When homeowners hoist a wrench to install or repair sinks, tubs and toilets, they risk more than leaks. They risk their sanity, finances and general mechanical disaster. Here are 10 essential principles to avoid plumbing disaster.
1. DON’T GO GALVANIC.
You often see copper and galvanized steel plumbing mixed in residential water systems with nothing separating them other than a little thread sealant or Teflon plumbing tape. The galvanic connection (copper to steel) can be trouble-free for years or the steel plumbing can begin to corrode almost as soon as the connection is tight.
What to do: Use a plumbing fitting called a dielectric union to connect copper pipe to galvanized steel. The fitting uses a steel collar on the steel side and a copper collar on the copper side and isolation bushings to keep the parts separate.
2. FLOW OUT, NOT BACK.
Back flow occurs in municipal water systems (or within a house) when there’s a sudden and severe drop in water pressure that causes water to flow back through pipes opposite the direction that it normally flows. When a runaway car severs a fire hydrant, for example, parts of a municipal system will see a flow reversal as water gushes out the hole where the hydrant once stood. The same thing can happen if there’s a massive leak within your house.
What to do: If your house’s water is supplied by a municipal water system and you do a lot of work outside with a garden hose, use a vacuum-breaker fitting threaded onto the end of the hose bib (the valve mounted on the outside of the house). These fittings prevent back flow from a garden hose and attachments in the event of a massive shift in pressure. Some municipalities require their use, and they’re not a bad idea even if you have a well. Suppose you’ve left a garden hose in a bucket of sudsy water and the severed-fire-hydrant scenario occurs. The vacuum breaker prevents water from being pulled out of the hose and bucket and into the municipal water system. If you’re replacing a hose bib, use a freeze-proof type with a built-in vacuum breaker. Common sense measures apply too. For example, don’t leave a hose unattended in a bucket and don’t leave a hose laying in a puddle on the lawn.
Likewise, if you replace or repair the main supply and valves entering the house, you may likely be required to install a back-flow preventer.
3. USE THE RIGHT CONNECTOR.
Don’t forget, gas lines count as plumbing too. Connecting a new gas range or dryer to an existing gas line seems simple, but the job can quickly go awry when you try to hook up a flexible gas connector to the line and find that the connector doesn’t fit or you can’t make the connection gas-tight, no matter how tight you make the connection.
What to do: This is a thread compatibility problem usually brought about by a mismatch between the iron pipe supplying gas and the fitting on the end of the flexible connector you intend to use to bring the fuel to the appliance. The simplest solution is to buy a universal connection kit for a dryer or for a gas range. The kit will come with a variety of adapters to help you make the transition from the pipe and fitting supplying the gas to whatever appliance will be using it.
4. KNOW WHERE YOUR PIPES ARE.
Pounding nails and driving screws is all well and good, until you puncture a copper or plastic supply or drain.
What to do: Buy a stud sensor that also detects pipes and wirings. You can also look around in the attic or the basement (if it’s unfinished) to get a sense of where pipes are hiding. Finally, if the wall will be covered by whatever you’re building or installing, you can always carefully cut a test hatch to find plumbing lurking in the walls.
5. KNOW THE CODE.
Plumbing is a tricky business, with rules that dictate how far you can place a fixture from the home’s drain-waste-vent line based on the pipe diameter and other arcane matters. The only way you can handle a big job yourself is to know the code and what it calls for in pipe sizing, fixture spacing, and related matters.
What to do: There’s lots of reference for ambitious do-it-yourselfers. Buy a copy of the International Plumbing Code or the Uniform Plumbing Code. One of the best references that we’ve used here over the years is Code Check, a handbook that’s updated as building codes are updated. One of its best features is that it’s written to cover common problems and things that even professionals get wrong.
6. CUT RIGHT, FIT TIGHT.
You can’t make a neat water- or gas-tight joint unless the parts are neatly cut.
What to do: Buy pro-level tubing cutters, reciprocating-saw blades, hacksaw blades and a plastic pipe saw. For example, you’ll be amazed by the difference between a professional tubing cutter from Ridgid, say, and the $5 special from the home center. Likewise, it seems silly to spend $20 for a plastic pipe saw when a standard handsaw works pretty well. The thing is, the plastic pipe saw works better and leaves less of a burr since its teeth have very little set compared to a saw meant for cutting wood.
Remove burrs from plastic and copper and thoroughly clean both types of plumbing materials before soldering or gluing. Copper is best abraded with plumber’s cloth (aluminum-oxide sandpaper on a spool) and plastic requires material-specific primer that softens the plastic so that the adhesive can create an optimal bond. When pipe feels greasy or dirty, use pipe cleaner before applying primer.
A few minutes of preparation goes a long way in ensuring a watertight or gas-tight joint.
7. SEAL THE DEAL.
Only a soldered or glued joint doesn’t require sealant; everything else does.
What to do: There are typically two types of sealant tapes in hardware stores and home centers. Tape for sealing water connections (in a blue spool) and tape for sealing gas (in a yellow spool). Yet there’s no need for you to be satisfied with just those choices. Pros often carry brushable types, with variations specially formulated for threaded plastic or galvanized steel. Visit a plumbing supply house or shop online to find these varieties. Professional varieties have a higher percentage of gap-filling solids and better ensure a tight joint—no small matter given the lack of thread engagement that you often find today with badly made plumbing materials, valves and fixtures.
8. DON’T OVER-TIGHTEN.
If tight is good, really tight must be better. Right? Wrong.
What to do: Given what I just said about the hit-or-miss quality of many plumbing components today, you’d think that a generous application of wrench torque is called for. Not so. A clean, properly cut and fitted joint that’s been sealed just doesn’t need to be massively tightened. In many cases, after bringing the parts together firmly hand-tight or using a wrench, often all it takes is another half a turn. In fact, brass–copper gas fittings are particularly vulnerable to wrench damage from over-tightening, while steel pipe is more forgiving.
9. LEAK TEST. ALWAYS.
It should be obvious: Make a thorough leak inspection before closing up and moving on.
What to do: When you’ve installed a new valve component (or the valve itself), aggressively open and close the valve as well as running both hot and cold water through it. Do the same when checking drains. Run water down a drain and fill up a sink or tub and then drain it to check for leaks. Check gas lines with a soapy water and detergent solution or spend a few dollars for an 8-ounce bottle of bubble-creating leak detector sold on the Web or at a plumbing supply house. The advantage of this material, as opposed to dish detergent, is that it creates larger, more brightly visible bubbles than detergent does.
10. BE KIND. TO YOUR SEPTIC SYSTEM, THAT IS.
We get asked this question all the time: “Should I use an additive to improve the performance of my septic system and reduce the need to pump the septic tank?” An additive can be almost anything from sugar or enzymes to a dead chicken (we’re not kidding about the chicken—we get that one plenty).
What to do: Don’t bother with additives, especially the chicken. A properly designed, built and maintained septic system will last for decades, and trying to reduce pumping intervals will more likely lead to a clogged leaching field as solids, not clear effluent, flows out of the septic tank and out into the leaching field. A septic-tank-pumping company can advise you on how often the tank needs to be pumped. It will depend on the tank’s size and how many people live in the home. Likewise, avoid excessive use of chlorine bleach or caustic chemicals that can kill off beneficial digestive bacteria in the septic tank.