When it comes to plumbing problems around the house, most people have a common initial response: they take a step back, nod slowly, and then let out a string of shouted expletives, often accompanied by the sting of hot tears.
Few among us who have made the transition from renter to home owner (or who have a rental arrangement that won’t conveniently facilitate the support of a landlord or super) will ever forget the first time a toilet backs up, a sink overflows, or a pipe bursts. That’s because when there’s no landlord/super/RA to call and say “Hey, help! The damn pipe/sink/shower/tub/toilet is messed up!” the problem is… yours.
When you face a plumbing problem, once you are done swearing (and maybe sobbing), the first order of business is to ask yourself, truly and realistically, do you need help to fix this situation? You’ll be pleasantly surprised how many plumbing problems you really can fix by yourself, and how many hundreds of dollars you’ll save by doing so. On the other hand, if you get in over your head, you might end up making a minor issue much worse. (And potentially gross.) So don’t get in over your head, but do consider whether you really need a plumber, or if perhaps the man in the mirror is the solution to your plumbing problems.
(OK, full disclosure before we get started here? I’m a pretty handy guy and I have a fair amount of experience. I also have two secret weapons, the first of which, evidently, you have too! It’s called the Internet. Do your research online before you start a project, and always cross-reference things. The second secret weapon I have is a father-in-law who is way handy. Like… double handy or something. If you have a friend or relative who knows their way around DIY stuff, by all means use ’em!)
Today, we’re going to talk about three common plumbing-related projects you can easily handle yourself. One is essentially aesthetic, but might prevent water damage over time. The second can prevent leaks from running up your water bill, and might prove necessary if old hardware fails. The third… well, it might be properly filed under the “emergency plumbing” category…
So you know, these projects were completed primarily using the fine Kobalt line of tools you can find at your local Lowe’s store. (Or you can shop online.) You can always hope you or a neighbor already has the stuff you need; just keep in mind that there’s much to be said about using the right tools for the job.
RE-CAULKING A BATHTUB/SHOWER
Caulk is the essential barrier between water and rot. Where the tiles stop and the tub (or shower pan) begins, around built-in soap dishes or shelving, and around faucets and handles, it’s good ol’ caulk that keeps water from leeching into the walls, causing water damage, discoloration, mildew, and more.
Don’t confuse caulk with grout. That’s a bad idea, OK? Grout goes between tiles and, if the tile job was completed properly, will very rarely need replacement or maintenance. Caulk primarily goes between two different types of material (tile and tub, like I said about 30 seconds ago) and it will indeed need replacing every few years, and maybe even more often. Good thing caulk is wildly easy to use.
First things first? Strip the old caulk! How can you tell caulk is old and needs to be replaced? It will be crumbling and will look old, grimy, and like it needs to be replaced.
Just look at the grimy, crumbling old caulk! That needs to be replaced! So grab a blade, a screw driver, and any other tools that will help you scrape, slice, and peel the old caulk away, because there’s really no right or wrong way to remove it, just make sure not to damage anything else in the process.
Once you have all the old caulk scraped, sliced, pulled, and/or peeled away, it’s time to (drumroll please…) put in new caulk! Not everything in life is a big fun special surprise, OK? To do this properly, you will need: A Tube of Caulk and A Caulk Gun. Both of these items together should cost you about, oh, eleven dollars.
You can get a fancy electric caulk gun for a hundred-plus dollars, but that’s utterly pointless. A manual caulk gun costing about eight bucks (OK, maybe a BIT more, but not much) will do you fine. And a tube of caulk costs peanuts, man. The only trick to caulk is to make sure you evenly apply as much as you need. Snip the top off the tube of caulk, load it into the gun, and start squeezing away to lay a thick, even line of that good ol’ goo wherever you need it.
The key to making a caulk job look smooth and lovely and all? Your finger. Yep, just take one of those fingers of yours and drag it slowly and steadily along the line of caulk you just fed. That will remove excess caulk, it will create a soft concavity that looks great and sheds water, and it’s easier/cheaper than using some needless tool. Use a blade to scrape away big chunks, and wipe at messy areas with a damp rag or paper towel. Then just leave the caulk alone for a few hours (overnight is a good idea) and… you’re done. You can choose a colored caulk to add some interest or a matching caulk to blend in seamlessly, by the way. Beyond that, not much to say here.
REPLACING WORN OUT SHOWER/TUB HANDLES
If your shower or tub has hardware from which water drips, or handles that don’t properly shut off water flow (AKA the faucet leaks), it’s probably time to replace those old fellas, and likely the underlying hardware behind them. In the latter case where unreliable water shutoff is the issue, if you’re lucky just the handles themselves are worn out… but chances are, you’ll be replacing valves/stems, not just handles.
Pro Tip: Maybe just one handle has an issue; try feeling to see if it’s a cold or hot water leak! Not sure? Maybe just replace both handles and stems.
Not sure what parts you need to buy to replace the faulty hardware? No problem: once you take everything apart, you’ll take it all with you to the hardware store, and ask someone to show you which new parts you need.
Now… before you begin… turn off the water. You may be able to shut it off just for the room where you’re working; you might need to cut flow for the whole property. Kill the water, then open the taps for a while.
Now, get started by popping the little cap that (likely) says C or H. Under that, you should see a screw. Unscrew it. Now the handle should pull off. Don’t be afraid to use some force/leverage; old handles can be pretty stubborn, but there’s no trick to getting most of them off other than elbow grease. If there’s a little plate against the wall, it should them come right off, or it might be secure by a small screw.
In most cases, you’ll now see a larger, hollow pipe surrounding a more narrow threaded tube. Remove the larger pipe by unscrewing it counter-clockwise. This can often be done by hand, but may require a pipe wrench.
Now, that thing sticking out there? That’s called the stem (or sometimes the spindle) and it’s coming off too! The washer on the end of the stem/spindle is very likely the issue causing your leak or your improper shutoff.
It is at this point that you should gather together everything you have removed, put it in a bag (or a box if you want, why not) and head to the hardware store! (You may also want to snap a few pictures of your worksite, including close-ups. These may help someone help you.) I recommend a Lowe’s, because in my experience their staffers actually know their stuff. At the store, make sure to get all the internal hardware you need and feel free to pick lovely new handles that will improve the aesthetics.
Once you’re home, it’s really a pretty simple process of reverse engineering. Replace the old washer, then screw the new stem into place. Put the larger (or new, if one came with your new handle) plate then pipe collar back in place. Then put the handle on (or back on) and screw it tight. Replace the little face plate and… that’s it, baby.
HOW TO HELP A SERIOUSLY CLOGGED TOILET
A clogged toilet is one of the most foul plumbing problems you’ll ever face. Fortunately, if you have the right tools, it can also be one of the easiest to tackle. Just keep it mind that gloves and even a mask may well be part of that tool lineup, as a backed up toilet can actually present a pretty serious biohazard, and is not to be taken lightly.
First thing first: as the water level suddenly rises (along with the bile in your throat), do you know what to do? Sure you do! Just pull the top off the back of the toilet and lift up the bar attached to the float. That should do it, but if not, reach down into the water and push down that little flappy thing (it’s called a “flush ball” or sometimes a “flapper”) that’s hovering above that hole. That will stop the flow and buy you time. You may need to use a rock or something to hold it down, or you can jam the float up. Or enlist the aid of a spouse, friend, kid, etc.
Now on to the work! Drain opening fluids are the first choice of many DIY types, but they’re not even a part of the arsenal of most professional plumbers. By the time a toilet blockage has gotten bad enough to create a complete clog, drain fluid isn’t going to do much for you. The first step with a clogged toilet is of course good old plunging. Get a good plunger and plunge away, sir!
Make sure the first few plunges are slow and steady, and make sure there is enough water in the bowl to create a seal. After a few calm plunges, feel free to give it some heft. Try plunging for a while, and if it seems to have worked, make sure to flush the toilet multiple times, and even do a few more plunges once things are “working” again just to be safe. Fixed? Huzzah! Not fixed? No problem. (Probably.)
You own a decent drill, right? Great. Now all you need is a “wire drain auger,” more commonly referred to as a snake or plumber’s snake. A decent snake will cost you less than thirty bucks and will give you about 25-feet of drain cleaning reach, often more than enough to reach out and break up that clog of yours. Once you have the drill connected to the auger, you’ll start feeding the cable down into your toilet (of course it also works for other types of pipes, from sinks to laundry and beyond) and, ideally, you’ll soon hit and then break through the clog and that will be that.
Using snake is not rocket science; all it requires is patience. You need to feed it into the pipes rather slowly to prevent damaging pipes or toilet hardware and to ensure it makes it around and through curves in the lines. You also may need to reach, back away from, and re-approach the clog many times before you get through. Also know that one way snakes help clear clogs is by catching a lot of the debris on their cable, so you may pull out and have to deal with some pretty foul stuff.
Once you have made it through the clog, consider sending the snake down in a few more times for good measure. And if you want to play it safe, you might even dump a bottle of drain opener down there at this point: the stuff won’t break through a tough clog, but it can help clear away the last lingering bits of one, and these bits of detritus might be the anchor for a new clog later.
If the plunger, snake, and drain cleaner don’t work… you may need to remove the toilet for full access to the pipes. This can be done by the DIY type, but it’s also acceptable at this point to call a plumber and open a beer.
These projects and this article were completed in partnership with Lowe’s Home Improvement. Lowe’s provided product and materials; the author also used some tools he had lying around the house. (Actually, they were in the garage.) All images, writing, project ideas and guidelines, and other such content are the original creation of the author. The author and The Manual extend their grateful appreciation to the people from Lowe’s for their help, support, and encouragement. This article is meant both to entertain and to guide, but you are also encouraged not to get in over your head! Always call a pro if you feel you need help!
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