It’s a hard statistic for some to fathom, but a majority of the most common plumbing problems people face are self-inflicted. Many people rightfully like to complete projects themselves and many times everything goes just fine, but — with plumbing in particular — something going wrong can be a costly lesson.
Plumbing involves practically every essential system within your home such as water, waste, heat, air conditioning, drainage, irrigation and some others, so it pays to gain knowledge about preventing plumbing problems.
We all depend on our plumbing systems to work. When properly installed, maintained and serviced, they will perform reliably and enjoy a long life. You can do many things yourself, but the best advice on how to prevent plumbing problems is to enlist the help of a professional. Licensed plumbers like those at Bruni & Campisi complete ongoing educational classes and have the experience to avoid common plumbing mistakes homeowners often make.
If you consider the following tips, you can avoid the top 20 most expensive plumbing mistakes.
1. Protect the Toilet System
Most adults realize that they should not flush anything down the toilet besides water, human waste and toilet tissue, yet every plumber can tell stories about things they have fished out of sewer and septic lines including toys, stuffed animals, shoes, golf balls, tweezers, food and other odd items. Some entities in charge of sewer and waste have implemented campaigns against the usage of wipes that are marketed as flushable but aren’t good for sewage and septic systems.
Simple steps can encourage guests, visitors and even some household members to resist the temptation of flushing things they should not. For example, place a lined trashcan in any bathroom with a toilet, so it’s easy to toss wipes, feminine-hygiene products, baby diapers, wrappers and other items. It’s also a good preventative measure to keep a plunger beside each toilet in the house.
If you’re sure a foreign object was flushed, it’s usually better to call your plumber than to plunge, which can actually push the item farther down and lodge it in the trap or waste line. If an item reaches the trap of the toilet, the whole toilet must be removed to remove the item. If an item flows into a waste line, removal of it can require more steps like snaking, video inspection or flushing. It’s important to remove the object while it’s still close to home; if it moves into the public wastewater system, it can cause problems that require a high public price tag.
2. Defend the Drain
Most municipalities have begun residential education and awareness programs to notify people how bad it is to put any type of fat, oil or grease down the drain. Commercial establishments must be trained in this knowledge, but outreach to average residents helps ease the burden on public water-processing systems and helps homeowners and property owners avoid plumbing issues such as nasty clogs and buildup.
The City of Syracuse, for example, has a residential “fog” program that educates people with helpful tips, such as how one teaspoon of fat kept out of one household drain each day prevents a total of 12 pounds of fat, oil or grease per year from running to and through both public and private systems. The most obvious prevention is to avoid pouring any kind of grease or oil into the drains, but other kinds of clogging agents aren’t so obvious such as butter, sauces, chocolate, cream and other fatty foods and liquids.
Keeping fat, oil and grease in all its forms out of the drain can prevent plumbing problems. Since some amounts of fat, oil and grease will inevitably make their way into to your drain, it is a good practice to occasionally de-gunk it by pouring in a few gallons of boiling water. Hair is another common enemy of the clear drain. It helps immensely to keep drain openings clear of hair, so it doesn’t have a chance to accumulate and create a clog. Strainers are available for kitchen and bathroom drains that help filter out much of the material that causes blockage.
3. Test the Waters
There are many things you can do yourself to help maintain your system and detect a hard-to-find plumbing problem you may or may not suspect exists. The easiest test of all is to examine the water bill for cost and gallons used, which should remain more or less consistent from month to month. If there is a spike in either, it can be an indicator.
Sometimes you might suspect the toilet is running, but you can’t catch it in action. It’s common for the seals and flushing mechanism within a toilet to crack, chip or otherwise wear to the point that the toilet runs, and sometimes not in a consistent pattern. To see if your toilet is running, you can put a few drops of food coloring in the tank and see if it the color runs drains from the bowl without a deliberate flush.
Several entities can help you test your well- or city-supplied water to see what it contains. Perhaps you have a funny taste or smell, and you want to know why. Other times people are sure they want to treat the household water as it enters, and they need to know exactly what’s in the water before they select a system.
4. Fix Leaks and Drips
One small drip in one faucet or a sometimes-running toilet can waste thousands of gallons of water per year, and when that statistic is multiplied across many households, it adds up to staggering amounts of water. This is especially true in places like Greenwich with fairly severe water restrictions in place due to dwindling supply. In some cases, the matter becomes bigger than the dollars it costs each family.
Most states including Connecticut and New York, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, provide information about water conservation. Connecticut advocates “save water, save money, save energy,” and states that the number one way to achieve that is to “stop indoor and outdoor plumbing leaks.” The second thing on its list is to replace the toilet.
The EPA offers copious data on its website, such as the fact that replacing an older toilet with a more efficient model such as the Water Sense can save 13,000 gallons of water per year. For an average family, that translates to a savings of $2,400 on the water and sewer bills during the life of the toilet. More EPA statistics demonstrate the ecological and financial importance of immediately fixing the leaks:
- A leaky faucet that drips once per second can waste 3,000 gallons of water per year
- A showerhead that drips 10 times per minute will waste 500 gallons of water per year
- An average household’s leaks can collectively waste as much as 10,000 gallons of water per year.
5. Find the Water Main
When something goes awry with water in the house, the most valuable knowledge is how to turn it off at the main valve. The hypothetical scene plays out in reality time after time in houses with both public and private water supply: A pipe bursts and is spewing water everywhere, and if a homeowner can’t locate the main valve and turn it off, the spewing continues until a plumber arrives. During that time, homes become flooded and possessions ruined, including everything from utilities and sheetrock to clothes and furniture. It’s great preventative policy to know where the main valve is and how to turn it off.
Often it’s located in a basement or utility closet and/or near the street where it connects to the main supply. Sometimes a city will assist residents to locate it, or a professional plumber can help find it during an inspection or service call. The main valve is likely to be a wheel-shaped handle that you turn or a simple lever that moves back and forth. In some cases, the main will be marked as “main.”
6. Locate Individual Cutoff Levers
While you’re focused on finding the water main, you can also familiarize yourself with the shutoff valves on each of your water-using appliances or utilities. For examples, washers have handles to turn off the water, and each sink and toilet has a small lever-like handle where its water can be stopped. On toilets, it’s usually behind the bowl and close to the wall and floor. With sinks, the lever is normally underneath the sink, often within a cabinet or vanity.
Many experts advise you turn water off to the washer before leaving for a long day or vacation, because it has a hose that is prone to cracking with age and may burst while you’re away. It can also be helpful to spend a little more money for the metal, flexible hoses, which are more durable.
7. Don’t Deluge the Disposal
Garbage disposals are a nice luxury, but their name is misleading because it’s unwise to treat the disposal like a trashcan. There are a variety of things that the blades do not process well and are better off going into a compost pile or garbage than down the drain. Clogs will result from too much material being fed into the disposal or from the unit not processing the food into small bits.
Some of the materials plumbers have found in lines and systems include many common items:
- Tough fruit rind such as watermelon or cantaloupe
- Potato peels
- Meat skin
- Egg shells
- Stringy foods
8. Pull the Disposal Plug
Many people venture to install household appliances and utilities themselves, only to discover they missed a step or didn’t know about some significant aspect of the project. Even people who are mechanically qualified and comfortable enough to install a garbage disposal may not know about the hose plug that must be removed if a dishwasher will be connected to it.
If there is not a dishwasher, the plug is not an issue because it stays in place and maintains a seal. If a dishwasher is attached to the garbage disposal and the plug or seal is not removed, water will squirt and leak out of the connection.
9. Shield the Sink
The same way a garbage disposal isn’t truly a trashcan, the sink is not a place to rinse or clean heavy-duty items such as any kind of construction compound or paint. The liquid flows but the hard parts stay behind, get stuck and cause clogs that drain cleaner will not clear. You are better off using a pan of water to scrub the big stuff off and then dumping the lumpy water outside.
10. Eyeball the Water Heater
Nothing goes quite right in a household where the water heater doesn’t work well or at all. When a family invests in a new one, they want it to last. Some people don’t know that they can burn up their brand new water heater if they don’t wait until it’s filled with water to flip the on switch. A water heater must fill and then water must be run to chase out any air bubbles — then it can be turned on to heat.
We tend not to think about the water heater until one morning we step into the shower and are met with icy-cold water. It’s out of sight and usually out of mind, but it should actually be inspected regularly for any signs of water, rust, corrosion or malfunction. If you see a leak or spot of rust when it’s small, you may be able to replace a simple part and save money over a replacement or major repair later. An average, traditional water heater usually lasts 10 to 15 years. Part of good water-heater maintenance is to occasionally drain the water heater and flush it to expel any sediment that has accumulated in the bottom.
11. Keep the Load Light
Plumbers make plenty of calls for preventable situations, such as the showerhead or faucet snapping off because it was bearing weight. Showers are notoriously small spaces, and there’s a constant quest to find new ways to store our bottles of product, mirrors, cloths, radios, razors and other necessities within that small space. Many inexpensive caddies slip over the showerhead and hang there but are not advisable for the well-being of your plumbing.
Plumbing fixtures are not designed to bear any weight. For examples, an outside faucet cannot hold a rolled-up garden hose; a bathtub spigot should not serve as a footrest; and the showerhead should only be used to dispense water and not hold pounds of product.
12. Don’t Procrastinate
Next to “consult a professional,” the single-most important piece of advice on how to avoid plumbing problems is to act immediately for inspections or repairs. If a plumbing fixture exhibits any sign of distress or dysfunction, it will only get worse with time and will cost less to address sooner rather than later. The unfortunate thing about plumbing is that so much of its function and parts are hidden from view, and by the time you notice something small, the actual problem may already be big.
13. Keep Track of Parts
Another common mistake that often draws a plumber to the home is when a person disassembles a plumbing fixture, and then they can’t remember how it goes back together or they re-assemble it incorrectly. Even some professionals will take digital pictures of it before it’s taken apart and sometimes during the job. Other people will pull up or draw themselves a diagram of the assembly, as well as label the parts as they’re removed using corresponding letters or numbers to demonstrate placement and sequence.
14. Know Where Metals Meet
Often in plumbing tasks, there are metal pipes and other accoutrement with different metal compositions, and they must be properly coupled wherever those metals meet within your plumbing system. Many do-it-yourselfers may not understand the process of di-electric corrosion that occurs when metals, copper and steel for example, are joined without the right coupling. The coupling itself is basically a pipe joint with rubber and sleeve parts to prevent the two metals from touching each other.
15. Avoid Overtightening
DIYers beware: In the same way a faucet handle will break if it is turned, pushed or pulled too hard, it’s easy to strip the threads of plastic, chrome and other drain and plumbing parts if the wrench is turned too hard. Many people logically think the goal is to make the object as tight as possible, but the line between just enough and too much is tricky.
It’s almost funny how when a fixture such as a faucet or spigot is leaking, our human nature compels us to crank on the handle harder, push down it more or just generally apply more pressure to it. Doing so does not stop the leak and will eventually lead to breakage that creates a worse problem. Sometimes a drip or leak can be fixed as simply and inexpensively as replacing washer or seal, but other times it can indicate a bigger problem.
16. Cap the Chemicals
Many products are available to help us clear clogs, but because of the products’ corrosive qualities, overuse of them can potentially harm pipes, septic systems and plumbing fixtures. If a chemical drain cleaner does not clear the way after the first or second application, it’s probably not going to unclog it and may be harmful to keep adding more. Along the same line of thinking, if you’re using clog-clearing chemicals more often than occasionally, it can indicate a larger issue, such as overall drainage or insufficient pipes.
Some natural alternatives to chemical-based products are baking soda, vinegar and lemon juice. Everyone has to clean the toilet, but it’s not the best idea for a bleach-based cleaner go down with every flush, such as the rigs you affix to the toilet bowl or place in the tank. The chemicals in drain and toilet cleaners degrade the insides of pipes, plumbing fixtures and septic tanks. If you use them, do so sparingly.
17. Disconnect the Outdoor Hose
In places that experience sustained sub-freezing temperatures in winter, it’s best to unscrew hoses from any outdoor spigots and store the hoses inside. There are also insulated outdoor-spigot covers that can help ensure that neither the spigot itself nor the water line supplying it will freeze.
Leaving a hose connected conducts cold and creates a kind of subtle vacuum action that may draw water through the line. Also, most rubber garden hoses are susceptible to cracking when they freeze, so you’ll experience a longer life out of them by storing them in a temperature controlled place.
18. Ponder the Pipes
Aging pipes can cause all kinds of common plumbing problems, as well as unusual ones. While modern piping doesn’t succumb nearly as often, older pipes such as those made of clay or terra cotta can degrade, crumble, settle and suffer from root invasion. These issues might cause clogs, slow drainage or poor pressure. New houses have a little less concern, but it’s always useful to have a plumber inspect the system and tell you what material it contains, as well as the condition of that material.
19. Set a Service Schedule
Along the lines of addressing any issues early, even if they seem insignificant, is adopting a schedule of regular inspection, maintenance and service for your plumbing systems — water, sewer, drainage, heating and cooling as well as pumps and other elements.
You can make your own checklist and conduct a monthly or quarterly inspection of your own, and then have a professional come annually or semi-annually. According to budgetary needs, the visit could be a quick-and-complimentary look at all the parts, or a standard service package that includes detailed inspection, cleaning, testing, adjusting and consultation.
Either method of maintenance will help detect and prevent plumbing problems from festering until they incur big headaches and costs. Considering the essential nature of all things plumbing and the potential for very expensive problems, it’s sensible to plan for maintenance of the plumbing systems the same way we do our cars and other assets.
20. Pick a Quality Partner
Bruni & Campisi can help you prevent home plumbing problems with a full range of traditional plumbing services, including inspection and annual maintenance and expertise on the installation and repair of all plumbing-system components from air conditioning and furnaces to wells, septic and water treatment. Our experts can help with extra insulation, geothermal projects, energy audits and solutions, and system conversions.
Our experience dates to 1979, our plumbers are licensed professionals and our company is properly insured and equipped to help with any services needed throughout Westchester County, NY, Stamford, CT, Greenwich, CT and the surrounding areas.
We have the proficiency to help with any problem that may occur and to develop the best strategy on how to prevent plumbing mistakes and emergency calls. Please don’t hesitate to let us know how we can help to keep your systems running smoothly.