Emergency Plumbing Repairs

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This section will help prepare you to meet plumbing emergencies, large and small.

What to do for the problems that can’t wait—an overflowing toilet, clogged drain, frozen pipes, overflowing washer, or leak in a pipe or water heater. Gather the tools you need to keep handy for any plumbing emergency.

Before an emergency occurs, you can do a few things to minimize the damage and make any problem easier to handle. Learn where all the water and gas shutoff valves are. Have a basic set of plumbing tools all together in a handy place. And keep a stock of a few parts and materials just in case of a plumbing emergency at night or on a holiday—when most emergencies seem to happen.

If you have a water meter, its shutoff valve can be locked by the water company. This valve may take a special tool to operate and have holes for a padlock so if locked there’s no way you can turn it back. In snow areas, the meter will be in the basement rather than in a meter box.

Your main water valve, sometimes called the main supply stop, should be somewhere between the water meter and your house. Usually it’s either near the meter or near where the main water line enters the house. In cold-weather areas, the meter may be within the basement or crawl space, and you will probably find the main valve very close to the meter.

If the plumbing in your house has been designed and installed properly, you may only have to use the main water valve on rare occasions. Each fixture or appliance that uses water should have a supply stop for each pipe carrying water to it: usually one for the cold water and one for the hot. You will find these valves under sinks and toilet tanks, on top of the water heater and behind washing machines and dishwashers. Many codes require separate stops for each fixture, and you rarely find them on showers or tubs. If you can't find shutoff valves near all your fixtures and appliances, installing them might be a good way for you to get started as a do-it-yourself plumber. Some plumbing systems have additional shutoff valves where branch lines leave the main line to serve the various parts of the house. Find all your supply stops. If it’s not obvious what part of the system is served by each valve, turn one of I and check what doesn’t work. Then label the valve so you won’t waste time in an emergency. You always turn stop valves clockwise to shut them off.

Emergency Plumbing Kit

In addition to your basic set of tools, here are a few things to keep handy:

• Some sheets of old rubber, like part of a tire, an inner tube, a water bottle, or kitchen gloves

• A length of old garden hose or radiator hose

• A piece or two of sheet metal—an old coffee can will work just fine

• A roll of duct tape or plastic electrical tape

• A few nuts, bolts, and washers of various sizes

• A couple of automotive hose clamps

• Assorted faucet washers and screws—some hard ware stores have prepackaged kits that contain various rubber, fiber, and packing washers and screws

• A few assorted O-rings

• A couple of wire coat hangers

• Pipe joint compound

Ill.19 For anxiety-free maintenance of your faucets, put together a kit of assorted washers, o-rings, screws, and packing string.


If the water persists in running in your toilet tank, remove the top and check out why. The tank ball or flapper may be stuck open. If so, free or adjust the rods or chain holding it open so it can close. If the tank ball or flapper is worn so it won’t close tightly, it will have to be replaced. If the water level is too high so water is going into the overflow pipe, pull up on the float ball. If this shuts off the water, your problem is a ball that's set too high. Some mechanisms have an adjusting screw at the base of the float ball rod. If yours does, turn the screw to move the ball lower in the tank. If there is no adjustment screw, bend the rod to lower the ball. The ball should be adjusted so the water level is ½ to 1 inch below the top of the overflow tube.

If the bowl fills and won’t drain or, worse yet, over flows all over the bathroom, use a plunger quickly. The kind of plunger with a cone works best on a toilet. Press the plunger into the drain hole and work it up and down rapidly a dozen times or more. If it won’t drain right away; keep the bowl at least half full of water and pump as much as you can for 10 or 15 seconds. If it still won’t drain, rest for an hour or so to let the clog soften and then try again.

If the plunger treatment fails, use a closet auger, which has a bent end designed to protect the porcelain. These can be rented, but buying one is much cheaper than even one visit by a plumber. Feed the bent end of the tube into one drain hole and then feed the auger through it into the drain and turn the crank clockwise until you reach the obstruction. Push a little more; then pull the auger out while continuing to turn the crank clockwise. If you can’t dislodge the clog with a plunger or reach it with an auger, the obstruction may be down in the main drain.

Sinks and Lavatories

Do not use chemical drain cleaners. They are caustic and could burn you if you had to drain or work on the pipes. Chemical cleaners can also form a permanent clog by melting the obstruction into one solid piece be fore the water can wash it away.

The stoppage may be in the P-trap just below the sink or it may be farther down the line. Start by removing the sink strainer and cleaning it. It can be removed by prying or by removing two small screws. If a stopper is in the way, it can usually be removed by giving it a quarter turn and lifting.

Use a piece of coat hanger wire with a small hook on the end or a snake to reach down into the P-trap and see what you can hook onto. If nothing seems to be there, follow the steps shown. If you still can’t reach a clog, it’s probably in the main drain pipe.


Sometimes a tub with a built-in drain plug doesn’t drain properly because the adjusting nut on the drain plug linkage has worked loose, and the drain doesn’t open wide enough. To adjust this, unscrew the drain and pull the linkage out. Tighten the nut on the threaded screw to push the plug farther out of the drain when it’s open.

If your tub doesn’t have a built-in plug or the plug isn’t a problem, then the drain pipe must be clogged. The first step is the same as with a sink—use your plunger, following the explanation.

In an older house or apartment building, you may have a drum trap in the floor near the tub instead of a P-trap beneath the tub. If you do, remove the top from the trap with a monkey or crescent wrench. Run your snake first through the lower pipe back toward the tub. If there’s no clog there, run the auger down the upper pipe toward the main drain. Again, if you can’t reach a clog, it’s probably in the main drain.


A shower drain can be difficult to clear with a plunger, but it’s worth a try. Coat the bottom of the plunger cap with petroleum jelly for more suction and keep an inch or two of water in the shower pan. If you seem to be getting good suction, keep up the plunging for several seconds as with sinks and tubs. If the plunger doesn’t seem to be working, go get your garden hose.

The next step is shooting water down the drain with a garden hose to try to dislodge the clog, For this attempt, you’ll need a helper. Attach your hose to a hose bib and bring the other end to the shower through the bathroom window. If you can’t reach a hose bib with the other end of the hose, buy an adaptor at the hardware store so you can hook the hose to the bathroom sink faucet.

Remove the strainer from the shower pan and shove the hose a foot or so down the drain. Stuff rags around the hose and stand on them to seal the drain and to prevent the hose from jetting itself out of the drain when you turn the water on. You probably won’t be able to reach the faucet handle while you’re standing in the shower so have your helper turn the water on and off abruptly several times. Use only short bursts of water pressure here. Gravity drains are built to withstand little or no pressure and some joints could be damaged by the pressure of the supply line.

Ill.20 Unclogging a Toilet: A plunger will dislodge many clogs. The type with a cone works best. The tubular guide on a closet auger feeds the snake directly into the trap where it can't mar the surface of the bowl.

There is a specially made and relatively inexpensive nozzle for this chore that you can probably buy at your hardware store or plumbing supply dealer. It inflates when the water is on to seal the drain and at the same time shoots a narrow, high-pressure stream of water down the pipe. This nozzle is made by several manufacturers, but there doesn’t seem to be a common generic name for it. You’ll just have to describe it.

Main Drains

If several fixtures aren't draining properly or if you can’t reach the blockage through a fixture drain, the block age is probably in a main drainpipe. Or if a sewer odor begins to invade your house, there may be a clog in one of the vent pipes.

The easiest way to reach such blockages is through the vent terminals on the roof. Check to see that your trap-and-drain auger is long enough to reach to the bottom of the main stack from the roof. If you live in a two- story house, it probably isn’t. In that case you may want to rent a 50-foot power auger from your local rent-a-tool store.

Once on the roof, be sure you position yourself very securely. Use a hooked ladder on a safety rope if you don’t have a flat roof. Work the auger down the vent, cranking clockwise until you engage the clog. Keep cranking in the same direction as you try to pull it out or dislodge it.

If working down from the roof doesn’t clear the blockage, you’ll have to work from under the house or in the basement. You’ll find one or more cleanout fittings with plugs, one at the bottom of the main stack and maybe one or two others to clean the large branch lines. You’ll need a large crescent or monkey wrench to remove the cleanout plugs.

Before you remove the cover, remember that there may be several feet of wastewater backed up in the pipe. If possible, run no water in the house for several hours before you try this. By then most of the water may have seeped through the clog. In any case, have several buckets, pans, mops, and rags ready to clean up the mess when you remove the cover.

Work the auger into the Y-fitting and down the drain toward the sewer. Here again you may need to rent a long, powered auger to do the job. Once the obstruction is cleared, flush the pipe with clean water from a garden hose. When you replace the cleanout cover, coat the threads with pipe joint compound.

Some houses have a U-shaped house trap, which you can recognize by the two adjacent cleanout plugs.

Ill-21 Unclogging a Sink: Plug the overflow with a wet rag. With the sink about half full of water, pump the plunger up and down briskly. If the plunger doesn’t work and the trap has a cleanout plug, remove it and try to get the clog with a piece of hooked wire. The next step is to remove the trap and run a trap-and-drain auger down the branch drain. Remove the cleanout plug with a large monkey wrench and run a trap-and-drain auger down the pipe.

Unclogging a Main Drain: Remove the stopper linkage from the overflow and stuff in a rag. Run a couple of inches of water into the tub and use a plunger. If the plunger doesn’t work, run a snake down the overflow or the drum trap. If you have no drain trap and you can’t reach the clog through the over flow, you’ll have to find the trap under the tub.

Unclogging a Bathtub Drain: Remove the cleanout plug with a large monkey wrench.

This trap is usually located where the main drain line leaves the house. Always unscrew the plug closest to the sewer first. Do it slowly with rags and mop handy. If little or no water runs out, the obstruction is probably toward the house. If a lot of water comes out, the clog is down the main line toward the sewer.

If the clog is toward the house, work your auger slowly back up the pipe. To avoid a big mess, when you hit something, try to open just a small hole. Then quickly recap the trap and let the water drain through before uncapping the trap again and removing the clog.

A clog toward the sewer could be the result of tree roots in the pipe. You may have to rent a powered auger with a root cutting attachment or get professional help.

Frozen Pipes

Of course, if you live in an area where it gets cold every winter, your pipes should be protected already and you shouldn’t have this problem. However, if they aren’t protected, here are a few precautions to take in case an unexpected cold snap arrives.

Keep a pencil-sized trickle of water running from each faucet during the night. Moving water freezes much more slowly than water that’s standing still, If possible, keep a light bulb burning near exposed pipes or put a portable heater in your basement for the duration of the cold spell.

For more permanent protection, wrap all exposed pipes in special pipe insulation. It usually comes with tape to keep it tightly and neatly in place. For even more protection, wrap your pipe with specially designed heating wires. They come equipped with thermostats so the heat is turned on only when it’s needed.

If it’s too late for prevention—the pipes have already frozen—here are some ways to thaw them out.

Open a faucet near the frozen place in the pipe before you do anything else. If you’re not sure exactly where the pipe is frozen, open all the faucets that are blocked. When heat is applied, vapor from the melting ice needs a place to escape, and if there is no opening through a faucet, the vapor may come through the side of the pipe. As you thaw a pipe, work back from the open faucet toward the frozen place.

If you aren't sure whether the frozen pipe has sprung a leak, take precautions to protect furniture or floors from water before you thaw the pipes. Move items that might be damaged from the area or cover them with plastic drop cloths. Have several pans and pails handy to catch the leaks as they appear. If you detect a crack in a pipe, put a rubber pad and clamp on it before the pipe thaws.

One way to thaw a pipe is “grandma’s frozen pipe cure.” You wrap the pipe in rags and pour boiling water over it. This method works but is slow and very messy. A heating pad wrapped around the pipe or a heat lamp or hair dryer aimed at it works much better. Except on plastic pipe, the quickest thawing is done with a propane torch equipped with a flame spreader nozzle (see the drawing). Never let the pipe get too hot to touch and be sure to protect the wall behind it with a piece of asbestos or sheet metal.

Overflowing Washers

If either your washing machine or dishwasher overflows, turn the dial to of f. If the water keeps flowing, the electrical circuitry may be at fault. Stop the washer by pulling the plug, throwing the circuit breaker, or pulling the fuse in the house fuse panel. If it would be quicker in your case, turn of f the water to the washer. The valve should be behind the washing machine or under the sink beside the dishwasher. If you can’t find or reach the shutoff valve to the washer, turn of f the main valve.

When the water stops flowing, check the drains to see if they are plugged with dirt, lint, or grease. If the drains are clean and the washer still overflows, it isn't a plumbing problem but an appliance problem. Call an appliance service center.

Ill-22 Thawing Frozen Pipes

-- Minimizing Flood Damage --

When you detect a substantial leak or overflow situation, turn off the water quickly before trying to find or fix the problem, Dam doorways with rolled up blankets, rugs, or towels to isolate the water.

If the flood is upstairs, your first clue may be a dripping light fixture or a stain on the ceiling or wall. If a light fixture is involved, first turn off the water. Then turn off the electricity at the fuse panel. Drain the light fixture by removing any ball, dome, or cover and be sure it’s dry inside before turning the electricity back on. Poke holes in the ceiling to allow all the water to drain out.

If a flood really gets out of hand, call the fire department—that’s one of the things they’re trained for.

Here are more flooding tips.

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Monday, December 12, 2011 15:22 PST