5 easy fixes for plumbing disasters

Whether it's a clogged sink or a cracked copper pipe, here's everything you need to know to fix that plumbing problem

By Allan Britnell


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Standing hunched over in the basement, watching as a plumber replaced a cracked and corroded sewer drain with a length of ABS and a pair of couplers, I kept thinking, I could have done that myself. After he handed me a bill in excess of $400 for about 30 minutes of work, I thought, I should have done that myself!

With plumbers often charging rates a lawyer might find criminal, it makes financial sense to learn how to handle some basic plumbing tasks yourself.

How to unclog a sink drain

Whether it’s hair and bits of soap bars clogging the bathroom sink or grease and food blocking up the one in the kitchen, clogged drains are one of the most common household plumbing problems. Here’s how to clear the clogs without emptying your wallet (or flushing harsh chemicals down the drain).

First step: Try to clear things with a plunger. Make sure there’s enough water in the bottom of the basin to cover the lip of the plunger-to create a vacuum-but not so much that the plunging action will slosh it onto the countertop. For a complete seal, slather some petroleum jelly on the base of the plunger.

Before plunging, you’ll want to plug any escape routes from which water could come shooting out. In a kitchen with a double sink, put a stopper in the other basin; in the bathroom, plug the overflow drain at the top edge of the bowl with a rag.

For a simple clog, a few quick strokes up and down might push the blockage through or pull it up. Lift the plunger out and see if the water drains. If that doesn’t work, drive the plunger up and down vigorously a dozen or more times. Then, on your final upward stroke, pull it completely out of the water, drawing the clog, one hopes, into the bowl. Repeat this process two or three times before breaking out your plumber’s tools.

Next step: remove the trap (often called a J-trap or P-trap for its resemblance to those letters). But, first, clear the clutter in your cabinet and place a bucket under the trap. If there’s a cleanout valve at the base of the trap, remove it. If gravity doesn’t cause the clog to fall out on its own, fish in a length of coat hanger or a hand auger-also called a plumber’s snake-into the hole. An auger is an essential, $15 DIY plumber’s tool that has a pointed tip for snagging and breaking up clogs at the end of 25′ or so of coiled flexible metal. To use it, loosen the thumbscrew at the tip and fish the line into the pipe until you feel resistance (either a bend in the pipe or your clog). Pull out 6″ of slack, tighten the screw, and turn the handle clockwise while trying to push the line farther in. When the resistance gives, retract the cable and see if you’ve brought out a hairball in its grasp. If not, it was probably just a bend in the pipe, so you’ll have to repeat the process and go farther.

If you don’t have a valve in your trap-or the auger still didn’t clear things out-use a pipe wrench to loosen the slipnuts securing the trap. Turn the trap over into the bucket and, in most cases, the clog should fall out. (I once removed the J-trap and dumped a metal dental pick-wrapped in hair-into my bucket.) If not, thread your hand auger through the pipe to clear the clog.

Reattach the trap and-leaving the bucket in place-put the stopper in the sink. Fill it with an inch or so of water, then pull the plug, keeping your eyes on the nuts for any leaks.

Tips: Boiling water will sometimes dissolve soap clogs in a sink drain.

“Lefty loosey” (as opposed to “righty tighty”) and a squirt of lubricant will help you get corroded nuts off.

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