A few weeks ago, we showed you how to clear a giant dallman out of your girlfriend’s toilet. You … didn’t tell her, did you? Anyway, somehow she got the idea that you are some kind of expert handyman. Her landlord isn’t returning her calls, and she’s asking you to come over with your toolbox — your toolbox! — to fix a leaky faucet
And you can’t exactly refuse. I mean, she’s making you french toast for the fourth day in a row. So, what do you do? You have two options: a) tell her you have no idea how to fix a leaky faucet, or b) don’t be a drip! Head straight for Primer and read
Plumbing Your Way to Your Girlfriend’s Heart
By Jesse Stern | Photos by Jeffrey Buras
So, it’s not an emergency, but you have this odd urge to make her happy. Besides, the dripping faucet is annoying, and you noticed a small puddle under the sink. Her tub takes a long time to drain too — whenever you take a shower you are both standing up to your ankles in lukewarm water, which cools down the fun of showering together.
Oh, and back home your roommate had a party. We won’t get into the details … except that ever since his party, the base of the toilet is oozing water.
Sounds uncomfortably grown-up, doesn’t it? Truth is, having a toolbox, with the right tools in it, can get you out of many a jam. As an added bonus, you are guaranteed to win serious Man Points among your buddies. Pretty soon you’ll want to have a toolbox at home, a toolbag in your car, maybe even a tool utility belt and a cape! Slow down, macho. The only guys who wear capes are at the comic convention at that hotel by the airport. Stick to the basics. No utility belt. No cape.
Last week, we told you how to fill your toolbox. For now, plan to make a couple of trips to the hardware store. But first, we have to assess the situation. Grab what you have, toss it in your backpack, and let’s head over to her place. We’ll get warmed up with the leak under the sink.
Problem: Water under Sink
This is an easy fix, because the culprit is almost always a loose pipe connection, AND the loose connection is almost always at the p-trap.
What’s that you say? What’s a p-trap? Okay, the p-trap is a U-shaped pipe just under the sink’s drain. In fact, there’s a p-trap under every drain in every room of every house or apartment. Why is a U-shaped pipe called a p-trap? Two reasons. One, it catches your girlfriend’s p-rized p-ossessions (diamond earrings, baby rings), if they fall down the drain. Two, it holds a bit of water, creating an airtight seal, which prevents p-utrid p-ee and p-oo from wafting up into the bathroom from the sewer pipe.
What you’ll need:
- A pipe wrench (or a big adjustable wrench): The pipe wrench looks exactly like the murder weapon in the board game Clue. By far the manliest of all tools, it is heavy, usually painted red, and has huge teeth for gripping and turning pipes. It’s also handy for large nuts under sinks.
- Teflon tape: White tape in a blue plastic roll. Ask for it by name.
- A small bucket or plastic container to catch the water
Solution: For easy access, move all the stuff out from under the sink: cleaning products, tampons, hair rollers, a hot water bottle with a long tube attached to it (tip: don’t ask her about this), extra toilet paper, and so on. Next, try to figure out where the leak is. Unless the pipe is broken, the leak will be at a fitting. The first place to check is the far side of the p-trap — e.g. on the side farthest from you. If the pipe below this joint is wet, while the pipe above the joint is dry, congratulations: you’ve found your leak.
Two important words about under-the-sink pipes, especially pipes of the bathroom variety: BE GENTLE. These pipes and joints are delicate. Some are copper, some are even made of a fragile plastic-like material. If you break a pipe joint, you will have to spend more money, and your french toast will get cold. Nobody wants that, so be gentle.
Put your container under the p-trap. Get out your pipe wrench or large adjustable wrench. On this particular joint, the threads are above the nut. This means that in order to loosen the joint, you should turn the nut to the left. Thus, if the handle is to the left of the nut, push; handle right of nut, pull.
Also, for reasons too boring to explain, the big part of the pipe wrench should always be away from the direction you are turning. Thus, if you push the handle, the big part faces you; pull the handle, open part faces you.
If you need to rescue any p-rized p-ossessions, take off the whole p-trap. Loosen the other joint attached to the vertical drain pipe. Dump out any hair, marbles, toy dinosaurs, gold krugerrands, bobby pins, baby rings, diamond earrings, etc. Next, get ready to put it all back together in reverse order — first the drain side, then the wall side.
This is where the Teflon tape comes in. This handy stuff helps to seal joints in water pipes. Teflon tape is also a lubricant, making the pipe joints easier to tighten. For gas pipes, there’s a different kind of tape, yellowish, in a yellowish plastic roll. Not interchangeable.
Try to keep the tape dry, because it’s harder to use when wet. Tear off eight to twelve inches or so. If you’re really anal, and can’t stand the way it tears, you can make a clean cut with a pair of scissors without losing any Man Points.
The goal is to wrap Teflon tape around the pipe’s threads, keeping the tape as wide as possible. To prevent your Teflon tape from bunching up, whichever way the nut is going to tighten, wrap the tape in the same direction. Teflon tape is annoying, but cheap, so if you mess up, just tear off another strip and try again. It should wrap around the pipe two or three times, covering all the threads on the outside of each pipe.
From there, tighten it up by hand, add another 1/4 turn or so with the wrench, then test it by running some water. Keep the small bucket or container under the p-trap for a couple days, just to check whether you need to tighten a tad more.
A note on copper pipes: In general, don’t use Teflon tape with copper pipes. Copper is a soft and delicate metal. Tape can easily cause you to accidentally over-tighten, and ruin, the expensive copper fittings.
Problem: Leaky Faucet
Drip-drip-drip. No matter how much you tighten the knobs, curse at the dripping sink, or cover your ears with a pillow, it keeps dripping. There’s a secret to dripping faucets, and the fix is a bit tricky. Since there are so many different kinds of faucets, you have to be sure you’re getting exactly the right replacement parts. Still no big deal, even for the budding handyman. This will require a trip to the hardware store, so eat your french toast first. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
What you’ll need
- A Phillips head screwdriver (that’s the kind with a cross shape).
- For some kitchen sinks, you may also need an L-shaped Allen (hex) wrench of the appropriate size.
A pair of vice grips. Basically locking pliers, this is a very impressive and manly tool. Definitely the coolest hand tool. To use, turn the nut on the end of the handle to tighten or loosen the pliers. Then, when you squeeze, they chomp down on whatever you’re gripping. They should be just tight enough that a gentle squeeze bumps them shut; they should then stay shut, even if you let go. To release, simply pull the little lever on the handle. Practice with empty vice grips until you get the hang of it. Be careful not to over-squeeze, or you could cause damage to nuts, gears, or blood vessels. Trust me, you’re not the first person that has wondered how hard they can squeeze their finger.
Solution: First, turn off the water. Under the sink, you should see a pair of handles, known as shut-off valves. Tighten them all the way by hand, then test the faucet to make sure the water’s off.
Here’s the secret. The faucet knobs have nothing to do with the dripping faucet, and are the key to entering the matrix of gaskets and valves that control the flow of water. So swallow the red pill, and get rid of the knobs. On bathroom sinks, the plastic “H” or “C” pop off, revealing a screw. Loosen the screw and the handle should pull right off.
Behind the handle, there’s a spindly looking thing with a gear on the end. This is the valve that turns the water on and off. It should turn counter-clockwise by hand for a few turns, then stop. Use the vice grips to loosen it a bit more. Once it’s easy to turn again, loosen and remove the valve by hand.
Behind or inside this valve is a black rubber gasket. This gasket is the key to dripping faucets and, since your faucet drips, it is probably mangled and deformed. Most such gaskets are tapered, i.e. wider on one end. Notice how your gasket is facing, then remove it and put it in your pocket. You’re going to take it to the hardware store in a minute. Repeat this process with the other faucet. The gaskets are cheap, so you might as well replace both of them. Before heading for the hardware store, make a mental note of the faucet’s brand. Bring one of the spindly valves too, just in case.
Smaller hardware stores sell individual gaskets. The larger warehouse-style stores often sell kits, which may include valves, springs and such. In either case, make sure the one you buy is exactly the same as the one you’re replacing. Check the brand, and ask for help if necessary.
Put the gasket back, either in the hole or onto the back of the valve. If tapered, it should be pretty obvious which way it goes, even if the old one was mangled beyond recognition. Next, screw the valve back in. When it becomes slightly hard to turn, vice-grip it past that point, then use your fingers to tighten it to the “off” position. Exit the matrix by covering the valve with the knobs. Screwing the knobs back on and replace the “H” and “C” caps. Finally, turn on the shutoff valves under the sink (slowly, and one at a time, just in case). No more drips!
Problem: Slow Draining Bathtub
Now, before you snuggle back into bed, let’s take a look at the slow draining bathtub. Something (hair, dirt, gunk) is clogging a pipe somewhere. The closer it is to the actual drain, the easier the fix.
What you’ll need:
- One or two pokey, proddy tools (like a coat hanger, needle-nose pliers, or tweezers)
- If that doesn’t work, a plunger
- If that doesn’t work, some kind of chemical clog remover
- If that doesn’t work, a plumber’s snake. Read on, friend.
Solution: The first thing to do is get rid of any obvious obstructions. If the tub’s plug or shower grate is removable, set it aside. Reach into the drain with your coat hanger, tweezers, fingers, or needle-nose pliers. Chances are, you will pull up some gross, scummy hair. Once you’ve got as much of that out of the way as you can, and if the tub is still stuck, it’s time to dig a little deeper.
You’ve already learned the physics of the plunger, so grab it again and let’s get pumping. Put the plunger’s cup over the bathtub drain, press down evenly, and pull up hard. Try pumping the plunger quickly, several pumps at a time. This should pull up some dirty gunk from deep in the drain pipes. If anything solid comes up, set it aside so it doesn’t go back down the drain, genius. If this doesn’t solve the problem, dig deeper. Note that if you are plunging a double sink, plug the side that you are not plunging, or you’ll just pull air from the other side of the sink.
Buy a bottle of Drano or Liquid Plumber (basically a thick, heavy bleach), from any grocery, hardware, or drug store. Dump it down the drain and wait a few hours. This should take care of any hair or basic gunk. If it’s still stuck, you’ll have to get serious.
The next thing to try is a plumber’s snake. This is a long metal cable with a spring at the end. You can pick up a 25′ hand snake for under $20, which is fine for small clogs. Before you go out and buy a snake, though, make sure that the drain in question is big enough to stick something down it. If you need something more heavy duty, try renting an electric snake from your hardware store. Basically, the goal is to disturb whatever is in there, so shove that snake down the drain until it won’t go any farther. (Jiggle it a bit as you feed it into the drain, to be sure you get past any unobstructed pipe joints.) Once you find the trouble spot, turn the crank clockwise. This will hopefully catch whatever is stuck there and you can pull it loose.
Most houses and apartment buildings have an overflow drain. If present, you generally find this on the side of the house, near the kitchen sink. it’s a pipe stuck in the wall, often at a 45-degree angle, with a big square bolt on it. Obviously, if the building doesn’t belong to you, make absolutely sure you know what you are messing with; and it wouldn’t hurt to get permission first. Landlords tend to get irritated by things like explosions and floods. Also, if the bathroom is stuck and the kitchen is not, the kitchen overflow will be useless to you.
Anyway, to get at the overflow, use your pipe wrench to remove the big square bolt cap. (Remember the big, closed part of the wrench goes behind whichever direction you’re turning.) If water flies out at you, the clog is below, and you can use your snake to go deeper into the pipes. If no water flies out, the clog is above this overflow, and you’ll have to snake down from the drain pipe (usually indicates an easy fix).
Problem: Toilet Oozes Water
So you fixed all the leaks at your girlfriend’s apartment and decided to spend a few days at home. Back at your dark, smelly basement apartment, you’re faced with the aftermath of a brutal party: sticky floors, shoe prints on the walls and ceiling, an overflowing recycle bin. The entire apartment smells like a steaming pile of dirty socks. And worst of all, the toilet is now seeping water around its base. What to do?
Under the toilet, where its drain meets the pipe that goes to the sewer, there lives a yellow wax ring. When your roommate tried to find out how many people could stand on the toilet, he damaged this wax ring. Our goal is to replace it.
What you’ll need:
- An open-ended wrench of the correct size, or an adjustable wrench.
- Your roommate, or a strong friend
- One or two Sunday editions of your local newspaper
- A putty knife. Basically a flat piece of metal with a handle. A 2″ blade will do the trick.
- A wax ring for the toilet. Ask for it by name.
Solution: Toilets are heavy. Wake up your roommate and make sure he stays nearby. Better yet, have him spread out the newspaper on the floor.
Turn off the shut-off valve at the base of the toilet by cranking it all the way clockwise. Hand-tight should be plenty. Next, flush. Having successfully shut off the water, the cistern will remain empty, making the toilet lighter. Next, flip open or unscrew the two little plastic caps on either side of the toilet’s floor. Grab your wrench and loosen both of the nuts that hold the toilet in place.
Now, get your roommate to help you lift the toilet off the floor and onto the newspaper. Beneath the toilet is a disgusting, malformed, yellow wax ring. Do your best to scrape up all the wax with your putty knife, wiping the remains on the newspaper.
Put the new wax ring in place, centered over the hole in the floor. Push it down a bit, so that it stays centered when you put the toilet back on it.
The rest is cake. With your roommate, lower the toilet straight down onto the bolts that hold it in place, trying not to slide it around too much. Screw and cap the nuts on the floor, and you’re done!
Tip of the Week: Patience
Plumbing problems come in many shapes and sizes. Often the problem is obvious, or just beneath the surface. Fixing things yourself is a great confidence builder, and many landlords will lower your rent if you do a good job taking care of your place. That said, use your best judgment when deciding whether to tackle it yourself or leave it to the professionals. Old pipes can be hard to loosen, and it’s easy to over-tighten and damage plumbing fixtures. Spending a little money on a plumber can save you hours of frustration or — even worse — expensive water damage caused by forcing a pipe or forgetting to turn off the water before going to work. If you do it yourself, take your time, and don’t force anything.
Oh, and you earn extra points for putting all her stuff back under the sink when you’re done!