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By Erik J. Martin
If you own a home, sooner or later, the inevitable happens: a dripping faucet, clogged drain, leaky pipe, or other plumbing problem that can cause serious water damage if left unattended.
While your first impulse may be to phone an expert, it’s possible to solve simple plumbing problems yourself with the right tools and know-how – provided you know your limits and can determine a doable DIY job versus a pending disaster that’s out of your league.
Doing your own plumbing maintenance can save time and money. Many basic maintenance projects are very simple and can be performed by someone with minimal plumbing knowledge. Things like cleaning out stopped up sinks and shower drains, unclogging a toilet, fixing leaky faucets and hose bibs, and replacing shower faucet aerators can probably be handled by even a not-so-handy homeowner. The Internet and YouTube are great sources of information on installation and maintenance of nearly every product.
Before tackling any plumbing fixture, pipe, or drain dilemma, it’s important to know how to find and turn off the main water line shut-off valve and local water line shut-off valves near the site of the problem. Closing off at least the local valve before attempting a fix can avoid water damage.
All homeowners should identify these shut-off valves, know how to open and close them, and teach the rest of their family how to do so in an emergency.
Here are recommended remedies for some of the most common plumbing complaints:
• A clogged drain.
Take off the drain cover, fish out the hair, soap, and debris with a coat hanger, and slowly run water down the drain to see if that solve the problem. If that doesn’t work, feed a drain auger (also called a plumbing snake) through the drain to loosen up the clog. Crank the auger’s handle clockwise while slowly pushing the snake deeper into the drain. Keep rotating the handle until you feel the clog; then, pull the snake out, remove any debris it has snagged, and repeat these steps until the drain is clear.
• A leaky faucet.
First, figure out where the leak is coming from. Then, try tightening the fitting first with your hand, then snug it tight with a wrench. If this doesn’t work, it’s likely that the O-ring or rubber gasket inside the faucet fitting needs to be replaced.
• A plunger-resistant clogged toilet.
If the water level in the bowl drops down low enough, pour a five-gallon bucket of water rapidly into the bowl. Sometimes the weight of the water can cause the toilet to siphon and you get the clog fixed without any tools. Still no luck? Try a drain auger using the steps mentioned above.
• A running or leaky toilet.
If the toilet tank is leaking into the toilet bowl, it’s likely that the flapper isn’t properly closing. Remove the toilet tank lid and inspect the flapper; if it’s worn, replace it. If it’s in good condition, clean off any buildup around it and see if that stops the leak. If not, the chain may be too short or too long – see if the flapper is properly closing by lengthening or shortening the chain attached to it. If you notice water leaking or pooling around the base of the toilet on the floor, the toilet may be cracked and in need of complete replacement (for which you should enlist a professional).
• Frozen/non-insulated water pipes.
Insulating water pipes can result in energy savings and prevent these pipes from freezing during extremely cold weather. Purchase special pipe insulation sleeves (split down the middle), cut to size, slide them over hot and cold water pipes – especially those found in the basement or crawl space – and secure with pipe wrap tape.
It’s smart to have a bucket and towels ready when working on these projects to prevent wet messes.
Remember: If in doubt, hire an experienced plumbing professional to diagnose and solve the problem.
Anytime you have to do work inside the wall, or you are changing the location of a sink or fixture, get an expert to do the job.
If you have an under-slab water leak, if the water heater is leaking or needs to be replaced, if there is a sewage leak, or if you have a serious unstoppable leak of any kind, call a plumber.