Greg Chick, a licensed plumbing contractor for 40 years based in Ramona, California. He offers plumbing how-to videos on his website, DIYPlumbingAdvice.com.
Bottom Line: Here’s how to save money on current and future plumbing problems.
That drip, drip you hear isn’t just a pipe leaking—it’s the sound of your money draining away to yet another plumbing expense. Hiring a plumber often costs several hundred dollars, but not hiring one can cost much more if your do-it-yourself (DIY) efforts or decision to ignore a problem makes things worse.
Here’s how to save money on plumbing expenses by fixing a very common problem on your own…skipping the DIY option where things often go expensively wrong…and taking steps to reduce the odds that you’ll have plumbing problems at all…
A clogged toilet or sink is among the most common reasons people call plumbers—but it’s a problem that home owners often can solve safely on their own. The secret is using the right tool and taking the correct precautions.
• Don’t use a plunger to clear toilet clogs—use a closet auger. Closet augers (sometimes called toilet augers) operate much like drain snakes—they send a metal cable down the drain to snag or dislodge the blockage. But a closet auger’s cable is thicker than a snake’s, so it won’t kink up in the wide toilet drain, and there’s a protective plastic sleeve so that the metal cable won’t scratch the bowl’s porcelain. You might have to send the cable down the toilet several times to clear a stubborn clog. A professional-quality three-foot closet auger can be purchased for around $35 online or at a home center—Ridgid (a Home Depot brand) and General Wire (sold at Lowe’s and elsewhere) are dependable brands. Skip cheaper closet augers, which are apt to break and often are ineffective. You can clean an auger with hot, soapy water and a scrub brush.
Why not use a plunger? Plungers can push clogs deeper into the pipe, making them difficult to remove. Vigorous plunging can crack the wax seal between the toilet and floor, leading to leaks. Plunging can push “toilet matter” into the toilet’s siphon jet, preventing proper water flow in the future. And plunging could splash toilet matter into your face and onto your clothes and the floor.
• Use a wet/dry vac to clear kitchen drain clogs. These are the “workshop” vacs sold at home centers that can safely vacuum up liquids and solids and that have reversible motors that can create suction and blow out air. Stick the vac’s hose into the clogged drain, forming as tight a seal as possible. Switch the vacuum back and forth from suction to blowing until the clog is dislodged. If you have a dishwasher “air gap” connected to your kitchen sink, cover this with your hand or a damp rag as you use the wet/dry vac to maintain the suction needed to make the vac effective. You can buy a wet/dry vac capable of doing this job for about $50 and up. It’s a good choice for bath/shower drain clogs, too.
If the wet/dry vac doesn’t clear a kitchen sink clog, your best bet is to remove the “P-trap”—that’s the section of metal that loops downward. Then you can push the clog out of the P-trap or use a drain snake on the drain line below if the clog is not in the P-trap. (Snakes generally can’t get past the P-trap, so this tends to be the only way to unclog a kitchen sink with a snake.)
Warning: Never use caustic or acidic drain-clearing chemicals to remove clogs. These products can dissolve plastic pipes, corrode metal pipes, harm septic systems and make some blockages more difficult to clear. Enzyme-based drain cleaners, on the other hand, are safe for plumbing and septic systems. They clear only organic-based clogs but can work slowly, so a wet/dry vac usually is still your best bet. All brands of enzymatic drain cleaners are similar.
• Use a barbed plastic strip to clear bathroom sink clogs. An inexpensive and easy-to-use tool called a “Zip-It”—available in hardware stores for a few dollars—can solve the vast majority of bathroom-sink drain clogs. These thin, flexible plastic strips have thornlike projections on their sides. Just lower the strip into the sink drain until it hits the clog, and pull it back out a few times—the thorns snag the hair stuck inside (bathroom-sink clogs are almost always caused by hair). You usually can do this without even removing the sink’s stopper unless the wad of hair you snag is too big to remove with the stopper in place.
If the stopper catches when you try to lift it out, you’ll probably have to remove the nut on the back of the sink drain where the lever that controls the stopper connects with the drain line—this is easy to do if you are at all handy.
If the Zip-It still doesn’t clear the clog, use a wet/dry vac, as described above, before putting the stopper back in place. Use your hand to cover the sink’s overflow opening while using the vac. A drain snake is not likely to be effective here—if the clog is below the P-trap, the snake likely won’t be able to work its way through the P-trap to reach it (unless, of course, you remove the P-trap and then feed the snake into the drain line).
Here are four simple ways to reduce the likelihood of plumbing problems.
• Use “septic safe” toilet paper—even if you don’t have a septic system. A paper that says “septic safe” on its packaging is sturdy enough to do its job but dissolves in water within about 10 minutes, so blockages clear themselves.
• Never pour fats, oils or grease down your drains. Even tiny amounts of these can cause problems over time—fat, oil and grease are lighter than water, so they float to the top in your pipes and stick there, eventually accumulating enough to cause a clog. Fat, oil and grease are bad for septic systems, too. They float on top of the water in the septic tank, eventually sealing off that water from the air above. That kills the bacteria the septic system needs to function properly. Dispose of fat, oil and grease in the trash instead.
• Every few weeks, fill your sinks nearly to the top with water, then let them drain rapidly. This rush of water often can wash away materials inside the pipes before they build up enough to cause blockages.
• Check your home’s water pressure. You can buy a water pressure tester at a home center for $10 to $20, or your water district might be able to tell you your pressure. (Don’t bother with this if you have a well—it’s only a potential problem with municipal water systems.) If your pressure is above 80 pounds per square inch (psi), it’s too high, and that is among the leading causes of plumbing problems such as burst pipes, leaking faucets and water heaters that fail before their time.
What to do: Have a plumber install a water pressure regulator, which can reduce water pressure, on your home’s main water inlet. These regulators typically come set to 55 psi, though this can be adjusted. This could cost $600 to $1,000 including parts and labor. That’s a big bill, but doing this will save you money in the long run. (Replacing an existing pressure regulator that isn’t functioning properly should cost $300 to $600.)
Sometimes the DIY approach makes things worse. Here are plumbing projects that often are best left to the pros…
• Shower valve repairs. If your showerhead is leaking, the solution might be to replace the cartridge in the valve behind the shower’s control handle. But this job often gets DIYers into big trouble. It’s easy to accidentally break off part of the cartridge, which transforms a $200 job by a plumber into one costing $800 or more. Or if your DIY efforts lead to a leak that’s hidden inside the wall, you could cause thousands of dollars in water damage.
Better: Check the make—and, if possible, model number—on your shower handle and/or the shower valve behind it. Then search for videos on YouTube or my site, DIYPlumbingAdvice.com, about repairing and replacing this type of valve. Attempt this as a DIY project only if after watching this video, you’re confident that the task is within your abilities and does not require using a wrench to apply force to the pipe. Example: Moen shower valves tend to be relatively easy to repair—it’s often just a matter of replacing a cartridge.
• Hooking up a sprinkler system to a spigot. Some home owners attempt to DIY an extensive lawn sprinkler system by running pipes off a hose bib (that’s the official name for the spigot) on the outside of the home. That can be a very expensive mistake—the half-inch pipe leading to the hose bib is insufficient for a sprinkler system, which causes water to travel through the pipe at greater volumes and velocities than the bib is designed to handle, eroding the pipe from the inside out until a leak develops. If that leak is under your home’s slab, the repair bill could be well into the thousands of dollars.
Better: If you want an irrigation system without the cost of having one professionally installed, attach a drip irrigation system to your hose. The system is essentially a hose with tiny holes that slowly leaks water into the ground.