A dripping shower or balky drain may seem like problems that need professional repair. But as you look over the plumber's shoulder and watch the five-minute fix, it dawns on you that you could have fixed it yourself. It pays to leave big projects to the pros, of course. But many minor plumbing problems qualify for DIY repair.
Whether you're working on copper or plastic pipe, start by closing a valve to stop the water flow. If, in an emergency, you can't locate the closest cut-off, shut off the house main valve until you find it. If you need to heat a copper pipe with a propane torch—to thaw a frozen section or resolder a leaking joint—first drain the line. Copper won't get hot enough to make solder flow when it's filled with water. Also open a faucet just beyond the repair so that any steam that develops can escape. And be careful using a torch in tight spots where the flame may lick past the pipe and reach combustible building materials nearby.
. To resolder copper, cut away the damaged section with a wheel-type cutter. (A hacksaw often creates an uneven joint prone to leaks.) To make joints watertight, first sand or steel wool the mating surfaces—enough to make old pipes shine like a bright penny. Then wipe on a layer of flux, a paste that helps to draw solder into the joint, join the sections, and apply heat evenly. When the flux discolors and bubbles, remove the flame and apply lead-free solder to the seam until the connection is filled and solder floats just outside the joint. You probably won't leave a neat ring of solder the way a good plumber does, so be prepared for a few drips. Remember, you're working with molten metal. Most plastic pipe is a snap compared to copper. Cut it with a hacksaw (or any sharp saw), trim burred edges with a knife, apply a cleaner-primer followed by solvent cement, and connect the fittings.
Emergency leak stoppers.
If a pipe leak somehow defies repair, try temporarily plugging a pinhole by jamming in a sharpened pencil. For a split or opened joint, try wrapping the area with a piece of thick rubber, like a chunk of garden hose sliced open down the side. Cover the leak, then tighten down the rubber with band clamps, like the connections on car radiator hoses.
Balancing shower controls.
Older, single-lever shower faucets can surprise you with sudden temperature changes, typically a problem with balky plungers inside the fixture. Instead of adjusting gradually as you move the lever, corrosion (hard water deposits) or worn O-rings can cause the plungers to stick. Then, all of a sudden, they slip and drastically alter the hot-cold mix. And when the O-rings are shot, washers inside may also be distorted, which can cause dripping even when the lever is in the off position. To get at the guts of the fixture, you normally have to remove small set screws holding the lever and fixture cover in place. Once the valve can be inspected, take out the plungers and clean them with steel wool until they slide easily in the valve. At the same time you can replace the seat washers and plunger O-rings. (Most plumbing supply houses sell these items assembled in kits for different brands of faucets.)
Sluggish water supply.