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“Plumbing basics” isn’t code for turning the faucet on and filling the coffee pot.
What we mean when we refer to plumbing basics is giving you a basic working knowledge of plumbing. How plumbing works and how to keep your water flowing.
Even if you live in an apartment with 24-hour maintenance staff, having a good understanding of plumbing basics is a good thing.
Your knowledge of plumbing can be huge. Like having a small puddle on the floor or suffering major property damage.
Noticing a leak, being able to react, and turning off the water at the main valve can make a huge difference.
That maintenance staff will love you forever, and you won’t need to relocate while you wait for expensive repairs.
Plumbing is a lot of things
You can’t discuss plumbing basics without first defining what plumbing is (and isn’t).
There is only one definition of plumbing, which is stated very succinctly by Levine & Sons, a Michigan-based plumbing and heating company:
Plumbing is a system of pipes installed in a building or home for the distribution of clean water for consumption and the removal of dirty contaminated water.
We can go back to the Latin roots of the word itself. The word “plumbum” in Latin means “lead.” The first water systems developed used lead pipes.
That is how we ended up calling our system of pipes for water delivery and removal “plumbing.”
Defining a plumber is easy
A plumber, quite simply, is the person that fixes the plumbing.
That means all the piping in water delivery and return systems, the faucets, toilets, air venting system, water heaters, and even the ice maker on your refrigerator.
That’s a lot — and there’s more:
Your plumber can tell you whether a water flow problem is within your household plumbing system or the result of a poor supply from your municipal water source.
If your home has a septic system, some plumbers will assist in maintaining that system so that it operates at peak efficiency.
Another area that many people don’t realize fall within the scope of plumbing is gas piping. A plumber will repair gas leaks for your stove, water heater, and clothes dryer.
We may think of a plumber as nothing more than a plunger jockey, but they are required to have an expansive knowledge base beyond plumbing basics.
We won’t bore you with all the terms that are common in plumbing. We will cover some of the ones you will need to know when purchasing parts and checking your plumbing systems.
But let’s play a little game — give yourself one point for each one you already know:
- Chlorinated polyvinyl chloride pipe (CPVC) — plastic piping common in both cold and hot water feeds and drain lines. Give yourself one point because you know this by the shortened term PVC.
- Flapper — 1920s party-girl, commonly seen dancing the Charleston with Betty Boop. If you knew this is a toilet part, give yourself one point. A flapper is found in the bottom of a toilet tank and is used to release water from the tank into the bowl to flush a toilet.
- Float valve — also found in the toilet tank, this simple float falls and rises during the flush cycle, controlling the fill valve.
- Gallons per Minute (GPM) — the rate of flow of water through pipes and fixtures.
- Hose bibb — also known as a spigot. The hose bibb is the name of the thing you attach your garden hose to when you wash your car.
Do you have five points?
- Plumbing snake — this is a long flexible tool. It is inserted into a drain and is used to remove clogs. Give yourself two points if you not only knew what this is but also have one in your toolbox.
- P-trap and S-trap — these refer to the type of bend in the piping under your sinks. A P-trap looks like a letter “P” and connects a sink drain to the main drain through the floor. An S-trap (shaped like the letter “S”) connects to the main drain system through a wall.Time for a Fun Fact
- Garbage disposal reset button — this handy little button is like the reset button on your electrical outlets. The garbage disposal has an overload feature that “trips” when the device gets locked up (bones, spoons, that soda lid you lost the other day). Once you remove the obstruction, pressing the reset button returns the unit to the normal operating mode.
- Shutoff valve — your entire plumbing system has a series of valves located throughout. These can be closed to interrupt water flow to certain areas for leaks and repairs. There is also the main shutoff valve that shuts off water flow to the entire system in the event of catastrophic problems.
The most commonly used term in any home repair situation. Doozahickey — “The thingamabob connected to the whatchamacallit on the whozit under the whatzit.”
Understanding Basic Hydrostatic Principles
“Hydrostatics is about the pressures exerted by a fluid at rest.”
Plumbing uses a variety of hydrostatic principles to function properly. The P- and S-traps in your sink drain and the siphon in your toilet are good examples.
We’re not doing extreme physics and engineering. You only need a limited understanding of these principles to grasp the plumbing basics.
Hydrostatic means how a liquid acts when at rest. Basically, it just sits in the traps and keeps methane from escaping into your home.
When you open the faucet or flush the toilet, that hydrostatic water becomes hydrodynamic.
Big word — easy definition:
Hydrodynamics is the study of fluid in motion. This is how it flows through the pipes, reacts to blockages, and how it makes its way through nozzles.
The water in your toilet tank is hydrostatic. When you depress the lever to raise the flapper and release the water into the toilet bowl, it becomes hydrodynamic.
The combination of these two principles, plus the addition of gravity, allow your home’s plumbing system to provide fresh water, dispose of wastewater, and protect your family from harmful gases.
If you receive fresh water from a municipal water source, it should enter your home at a minimum of 40 pounds per square inch (PSI), although 45 – 55 PSI is preferable.
However, if you have a well on your rural property, water pressure is controlled by the well pump and pressure tank. Your pressure tank should show that same minimum of 40 PSI. Adding compressed air to the pressure tank will increase the water pressure.
The gauge has a three-quarter-inch female threaded connector that is connected directly to your exterior hose bibb.
Once connected, open the valve on the spigot and read the pressure showing on the gauge.
Yes, it really is that simple to check your water pressure.
Checking the obvious thing might fix a low water pressure problem. Make sure the main valve is completely open before calling the plumber.
Every drain in a household plumbing system has a vent pipe that exits through the roof. This venting system has a dual purpose:
It allows methane gases to escape from the drainage system and brings fresh air into the system to maintain pressure and assist gravity with drain flow.
Here are the basics of how vents work:
Waste lines have cleanout ports throughout the system. These are Y-shaped fittings with access caps that allow access for cleaning out obstructions.
This short video describes the venting system and how it functions:
Household Plumbing Systems
A household plumbing system is all the plumbing in your home.
If you want a more in-depth explanation of your home plumbing system, the video below from Home Depot explains both delivery and removal of water and the efficiency of household piping systems:
Your local government maintains the sewer system beyond your property.
Sewer systems route waste product to treatment facilities. The wastewater is filtered, cleaned, and chemically treated.
Clean water gets returned to streams and other waterways where it is cleaned further through the natural processes of nature.
By treating wastewater in this manner, we preserve our freshwater supply.
If you reside in a rural area that has no municipal sewage disposal program, you probably have a septic tank in your yard.
A septic system performs the same task as a water treatment facility but on a much smaller scale.
Wastewater leaves your home through the main drain line, traveling underground to a septic tank buried in your yard.
Once in the receiving tank, sludge and solid waste products settle to the bottom of the tank.
Water travels into the secondary tank where more sediment sinks.
The water then travels out through the drain field, where the ground absorbs it.
What does this mean for you?
Periodic flushing of the tank is required, but if everything is working properly, you should only need to have this done every 5 – 10 years depending on your water use.
The grass is always greener over the septic tank.
Common Plumbing Tools
Performing plumbing basics requires a few tools. You probably have many of them already:
- Channel locks
- Adjustable wrench
- Utility knife
- Measuring tape
- Torpedo level
- Teflon tape
- Plumber’s goop (thread sealer)
There are a few other hand tools that you should have in your toolbox also:
- Pipe cutter
- Hack saw
- Pipe wrench
- Basin wrench
- Plumbers snake
And of course, everyone should have a plunger handy.
Other handy things to have in your toolbox
A toilet auger, which is also called a closet auger, is a type of plumber’s snake explicitly made for use in toilets.
The snake part is a flexible spring, with a bulb on the business end. The spring routes through a tube, or guide, that has a padded and curved end designed to easily fit into a toilet drain but not damage the porcelain finish.
We will explain how to use this handy tool shortly.
Common Plumbing Problems and How to Fix Them
You have some knowledge of plumbing basics now.
You have your tools ready and waiting.
Are you ready to learn how to fix stuff now?
I lied. A few more plumbing basics first. Let’s learn how a toilet works.
This will help when you are faced with the mother of all clogs later.
Mechanics of a toilet
Toilets only have a few parts:
Image: CC BY-SA 2.5 from Mcgill via Wikimedia Commons
The inside of a toilet has a few other parts:
- Float and float rod
- Inlet valve
- Inlet tube
- Flapper with chain
- Handle (connected to the outside of the bowl)
Most common household toilets are gravity-fed. By depressing the handle, the flapper is raised, opening the tank drain leading to the bowl.
Water flows into the bowl, raising the water level until there is enough water to activate the siphon. Once the siphon fills, the waste is suctioned through the S-trap and out the drain.
If you have a slow-flushing toilet, pour water directly into the bowl using a bucket.
This applies more fluid pressure to the system, helping to create a siphon.
This short video shows the operation of a toilet through the entire flush cycle:
Plumbing Basics for Common Clogs
Here is where that plunger enters the process.
A toilet plunger has an extra flange that extends into the toilet drain to seal properly against the uneven surface.
An accordion plunger uses the extra flange of a toilet plunger and adds the air compression power of accordion folds.
This type of plunger allows you to apply more air pressure to a stubborn clog, forcing the trapped debris through the S-trap to clear a toilet and allow it to regain the ability to create a siphon.
Those super clogs no one wants to talk about
You’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner and the little guest bathroom under the stairs has been working overtime. Uncle Bob just came out looking a little sheepish. He whispers politely in your ear…
As you enter the tiny room, you meet the mother of all clogs. You have a houseful of people, so you can’t even scream.
No worries. You got this. The plumbing basics of how a toilet works are in your toolbox and no clog will defeat you!
You grab the plunger from the tray next to the toilet and go to work.
Nothing. So you plunge a little faster and harder.
It looks like it’s time to bring out the heavy machinery.
Fortunately, after this happened last year, you invested in a closet auger, so you head out to the garage to retrieve your secret weapon.
(In fairness to Uncle Bob, last year it was Grandma.)
Please hose off the auger thoroughly after each use.It will last a lot longer, smell a lot better, and won’t breed harmful bacteria.
This quick video demonstrates clearing a stubborn toilet clog with a toilet auger:
Replacing a toilet fill valve assembly
If your toilet has a faulty fill valve, it is a relatively simple job to replace. Some common problems that point to a defective fill valve are:
- The toilet “runs” or seems to be continually filling
- Water in the tank fills very slowly
- The fill valve shoots water out of the float assembly
This video covers the entire valve replacement process:
Many municipal water supply facilities will discount a portion of usage charges if a plumbing problem caused extra water usage. The local water authority may offer a reimbursement program for repairing water leaks in your household plumbing system. Many require you to submit receipts for the parts.
Replacing a toilet
While replacing an entire toilet is a little more complicated than replacing the fill valve, this is still a job you can do yourself.
You will save hundreds by not paying a plumber to do the work for you.
The first step in any plumbing task is to gather your tools. For this job, you will need channel locks, a crescent (adjustable) wrench, a utility knife, a screwdriver, a putty knife, a hack saw, rubber gloves, and cleaning clothes or a sponge. You will also want a small basin to catch any residual water in when you remove the supply line from the tank assembly.
Other things you will need are a new wax ring, caulk to seal the base, plumbers putty, new closet collar bolts, and some newspaper or an old towel.
7th Inning Stretch
You’re about to do some heavy lifting, so this is a good place to take a break, stretch out those muscles, and make sure you’re ready to continue.
This step-by-step tutorial will walk you through an entire toilet removal and replacement:
Plumbing Basics for Bathroom Sink Drains
Bathroom sinks present a host of different drain-clogging catastrophes. First and foremost is the collection of hair around the drain stopper.
If you don’t have a drain stopper assembly, there is the top of the toothpaste tube, 18 bobby pins, and the necklace your daughter dropped down the drain and never mentioned.
Plunging sink drains
A sink plunger is available in different sizes, but most people buy the six-inch size.
If your bathroom sink is clogged, the first step is to try a plunger.
But first, a few plumbing basics to make this more efficient.
You will want to remove the top of the drain stopper assembly. This is a small, threaded disk and is easy to remove by twisting counter-clockwise (to the left).
If there is anything wrapped around the stopper assembly, like hair, lint, or just gunk, clean it off before you begin plunging.
Most bathroom sinks have an overflow hole near the top. If you don’t plug that, all the goop you’re trying to plunge down the drain will spit out that hole.
Using a washcloth, plug the hole. This also increases the efficiency of your plunging.
Double sinks in a bathroom are also a challenge.
If you have a double sink, depress the stopper for the drain in the second sink and plug the overflow in that sink before plunging.
If plunging doesn’t work, the next step is to remove the pop-up assembly.
Kitchen sink drains
Kitchen sink drains without a garbage disposal unit are much more straight-forward. They can be snaked using a sink snake from the top, so often there is no need for disassembly of the pipes.
The most common kitchen sink clog is grease and food particles. Pouring boiling water down the drain to loosen the grease and a quick plunge usually takes care of the problem and gets the water flowing again.
Having a garbage disposal installed makes it slightly more difficult, but not impossible to troubleshoot and repair minor problems.
Faucets made within the last 25 years use a cartridge system. The cartridges are fairly easy to replace, and you can do this without calling a plumber if you are comfortable with plumbing basics.
Minor Leaks You Can Repair with Plumbing Basics
If your faucet is more than 25 years old, it might be time to go ahead and replace it.
Faucet replacements are another of those tasks that are fairly easy to accomplish with a good working knowledge of plumbing basics.
A few key things to remember:
- Purchase a replacement faucet that will fit your existing sink
- Having a basin wrench makes the job a lot easier
- If you are replacing rigid inlet piping with flexible supply lines, always allow for a couple of inches leeway
- It is a good idea to wear safety glasses while working under the sink
The procedure to replace a faucet remains the same whether it is a kitchen or bathroom. Although the configurations are slightly different, but you’re not reinventing the wheel, so you’ll figure it out.
If you pay attention while removing the old faucet and install the new one in the opposite steps, you will do just fine.
Messing With the Water heater
If you have an electric water heater and are comfortable working with it, you can perform most repairs without calling in a plumber.
Heating elements are relatively easy to replace, but remember to turn the breaker off first and drain the water heater.
If you are comfortable sweat soldering copper piping, you can replace an electric water heater can without a plumber.
Have someone to help you get the new water heater into the house and the old one out.
Knowing When to Call in a Professional
It can be challenging to know when to call in a professional plumber.
With the ready availability of do-it-yourself information, YouTube videos, and workshops at your local home improvement store, there isn’t much that a homeowner with knowledge of plumbing basics can’t do.
But when are you in over your head?
Jobs that should always be done by a plumber
Licensed plumbers should conduct most pressure testing of household systems. This includes hydrostatic testing of your plumbing system.
While a homeowner can sometimes conduct compressed air testing of the system without calling a plumber, we do recommend leaving this to the professionals.
While it is not a requirement, we strongly recommend that you rely on a plumber anytime there is raw sewage in your home. The safety problems inherent in dealing with sewage backups make it prudent to hire a professional.
Standing water in your basement is another problem warranting a professional plumber. Because the problem can mean more than just a clogged floor drain, a plumber can diagnose underlying foundation problems and develop a plan of action to keep your home safe.
Detecting a gas leak, or anything involving your gas water heater should be done by a plumber.
Gas appliances emit deadly carbon monoxide and must vent adequately. It is vital that these appliances are installed, repaired, and checked by someone with the knowledge and equipment to keep you safe.
How to select a reliable plumber
Plumbing basics are just that — plumbing basics.
As such, they don’t cover the gamut of knowledge that a plumber has. When you decide it is time to bring in a pro, select one that you can rely on.
So who can you trust?
Word of mouth from your friends and neighbors may be the best advertisement for a reliable plumber.
If your friends have used and trusted a plumber, that speaks volumes to their caliber of work.
In addition to recommendations from friends and neighbors, don’t be afraid to ask a plumber about their licensing and certifications. They worked hard to earn those and are usually happy to discuss them with you.
Here’s what’s really important:
Plumbers should carry at a minimum these three certifications. They should be licensed, bonded, and insured.
In addition to these basic certifications, a plumber may also carry a journeyman card, or have a degree in plumbing.
You Have the Plumbing Basics Now — Go Forth and Fix Stuff
With your knowledge of plumbing basics, you are now equipped to handle many different home plumbing repairs.
This will be a huge money-saver over time.
While you may still need to call a plumber occasionally, it will only be for those big jobs.
Over time, as you use plumbing basics to repair more and more around the house, you will gain confidence.