It's 4 p.m. Saturday and you're cooking dinner for a big crowd, and suddenly the kitchen sink backs up. Who do you call? Or can you fix it yourself before guests arrive? Believe it or not, before you call a plumber, you can attempt this job yourself and probably succeed.
In fact there are several plumbing jobs around the house that you can take on, if you're patient and careful and have the right equipment. Of course, many of our readers may find the following jobs pretty basic. But if you're a new homeowner, you might want to read further:
1. Unclog a drain in a kitchen sink, toilet, or bathtub
Unclogging that sink is really the most important repair of all because you don't want to wash dinner dishes in the bathtub. With a double sink, start by putting a stopper in one of the drain holes -- probably the one where there is no standing water -- then go down through the water to put a bathroom plunger on top of the other drain hole and pump up and down. This back-and-forth pressure will eventually build up enough force to dislodge the clog. With a single basin sink (this will work in a bathtub or lavatory sink), plug the overflow holes with wet cloths, put a little water into the sink and do the same pumping action with a plunger. Plumbers tell us that sometimes the pipes under the sink can become disconnected when you do this, so keep an eye on them while you're working to free the clog.
When you're using a plunger in a clogged toilet, try to create suction by sealing the bell-shaped rubber end around the opening at the bottom of the bowl. If you need a new plunger, buy one with an extension flange on the rubber end.
Preventive advice: In the kitchen don't put grease, onion skins or potato peelings down the garbage disposal and especially not all three at the same time. And always run water through the garbage disposal while it's grinding away to flush debris down the drain.
Don't throw anything in the toilet that doesn't belong there. You might want to buy a toilet auger, a long snakelike device to use in case a plunger isn't enough.
2. Clean the aerators on your faucets to improve the flow of water
This sounds simple but it can take real muscle to get the aerator to unscrew at the end of your faucet spout. Also be sure to draw a sketch of the order in which parts are taken off or take a quick photo of the parts. That way you can put everything back the same way. If you don't have the right order, you can spend many hours trying different combinations.
Start by turning off the water supply to the faucet by turning off the angle stops under the sink or turning off the water supply to the house. Cover the end of the spout with masking tape to protect the finish; then use pliers to unscrew the aerator from the spout. Take out the screen section and clean it by soaking it in vinegar and then scrubbing it with a brush. You can also replace the washer while you have the faucet disassembled. Reassemble the parts in the right order and thread the aerator by hand back on the faucet. Once everything is back, tighten with pliers.
Preventive advice: Installing a water softener can go a long way toward keeping faucets and aerators in good shape. Sediment will build up again if you don't solve your hard water problem.
3. Be kind to your water heater by draining and flushing the tank
If you do this once a year, plumbers say, you will prolong the life of your water heater by removing the sediment at the bottom of the tank that can be very corrosive. Be sure to read the instruction manual that comes with your tank before you do this. All tanks need to be completely full of water after they are drained and before electricity or gas is restored.
Before you start, buy a hose cap for the drain in case you don't have one already on the water heater. That's because once you open the drain, it may leak when you close it again. You will find this drain near the bottom of the water heater but clearly in view.
If you have a gas water heater, turn the heat to "pilot," or turn off electricity at the breaker box for an electric unit. Let the heater cool down. Open a hot water faucet in the house to prevent a vacuum from forming in the lines.
Then turn off the water supply to the water heater. The water supply valve may be on a pipe that comes in from the wall above or next to the water heater. Screw a garden hose onto the water heater drain, and open it so that water runs through the hose. In some cases you have to open the drain valve with a screwdriver.
Do not drain the water that comes out onto your plants; it will be too hot for them and can contain damaging salts. Drain it onto your driveway or onto a part of your yard covered with rocks and granite.
Once the tank empties, turn the cold water back on to rinse more water through the tank. Once the water runs clear, you can shut the drain, remove the hose and cap off the drain pipe. Be sure to turn the power back on as well.
Preventive advice - Installing a water softener can slow down the buildup of sediment in a water heater.
4. Install braided stainless steel supply lines on toilets, sinks and washing machine
Particularly in older homes, the supply lines to your sinks, toilets and washing machine may be made of rubber or plastic, which could lead to major leaks. It's a simple job to replace them with braided steel lines, plumbers say. You simply have to shut off the water supply in each case, unscrew nuts to remove the old lines and screw on the new lines.
To do this, of course, the water supply must be off. If you have older gate valves on your supply lines, you should replace those as well with new angle stops, and many homeowners will want a plumber to do that job. Even if you have relatively new angle stops, you should probably shut off the water to the entire house before working on supply lines.
And that raises another tricky point, for many plumbing jobs or emergencies, you need to know how to turn off the water to your house. Find the main shutoff valve for your home; usually they are located close to a garden hose valve on the front half of homes. Turn the main valve off, then turn on the garden hose valve right there. If water still is under pressure, call a plumber to repair or replace the main shut-off valve.
There are several other jobs we could probably talk about - like stopping a toilet from running and maybe even changing a single handle lavatory faucet - but we'll have to save them for another time. And next week, we'll tell you some basics about electrical jobs in your home.