Plumbing projects can seem a bit daunting at first, but they really don't have to be. Here are eight common plumbing repairs and replacements that you can do yourself, no experience necessary.
Title image remixed from Lauralova (Shutterstock)
The projects we're covering here mostly deal with repairing things like running toilets and leaky taps, and replacing fixtures like taps and shower heads. These are beginner-level projects that are fairly easy to do and can save you a lot of money if you tackle them yourself.
First: Know What You Can Handle, And When to Get Help
The projects we've laid out here are particularly simple, but plumbing can be tricky, so if you're ever unsure, don't be afraid to ask for help. These projects are all pretty straightforward, but you never know what will come up, especially with older homes. We've selected some pretty good videos, but do some research and find some other videos if something about your setup looks a little different. The internet is a wonderful thing.
If you have questions about what parts to buy for your fixtures, the folks at the hardware store will most likely have an answer for you. Come equipped with the brand and model of your fixture and, even better, some pictures. They will point you in the right direction. And if at any point you feel like you're in over your head, call a plumber.
Turn The Water Supply Off
Before you get involved with most plumbing projects, you'll need to shut off the water flowing to whatever you're working on. Most of the time, there are easy-to-access gate valves or compression valves that you can turn with your hand. Turn them clockwise all the way to turn off the water and counter-clockwise to turn it back on when you're done. For sinks, look under the sink and you'll usually see two valves — one for hot water and one for cold. On kitchen sinks, you might also see valves for the ice maker on your fridge or your dishwasher. Just turn them all off. For toilets, the valves are on the wall or right on the pipe behind the toilet.
If you can't find, or can't access, a shut-off valve for a fixture, you'll need to turn off your main water supply. This is often the case with bathtubs and showers, where the plumbing is inside the wall. You might find an access panel on the wall behind the fixtures, but more often you won't.
Finding the main water supply shut-off can be tricky. Sometimes, you can find a main shut-off valve in your house; sometimes you'll need to shut it off at the street. Check out the video above from Mr. Rooter to get an idea of locations and types of shut-off valves you'll encounter.
After you've turned off the valves, turn on the water at the fixture to make sure you've turned off everything you need to.
Get The Right Tools
Having the right tools can mean the difference between a quick project and a complete mess. Fortunately, you won't need too much to handle the projects here and what you will need is pretty inexpensive (certainly less expensive than hiring a plumber). You can get everything on this list for about $100, and you won't need it all unless you're doing all the projects.
The tools and supplies you'll most likely need, in addition to the regulars like screwdrivers and specific replacement parts for whatever fixture you're working with, include:
- Plumber's or pipe wrench. You may be able to get by with a large crescent spanner or a pair of vice grips, but a plumber's wrench is better. It opens a little wider and grips a little better. The teeth are designed to grip in the direction you turn it.
- Basin wrench. If you're replacing a tap (especially a bathroom sink tap), you may run into nuts in pretty tight places. A basin wrench has an adjustable-angle head design that lets you get at them from below.
- Seat wrench. Typically, you're only going to need a seat wrench if you're replacing some types of bathtub or sink taps.
- Drain snake. This is a simple, shorter version of the big gas-powered snake that plumbers use to clear blocks deep in your drains. If the block is not so deep, owning one of these can save you a good bit of money. They come in different lengths and you can buy powered versions.
- Plumber's putty. This putty air dries and won't stick to your fingers, so it's easy to apply with your hands. It's great for sealing joints like the ones between a sink basin and drain. It also lasts a long time if you keep the container sealed.
- Teflon tape. You'll use this tape to wrap the threads at the ends of pipe fittings to provide extra protection against leaking.
Install A New Shower Head
Let's start with the easiest possible project: Installing a new shower head is as simple as it gets. Typically, all you have to do is unscrew the old shower head from the shower arm (the pipe coming out of the wall), clean off the threads on the shower arm and wrap a bit of Teflon tape around it, then screw on the new shower head. It's really that simple (and if you don't believe me, check out the video above from Dummies.com). Do read the installation instructions on the shower head you buy, though. Some are designed not to require Teflon tape and can actually leak if you use it.
Also, you might run into a problem where the shower arm is too short or angled too sharply for the shower head you bought. This can happen more with the wand-type shower heads and the wall gets in the way of the wand. You can solve this problem by making sure you buy a shower head that fits or installing an extension arm onto the main shower arm. You can find those the same place you buy the shower heads.
Fix A Leaky Or Dripping Single-Handle Sink Tap
Taps can leak from around the tap handles or drip from the water spout. Both types of leaks are caused by problems in the tap handle. Usually, you'll find single-handle taps on the kitchen sink, but you may also find them in bathrooms. They work using one of three mechanisms:
- Rotating ball valve. In this type, a ball with a slot rests on top of spring-loaded seals. When the tap is off, the ball is pressed tightly against the seals. The ball, gaskets, seals, and springs can all wear out, causing the tap to leak water.
- Cartridge. In this type, a single, replaceable cartridge controls water flow. There are also washers or O-rings above and below the cartridge to ensure a good seal and protect the cartridge from wear.
- Ceramic disc. In this type of tap, an upper, movable ceramic disc moves against a lower, fixed disc. The movement of the two discs opens or closes the line, controlling water flow.
The video above from Lowe's shows how to fix leaks in all three types of single-handle taps. Basically, you're going to remove the handle, pop out the mechanism, and replace it or the surrounding seals. If you can spot which part is causing trouble, you can buy each of the pieces individually. Otherwise, you can buy a tap repair kit for that type of tap and replace everything at once. Neither option should be very expensive.
Fix A Leaky Or Dripping Two-Handle Sink Tap
Two-handle taps are most often found in the bathroom, but you see them in some kitchens. Two-handle taps use three types of mechanisms. The first two are the same as two of the mechanisms used in a single-handle tap: cartridge and ceramic disc. The third type is a compression (or reverse-compression) mechanism. Compression taps are the simplest type, using rubber washers that get compressed against one another to seal the valve. They do tend to wear out faster than other tap types, but are also least expensive to repair.
The video above from Lowe's shows how to fix leaks in all types of two-handle taps. The process is largely the same as in a single-handle tap repair. Remove the handle, take out the mechanism, and replace the parts that need replacing (or buy a replacement kit).
Fix A Leaky Or Dripping Bathtub Tap
Bathtub taps can be either single- or two-handle designs and they can use any of the types of mechanisms used in sink taps. If you've got a classic two-handle design where the taps are attached to the tub or wall, the chances are that you've got a simple compression tap.
Check out the video above, from Keyspire, to see how to fix leaks in a compression bathtub tap. The reason it's a little different than replacing a compression sink tap is that it's more likely with a bathtub that the valve seats also need to be replaced. This video shows you how to do that.
Replace Or Install A Sink Tap
If you're thinking of replacing a tap because it's dripping, think about trying to repair it first. If you just want that old, nasty thing out of there and a shiny new one in its place, then don't be afraid to go for it. Replacing a sink tap, whether it's in your kitchen or bathroom, is easier than you might think.
The first step is figuring out what type of tap to buy. You'll need to match up the tap with the number of holes in your sink:
- A one-hole sink has a single tap coming up out of a single hole in the sink. Usually, there's no deck (the plate at the bottom of the taps).
- A two-hole sink has one hole for a single tap and a second hole for an accessory like a soap dispenser.
- A three-hole sink has one hole for the spout and two holes for tap handles. However, you might see a three-hole sink that just has one single handle tap and a deck that covers the other two holes. These are the most common type in bathrooms.
- A four-hole sink has one hole for the spout, two holes for tap handles, and a fourth hole for a soap dispenser or sprayer. Again, you may have a single-handle tap but have a four-hole sink. These are the most common types in kitchens.
The easiest way to tell which type you have is to take a look under the sink. You'll be able to see the number of holes from the bottom.
The above video from Lowe's is a good basic guide too. Do make sure to read the installation instructions that come with the tap, though. Sometimes, there are important variations. We've only included a video on kitchen sinks here because the process of installing a bathroom sink is largely the same. However, you can always check out this video from RONAinc if you want to see the process.
Fix A Running Toilet
Toilets are pretty simple. When enough water is added to the bowl quickly, the weight of the water and the shape of the drain (a siphon) will cause the toilet to flush. You can flush a toilet just by pouring a bucket of water into the bowl.
The tank and all the parts inside are just so you don't have to use a bucket:
- A tank stores the water.
- A filler valve is connected to the water supply and controls how water gets into the tank, how water stops getting into the tank when there's enough (the filler float), and where extra water goes (the overflow tube) when the thing that stops the water doesn't work right.
- A flush valve (or flapper) controls the release of water from the tank into the bowl. Its job is to open up all the way so enough water gets released quickly (too slowly and the toilet won't flush) and then close so the water stops getting released into the bowl.
You might have all these parts separately in your toilet or they might all be part of one unified design, but they are all there in every toilet. The vast majority of the times you hear a toilet running when it shouldn't be, it comes down to one of three problems:
- The flush valve isn't closing all the way and is letting water seep into the bowl. Then the tank needs to get refilled every so often.
- The water in the tank is too high and it runs over the overflow pipe. The toilet is continuously refilling itself because it thinks it's low on water when it really isn't.
- There's a problem with the flush valve and it needs to be replaced.
Check out the video above from DIYer Jeff Patterson to see how to fix all three problems.
Adjust A Pop-Up Sink Stopper To Keep Water In Your Sink
If your bathroom sink is slowly draining instead of holding water, your problem is super easy to fix. You likely just need to make a quick adjustment to the assembly under the sink. Pop-up drains have an arm that reaches down the drain and connects to a little rod. That rod sticks through the drain pipe and is held in place by a metal strip with holes in it. That strip, in turn, is connected to the little lever or handle you pull on to open and close the stopper. The video above from HomeAdditionPlus has an excellent look at how to make adjustments.
Clear A Clogged Bathtub Drain
Clogged drains are no fun. We've shown you how to clear a clogged drain, but bathtub drains can be a little more challenging. A lot more hair and other gunk goes down them than you think. Add to this the fact that most bathtub drains take a 90-degree turn that makes getting a drain snake down them more difficult.
To unclog a bathtub drain the right way, you'll need to take the drain plate off. That's the little round plate that has the lever on it for opening and closing the pop-up drain stopper. It takes a little effort, but it's not too hard to remove and behind that plate, you have access to a straight drain pipe you can send the drain snake down. Check out the video above from This Old House for instructions.