Plumbing the Depth of your Home

Water is the one thing that people cannot live long without. One of the marvels of human ingenuity is plumbing. While indoor plumbing made life as we know it convenient, plumbing itself made life as we know it possible.

The Simplicity of How

Water comes into your home from one of two sources: from the public water main or from your own well. If you have a well, you will also have a pump to bring the water to the surface and to your house under pressure. If you get your water from the city or water company, it comes to you through the mains already under pressure.

Most of us who get our water from either the city or water company will have a water meter at the point where the water supply line enters the house. The meters will have either a large pointer that sweeps across the face of the meter or a dial marked “one foot”. When you have a faucet open, these dials will move very fast, because they mark off each cubic foot of water that goes through the meter.

So how can you tell if you have a leak?

With all the faucets closed, look at your meter. If the one-foot pointer is moving, you have a leak somewhere in your system. Hopefully, it’s nothing more than a dripping faucet. If you don’t have a water meter, you can pick up a leak detector from a plumbing supply store. There are many types, but they all work the same. There is a metal rod that you place on the pipe and you ear goes against the other end, like an old-fashioned phone receiver. If all the faucets are closed and you hear a gurgling sound, then there is water flowing through the pipe and you have a leak.

Once past the meter, the water pipe goes to the water heater before it branches off. There, a line will run to the inlet of the water heater and hot water comes out the outlet. From this point, most of your water lines will be run in pairs. Lines to outside faucets will only have cold water supplies, but all other areas of your home are supplied with hot and cold lines. The only other places there might be a branch off the cold water line would be to supply the toilet and a line for an icemaker in your fridge or a humidifier on your furnace.

Is that it? But How does it work?

Many more years ago than I care to admit, my uncle told me there were only two things you needed to know to be a plumber…water flows downhill and payday is on Friday. And, in a nutshell, that’s all there is to draining the waste water away.


Did you know that a dripping faucet can waste more than a gallon of water a day? Thatís over 30 gallons a month and thatís a lot of money going down the drain. (Sorry. I know I said we have no time for puns, but I couldnít help it.)

Usually, the culprit of a dripping faucet is a worn washer. Regardless of the type of faucet you have, they all have washers of some sort. The basic types of faucets found in most homes are the stem faucet (one for hot and one for cold water, with the water mixing as it enters the spout) and single-lever faucets (which mixes the water in the faucet body). With stem faucets, one is just like another, no matter how big or small it may be. However, single-lever faucets come in several styles, each with their own method of repair. I am going to focus on stem faucets because stems are the most common faucet found in older homes. If you need information on single-lever faucets, start a discussion and we will hammer out the details.

Stem Faucets

On stem faucets, not only can you have a leak from the spout when the water is off, but also from the around the handle when the water is running. Both types of drips are easy to fix, once you know how to get to them. The first step is to turn off the water, either at the shut off under the sink, or at the main shut off by the meter. Once the water is off, turn the faucet on to relieve the pressure and let excess water run out. Then you need to remove the handle. Itís held on by a screw which, in older faucets, is usually easy to get to. But on newer models, the screw is hidden under a decorative button which must be carefully pried up to get to the screw.

Once the screw is removed, carefully remove the handle. It may take some work to do this, depending on the age and condition of the faucet. You should be able to see a nut which holds the stem in the faucet. It will either be a packing nut or a locknut. A packing nut is usually visible, covering the top of the stem to compress the packing material under it. A locknut is usually hidden by the handle, is more open and is tightened down over the stem to secure it to the faucet body.

A wrench is used to remove either type of nut. If you must use pliers to loosen the nut, wrap the jaws with electrical tape to prevent damaging the nut. The same applies if you need to use pliers to remove the stem itself. Once the nut is removed, the stem will unscrew out. It may need a little convincing with the pliers, depending on the age and condition of the faucet.

When you have both stems out, look at the rubber or plastic washer at the bottom, where it is held in place by another screw. Chances are it is either worn, cracked or missing altogether. Once the stems have been removed, check the condition of the valve seat, located in the bottom of the faucet body. Use a flashlight to see if the seat is pitted, scratched or uneven. Use your finger to feel if the surface of the seat smooth. If it looks or feels worn, it will need to be replaced. Most types of faucets have removable seats, but there are some which must be smoothed with a special tool.

The dressing tool used to smooth valve seats can often be rented from your local hardware store. I have never had to use a dressing tool before, so I am not sure how they work. If you find you need to use one, the person you either rent or buy it from should be able to show you how it works.

Replaceable seats are removed with a special wrench. The seat wrench is L-shaped and has several different sized squares cut into each end. These squares fit into the square opening in the seat for removal and replacement. I was lucky enough to borrow one from my local hardware store, but if you have to buy one, they run about $5 or so.

If the seat needs replacing, you have to take it with you to get an exact duplicate. Bring the stems with you to get the right sized washer. You can even buy new stems if yours are badly corroded, stripped or otherwise damaged. Once you have everything you need, replace the seat with the seat wrench, using some pipe joint compound to lube the threads. Replace the washer on the stem and then replace the stem.

Before replacing the packing or lock nut, inspect the packing around the stem. There are three ways stems are sealed: a packing washer, self-forming packing, and o-rings. A packing washer is a flexible washer impregnated with graphite. When the packing nut is tightened, the packing washer is compressed and seals the stem. Self-forming packing is a graphite impregnated string that is wound around the stem. When the packing nut is tightened, the string compresses against itself and the stem, forming a solid seal. O-rings are used mainly with lock nuts, a small one around the stem and a big one which fits in the lock nut opening. O-rings should be replaced if they are loose, deformed or cracked.

Single-Lever Faucets

I will quickly describe the different types of single-lever faucets so that you will have an idea of what they are…for future reference. They are the ball, the ceramic disk, the tipping-valve, and the sleeve-type cartridge faucets. The only type I have worked on is the ball valve faucet. The ball and the tipping valve have washers that you can replace, while the ceramic disk and the sleeve-type cartridge are usually disassembled and the valve replaced when it goes bad.

Three-Part System

Remember that when the water comes into your home, all there really is to the system is the supply line from the water main under the street, or from your well. The water line does branch off at the water heater to supply hot water, but it is still a one-part system. The waste system of your home’s plumbing is a three-part system, the drain lines, waste line and vent lines. Sometimes you will see this system referred to as the DWV (Drain, Waste, Vent) system. Each part of the DWV system plays an important part in efficiently removing waste water from your home. The biggest difference between the supply system and the DWV system is how the water flows. The supply system delivers water under pressure, while the DWV system removes it by the force of gravity.

The Drain Line

Most everyone who has looked under the kitchen sink is familiar with drain lines. These are the pipes that are connected to the bottom of the sink and go down through the floor. Once in the basement, they will turn and run to the main drain and into another part of the system, the waste line. The most important thing to remember about drain lines is they either run vertically, that is down, or horizontally with a slight downward slant.

The main element in the drain line is the main soil stack. This is a large diameter, vertical drain line into which all smaller diameter branch drains feed into. Normally, all toilets will drain directly into the main soil stack, while sinks, bathtubs, and appliances utilize the branch drains to reach the main soil stack.

Between the fixtures and the main soil stack is an easily overlooked invention that has made indoor plumbing possible. This invention is called the trap. Most people think that the purpose of the trap is to “trap” things like rings so they don’t end up in the sewer system or to “trap” hair, bobby pins, and other assorted junk that could clog the drain line and make it easy to remove them. But the beauty of the trap is that it “traps” water, sealing off the drain line to keep air from entering your home through the drain lines. This air contains foul-smelling sewer gases that can lead to illness if allowed to collect in your home.

Here’s a good trick to remember if you smell sewer gasses in your home. Often, an unused, or little-used drain will dry out. This breaks the water seal in the trap and allows sewer gases to enter your home. Once every month or two, pour a bucket of water down any drains that do not get regular use. You will refill the trap with water and seal off the drain to the sewer gases.

The Waste Line

The main soil stack and branch drains flow into the main waste line. This, in turn, flows out your home and into the city sewer system or septic system. The waste line is the simplest part of the DWV system, but it is also the most difficult part to repair if something goes wrong. That is because it is buried underground, below the frost line, to keep it from freezing in the winter.

The Vent Line

When you pull the plug on the bathtub or flush the toilet, you send water rushing down the drain lines. If your system is not vented, a vacuum develops that will either suck the water from any traps that are beyond the tub or toilet or keep the wastewater from flowing at all. This is where the vent lines come into play.

In many homes, the vent line is an extension of the main soil stack. The main soil stack runs from the main waste line in the basement, up the inside of a wall, and out through the roof. The vent line is a two-way street for the passage of air. As water flows down the drain line, air is drawn into the top of the vent from outside, helping the water to keep flowing. Once the water has finished flowing, the air is allowed to escape out the top of the vent line.

When things go Wrong

As we all know, plumbing is never perfect and there are many things that can (and will!) go wrong with it. Lets look at some of the most common plumbing issues-

Frozen Pipes

The best way to handle frozen pipes is to not let then freeze in the first place. If you have pipes that you think might freeze, wrap them with electrical heat tape made for pipes, insulate them, leave a door open to let warm air enter the area or use a lamp and a 100-watt bulb to give the area around the pipes a little heat. Your best bet is to insulate the pipes.

Usually, the first sign of a frozen pipe is a flood caused by a break in the pipe. If you are lucky, your first sign will be a lack of running water in a faucet. Your first priority is to turn off the water supply at the main shut-off valve. Then you need to carefully thaw the frozen section. Once it is thawed, you then need to look for any cracks or breaks in the pipe and make either emergency or permanent repairs.  Emergency repairs should hold you until you can either fix the problem or have a plumber come in and fix them for you.

Before you start thawing a pipe, make sure you have a faucet near the frozen section open. This will allow the melting water to escape. The first way to thaw a pipe is with a propane torch and a flame-spreader tip. You will need a piece of sheet metal or heatproof pad between the pipes and any flammables to avoid starting a fire. Start at the open faucet first and move along the pipe as the frozen section thaws. Keep the torch moving so that you do not overheat the pipe. The pipe should not get too hot to touch. If it does, you risk boiling the water in the pipe and creating steam, which could cause a dangerous explosion. While a torch is the quickest way to thaw a pipe, I think the risk of fire or explosion is too great. That’s why I would leave the torch for the last resort.

Other, safer ways to thaw pipes include using an electric hair dryer to warm up the frozen section, wrapping the section with a heating pad, tying a towel around the section with string and then pouring hot water on the towel (being careful not to burn yourself with the hot water) and shining a heat lamp on the section of pipe.

Emergency Repairs

Once your pipe is thawed, or when you discover another form of leak, it is time to temporarily repair the leak until you can fix it correctly. If the frozen pipe has cracked or burst, you can cover the section with a length of garden hose which is split open so that it can be wrapped around the pipe. Once you have the hose in place, use strong wire, such as baling wire or picture hanging wire to hold the hose in place. Loop pieces of wire about an inch apart and twist them tightly with a pair of pliers. If you have several hose clamps, you can use them in place of the wire. The hose clamps can be secured tighter than wire and should hold better.

If the crack is in an elbow, make sure the area is dry and cover the area with epoxy cement. Let it harden completely before turning the water back on. When it is time to make permanent repairs, you will have to remove and replace the section with the epoxy cement.

The next emergency repair is good if you have a pinhole leak or if you accidentally drive a nail into a pipe. with the water, off and the area dry, put the point of a sharp pencil into the hole and break the point off. The point of the pencil should form itself to the hole and seal the leak. Then wrap the area with heavy tape, such as duct tape or electrical tape to hold the pencil point in place.

Clogged Drains

A clogged drain can just happen…because you try to wash away too many solids at once, or they can evolve over time…grease, hair, mineral deposits, or a combination of all three, line the drain pipe and close off the pipe. The first thing to try is a plunger. You need to block off any overflow openings with a wet rag before you use a plunger and remove the strainer or plug from the drain opening. By working the plunger up and down, you can create enough suction and pressure to loosen the material clogging the drain. If this fails to open the drain after several tries, you need to try another tactic.

An auger is a flexible wire with a corkscrew end and a metal handle that slides along the auger. There is a set screw in the handle to secure the handle to the auger so you can turn it. You feed the corkscrew end into the drain while turning the handle. As you feed it into the drain, loosen the set screw and slide the handle to give yourself more to work with. When you hit the clog, keep turning the handle as you move the auger in and out of the drain. once you think you have the clog hooked, slowly remove the auger as you slowly turn the handle. If you remove the clog and the sink drains, run hot water down the drain for a few minutes to wash away any grease or oil that remains. But if the auger doesnít work, you will need to get under the sink.

By removing the trap, you can either remove the clog from the trap itself or get a better angle of attack on the drain line. Place a bucket under the trap to catch the water that will drain out of the sink as you loosen the nuts holding the trap in place. When the water begins to drain into the bucket, wait till it stops before removing the trap completely. If you can see the clog in the opening of the drain, bend a hook into a wire coat hanger and try to push the hanger behind the clog and hook it as you remove the hanger. If you canít see the clog, work the auger through the opening, just like you did before.

Bathtubs and toilets are unclogged the same way as a sink. The plunger for a toilet is shaped a little different to give you a better seal over the drain. By taking it one step and a time, you should be able to unclog 99% of all your drain problems, without having to call a plumber.

One last trick for your clogged sink or tub drains and that will be it for plumbing. I found a nifty gadget at my hardware store which unclogged my bathroom sink in 10 seconds. It is a can of compressed air with a rubber cap which goes over the drain and seals the can to the drain. With someone holding a wet rag over the overflow drains, push firmly down on the can. A blast of compressed air forces the water in the pipe against the clog and pushes it away.

Well, here we are. As you water flows down your newly opened drain, all that is left is to contemplate why the water always drains in a clockwise rotation north of the equator and counter-clockwise south of the equator. If you figure it out, let me know.