DEAR TIM: Home plumbing is the main task I’m tackling on my vacation since money is tight. I have several home-improvement plumbing jobs, the largest a bathroom I want to completely remodel where I change the location of fixtures. Various home plumbing repair projects like dripping faucets and toilets that seem to flush on their own are also on my list. What tips can you share so I can hopefully avoid hiring home plumbers? My building department has given me the go ahead so long as I install the piping to code. Kevin S., Bangor, ME
DEAR KEVIN: I’m quite sure you can use lots of home-plumbing help. I’ve been a master plumber for years and can tell you that while much about plumbing is somewhat easy, you need to have a crisp understanding of the physics of water movement as well as some specialized tools to get professional results. There are many great resources available that may turn you into a fine home plumber of your own right!
The first obstacle you’ll have is reading and understanding the plumbing code. You’ll discover words and terms that simply won’t make too much sense. However, you need to glean enough information from it so you successfully pass the inspections that you’ll need as you’ll be relocating drainage and venting piping. Be sure you talk to your inspector about how you’ll pass the rough-in inspection as it will be difficult to put an air test on that bathroom while the rest of the house is in use.
If you get into trouble, you may have to hire a home plumber. They need work in these tough economic times, and you may be surprised to discover they are affordable. Perhaps you’ll have them do the most technical aspects, and they will gladly let you set and connect the fixtures. You can usually get quotes for free, and the quotes will be very realistic if you open up the walls as much as possible so they can see what needs to be moved where.
If you’ve not done much plumbing before, I recommend you practice completing joints in both drainage and water lines before you start on the real pipes in your home. If you’re using plastic PVC piping, try priming and gluing some joints together. You’ll discover that the pipe will sometimes pop back out of the fitting socket a little bit after it’s glued. This means you need to hold the pipe in position until the weld resists that force. Often this means holding the pipe in place for five or ten seconds.
If you need to solder copper pipe, you really need to practice that. Be sure the copper pipe is clean an well as the inside of the fitting. They need to have all oxidation removed. Apply a small amount of soldering flux and then heat with a torch. Wait about 15 seconds before applying the lead-free solder. Pull the torch away as you solder. The copper pipe and fitting should be hot enough on their own to melt the solder. Wipe excess solder from the joint and clean the joint with mineral spirits after it’s cooled to remove any flux.
Your dripping faucets may be very simple things to repair. If the faucets are less than 25-years old, there is a good possibility they have washerless cartridges in them. You can replace the cartridge by taking off the faucet handle and then removing the decorative bonnet that holds the cartridge in place. Use a rubberized strap wrench to remove the bonnet as a pipe wrench will ruin it. Some faucets have a hex-head shape under the handle that allows you to use an adjustable wrench.
The phantom flushing toilet may just need a new flapper valve in the tank. If water is slowly leaking past the existing valve, the tank will suddenly start to fill with water as the float drops down. Be sure you orient the new flapper valve so that its moving parts don’t hit anything inside the tank. The instructions on the package are usually pretty good, so be sure to read them.
Connecting new plumbing piping to old piping can be a significant challenge. You absolutely must use approved connectors. You can get these parts and fantastic advice from businesses that sell plumbing supplies to plumbers. These are not the big box home centers. Plumbers typically only buy emergency parts from a home center when their normal supplier is closed. You may have to hunt in your city or town for these specialty businesses, but it will be well worth it.
Be very careful soldering in an older home. Wood chips, lint dust, dried-out wood can ignite rapidly. Typically you have the water shut off while soldering, so there is nothing to use to extinguish the fire. Be sure you have buckets of water on hand, a fire extinguisher and even a filled, pressurized hand-pump sprayer ready to go in the area where you’re working. Always check for smoldering fires before you leave the work area. Use pieces of sheet metal to protect combustible materials from the intense torch flame.