Plumbing, Sinks and Bathtubs

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Repair a dripping faucet

The newer washerless faucets are relatively easy to repair. Anyone with average "fix-it" abilities can fix a drip or leak. The most difficult pa rt is determining the type and brand of faucet so you can buy the right parts.

Look for a brand name on the handle, spout or base of the faucet. Take a picture if necessary for guidance when you visit the store. If the base of the handle has a circular fitting, you have a ball type faucet. If the handle moves up and down for volume and left and right for temperature, you have a barrel cartridge or disk type faucet. If you are handy and confident, dismantle the faucet and bring the parts to the store.

Now it’s off to the plumbing store or hardware store to find replacement parts. If it’s a hardware store, choose one that’s well-stocked and has skilled staff in the plumbing department. Share with them your brand name, picture and general information on type of faucet. Most repair parts are sold in kits with good instructions.

If you go it alone in the store, you’ll need to locate parts based on the brand, type and appearance of the faucet. Most of the repair part packages will have sketches of the faucets and descriptions of parts.

Once you have the appropriate repair kit, read the instructions on how to dismantle and repair the faucet. Some kits also include special equipment you’ll need, such as an Allen wrench or spanner wrench. In general, you will be replacing springs, rubber washers and "o" rings.

Follow the simple directions and sketches. It’s hard to go wrong. Just remember to turn off the water before you start.

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Dripping valves-interior

Sometimes an indoor valve-for example, a basement valve for an outside water connection-develops a slow drip. How can you fix the leak?

Examine the valve and you’ll see that the handle is mounted on a round brass stem or shaft. The shaft enters the body of the valve through a hole in a hex nut. If you tighten this hex nut (packing nut), the leak should stop. You only need to tighten this packing nut slightly to stop the drip.

If you overtighten the packing nut, the valve will be hard to operate and you may not be able to turn the handle at all. If the valve is hard to operate, just loosen the nut.

One caution: if the valve has a buildup of corrosion and hard water scale inside, tightening the nut may not solve the problem. You may need to dismantle the valve and replace a packing ring or washer below the nut. To rebuild the valve, you may need to clean the stem and/or replace parts.

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Dripping garden hoses

Many of us have problems with garden hoses that leak at the fittings. This is easy to fix with the new products on the market. By paying attention to leaks and spe nding a few bucks and a few minutes, we can conserve water-a precious resource.

The most common problem is a missing or hardened washer. Open the fitting and look for the washer inside the female end of the fitting. If the washer is hard or damaged, replace it with a new washer.

While you have the fitting open, look at the male end of the fitting. It should have a relatively flat surface to contact the washer. Both of the threaded ends should be relatively round.

If the threaded ends are out of round, or if they’re bent or cracked, replace them. You can buy great replacement ends at the hardware store. Cut off the old fitting with a sharp knife and take it to the hardware store to match the inside hose diameter with the new fitting. The best fittings are plastic with small plastic clamps. You slip the fitting into the hose and tighten down the clamp. If you have trouble slipping the hose over the fitting, warm it with hot water.

If there’s a break or split in the hose, cut out the bad area and buy a fitting to connect the hose sections.

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Dripping water heater

On the side of the water heater is a temperature/pressure valve with a handle. This valve is designed as a safety measure-it will open if the water heater overheats and creates excessive pressure.

When the valve develops a leak, though, water runs down the tube and drips on the floor. A leaky valve should be replaced. The leak can get worse at any time. More seriously, the constant flow of water may corrode or seal shut the valve with hard water scale, and that creates a potential danger. A new valve costs about $20 and take less than 30 minutes to install.

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Garbage disposal tips and repair

Some people prefer not to use the garbage disposal in the kitchen sink, but they "inherited" one anyway when they moved into their current home. If that’s true in your case, run the disposal every once in a while to prevent the buildup of any food or waste. If you leave it out of operation, it will eventually freeze up and be ruined.

But let’s assume you like to use your garbage disposal, yet one da y it stops working. It doesn’t even hum anymore. You can perform simple service yourself.

First, turn the unit off at the wall switch. Then look under the sink and loc ate a small red button on the base of the unit. This is the electrical reset. If the unit is no longer humming, it probably means the overload has been tripped. Push this button in to reset the thermal overload/reset.

Try to switch the unit on. If the unit now hums but will not run, turn it off immediately. You have a jam in the disposal that needs to be cleared.

Check under the sink for a small L-shaped service wrench that looks like an Allen wrench with a bend on each end. The installer of the disposal unit left it there for you (very thoughtful, wouldn’t you say?). It may be in a small plastic pouch stapled to the side of the cabinet. At the end of this tool is a hex wrench that fits into a hole you’ll find on the bottom of the disposal, in the center. Work the wrench back and forth until the unit moves freely for several revolutions. As you move the wrench, you are moving the shaft of the disposal.

If you can’t find the service wrench in your sink cabinet, you can buy one at any hardware store. Or, you can free the disposal by working from above with a socket on the end of a long extension. There will be a hex nut on the shaft inside the disposal.

Now look into the disposal from above. Check for any foreign ob jects. Remove them with tongs. Run water and start the unit.

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Leaking sink mushroom (air gap)

You may not know what it’s called, but you’ve seen it a thousand times: that little chrome "mushroom" on the kitchen sink next the faucet. It’s called an air gap, and it prevents the backflow of dirty water into the dishwasher.

When the dishwasher drains, it pumps the dirty water up to this air gap. The water then makes a U-turn and is routed down a drain line. This provides a physical break or "air gap" that prevents dirty water from flowing back into the dishwasher.

If the dishwasher were connected directly to the disposal or the drainpipe, a plugged drain could easily force wastewater into the dishwasher. Since the air gap is placed above the sink, any wastewater will now back up into the sink instead.

Sometimes the air gap leaks when the dishwasher drains. This happens if the gap is dirty or there are restrictions in the drain line between the air gap and the sink drain. To fix it, slide off the chrome cover of the air gap and clean the plastic parts. You can often remove the internal plastic cover and clean it, too.

Also, look at the drain line (probably a rubber hose) beneath the air gap. Remove any kinks, and replace the hose if it is damaged.

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Leaking toilet tank – So your toilet fills during the night?

It’s possible for a toilet to develop a slow leak in the flush valve. This is the flapper or ball valve that lets water flow from the tank into the bowl. A slight leak is normally not noticeable as water slowly flows into the bowl and down the drain. You may hear the toilet mysteriously fill during the night when the house is quiet. This is caused by a leaking flush valve. You can test for a leak by putting a little food coloring in the tank. Don’t flush the tank. If there’s a leak, you will see the colored water trickle into the bowl. Often you just need to clean or adjust the flush valve. The flapper or ball seats on the top of the pipe leading to the bowl. Wipe the mating surfaces with a rag to remove rust and hard water deposits. Also make sure the valve is aligned over the opening. If the rubber parts are cracked or brittle, you will need to replace the flush valve. Because this leak can waste a large amount of water, you will want to fix it as soon as possible.

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Re-caulking around the bathtub

If the joint between the tub and the wall has opened up, and water is running into the kitchen below, it’s time to think about caulking around the bathtub.

Often, the joint between tub and wall is filled with tile grout or hard caulking that cannot withstand the relative movement between the tub and wall tile. The wall is fixed, while the tub rests on the floor and may move when loaded with water and bather(s).

To repair the joint, first remove all loose material and meticulously clean the area with rubbing alcohol.

Removing caulk used to require softening the caulk with a heat gun, then scraping out the caulk with a stiff, sharp putty knife. If that did not work, you would need to use a hammer and chisel.

But now, 3M has solved the problem with its caulk remover called?Caulk Remover. It’s the consistency of white glue and even comes in a glue-like container. You apply a 7-inch-thick coat to completely cover the old caulk. After 2 to 7 hours, you’ll be able to remove the loosened caulk with a putty knife. If the caulk remains firm, you can remove it with a safety razor.

Thoroughly clean the surface with water and allow it to dry thoroughly. Recaulk the joint with a flexible silicone or urethane base caulk. Special bathtub caulks are also available. These caulks resist water and mildew, and they remain flexible to allow for movement. Be sure to pick a color that matches the grout.

It is also a good idea to fill the tub with water before you replace the caulk. A tub will often move slightly from the weight of the water, so you’ll be filling the joint when it’s forced open-and it will accommodate more movement when the tub is filled in the future. After the caulk has partially cured, drain the water.

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Preventing grout stains

It’s important to prevent stains from developing in the grout that surrounds ceramic tile. Grout is relatively porous, and once mildew and other stains penetrate deeply, regrouting is the only solution.

To prevent problems, seal the grout with a special silicone based sealer. Sealer is available at any large hardware or tile store. There are many brands and types; follow the directions on the product. This will keep water and stains from penetrating the grout.

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Clean a plugged shower head

A shower head can easily become clogged with hard water deposits, reducing a nice steady spray to a errant squirt. Removing these deposits is easy. Soak the hea d in vinegar or an acid-based hard water stain remover. You don’t even have to remove the head. Place the vinegar or cleaner in a sandwich-sized plastic bag and tape it over the shower head. Allow it to soak until the deposits are dissolved. Remember to follow all necessary precautions for any cleaner or chemical that you use.

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Low flow at the faucet or washing machine

A plugged aerator can interfere with water flow at any faucet or other outlet. The aerator, which is screwed to the end of the faucet, strains water while introducing air. If the strainer becomes plugged, the flow is reduced. Remove the strainer and clean it.

The hose fittings between the washing machine and the faucet may contain small screens or strainers. If you have low flow, clean these strainers.

Strainers or aerators can become blocked when water pressure is turned off, causing deposits to collect inside the pipes of your plumbing system. Testing and maintenance of municipal water systems can also cause problems.

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Toilet trouble #1: partial flush

If a toilet only provides a partial flush, check a few simple things before calling the plumber. The problem may be with the amount of water or the speed of water flow from the tank to the bowl.

First, check that the water level in the tank is at the water level mark on the side of the tank or near the top of the overflow pipe. If the water level is low, adjust the float by bending its rod or resetting the adjustment screw.

Check for bricks or stones that may have been placed in the tank to save water with each flush. These objects may reduce the water flow to a level that isn’t adequate for flushing action.

Pour about 2 or 3 gallons of water from a pail directly into the bowl. If it flushes well, the drain and vent are probably clear.

Check the flapper valve or tank ball that releases water from the tank to the bowl. Watch it in operation to make sure it’s opening fully and staying open until all the water is out of the tank. If in doubt, hold the valve open with your hand and watch the flushing action.

Check for a jet flush hole in the front edge of the toilet trap. If there is one, it must be free of deposits. Use an acid cleaner and a stick if necessary to clear the opening.

Some toilets have small holes under the toilet bowl rim that release wa ter to the bowl. If these holes are plugged, clean them with a toothpick. In an old toilet, even if the holes around the rim are clear, the chamber leading to the holes may be blocked. You can buy an acid cleaner at a plumbing supply store to clean this chamber and the holes. You plug the holes with plumber’s putty and then pour the acid into the overflow tube. Allow the acid to sit for a length of time to dissolve deposits. Follow the specific instruction for the product you buy.

Finally, if you’re sure there is adequate flow of water from the tank to the bowl, the problem is in the toilet trap or sewer system. You’ll need a plunger or an auger (snake) to fix this; or call the plumber.

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Toilet trouble #2: blockage

An overflowing toilet bowl means facing a really messy job or a plumber’s bill. If you’re willing to try to fix it before calling for help, here are some tips.

A toilet has a built-in trap that holds water, sealing the toilet from the sewer system. Most toilet bowl blockage occurs in the trap.

To clean a plugged toilet, first bail out enough water to prevent overflowing. Clear any visible blockage by using a toilet plunger. Place the plunger over the large opening in the bottom of the bowl and pump about ten times. Remove the plunger. If water r ushes out, the blockage is cleared.

If the plunger fails, try an auger (snake). A closet auger with a bent tube to help feed the snake into the trap is best. Twist the auger as you feed it into the toilet, trying to break through the blockage or hook and remove it. A bent coat hanger will also hook and remove some objects.

If the auger fails too, call a plumber. The plumber will remove the toilet to check for blockage and will snake the major components of the drainage system.

Chemical cleaners are not effective for toilet bowl blockage. Cleaners usually can’t reach the blockage, and they complicate any further attempts to remove the blockage. When in doubt, call a professional. You may save money in the long run.

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Toilet trouble #3: whistling sounds

Whistling sounds in a plumbing system are usually caused when water flows through a restricted supply line. This can occur at the shut-off valve at the wall below the tank or at the fill valve inside the tank.

First, check that the supply shut-off valve is fully open . Then take off the tank cover. Flush the toilet and listen to each of these valves to try to locate the noise. You may feel a vibration when you touch the valve. If you can locate the source, work on that valve. Debris, rust, or mineral deposits caught in small passageways would restrict water flow and could cause noise.

If the noise seems to be coming from the shut-off valve, open and close it several times. This may clear debris. Leave the valve open. Flush again. If the whistle remains, you may need to dismantle this valve and look for obstructions.

If you suspect that the noise comes from the fill valve inside the tank, check it for obstructions. First, turn off the water supply at the wall shut-off. In the tank, dismantle the top of the fill valve where the float arm is attached. Clean and re-assemble. Sometimes it’s easier to replace the whole valve assembly than it is to repair it.

I’m sure you will find the whistle at one of the valves. If this sounds too confusing, calling a plumber is a good option.

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Banging pipes (water hammer)

Why do water pipes bang?

You may hear thumping or banging when water stops filling the toilet tank, or when you turn water off quickly at certain faucets, or after the washing machine draws water.

You may need a plumber to fix this problem, but first you can try a simple trick. Your plumbing system probably has air cushions. These cushions or shock absorber chambers, located near the laundry, the kitchen, or the main valve, were initially filled with air so that when a valve closed quickly, the force of the water movement bounced against the air cushion. This prevented the hammering.

Now these air cushions are probably filled with water. To solve the problem, you need to drain your plumbing system. Start by turning off the main water supply. Then open all the faucets in your home. Air will be drawn into the upper faucets. Water will drain from the lower faucets.

When water stops flowing, slowly fill the system by opening the main valve slightly. Walk through your home closing each valve as air is eliminated and a solid stream of water flows through that faucet. After you have closed all the faucets, open the main valve fully.

Now you should have an air cushion in the shock absorber chambers. If this does not do the trick, call a plumber. Remember that sediment and air may come out of the faucets for a short time.

The water-hammer effect can be especially severe with automatic washing machines that have electrically operated water valves which may close very quickly. If your washer doesn’t have shock absorber chambers, a plumber can install them. To check whether yours does, look for a 12" tube or 4" chamber extending above the hose bib connections for the water.

Also, check that piping to the washer is properly supported, because the banging can be compounded when pipes move around and hit wood framing or other objects. Adding a support may help correct the problem.

Don’t ignore the problem. Eventually, water hammer can cause a break. Have a qualified plumber modify your system.

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Preventing water pipe freeze-ups

Let’s say your kitchen sink is on an outside wall, and one cold, windy day the water supply to the sink becomes frozen. You should be concerned about the situation, because next time the pipe may break, resulting in a repair bill plus potential water damage.

Start by carefully inspecting the area of the wood framing and foundation wall near the pipes. Look for holes that allow cold air to blow in and freeze a pipe.

Check the basement immediately below the sink. Do your inspection on a sunny day, and leave the basement lights off. Look for sunlig ht leaking through the basement wall, sill area, foundation overhangs, and lower edge of the house siding. Caulk and fill any gaps. Some may need to be filled from the outside. If this space is insulated, you’ll need to remove the insulation to expose the wood framing for inspection.

Next, make sure there is good insulation in the sill area above the foundation wall. Fill the area with tight fitting fiberglass. Pack all areas between the outside framing and the top of the basement wall.

Insulate the supply pipe with a plastic foam-type insulation. You will find this at most building supply centers. Trim the insulation for a tight fit and tape all joints.

If the problem persists, you may need to open kitchen sink cabinet doors during cold weather to allow for air circulation. You could also add a fan or small heater to help move and warm the air in the basement area near the pipes.

As a last resort during very cold weather, let the water run in a trickle at this sink. The water circulation will warm the pipe and prevent freezing. Problem is, this also wastes a natural resource and puts a load on sewage treatment facilities.

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Coping with a popping water heater

When the water heater makes popping sounds, the culprit is usually sediment that has built up at the bottom of the tank over the years. When the gas burner is on to reheat the water, sediment interferes with heat transfer between the bottom of the tank and the water. Localized boiling of water within the sediment creates a pounding or popping noise.

You may be able to correct the problem by draining the water heater. Attach a hose to the valve at the bottom of the tank. Run the hose to a floor drain or a pail, and remove several gallons of water. Repeat this procedure several times over the next few days, allowing material to settle to the bottom of the tank so you can drain it away. Be ready to add a garden hose cap to the threaded valve-discharge fitting, because sediment often sticks inside the valve and it may not reseal tightly. The garden hose cap must have a soft gasket to seal against the valve.

If sediment has hardened in the tank, you may not be able to drain it off. Eventually you will have to replace the heater. This problem is compounded if your house has hard water from a well and no water softener.

For routine maintenance, remove several gallons of water from the bottom of the tank twice a year. This will extend the life of the heater, reduce energy costs, and help eliminate sediment from the rest of the plumbing system.

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Pilot light on a gas water heater

The pilot light on a gas water heater should rarely go out. If yours goes out frequently (during periods of high wind, for example), it may be because of moving air in the flue, but adjustments should eliminate this problem.

To properly light any pilot, follow the specific instructions on the gas appliance. Normally, you first ventilate the area to remove gas residue. Turn the gas valve to the off position for 5 or more minutes. Holding the gas control knob in the "pilot" position, use a match or lighter to ignite the pilot. After the pilot is lit, hold the control knob for about 60 seconds and then slowly release it. Finally, turn the gas control to "on."

Using a long-handled lighter will make it easier to ignite the pilot. Place the lighter next to the pilot before turning the gas control.

You need to hold the control knob in the pilot position for 60 seconds to heat up the thermocouple sensing bulb, a small copper tube located in the pilot flame. When this bulb senses the heat of a flame, a control valve allows gas to flow to the pilot light and the burner. When the thermocouple does not sense a flame, the valve will shut off.

If your pilot light frequently goes out, have the flame and thermocouple checked and adjusted by a professional. Also, ask this professional to check the flue connections, draft diverter and chimney to see if there’s a chimney draft problem.

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Sump pump clunking

So you’re awake on a rainy night listing to the "sump pump clunk"? The clunk occurs when a check valve closes each time the sump pump ends its cycle. The valve checks the water flow, preventing it from draining back down the outlet pipe, refilling the crock, and turning on the sump pump again-over and over.

Some clunking is normal as the valve closes against the head of water. If the noise is excessive, check whether the piping is loose. Pipes that bang against the frame of the house create a louder noise than the original sound of the check valve closing.

If the piping is firmly attached to the wood framing of your house, or wedged against the framing, the wood will amplify sounds and vibrations. Hang wire or metal straps along the piping, then place foam insulation between the piping and the straps.

If the outlet pipe is short (making it less likely that water will flow back into the crock), you could remove the check valve. You could also experiment with adding a small hole or vent pipe at the top of the pip e run outside your home. This small hole will allow air into the top of the pipe and break siphoning. The water below the vent will still flow back into the crock.

You could also consider installing a new check valve that may be quieter.

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