Plumbing powers the essential utilities in our homes and enables us to accomplish daily and essential tasks, such as shower, drink water, cook, wash hands, brush teeth, flush the toilet, clean, heat water, treat air and more.
Most people don’t give plumbing a second thought when it’s working right, but it is all we can think about if something goes wrong. A basic understanding of your plumbing system and the components that affect it will help you troubleshoot, do small repairs yourself, know when to call a plumber, be better prepared in a crisis and make informed decisions.
A bit of general plumbing knowledge can save you money in service calls and prevent the headaches involved with breakdowns and problems. No one should ever be discouraged from calling a trusted, licensed, professional plumbing partner such as Brandon Plumbing for help, but there are things you can learn to do yourself.
- Recognize the Source of Your Water
Generally, water comes into a home from one of two sources: a residential well and private pump or a city water line. Most of the time, rural residents have well water that is carried into the home via a pump, and they do not receive a water bill. Urban residents have city water they pay for by gallons of usage and usually receive a monthly or quarterly bill.
- Test Water Quality
test well water once per yearIt is always good to know what’s in the city or well water. Many people conduct tests when they move into a new place, but experts say to test well water at least once per year because much can change due to different supply or treatment, soil shifts and some processes used by agricultural or industrial businesses in the region.
You can purchase a water-testing kit from many types of suppliers, and many times the county entity in your area will offer them at a discount. Any drinking-water supplier is required to test the water annually and report on its quality, but people who have city water can conduct tests if they like.
You can shop around for the test you want from a trusted supplier, but you will find a variety available at costs that range from $45-$200. They reveal a number of different factors: nitrates, turbidity, heavy metals, bacteria, minerals, volatile organics and more. They come in consolidated kits that test for several common concerns at once. Most of the quality tests require you to capture some water and send it to a lab, which gives you results.
- Locate and Turn Off Your Water Main
water main usually resembles a wheel
Should your home spring some kind of leak, you will appreciate knowing right where to go and what to do to cut off the water instead of trying to find it while you’re panicked and water is spewing everywhere. There is almost always a main valve near the street, and sometimes a secondary in or around the house, such as in the basement. The water main usually resembles a wheel or bar-type lever. If it’s a wheel, you should turn it slowly clockwise until it stops. If it’s a lever, you push right (or down) until it stops.
If you’re not sure the water is off, you can test it by trying to run water at a sink. If it does not run, you were successful. It never hurts to find the main and practice turning it off so that if a crisis occurs the process is familiar to you.
- Find the Individual Cut-Off Valves
Check all your water-using appliances such as the washer, toilets and sinks to locate the small handle on them where you can stop their water supply. The washer handle is usually behind the item, near the wall. For the toilet, it’s usually down low, toward the back and close to the wall. For sinks, look underneath near the pipes or against the walls. Showers and bathtubs are harder but might have cut-off valves in an adjacent closet or in the basement at the supply line. These individual valves enable you to isolate one place that may need maintenance without having to shut off water to the entire house.
- Scrutinize the Water Meter and Bill
If you have city water, there is a meter for your individual home somewhere around it or perhaps near the street under a metal cover. Either way, knowing where your water meter is and how to read it will help you monitor usage and keep expenses down.
The water company can be a great help in locating the water meter and main shutoff, as well as to answer any questions you have about the bill. Many people want to know specifically how the water is metered, when the meters are checked and how much they’re paying per gallon of water. Check the bill when it comes each month, because spikes in usage can indicate leaks or usage you don’t see.
shower head water pressure6. Test Water Pressure
Look for 80 pounds per square inch of pressure as the household standard. You can ask your water company to test the pressure for you, or you can buy a water-pressure tester at most hardware or home-improvement stores starting for about $10. The gauge attaches to your outside water faucet and gives a reading of the water pressure when you turn on the spigot.
- Adjust the Water Pressure
Anyone with municipal water has a water-pressure regulator between their home and the main supply. Without it, the pressure would blast through all of your appliances and fixtures. To raise or lower the pressure coming into your home, you need to find the regulator and have a partner to test the pressure as you adjust it.
The regulator might be in or around your home, near the main water-cutoff valve, or it could be near the street with the water main. It will probably have some kind of screwed-on cover, but inside is usually a wing nut or bolt you can turn to adjust the pressure. Again, while someone watches the pressure, slowly turn the nut-bolt clockwise to increase pressure and counterclockwise to decrease it.
- Check for Hidden Leaks
checking for hidden leaksHidden leaks damage important infrastructure in your home like wooden beams, drywall, carpet and sometimes pipes and other plumbing accessories. You can test your system to see if it’s using any excess water by checking your meter. Y don’t have to wait until you think there is a problem. Regular checks can help you spot problems early.
First, make sure all indoor and outdoor spigots are turned off tightly. Pick a time when you will not need the water for at least 15 minutes or longer if possible — this includes any automatic appliances such as ice makers or water softeners and purifiers. Look at the numbers on your water meter and write them down. Then wait the time you’ve allotted and look at the numbers again when you return. If they are the same, your system is tight. If the numbers are higher, you likely have a leak you can’t see. Sometimes the leak can be as simple as a toilet running that you haven’t noticed yet, or as complicated as a small burst in a buried pipe. Sprinkler systems can often be the culprit of unknown or hidden leaks.
- Get Acquainted With the Water Heater
water heaters last 10-15 yearsFind the shutoff valves for water and for electric or gas supply on the water heater. For a gas water heater, turn the gas-supply line knob clockwise and for an electric water heater, find the breaker or fuse that supplies it and turn it off.
For the water supply, there’s usually a handle or lever near where the water heater connects to the main water line. The water heater has two water lines. You want to turn off the cold, incoming water as opposed to the line that carries hot water out of the heater. Your water heater should have a temperature gauge and/or dial near the top or bottom, where you can adjust the temperature. The dial may have high, medium and low settings and others have a screw or other setup to adjust the temperature up or down. If you’re unsure about adjusting the temperature, have a plumber do it for you.
Check all the pipes and accessories attached to the water heater regularly for leaks, and it never hurts to place some kind of drip pan underneath the hot-water heater. Water heaters typically last about 10-12 years, and they almost always start leaking toward the end of their life.
- Change or Tighten a Toilet Seat
Behind the toilet seat between the tank and bowl are two bolts that hold the toilet seat in place. They usually have covers over them that match the color of the toilet. The rest of the fastening assembly is on the underneath side, but if your toilet seat is loose you can open the little doors over the bolts on the topside and turn them clockwise to see if that tightens it. If not, reach or look underneath and see if you feel or see anything loose.
You should be able to change the toilet seat by removing these two bolts, whether they fasten at the top, underneath or both. Though most holes are standard, be sure you pick a toilet seat that matches the bolt assembly in your current toilet.
- Replace a Sink Stopper
bathroom sink stopper replacementIf the stopper in your bathroom sink doesn’t work or breaks, you can easily replace the assembly or parts of it yourself. Clear out the underside of the sink, so you have room to work. Look for the rod-arm bar that holds the stopper in place and is normally attached to the sink drain pipe. Loosen the screw or whatever fastener is holding it in place, and you should be able to bring the sink stopper up for inspection and replacement if needed.
- Swap Out a Shower Head
You can add customization in the bathroom that makes a big difference with a change in shower head. Some go for a more efficient model and others want a different kind of “stream,” or maybe one that is removable for easy cleaning of the shower walls.
You can usually do the swap with a pair of common pliers, though in some cases a bigger size is needed. Before you put on the new shower head, be sure to wrap the threads with a few layers of thread-seal tape, which is usually thin, white and available where you buy the shower head. A similar process applies to change the shower arm, which holds the head to the wall and is usually sold separately.
- Plunge a Toilet
Toilets can clog, but with the right kind of plunger or other tool, you need not worry. First, don’t presume a tiny sink plunger will work in the toilet. You can buy a toilet plunger that is specially designed with a higher and more rounded hood and extended flange.
In short, a plunger uses manually produced suction to create pressure that clears the clog. You’ll should make sure there is enough water in the bowl to cover the top of the plunger. If there’s not, don’t flush the toilet but take some water from the sink or bathtub to put on top of the plunger.
Put the plunger into the hole at the bottom of the toilet and thrust it up and down several times while maintaining its contact with the toilet bowl. This should cause the clog to clear, and you’ll hear the toilet try to flush. If it doesn’t, keep plunging until you do hear the toilet try to flush.
- Replace a Toilet-Flapper Valve
If your toilet “runs,” it could be because the flapper valve inside has become worn, chipped or damaged. If the seal isn’t tight, water escapes the tank and it continuously tries to fill. You can usually remove the flapper valve with relative ease and take it to the home improvement store to find an exact-match replacement. Turn off the water supply to the toilet and then open the tank to find the flapper, which is usually a rubber piece that sits on top of a vertical column. If fixing a toilet doesn’t sound appealing, it’s always a good idea to consult a professional plumber!
- Unclog a Sink
unclogging a sinkIf your sink drains slowly or is plugged and the traditional drain cleaner didn’t do the trick, you can try a natural solution of 1/2 cup each of vinegar and baking soda. Mix it and pour it slowly into the drain to see if that helps move it.
Many times the drain is clogged at the U-shaped “p-trap” part of the plumbing pipe that’s beneath the sink. First, turn off water to the sink and place a bucket underneath the p-trap before you unscrew both sides of the U to see what’s inside and clear the clog. If you drop something down the sink like jewelry and need to retrieve it, don’t run any water and follow this same procedure to retrieve the item out of the p-trap. If you’re not sure you can handle this, it’s always best to call the professionals than to risk further damage!
- Locate Water and Sewer Lines
Whether you have a septic system and well or are connected to city water and sewer lines, it is useful to know where all of your utility lines run. Your city or water department should be able to provide a diagram of what it has on record or tell you their general location. If you have a septic system, you may have received an illustration of it and its lines at the time you bought the home.
- Know Your Septic System
If you have a septic system, you should know what type you have and where all of its components are located. Some systems have easy-to-find parts while others may be buried, hidden or misidentified. You might have received a copy of a septic diagram at the time of home inspection, or there might be one on file at your county or other water-governing board in the area.
A professional plumber can help you positively identify the parts of your septic system, which can be helpful in the future. Unless you are the person who installed the septic system, it is typically difficult to accurately locate all of its parts. You may have a mound system, drain field or holding-tank type of system that likely has access or clean-out points, vents and a straight-line connection to the home plumbing system. Usually a pump helps the system process as needed, but some older systems might work based on gravity alone.
- Fix a Leaky Faucet
You might have a faucet that drips or leaks a bit. Sometimes the needed fix is a new o-ring or washer, which are the rubber seals found beneath the spigot base and each of the knobs. If you want to do it yourself, first turn the water off to the sink and stuff a rag into the drain, so no little parts fall down. Usually the screws to loosen the knobs are in them or underneath a cover you can pry off. The fasteners for the faucet are on the underside of the sink.
Once you loosen the assembly, you’ll see the washers underneath the faucet handles and spigot. They can become dried or chipped and then leak water around the sink, or they can shut off loosely and leave a drip at the faucet. Take the old ones with you to the hardware store, so you can find an exact match for your sink.
- Familiarize Yourself With the Breaker Panel
cut power before DIY electric projectsAnytime you decide on a do-it-yourself project that involves electricity, make sure you cut power to that part of the house before you start working. Somewhere in your home, there is an electrical panel of switches that controls the flow of electricity to different parts of the house. It usually has a metal door and is often in the basement, utility room or closet.
Most of the time, the parts of the home are labeled on the switches, but you can test and label the system yourself by the process of elimination. Turn each switch to its off position and see what part of your home does not have power. Repeat the process for each switch until they are labeled to your satisfaction. Some of them will be empty or inactive switches.
Some old homes have a fuse box that operates along the same principal as a breaker box. Different fuses help transfer power to different parts of the house and must be pulled out to cut power and replaced if they burn out.
- Identify and Stop Drafts and Air Leaks
Any air that escapes your home or enters your home affects the efficiency of the heating, cooling and sometimes other systems. If you check for drafts and seal off any leaks you find, you can lower your bills. A stick of incense or a smoke pencil — which is available at the hardware store — can help you find leaks. Both emit a light smoke, and you carry it from room to room to hold it close to windows, doorways, structural joints, outlets, and other places such as underneath cabinets where air might enter or escape. If smoke escapes, use caulk, insulation or maybe replacement items to stop air flow.
- Master the Caulk Gun
caulk creates a seal that is neededCaulk creates a seal that is needed around the house to lock out air or water. Some people prefer to invest in a caulk gun rather than running out of the smaller containers. With a caulk gun, it’s easy to use and ready when you’re sealing door thresholds, windows, around the bathroom tub or toilet base and other spots.
The gun will have a handle and a tip, and you’ll need to snip the tip to a 45-degree angle to control the flow of caulk. Pull the gun handle back to install the tube. Soon you will have a feel for the steady-but-light pressure needed to create a clean and consistently sized line.
- Protect Against a Frozen Spigot
Your plumber can help install a freeze-proof spigot, which basically extends to the inside of your home and connects to the water supply where it’s warm instead of near the spigot where it freezes. The job involves pipe soldering, so it’s usually best to have a professional do the work.
- Venture Into the Attic
You can catch many problems, both plumbing and roof related, early if you occasionally inspect your attic. Take a bright, powerful light and look up and around for any evidence of water, especially around the chimney, vents or any other place where there is an opening or things connect.
It is generally good to keep a few flashlights and fresh batteries for them. They’re handy during a power outage, plus they’re good for looking closely around attics, basements, crawl spaces and under sinks.