TROUBLE-SHOOTING AND MAINTENANCE TIPS FOR YOUR PLUMBING SYSTEMS
HAIR. Hair and soap make for a sticky, messy combo that blocks sink, shower and tub drains. It collects and builds up in traps and hangs up on the mechanical apparatus that raises and lowers the drain plug.
Avoid washing hair down the lavatory drain when possible—rather, collect it with a tissue and put it in the garbage. For tubs and showers, make sure you have a fine screen in place to catch as much of it as possible. If the drain gets slow, remove the cover or the pop-up and clear the hair-gunk out. A little hook bent into the end of a stiff wire, like a coat hanger, works well.
GREASE AND OIL. Most people understand that oil and water don’t mix—that oils are not soluble in water—yet they don’t think about that when they wash greasy dishes or use the sink drain to dispose of a bit of bacon grease in the frying pan. Avoid grease and oil going down the drain! It sticks to the insides of pipes and builds up, slowly narrowing the drain opening, collecting scrapes of food and debris.
The excess oil and grease from cooking needs to be poured into a can (something that can take hot oil without melting) and when full, disposed of with the trash. Before washing dishes, (including dishwasher use) wipe grease from dishes and pans with a paper towel.
DRAINS AND HOT WATER. A good preventative practice to help avoid drain problems is to regularly run clean, very hot water down the drain to break down the build-up of thickened soap scum and grease that inevitably collects inside the drain lines.
THE FLUSH. Modern low-flush toilets are great at conserving water, but less water per flush means they are more prone to stoppages. Be careful and wise about what you flush; don’t treat your toilet like a dispose-all. It’s not a garbage can with running water! Do not flush things like cat litter, coffee grounds, Q-tips, hygiene products, paper towels, and the like.
SEPTIC SYSTEMS. If you’re on a septic system, you should know you’re faced with a special set of maintenance circumstances. When sized and installed correctly, the septic tank, drain field, and bacteria living within comprise a carefully balanced system of mechanical and biological components.
You must absolutely avoid overloading the system with too many solids—don’t use the in-sink disposal (if you do, you’ll need to pump the septic tank more often). Be wise about what’s flushed down the toilet. Avoid using and washing too many bacteria-killing cleaning chemicals down the drain. Keep grease and oil to minimum.
Do an online search with “septic system maintenance” to learn more—tank pumping frequency, for example, based on size of tank and household size (pumping the tank protects the drainfield by removing the undigested solids that build up over time).
DISPOSALS. If you have an in-drain food disposal in your kitchen sink, be responsible about the waste you put down it.
First, know that disposers are not created equally. The cheap builder-grade unit is simply not up to the task of taking everything you push down. You may need to upgrade the quality of your disposer appliance.
First of all, get into the habit of running the disposer with a moderate steam of cold water through-out the grinding process and until complete. Avoid using hot water when grinding. You can run hot water between the grinding cycles, no problem. Avoid grinding large amounts of peelings and/or food waste at one time, rather, feed the grinder gradually with both grinder and water running. Completely avoid grinding fibrous scrapes like celery, artichokes, husks, onion skins, etc. Also avoid the hard stuff—bones and fruit pits. Of course, never pour grease or fat into the disposer unit.
Objectionable odors from the disposer are caused by food particle build-up. Use a retail disposer cleanser or grind citrus fruit peels.
CHEMICAL DRAIN CLEANERS. Harsh chemical drain cleaners can do serious damage to piping, especially in older homes.
WATER HEATERS. Water heater tanks need a regular maintenance flush to wash out the scale and sediment build-up that, over time, robs the water heater of efficiency and lifespan.
Tankless water heating systems need regular cleaning/flushing to remove the build-up in the internal heat-exchanger tubing.
Reduce energy use and protect the tank from overheating by keeping the water heater temperature setting between 115 and 120 degrees F.
FAUCET FINISH CARE. Quality faucets will have a quality finish, but proper care is necessary. The best practice, by far, is to prevent water-spotting and mineral build-up (which require more aggressive cleaning measures) by wiping the fixture dry after use with a soft, dry cloth. Dry around the base of the faucet as well. Avoid ALL abrasive cleansers and aggressive cleaning pads. Avoid products with ammonia, like glass and tile cleansers. Use only those cleansers and polishes designed for the finish on fixtures.
Be aware that not all finishes are the same—some are powder coated, some nickel-finished, some finished with a physical vapor deposition (PVD) process—and respond best to a polishing cleanser designed for that particular finish.
FROZEN PIPES. Preventative action can avoid the most common frozen piping incidents. In cold climates, outside faucets (hose bibs) are designed to shut off the water back inside the warmed spaces of the house. The water remaining in the ten or twelve inches of the tube between the valve and outlet end will then drain out. If there is a hose attached to the outlet, it will often prevent this water from draining out...then, when the first freeze comes, ice will form in the tube, expanding and splitting the tube. So, remove the hoses at the first sign of cold weather.
A too-common frozen-pipe problem is that little quarter-inch water supply tube feeding your swamp (evaporative) cooler. That supply line should be disconnected and drained each fall when the cooler is no longer being used.
Water pipes in outside walls are more prone to freezing, as are those in crawl spaces beneath floor insulation (the insulation prevents the heat from the building envelope from warming the crawl space enough to prevent freezing during extreme cold). Adding insulation around the pipes (or including the piping inside the heated envelope is necessary in such situations.
When extreme cold is forecast, preventative measures can be taken, like leaving a trickle of lukewarm water moving through the pipes and leaving the room and cabinet doors open so heated air can freely access the space.
Of course, if you plan to be away for an extended period of time, turn the heat down, but not too far (55 degrees F is good), or you’ll come back to split pipes and an absolute mess.
If you live in an area prone to power outages, you should take an additional preventative measure before you go: turn the water off to the house and open all the faucets to drain the water in the pipes.
WHOLE-HOUSE WATER SHUT OFF. You and every person living in your home should know where and how to shut off the water to your house. On occasion, check to see that the shut-off valve is working, especially in older homes. If the valve is old, hard to turn, or corroded to the point it no longer completely shuts off the water, have it replaced with a modern lever-handled ball valve. Ball valves take only a quarter turn pull on a lever to close the value—a welcome improvement over the old-style gate values.
If the shut-off valve is located in a dark, hard-to-get-to place, have what you (or another) would need stored nearby—flashlight/lantern, directions to the valve, etc.
In older homes, the only place to shut off the water supply may be at the water meter, and that takes a special key, even two. One to remove the meter can lid, another to close the valve, as it won’t have a handle. Buy those tools and keep them handy. Better yet, have a ball valve shut-off installed inside the house as close to where the supply comes in as possible (before the line branches off to feed various fixtures and appliances.)
If you’re on a well, there won’t be a meter, but you can turn off the well pump to stop the water, although your pressure tank may continue pushing water through the water lines until it is drained.
Costly damage can be prevented or minimized when the water can be quickly shut off when something goes wrong.
FIXTURE AND APPLIANCE SHUT OFF. Similarly, knowing how to turn off the water supply to the sinks, toilets, ice maker, and washing machine can save a lot of clean up if something goes wrong. Each fixture should have been plumbed with stop values for each supply line (hot and cold). If they are not, or the valves do not work, get them replaced.
CLEAN OUTS. Know where your drain line and main sewer line clean outs are located. Often a washing machine (which are subject to stoppages from excess lint build up) are plumbed with a wall or floor clean out access for a drain snake. Main sewer lines should have capped clean outs in the yard for the same purpose. Know where they are and clear access to them so the drain-cleaning tech can get right to work clearing the drain.
NIP TROUBLE IN THE BUD. Plumbing problems often start small...a slow draining shower, a dripping waterline fitting, inefficient water heating, unusual noises, damp cabinets, rocking toilets, water stains on ceilings or walls, hard-to-turn or broken values. Don’t wait to deal with the problem until it turns disasterous.
Remember, water lines are under constant pressure...the drip will get worse. Wood rots. Dampness in walls and crawl spaces invites unwanted biological growth like mold and mildew. You’ll need that valve someday. Get things taken care of before they become big expensive messes.