Plumbing Survival 101

There are times when emergency repairs have to be taken care of immediately, it is not always necessary or possible to get a pro to do the job. The homeowner needs to have both knowledge and a few basic tools, advance preparation could save hundreds of dollars of costly water damage to the home.

How Plumbing Works

Water comes into your home from the city water supply line, between where it connects to your house and the city line there should be a shut off. This will be outside, underground, probably close to the street, there will be a concrete or metal cover over the access to it. There is usually a bar on top of the shut off valve that has to be turned so instead of being parallel to the line it is pointing across it. This is done with a special T-handle, you will only have to turn this off if you have to replace the line to your home. This line will be copper or plastic and usually 3/4" in diameter.

Where the line enters your home there will be another shut off, this will be inside your home, likely in the basement or crawl space, this will have a knob that you can turn by hand to shut off all the water entering your home. It is important to know the location of this valve so it can be shut off in case of a broken pipe somewhere in the home.

From this valve the line will be divided into hot and cold branches, these lines are usually 1/2" diameter, copper or plastic. Hot water is obtained from your hot water tank, a cold water line runs into it and a hot water line runs from it. The most common water heater will be a vertical white tank with either an electrical line or gas line connected to it. There should be a shut off in the cold line running to it, this will be located somewhere above the tank. There will also be a safety valve exiting the top of the tank and a pipe running from it that ends at the floor.

Hot and cold lines will run throughout your home, to the kitchen, bathrooms, laundry room, and any other area that has a water supply including cold water lines to outside faucets.

Water leaves your home through large pipes connected to the drains of the sinks, toilets, etc., these are either copper or more commonly black ABS pipes. They will all connect to a large pipe, the main stack, that connects to the city sewer system, this pipe also runs up through your roof and acts as a vent, other smaller pipes may also vent through your roof.

Any open drain will have a P-trap installed to prevent sewer gases from entering the home and to catch small objects, such as rings, that drop through the drain. There is either a drain plug in the bottom of the loop or the trap has to be removed to remove caught objects, this loop is filled with water so have a pan below it when the plug is removed.

Basic Tool Kit
Pipe Wrench

You will use this to work with large pipe fittings, ABS drain pipe has connectors that are often too tight to loosen by hand. Tighten ABS fittings with caution, do not over tighten with the pipe wrench.

Adjustable Wrench

Copper water lines may have couplers that have to be undone and faucet supply lines require a large wrench. This wrench has a million uses around the home.

Propane Torch

This is used to swell the joints of copper lines with solder. There will be many other uses for this as well, such as removing window putty.

Tube Cutter

This is used to cut copper water lines, there are two styles, the regular type that is shown and one for working in close quarters. There are also special cutters for plastic pipe.

Hack Saw

You will use the hack saw to cut ABS drain pipe. This saw will have many other uses around the home.

Drain Snake

Unplug stubborn clogged drains, this is a hand operated model, attachments for drills and powerfeed models are also available.

Sink Strainer

Not a tool, but these will save you a lot of grief if used in the kitchen and laundry room.

Additional supplies such as lead free solder, paste, ABS cement and various pipe fittings will also be necessary to complete any repairs but can be purchased as needed.

Working with copper pipe.

Clean both the end of the pipe and the fitting with steel wool or emery paper so it is bright, apply soldering paste immediately.

Cut and dry fit the pipe, then solder it together, heat the bottom of the fitting with the propane torch, when the right amount of heat has been reached the solder will flow into and around the joint when the solder wire is applied to the top surface of the pipe. Do no apply any more heat at this point, a ring of solder should be visable at the edge of the fitting, that is all that is required, any extra may be wiped of with a rag while it is still molten.

When soldering shut-off valves remove the rubber seals before heating.

Working with ABS pipe.

ABS pipe is joined with special cement, before the cement is applied the surfaces are prepared with ABS primer. Cut the pipe to length with a hack saw then smooth edges with a file or coarse sandpaper. Dry fit the pieces, then apply the primer and cement to both the pipe and the inside of the fitting, slide the fitting on to the pipe 1/4" turn out of position, then twist it to the proper alignment. ABS cement sets quickly once the two pieces come into contact with each other so don't hesitate too long lining them up.

Other types of pipe.

Depending when your home was built you may find other types of pipe used for water lines, PVC was the first plastic water line used, it was joined with a special cement for that type of plastic, do not attempt to use ABS cement on it.

PEX is the latest system, it uses copper or brass fittings and a semi-ridgid plastic pipe, the pipe slips on to the fitting and is clamped with a ring applied with a special tool. The crimping tool is quite expensive, but if you consider the convience of this system and how much safer it is, no propane torch to start fires, it may be worth it in the long run.

PEX Fitting

PEX Ring

PEX Crimping Tool

PEX Products from

In older homes you may discover galvanized steel water lines and cast iron drain pipes, it is best to replace as much of them as possible with a newer type of pipe. There are adapters available to connect them together.

Installing a Sink and Faucet

Turn off the water, either at the main valve or at the shut-offs in the sink cupboard, disconnect the supply lines from the faucet and loosen the coupling on the drain P-trap. Find the sink bolts anchoring the sink to the counter top and remove them, you should now be able to lift the sink and remove it. Undo the P-trap if it has couplers otherwise leave it until you fit the new sink.

Check the cut-out in the counter with the template that is included with the sink, only a sink the same size or larger may be installed, make any cuts in the top to fit the new sink. This can be done with a keyhole saw, or a power jig saw. Make sure the faucet holes line up as well.

Install a drain basket in the new sink, use sink putty for the top of the basket and the rubber seal for the bottom of the basket, tighten the large nut. Insert the sink in the hole, and check if the drain fits, if not cut the pipe several inches back from the P-trap. If it does not have an attached seal for the rim use sink putty here as well. Anchor it to the top with the sink bolts included with the sink, install the faucet and connect the feed lines.

If the original drain fit just tighten the P-trap couplers, if it has to be modified add a short length of pipe using ABS couplers. If it is a solid one piece trap it may have to be replaced with an adjustable two piece type.

This is a two piece P-trap, which will allow you to align the pipes when you replace the sink and the drain is in a different position than the original.

There is a drain plug in the bottom and a connector nut that connects the bottom of the trap to the elbow.

The white nut at the top, with a special compression ring, connects the trap to the down spout of the sink.

Plumbing Tips

It is nearly impossible to solder a joint if any water is in the pipe. If the pipe can not be totally drained stuff some bread into the pipe, it will absorb the water so the joint can be soldered, and will be flushed away when the water is turned on.

If you are replacing your sink but still using the original faucets run them through a cycle in the dish washer. Obviously this only works if there is a shut-off in the cabinet and you have water pressure in the rest of the house.

If you are replacing a vanity top in a bathroom install the sink and faucets, including the supply lines, before fastening it to the counter. Turn the top upside down to work on it.

To unplug a drain that a plunger won't clear add 1/4 cup baking soda and 1/2 cup vinegar to it, cover with a small plate until it stops fizzing, then add 1 cup boiling water. This is also a good monthly treatment for all the drains in your house.

If you have lost pressure in a faucet check the screen in the end of the spout, it may need to be cleaned. Check the shut-off valves for the supply lines as well, some types can be bumped closed.

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