Home Plumbing What to Know About Plumbing

What to Know About Plumbing

by Michael Blount

Plumbing is an essential part of any home, and understanding its basics can help you save money and prevent costly repairs. Here are some things you should know about plumbing:

How Plumbing Works

Plumbing follows the basic laws of nature, such as gravity, pressure, and water seeking its own level. The plumbing system in your home is composed of two separate subsystems: one brings freshwater in, and the other takes wastewater out.

The water that comes into your home is under pressure, and it enters your home under enough pressure to allow it to travel upstairs, around corners, or wherever else it’s needed. As water comes into your home, it passes through a meter that registers the amount you use. The main water shut-off valve is typically located close to the meter, and in a plumbing emergency, it’s vital that you quickly close the main shutoff valve.

In addition to the primary components of your plumbing system, it’s essential to maintain and understand the smaller parts, such as shower faucet parts. These parts play a crucial role in ensuring the proper flow and temperature of water in your shower. Regular maintenance and timely replacement of these parts can help you avoid potential plumbing issues and enjoy a comfortable showering experience.

Plumbing Basics

House plumbing consists of two systems: the water supply system and the drain-water vent system (DWV).

The water supply system is a system of pipes that brings fresh water into the home, and the system is highly dependent on pressure. Water in these pipes comes from one of two sources: city water or wells.

The DWV system is a system of pipes that removes wastewater from the home and vents sewer gases to the outside. The DWV system relies on gravity to move waste downward and outward. Vents and traps allow gases to escape while keeping sewer gases from entering the home.

Water Supply System

The water supply system brings water into the home for uses like drinking, washing, and flushing. It includes components like shutoff valves, supply lines, pipes, and fixtures.

Water enters the home through a main water line. This fresh water line is usually buried underground and runs from the municipal water main or a private well into the house.

At the point where the main line enters the home, there is typically a shutoff valve. This allows you to turn off the water to the entire house in an emergency. Additional shutoff valves throughout the system allow you to isolate parts of the plumbing system.

The main water supply line branches off into hot and cold supply lines that run throughout the house. Faucets, toilets, appliances, and other fixtures are connected to the hot and cold water lines.

Water pressure moves the water through the supply pipes and to the fixtures. Most homes operate with water pressure between 45 and 80 psi. If the pressure is too low, fixtures won’t function properly. Too much pressure can put strain on pipes and cause leaks.

Drain-Waste-Vent System

The DWV system removes wastewater and sewer gases from the home. It consists of:

  • Drain pipes that use gravity to drain wastewater from fixtures into the sewer or septic system
  • Vent pipes that allow sewer gases to escape outside
  • Traps that block gases from entering while allowing waste to pass

Drain pipes slope downward at around 1/4 inch per foot to facilitate gravity drainage. Main drain lines connect to the municipal sewer line or septic tank.

Vent pipes connect to drain pipes and rise up through the roof, allowing gases to vent outside. This prevents pressure buildup and also protects trap seals.

Traps are u-shaped pipes below fixtures that hold water to block sewer gases. The trap seal prevents gases from entering the home while allowing waste to pass through. A trap primer adds water if the trap seal evaporates.

Common Plumbing Problems

Plumbing problems can be frustrating and costly. Here are some common plumbing problems and how to diagnose them:

1. Shower Leak

A shower can leak from multiple locations, including the showerhead, tub spout, or valves. Check where exactly the water is coming from.

Why it’s happening: Debris, such as hair, food, grease, and toothpaste, is getting caught in drain pipes and restricting the flow. Sediment buildup or cracks in the shower arm or head can also cause leaks.

Solutions: Remove debris from the drain. Replace washers, seals, and gaskets. Replace fixture if cracked.

2. Clogged Drain

A clogged drain causes slow drainage or no drainage at all. You’ll notice standing water in sinks, tubs, or showers.

Why it’s happening: Hair, grease, soap residue, and other debris is blocking the drain. Roots or a collapsed pipe could also cause major clogs.

Solutions: Try a plunger, drain snake, or chemical drain opener. For major clogs, you may need professional drain cleaning or pipe repair.

3. Low Water Pressure

With low water pressure, water flow from fixtures is weaker than normal. This makes tasks like showering frustrating.

Why it’s happening: Partially closed supply valves, clogged water filters, mineral deposits in pipes, or high demand can restrict flow.

Solutions: Check and open all supply valves. Change water filters. Clean aerators. Inspect pipes for blockages.

4. Loss of Hot Water

No hot water means the hot water heater or delivery system is malfunctioning. You’ll get only cold water when faucets are turned on.

Why it’s happening: Issues with the water heater like a broken heating element or thermostat cause loss of hot water. Leaks in hot water pipes also lead to cold water.

Solutions: Reset water heater breaker. Check heating elements, thermostats, and pipes. Replace water heater if needed.

5. Running Toilet

A constantly running toilet wastes large amounts of water. You’ll hear water flowing into the toilet bowl non-stop.

Why it’s happening: Debris, minerals, or a damaged flapper valve prevent the toilet tank from sealing and shutting off the water flow.

Solutions: Clean debris from the flapper seal. Replace flapper valve. Make any needed toilet repairs.

Plumbing Tools and Equipment

Having the right tools and equipment can make plumbing repairs easier and more efficient. Here are some essential plumbing tools and equipment:

  • Pipe wrench – For grasping and turning pipes. Useful for assembling and disassembling plumbing.
  • Drain auger (snake) – A flexible cable tool used to clear clogs deep in drain and sewer pipes.
  • Closet auger – Like a drain snake but specifically designed for toilet bowls and traps.
  • Pipe cutter – Cuts plastic and copper pipes neatly and precisely. Essential for installing new plumbing.
  • Hacksaw – For cutting pipes in confined spaces a pipe cutter won’t fit.
  • Basin wrench – Angled wrench that tightens nuts behind sinks and toilets.
  • Strap wrench – Adjustable wrench that grips rounded surfaces like pipe fittings.
  • Safety goggles and gloves – Protect your eyes and hands from chemicals and debris.
  • Plunger – Uses suction to unclog drains. Effective on sink, tub, and toilet clogs.

Having these basic tools on hand will save you money on repairs and make your DIY projects go smoother. Invest in quality tools that will last, and learn how to use them properly.

Dos and Don’ts of Plumbing

Knowing some basic dos and don’ts of plumbing can help you prevent costly repairs and keep your plumbing system in good condition. Here are some things you should and shouldn’t do:


  • Do know where your main water shut-off valve is located. This allows you to quickly shut off water in an emergency.
  • Do know how to turn off the water supply to individual fixtures. Shutoff valves under sinks and behind toilets and appliances control flow.
  • Do use a plunger to clear clogs in sinks, toilets, and showers. A few forceful plunges can dislodge minor clogs.
  • Do use drain strainers to catch hair, food, and other debris before it goes down the drain.


  • Don’t pour grease, oil, or coffee grounds down the drain. These can build up and cause major clogs.
  • Don’t use chemical drain cleaners. They can damage pipes and aren’t great for the environment.
  • Don’t flush anything other than toilet paper. Items like wipes and feminine products clog pipes.
  • Don’t ignore leaks. Even small leaks become big problems if left unaddressed.

Following these basic dos and don’ts will help you avoid many common plumbing headaches. Know the location of your shutoff valves, avoid clog-causing debris, and never ignore a leak or strange gurgling sound. A bit of plumbing vigilance goes a long way.

Plumbing Maintenance Tips

Proper plumbing maintenance keeps your system running smoothly, prevents damage, and saves you money in the long run. Here are some handy plumbing maintenance tips:

Inspect exposed pipes periodically. Look for leaks, corrosion and cracks which can cause major issues. Tighten fittings or replace compromised pipes.

Check supply valves. Make sure all shutoff valves fully open and close properly so you can isolate parts of the system in an emergency.

Flush hot water heater annually. Draining sediment prolongs the life of your water heater and optimizes heating efficiency.

Clean faucet aerators seasonally. Remove built-up sediment to improve water pressure and conservation.

Pour water in seldom-used drains monthly. Refill trap seals to keep sewer gases from entering the home.

Clean gutters and downspouts.Ensure proper drainage around the home to prevent water damage to foundations.

Insulate pipes in cold climates. Prevent them from freezing and bursting in winter.

Clear debris from toilet rim intakes. This prevents flushing problems and running toilets.

Replace rubber washers and gaskets. Fixing leaks quickly prevents scale buildup and corrosion damage.

With some simple periodic maintenance, you can keep all your plumbing fixtures and supply lines working properly and efficiently.

Signs You Need a Professional Plumber

While DIYers can handle some plumbing repairs, there are times when calling a professional plumber is crucial. Here are some signs you need to hire a plumber:

  • Major leaks – Large leaks or multiple leaks indicating a systemic issue require an expert to identify and resolve the root cause.
  • No hot water – Lack of hot water across your entire home usually means the water heater needs replacement or complex repairs.
  • Sewer backups – Repeated backups or overflows indicate sewer line blockages you can’t clear yourself.
  • Odd smells or sounds – Strange odors and noises from drains or pipes could signify cracked pipes or other serious issues.
  • Low water pressure – Pressure drops often stem from problems only a plumber has the tools to diagnose.
  • Faulty pipes or fittings – Old, corroded pipes or improperly fitted pipes should be replaced by a professional.
  • Major clogs – A drain snake isn’t working and you suspect the clog is very deep in the pipes.
  • New fixture installation – With tricky venting and supply line requirements, most new sinks and toilets are best left to experts.

Many plumbing situations present safety risks and can get worse if not properly handled. When in doubt, calling a professional plumber can save you money and prevent disasters.

Questions to Ask a Plumber Before Hiring

When you need to hire a plumber, make sure to ask these key questions first:

  • Are you licensed and insured?
  • What are your rates and do you charge by the job or hour?
  • What is your after-hours or emergency fee?
  • Do you offer any guarantees or warranties on work and parts?
  • Can you provide an estimate upfront?
  • What methods and tools do you use?
  • How soon can you start and complete the job?
  • Do you have references from past clients I can contact?
  • Do you specialize in residential, commercial, or both?
  • Will you handle obtaining any permits needed?

The plumber’s responses will help determine if they are qualified, reputable, fairly priced, and a good match for your plumbing needs.

DIY Plumbing Repairs to Try

Before calling a plumber, try tackling these minor plumbing fixes yourself:

Clogged sink or tub – Use a plunger or hand snake to clear hair and soap clogs. Remove and clean the stopper/drain assembly if needed.

Dripping faucet – Replace old rubber washers and O-rings to stop leaks. Turning off water before repairs helps.

Running toilet – Clean or replace the flapper if it’s misaligned, warped or worn. Adjusting the float helps too.

Noisy pipes – Secure pipes to studs to reduce vibrations. Adjust water pressure if pipes hammer when water is turned off.

Slow draining sinks – Remove and clean the drain stopper, pipe and p-trap. Use a Zip-It tool to extract hair.

Leaky pipes – Check pipe fittings for looseness. Tighten slipping joints with pipe clamps or tape. Insulate pipes to prevent condensation drips.

With a little DIY troubleshooting, you can fix many basic plumbing issues yourself quickly and inexpensively. Know when to call a pro for more complex repairs.

How to Conserve Water

With water scarcity becoming an increasing concern worldwide, it’s important to conserve this precious resource. Here are some tips to use water wisely in your home:

  • Take shorter showers – Reducing shower time from 10 minutes to 5 can save 12.5 gallons per shower
  • Turn off faucets while brushing teeth or shaving – This can save over 500 gallons per month
  • Upgrade to low-flow faucets and showerheads – Low-flow hardware restricts water flow while maintaining pressure
  • Fix leaks promptly – A little drip can waste 20 gallons of water per day, a large leak up to 200 gallons
  • Wash only full loads of laundry – Doing one extra load per week wastes up to 25 gallons of water
  • Install high-efficiency toilets – Newer low-flow toilets use just 1.28 gallons per flush versus older 3.5 gallon models
  • Cover pools when not in use – This prevents evaporation, saving hundreds of gallons of water per month
  • Use mulch around plants and shrubs – Mulch minimizes evaporation and reduces the need for watering
  • Choose drought-tolerant plants – These plants require less water once established
  • Adjust sprinklers to avoid overspray – Ensure sprinklers water only your lawn or garden, not the sidewalk or street.

With smart planning and simple daily changes, you can drastically cut your household’s water usage. Conserving water will save you money while preserving global water resources.

Signs You Have Hard Water

Hard water contains high levels of minerals like calcium and magnesium, which can cause plumbing and appliance issues. Signs you may have hard water include:

  • Chalky mineral deposits on dishes
  • Dingy looking clothes
  • Stiff hair and skin after bathing
  • Limescale buildup on faucets and showerheads
  • White mineral stains on sinks and tubs
  • Scale accumulation in water heaters, reducing efficiency
  • Soap and detergent not lathering or rinsing off easily
  • Cloudy ice cubes
  • Increased use of cleaning products
  • Clogged pipes and fixtures due to scale
  • Spots on dishes even after washing

The extent of hard water issues depends on the concentration of minerals. A water test measures hardness on the grains per gallon (gpg) scale. Knowing your water’s gpg level helps determine the best solutions.

How to Clean Plumbing Fixtures

Regular cleaning keeps your plumbing fixtures looking and working like new. Follow these steps:

Faucets – Remove mineral deposits with vinegar. Scrub away grime using baking soda. Rinse and dry completely.

Sinks – Use a gentle cleanser and soft sponge on porcelain sinks. Avoid abrasive products. Rinse food debris from stainless steel.

Showers – Spray with bathroom cleaner and let sit before scrubbing with a nylon brush. Rinse thoroughly.

Bathtubs – Apply bathroom spray cleaner or baking soda. Let sit before scrubbing with a soft brush.

Toilets – Pour bleach cleaner into the bowl. Let soak before scrubbing the bowl and underside of the rim with a toilet brush.

Drains – Pour baking soda down the drain followed by vinegar. Let fizz and bubble for 5-10 minutes then rinse with hot water.

Tiles – Mix equal parts warm water and white vinegar and wipe down shower tiles and grout.

Proper tools, non-abrasive cleaners and a bit of elbow grease will keep your bathroom and kitchen fixtures sparkling.

How to Prevent Pipe Bursts in Winter

Frozen and bursting pipes can cause costly water damage. Here are tips to prevent this in winter:

  • Insulate pipes in crawl spaces, attics, basements and garages using pre-slit foam tubing
  • Seal air leaks around pipes with caulk or insulating foam sealant
  • Disconnect and drain garden hoses so no water remains in the hose
  • Wrap exterior hose bibs and spigots with insulated covers
  • During extreme cold snaps, keep cabinet doors open to allow warm air to reach pipes
  • Allow faucets to drip during sub-zero temperatures to avoid freezing
  • Keep the thermostat set to at least 55°F to prevent freezing indoor pipes
  • Close foundation vents in the crawl space to protect pipes from freezing winds
  • Learn how to shut off your home’s water supply

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