Preventive Plumbing Tips and Challenges

Now that the 2008 Presidential elections are over it’s likely that “Joe the Plumber” will become a mere footnote in the history books, but we thought it would be worth honoring Joe Wurzelbacher by giving you some tips on how to prevent major plumbing issues and take care of basic household plumbing problems yourself. I wonder whether Joe ended up voting for Barack Obama after all or if he stuck with John McCain to the bitter end?

What to do if a Water Supply Pipe Bursts

The worst case plumbing emergency is when a pipe inside your house bursts and you have a flood on your hands; especially if the pipe is in an upstairs location. This is one reason it’s important to know where your water shut of valve is located; when you have water flowing down your hallway is not the time you want to be looking all over the house for the shut off valve.

Shut off the water supply as quickly as you can; what else can I say? You’re definitely going to be calling a plumber next and then your insurance agent after that. Hopefully you’ll never have to face this worst case plumbing scenario.

What to do when the Toilet Backs Up

There is no more annoying plumbing emergency than a stopped up toilet; most clogged toilets are caused by too much toilet paper or trying to flush something other than toilet paper such as paper towels, sponges or toys. Avoid these and you will be far less likely to need to follow these tips for unclogging a toilet:

  1. First try clearing the toilet with a plunger; often if you’re lucky that does the trick!
  2. If you can’t unclog it with the plunger a closet auger with a corkscrew point may do the trick; since this tool is flexible and can be turned inside the trap, you may be able to get at whatever is blocking the flow of water and dislodge it.
  3. Be sure you remove as much of the bad stuff from the bowl before using a closet auger. Yah, major yuck!
  4. Don’t push the blockage down into the trap; you have to get it out or you could end up making matters even worse.
  5. If the closet auger fails and your toilet has a cleanout plug, your next step is to get a bucket, remove the plug and auger the pipe, letting all the bad stuff drain into the bucket.
  6. If that fails or your toilet doesn’t have a cleanout plug, unfortunately it’s probably time to call Joe the Plumber.

How to Keep Drains Draining

Another common homeowner’s plumbing challenge is the clogged drain. Typically this is an unavoidable hazard we all encounter, but you can help keep it to a minimum with a little regular preventive maintenance.

Almost all bathtub and shower drains have strainers to keep soap and hair from getting into the drain. Simply keep these strainers clean to help avoid clogging and avoid letting large chunks of soap, hair or other debris from getting into the drain in the first place.

Lavatory sinks should likewise have filtering screens to keep the traps from clogging; regularly cleaning the filters will help prevent clogged traps.

Don’t treat your kitchen sink like its garbage can; yes you can throw large pieces of organic material in there and grind them up but don’t! Remember that even though the garbage disposal will grind it all up, it still has to go through your sink trap, so if you avoid putting anything more than necessary into the garbage disposal you won’t have as much chance of a clogged trap AND your garbage disposal will last longer too.

When you use your garbage disposal, be sure to use plenty of water to flush all that ground-up material through the disposal and not let it sit in the trap, where it will harden and stick to the sides … the beginning of a clogged sink trap for sure! And don’t pour grease into your kitchen sink; you’re just begging to have Joe the Plumber make a house call if you do.

What to do when a Bathtub, Shower or Sink Won’t Drain

Unclogging drains and traps are another fun plumbing nightmare. If your first inclination is to reach for the chemicals, think again. Not only are those chemical drain cleaners harmful to the environment, they can also damage your plumbing drain pipes. Try following these tips instead to clear a blocked drain:

  1. Pour a quart of boiling water mixed together with one cup of ammonia into the drain and let it sit for thirty minutes
  2. Use wet rags to plug all openings so you have created a complete vacuum in the drain and trap; block the overflow holes and any other openings in the sink, including the drain in the second basin if the sink is a double-basin model.
  3. Time to try the old plunger; fill the basin with about 2 to 3 inches of water. You can put a little petroleum jelly around the rim of the plunger to help get a tight seal.
  4. Put the plunger over the drain and push down and up, using a forceful motion to clear the drain; you want to keep that seal while you are stroking the handle of the plunger up and down.
  5. If the plunger doesn’t clear the drain, you’ll have to try dropping and cleaning the trap.
  6. If the trap is clear and the drain is still clogged, time to try clearing the blockage in the drain with an auger, running it down the drain hole and maneuvering it around the bends to clear whatever is causing the blockage.
  7. If the auger doesn’t work, its time to call Joe unfortunately; you may have a blockage beyond the trap and that means you need a professional plumber.

How to Unclog Sink Strainers and Stoppers

If a drain strainer in your kitchen or bathroom sink is clogged, you can usually solve the problem yourself. Follow these steps to unclog strainers:

  1. If the strainer is secured with screws, remove those and set them aside.
  2. Carefully pry the strainer up with the tip of a screwdriver without bending or misshaping it in the process.
  3. Clean the strainer, removing any debris, hair, etc. and replace it and secure it.

If your sink drain has a stopper, you can clean it by following these steps:

  1. Some sink stoppers can be removed simply by turning the stopper by hand until it comes loose.
  2. Other models have a pivot rod that must be unscrewed using pliers; pad the pliers with a cloth so you don’t scratch the finish.
  3. Once you have removed the stopper, give it a good cleaning and replace it. Cleaning stoppers periodically will help keep your drains flowing strong.

How to Prevent Frozen Pipes

As winter approaches and colder temperatures set in most plumbers see a nice increase in business; good for Joe the Plumber but not so good for Joe the Homeowner. Frozen pipes are one of the most common and costly plumbing problems many homeowners face, but here are some basic preventive steps you can take:

  1. Don’t leave a garden hoses connected to an outside hose bib if you expect temperatures to drop below zero; residual water in outdoor hoses can expand and potentially break faucets.
  2. Insulate outdoor faucet bibs to prevent them from freezing; look at Home Depot or Lowes for simple kits that make this a cheap, quick do-it-yourself job. Also check your outdoor faucets for leaks or drips which could lead to cracks during a freeze.
  3. If you expect a cold spell with below-freezing temperatures it’s a good idea to turn off the water to your outdoor faucets and sprinkler system if your home has shut off valves inside the garage, crawl space or basement. It may be worth having these installed if you live in a colder climate and your home doesn’t already have them!
  4. Consider insulating pipes in areas of your home that are not heated such as crawl spaces and the garage with heat cables controlled by a thermostat (most effective, but more costly) or heat tape (cheap but less effective).

Personally, I have the upmost respect for Joe and his plumbing brethren; plumbing repairs are never fun and, as with most crafts, they make the job seem like magic. But really a plumber can unclog any drain or pipe, install or repair pipes and plumbing fixtures with ease because he has years of experience and know how.

Major plumbing repairs and renovations are best left to the pros, but hopefully these tips will help you prevent and handle the simpler plumbing challenges that are bound to occur in any home!

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