Who needs plumbers anyway?

Time was you couldn't get a plumber for love or money. Now they're everywhere. But why pay to have a sink unblocked when you too can pick up a plunger? Ed Caesar finds out how to fix common problems
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The Independent Online


...my tap leaks?

If there is water spraying from your tap, you need to replace the washer. This is really easy if you know the basics of plumbing. First, you need to close off the water supply to the tap and open the tap to drain excess water.

Once you've switched off the water supply, put the plug in the waste outlet - not to stop loss of water, but to safeguard against losing any of the tap components. Remove the top cover of the tap. This may be a metal type with a hexagonal base, in which case you should wrap some cloth around it before undoing with a spanner. The cloth will prevent it being scratched. Hold the tap itself to prevent it turning.

Some taps have a moulded plastic cover held in place with a small screw located in its top (sometimes under a plastic insert, which will need to be gently prised out with a thin-bladed screwdriver).

Once the cover is removed, undo the top section of the tap by turning the hexagonal nut next to the base with a spanner. Hold the tap itself (wrapped in a rag) using a pipe wrench to prevent it turning.

Lift the top section out of the tap. On the underside of this will be the washer retained by a small nut, which should be undone, or a button.

Remove the old washer and replace with a new one. Make sure that pieces of the old washer are not left in the seat of the tap before finally reassembling it and switching the water back on. If disintegrated pieces of the old washer remain, there's every chance the new washer will not sit right, and that may cause further leaking.

...there's water squirting out of one of my pipes?

You've got a broken pipe. It's not always practical to carry out a permanent repair immediately on a leaking pipe, but you can do a temporary job until the professionals arrive.

One of the easiest ways is to take a piece of garden hose, which is wide enough to go around the pipe. Cut it lengthways and place it over the damaged section. Then fasten it with at least three jubilee clips. By tightening these, you should be able to seal the hose against the pipe so no further water escapes.

...my sink's blocked?

Is it any wonder? The waste pipes have to deal with everything from leftover bits of food to strands of hair, so the odd blockage is to be expected. The first thing to do is to get a plunger and smear petroleum jelly around the base. This helps to seal it against the bottom of the bowl. Now place the plunger over the outlet and run the water so that there is enough in the bowl to cover its base. Now, holding a wet cloth over the overflow, pump the plunger several times. Then remove the plunger, see if it has worked, and repeat as necessary.

The plunger method can be very effective, but sometimes all you succeed in doing is to push the blockage along the pipe a little.

Frequently, the blockage will be in the trap beneath the sink. In this case, the quickest way to remove it is to clean out the trap. Place a washing-up bowl underneath the trap to catch the water. Unscrew the two ends of the trap, ease it out, and clear any debris from it. If this is where the blockage was, you'll know about it and be able to fix it very quickly.

If plunging and trap-clearing has failed, it's time to rod the pipe out. There should be access caps fitted at any sharp junction in the waste pipe, but you can always access the pipe from the trap.

Sometimes you can clear blockages with a coat hanger, but for the areas hangers can't reach, you will need a narrow-gauge drain rod - a long length of wire on a reel, with a hook on the end. Once you've found the offending spud/sausage, replace all the fittings and test the flow of water.

...my loo's blocked?

This is not a glamour job. But if the water from your loo fails to drain away, or overflows completely, there is a problem. It could be one of two things:

1) A blockage in the water trap in the pan itself. This can easily be cleared. Before proceeding, check the flow from other waste pipes to see whether the blockage is affecting all the pipes. If it is, then the obstruction is actually further down the line. But if it's not, get yourself a large plunger and rubber gloves.

Armed with your plunger, make sure the rubber end covers the waste outlet at the base of the pan and pump several times. Repeat until the blockage is clear.

2) The blockage is further along. You'll know this is the case if your frenetic pumping hasn't cleared the blockage. You will then need to hire a large rodding auger to reach further down the pipe. The rodding auger, a long flexible rod with a claw at the end, should be pushed down the pipe until you feel the blockage. You can then clear the obstruction by turning the handle. And if this fails, the problem's in the soil pipe or drain run itself - and it's time to call a professional.

...there's nothing coming out of my tap?

If your tap fails to supply water when it is opened it may be airlocked. But it's an easy problem to overcome. First, attach a length of hosepipe to the affected tap and connect the other end to a working direct-feed tap - in most cases this will be the cold tap on the kitchen sink.

Now open both taps to allow the pressure of the mains water to force the air back out of the pipes. Leave the taps open for several minutes, and then turn off the airlocked tap first. It may be necessary to repeat this a few times to release the lock.

When you are finished, undo the hose from the higher of the two taps, before releasing the lower and allowing the water in the hose to drain into the sink.

If the above method fails, it is still possible to blow out the airlock with cold-water pipes from an attic cistern. Push a length of hose into the outlet pipe within the tank, open the tap at the other end, and blow through the pipe to dislodge the lock.

And, if all else fails, drain the system down. Turn off the water and open all the taps to drain the water. Then close all taps until they are about three-quarters closed. Turn the water back on and adjust all taps until a light, even flow of water is achieved. Now open the taps one by one to the half-open position, starting with the lowest and working upwards. Then, repeat at the three-quarters open position.

Once all air has been discharged, turn all taps off to a point where there is only a minimal flow. Finally, close all the taps before checking the operation of each in turn.

...my pipe's frozen?

To identify the location of the freeze, you need to be a bit of a detective. So first check the flow of water from all appliances. It should be relatively easy to narrow down the solid section. Once you know which section has been affected, investigate suspicious draughts from air vents, or an unlagged (uninsulated) section of pipe next to a vent.

Once you've pinpointed the frozen spot, inspect the pipe and nearby fittings. Your pipe may have split, or the fittings may have been pushed apart by the expanding ice. In this case, melting the ice will result in a leaking joint. So if you find this kind of damage, the water supply to this section should be turned off first, and preparation made to contain the leaking water once the pipe has thawed.

To thaw the ice, apply heat gently to the affected area using a hairdryer or hot-water bottle. A hairdryer should only be used if you are certain that the pipe/joints are not damaged or split. Never use an electrical appliance in the vicinity of water. If you must use a blowtorch, guard against fire and apply only with a gentle heat, as excessive heat will cause soldered joints to fail.

Advice from Stephen Worrall of www.diyfixit.co.uk