Simple Do-It-Yourself Fixes Can Make Home 'Watertight'

Southern California is facing one of the worst droughts in decades.

As the Los Angeles City Council and officials of other Southland communities move closer to mandating cutbacks in household water consumption, all of us should be thinking about ways to conserve water around the house.

While much water can be saved by simple common-sense changes in personal habits such as not hosing driveways and turning off the water while shaving, there are several do-it-yourself conservation and repair techniques that can further reduce water use in the home.

According to Maureen Erbeznik, conservation specialist for the city of Santa Monica, "Showering is one of the largest residential water usages. Installation of low-flow shower heads or flow restrictors can reduce shower water consumption by 50% or more.

"Most normal shower heads supply 6 to 8 gallons of water per minute, while low-flow or restricted heads allow less than 3 gallons per minute."

Most hardware stores sell low-flow shower heads, which also come with an instant-off button for soaping up, or plastic flow restrictor discs that fit into your existing head. Some cities supply these items free of charge to residents. Check with your City Hall.

Replacing your shower head or installing a flow restrictor requires an 8-inch adjustable wrench or large pair of pliers. If you use pliers, wrap the jaws with a couple layers of plastic tape to protect the finish on the shower head.

You will notice either two flat areas on opposite sides of the shower head "neck" where it joins the pipe from the wall, or a knurled collar around the neck.

Adjust the wrench or pliers to fit snugly over the neck and turn the tool counter-clockwise to loosen the shower head. Continue unscrewing the head by hand until it comes off.

Before reattaching either a new low-flow shower head or the old shower head with a flow restrictor placed into the threaded recessed area of the neck, first seal the threads to prevent leakage.

Moisten an ordinary bar of soap and rub it over all the threads visible at the end of the pipe projecting from the wall so that all the spaces between the threads are covered with a layer of soap. Then screw the head on as tightly as possible by hand and continue tightening with the wrench or pliers until it feels snug.

Turn on the water and check for leaks. If water drips from the head/pipe joint, further tighten the shower head.

Odds are that initially you will not like the diminished water pressure from the low-flow head.

Stick with it, though. Both the water savings and sewer flow reduction are quite substantial, and you will get used to it sooner than you think.

Most of us have heard of the idea of saving lots of water by placing a "tank dam" or plastic bottle inside a toilet tank (up to 22 gallons a day), but not many people realize that a toilet that leaks can waste up to 400 gallons of water a month!

Determining if your toilet leaks sometimes requires a careful listening and close observation.

Close the bathroom door to block outside sound and listen to your toilet. A slight hissing sound from the toilet usually means a leak.

To diagnose the source of the leak, place five to 10 drops of food coloring into the tank after it fills up and observe the water in the bowl. If the drain ball or flapper at the bottom of the tank is worn, the water in the bowl will begin to change to the color of the tank water.

To replace the drain ball, first shut off the water by turning the supply valve under the left side of the toilet tank clockwise fully.

Then hold the brass rod the drain ball is attached to with a pair of pliers while unscrewing the ball with the other hand. Wear a glove.

To replace a drain flapper, just unhook it from either side of the overflow tube and pull it out. Also unhook the chain that goes to the flush handle lever.

Any hardware store will have these replacement parts.

When installing either the drain ball or flapper, lightly coat the bottom surface with Vaseline to create a better seal.

If the food coloring test proves negative, the problem could be that the control valve is worn and is allowing so much water into the tank that it is spilling into the "overflow tube" that rises in the middle of the tank.

The cure for this is usually bending the float ball rod so the ball sits lower in the tank. Grasp the rod with two hands and gradually increase downward pressure with your right hand until the rod bends down 1 to 2 inches on the right. Test the water level to assure it does not enter the tube again. Adjust if needed.

Most manufacturers recommend a water level about 1 inch below the top of the overflow tube. However, most toilets work just fine with a lower level in the tank, thereby saving water.

With this in mind, bend the rod further, so that the level in the tank is 2, 3 or more inches below the top of the tube. Adjust your own level so the toilet flushes properly with as little water as possible.

As with reducing shower water volume, reducing toilet water use saves hundreds of gallons per month in most households while reducing impact on our sewage treatment facilities.

If you have checked for tank leaks and cured any problems with the control valve but still hear a hissing sound, check the float ball in the tank. Sometimes the ball will fill with enough water that it does not float high enough to fully shut the valve.

To check the ball, unscrew it from the brass rod and shake it. Replace it if you hear any water at all.

If you have the type of toilet that requires a jiggle of the flush handle to stop it from running after use, you may be able to fix it yourself by first observing the action of the drain ball or flapper when the tank is flushed.

If your tank has a drain ball that fails to drop onto its seat without a shake of the flush handle, the problem could be that the thin brass rod it is attached to is binding in its brackets.

To correct this, clean any rust or corrosion off the rod with steel wool and lubricate it with Vaseline.

Drain flappers that fail to close again fully after flushing usually have a snagged link in the chain between the drain flapper and the flush lever. If you notice this problem, replace the flapper chain with one that has smooth, round closed links, rather than twisted wire links, and make sure that the chain is adjusted so there is only one-half inch of slack when the flapper is seated on the tank bottom.

If, after checking for all these items the toilet is still running, the problem may be a defective control valve or drain valve, which will usually require professional help. Try these suggestions first, because more than half the time the problem can be easily fixed in a few minutes with less than $10 of readily available replacement parts.

In the meantime, keep the water supply valve under the left side of the tank shut except to refill the tank after use to reduce water waste while awaiting help.

As with a toilet that leaks or runs, a constantly dripping faucet can also waste hundreds of gallons of water a month.

There is a large array of faucets types and styles in residential use, but the most common and most easily repaired is a washer-type faucet.

To repair these faucets, start by shutting the water main valve to the house or, if they exist, shutting the supply valves under the sink.

Turn the faucet handle so it is somewhere between the "off" and "on" position. Remove the faucet handle and the plate at the base of the stem to expose the hexagonal wrench pad on the valve stem underneath. Place a wrench on the pad and turn it counter-clockwise to loosen it.

Once loose, the valve stem will come out easily by hand. At the end of the stem is a black rubber washer, held in place with a screw.

Place the faucet handle back on the end of the stem to hold it while you remove the screw and the old washer. From any hardware store buy a faucet repair kit and look for a replacement washer of similar size to the old one.

Replace the stem back into the valve body, making sure that it is still oriented between "off" and "on." Retighten it snugly, replace the plate and the handle.

Before turning the water back on, unscrew the aerator at the end of the spout to prevent debris loosened in the shut-off valve from lodging in the aerator filter screens. Turn on the water, let it run until clear and replace the aerator.

Follow these same procedures to fix leaky hose bib faucets and sprinkler valves. Sprinkler valves require oversize washers that most hardware stores carry.

Another way to reduce water waste from faucets is to simply close the shut-off valves under the sink a turn or so clockwise to reduce the water flow to the faucet by about half. According to the Santa Monica Department of General Services, this can save up to 126 gallons per week for the average household.

According to Los Angeles Department of Water and Power studies, most of us tend to water too often and leave the sprinklers on too long. They recommend watering only every third day, and during early morning or evening hours to reduce evaporation.

Water savings for the typical home can be up to 500 gallons a week with this schedule.

But even if you follow this recommendation, you may be wasting water by overspray, puddling or improperly aimed heads. Here is advice for solving these common sprinkler problems.

Overspray onto sidewalks or onto the house is not only wasteful but can lead to costly moisture damage to the paint, stucco and structural members of the building. To correct it, turn the brass screw in to center of the sprinkler head clockwise until the desired spray volume is reached.

Puddling around the sprinkler head is usually caused by nothing more than deflection of the spray by tall grass around the head. Always keep at least an 8-inch diameter circle of very low cut grass around each head to allow the spray to clear.

Correcting improperly aimed sprinklers is very easy. With a large pair of pliers or a sprinkler wrench (about $5 at most hardware stores), gently turn the entire head so that the spray is directed to the desired area.

If the spray pattern itself is incorrect, the "insert" in the center of the head can be replaced to more suitably match the area to be watered.

They are sold to spray one-eighth-, one-quarter-, one-half-, three-quarter- or full-circle patterns. Remove your existing insert and take it to most any hardware store to find one of the appropriate pattern.

Once you have all your sprinklers operating at peak efficiency, continue checking them about once every month or two. Sediment and debris in the pipes often causes clogs in the heads, which adversely affect the spray quality.

LOW-FLOW SHOWER HEAD

Before reattaching new shower head, rub wet soap on the threads at the end of the pipe to create seal.

Plastic Flow Restricter Disc--Fits into threaded, recessed end of existing full-flow shower head.

FAUCET REPAIR

1. Remove handle.

2. Remove escutcheon.

3. Remove valve stem with wrench.

4. Unscrew valve stem by hand after loosening it.

5. Insert valve stem into handle to hold it. Remove screw. Replace the washer and reverse steps to reassemble.

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