink. Kitchen sinks will often also have a sprayer hose to be removed. Plan on replacing all hoses with the sink. The braided stainless hoses are usually better quality, but I've seen cheap plastic ones that lasted many years.

Before buying a new faucet, take pictures of the existing fauces from above and from several angles below the sink. The pictures should show how the faucet is attached under the sink, and how the hoses attach to the house piping. There should be small shut-off valves for hot and cold water. Before taking anything loose, now is the time to verify that the shut-off valves actually work. Turn both valves off, then see if water will flow. If the best you can get is down to a small trickle, it may be possible to do the faucet swap with a bucket and towels to keep up with the flow. If the valves don't work at all there is always the main shutoff valve for the whole house. If the house is on a well, another shut-off is the circuit breaker for the well pump. Shut the pump off then run a faucet until there is no pressure left in the system.

If working on a downstairs faucet with local shut-off valves that don't wotk, all upstairs plumbing may have to be drained before removing pipe connections for that sink. If the system is not drained, someone opening an upstairs faucet will let air into the system and cause a flood where you are working.

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Content and Web Design by K. LaRue — This Site Was Last Updated 29 OCT 2019.
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