How to Diagnose Plumbing Problems

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The most common plumbing problems are pipe leaks, faucet drips and drain clogs. These are the easiest plumbing issues to repair, but some of them could be masking larger problems that would require more than the basic knowledge, tools and ability to correct. For these advanced problems, plumbing professionals might be needed to handle complicated repairs.

Things You'll Need

  • Pipe wrenches
  • Adjustable wrenches
  • Plumbers putty
  • Pipe sections and nuts
  • Pliers
  • Screwdrivers
  • Washers
  • O-rings
  • Vinegar
  • Toothpick
  • Understand the home's water supply system. Trace the visible hot and cold water pipes throughout your home. Start in the basement, near the main water shutoff, where pipes usually are exposed. Take into account pipes connected to the burner and hot water heater and follow them as far as possible to each of the fixtures (sinks, toilets and baths/showers) in the home. With the burner or water heater running, lightly touch pipes to determine which are pushing hot water and which are pushing cold water through the system. Attach small tags that you can label "hot" and "cold" to the pipes for quick identification. Besides the main water shutoff, locate shutoff valves at the water heater, boiler and individual fixtures. Isolate water flow by shutting one valve at a time and determining which fixtures are affected. Map the piping system on paper if it will help you understand the plumbing structure. Keep the diagram for future reference.

  • Trace the waste flow system. These pipes are separate from the water supply lines and carry used water and waste to the municipal sewage system, septic tank or cesspool. Depending on the size of the home, all drains lead into one or two large drainage pipes that usually are located in the basement, laundry room or garage. These pipes are easy to identify. They have a wide circumference and they contain a visible trap that can be opened to remove clogs in the system. Waste always travels downward, so opening a trap and cleaning a clog below the problem area usually clears blockage in a line. If drainage is not completely blocked but just sluggish, the problem needs to be tackled from above--cleaning debris that is lodged in the main drainage pipe stack vent accessed from the roof.

  • Trace a leak to its source. Leaks can occur in pipes that extend from walls to fixtures. Tighten visible nuts with a wrench and use plumbers putty around the joints. If water continues to leak, the problem could be failure of a section of pipe. It will need to be replaced. If water is leaking to the floor below, the problem could be failure of a pipe or connection within the wall.

  • Troubleshoot toilet problems. A toilet tank has many moving parts, and it can take some time to diagnose the problem. If water runs continuously, adjust the lift wires or chain with pliers so the tank ball drops straight into the valve seat. If water spills into the overflow tube, bend the float arm down slightly. If water runs after flushing, bend the float arm upward or replace it if it is corroded. If the tank leaks, use a wrench to tighten connections to the water supply line.

  • Stop sink drips. Compression faucets have a stem that allows water to flow when you turn the handle. Washerless faucets rely on the movement of a handle to turn water on and off. Problems in both can be attributed to failed valves, O-rings, washers and other moving parts. Remove protective caps with a flat head screwdriver and begin to remove the mechanism, which usually is held together with screws that require a Phillips head screwdriver.

  • Fix the shower head. Slow water flow does not mean the head needs to be replaced. Sometimes minerals from the water clog the holes and restrict water flow. Unscrew the head and let it soak in vinegar. Use a toothpick to unblock clogged holes. For hand-held shower heads, check the tubing for holes and slits. Replace the entire unit instead of trying to repair the hose.

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