Common plumbing problems & how to fix them

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Some plumbing problems are easy to fix on your own, but others are just plumbing disasters in the making. Here are the most common plumbing issues, some DIY solutions — and when to call in a professional who can save your time and money. You may think that gurgling pipes and slow-draining bathtubs are relatively minor problems that you can fix yourself with a little plumbing knowledge—and you’d be right most of the time. The majority of plumbers would be perplexed if you called them out to extract a clump of hair that you could easily reach from your bathtub plughole. So there are some DIY plumbing problems that may seem benign at first, but then can turn into a situation that calls for a professional plumber.

 1. Local drain blockages:

These are blockages confined to the problem drain only. All blockages are characterised by gurgling, or slow-draining water and also unusual toilet bowl levels or unpleasant smells. Do try some simple DIY solutions but if they don’t work, call a professional as things can turn nasty quite quickly.

Treatment: Can you see the blockage? Try to remove the obstruction yourself, for example use a coat hanger to clear a soap and hair mass in a shower drain. If the material is soft, such as a lump of fat in the kitchen sink, some hot water with a bit of detergent can liquefy the blockage so it drains properly. If you can’t identify the cause, try this natural baking soda and vinegar remedy.

Danger zone: Use a plunger if you’re confident in your technique. Beware, though, some plunging can push the blockage further down the pipe.

Go pro: Call a plumber if you can’t clear the blockage, or if the symptoms occur in other parts of the household, which indicates a mains blockage. If there’s nothing wrong with the sewer, a plumber will likely use high-pressure water jet blasting to break the blockage into tiny pieces and wash it into the sewer.

 2. Toilet trouble:

Apart from local blockages you may experience other toilet issues, such as not being able to flush it properly. One reason may be that the cistern hasn’t filled before flushing, in which case it’s a matter of waiting a little longer between flushes, or the buttons become misaligned, or lastly the mechanism that manages emptying the cistern is defective.

Treatment: Open the cistern lid to check if the mechanism is working as it should. If the cistern is slow to fill, see if there is anything obstructing the valve that triggers the tank to fill. If it’s easy to remove, you can remove it. If the buttons are misaligned, replace the lid so the buttons properly fit over the mechanism under the lid.

Danger zone: If you fixed the problem initially but it recurs, or you can’t find the source of the issue, don’t keep fiddling around as there may be cracks or leaks you can’t see that tinkering will likely make worse.

Go pro: Call a plumber if the toilet is leaking, for example if there’s a puddle on the floor near the bowl, or you can’t define the cause of the problem. Once a cistern is more than 5-7 years old, the inflow and outflow mechanisms start wearing and will often need replacing rather than just be tinkered with. Call a plumber immediately if there is sewage in the house. You don’t want to deal with that. Seriously.

Cost if not done properly: Investing time and money (whether its DIY or pro) to fix one tiny piece of your ageing cistern is a waste if more pieces break in the medium term. Better to invest in complete valve replacement or entire cistern replacement which results in a much lower ‘cost per use” over the long term. 

3. Renovation fails:

With the spate of home renovation TV shows on offer you’d be forgiven for thinking bathroom renos are complete in 48 hours and are simply a matter of getting the right coloured tiles. Unfortunately damp walls, unusual smells and strange leaks can be the result of a bad reno.

Plumbing checklist: What to do before you renovate Treatment: If you don’t know what you’re doing, do not attempt to renovate your bathroom. Changing the taps or retiling the bathroom may look easy, but unless you have the right skills and know what potential problems to be aware of, it’s best to leave this to a plumber. One more tip: buy the best you can afford. Cheap fixtures are not cheap in the long run if you have to keep fixing them.

Danger zone: Putting beautiful new taps and toilets over old water and sewer pipes is a bad idea. This can often lead to poor drainage, causing smells and leaks. Retiling the bathroom without adequate waterproofing accelerates damp in the walls, causing structural damage.

Go pro: Call a plumber to help with your reno if you’re not completely confident in DIY. Even if you do some elements on your own, it doesn’t hurt to get a professional to look over your work. It’s also always advisable to call a professional tiler to do your waterproofing.

Cost if not done properly: Depressing – Downright heart-breaking.  Having a plumber starting to bust through your newly tiled walls and take out your lovely fixtures to repair an old or poorly executed pipework is just awful so invest in “good bones” for your bathroom renovation and save yourself the heartache. Next time you have a plumbing problem it’s fine to try DIY solutions, but if the problem is bigger than you thought don’t hesitate to call a plumbing professional. The longer you leave it, the worse it gets and the higher the bill.

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