Plumb crazy

When you work at home, nothing is more terrifying than the tick-tock of a dripping pipe or the squish of wet carpet.

Plumbing problems are every homeowner's nightmare, but they're particularly horrible for work-at-home types because we're expected to fix them. After all, we're here all day. We've got tools. How difficult can a repair be?

A case in point: Recently, one of our toilet tanks developed a drip. I figured I'd put in a new flush valve, seal the fittings tight and -- voila! -- the problem would be solved.

Two hitches with this plan. One, the water line on this particular toilet was made of some inflexible substance -- I'm guessing stone -- so it wouldn't go back where it belonged. And, two, the water line was in a corner, leaving me approximately six microns of space between toilet and wall in which to work.

I did my best, suffering barked knuckles and rug-burned knees and a storm of frustration in the process, but I couldn't make the leak go away. I ended up calling a professional to finish the job.

(An aside: Now, when I order my sons out of the room because I'm watching a video with bad language, they say, "We heard all those words the day you tried to fix the toilet.")

So, as a service to all you who work at home, we now offer an Idiot's Guide to Plumbing. With these basic instructions, you, too, will be able to tackle any plumbing job. And if you fail, you, too, can call in an expert. Just make sure they don't charge extra for laughing at your attempt.


Maybe it's simple wear-and-tear, but toilets seem to be the leading cause of plumbing headaches. Toilets are simple. Water comes in through a pipe, stores in the tank and, when you push the lever, flows into the bowl to push what's already there into the sewer pipes. But if any one of those steps develops a leak or ceases to function, you've got big trouble.

Take a moment right now, while the toilet is working fine, to familiarize yourself with how it works. Lift off the top of the toilet tank and look inside. The first thing you'll notice is that it is exceedingly nasty in there. But don't replace the lid yet. Study the various gizmos inside. Flush the toilet so you can see how it operates.

The tall device where the water enters is called the flush valve. The rubber doodad at the bottom of the tank is called the flapper, and it is connected to the gatsby. When you push the flush handle, the gatsby lifts the flapper and -- faster than you can say F. Scott Fitzgerald -- water flows into the bowl. See how simple?

Attached to the flush valve is the float, a large, bladder-like device on a stick. The float keeps the tank from overflowing. You can adjust the water level by bending the stick. When the stick snaps in two, it's time to make your ninth visit to the hardware store.


Sinks are even simpler than toilets, until you try to fix one. Inside the faucet handles are tiny parts called seats and springs. These keep the water from spraying out around the handles. If the faucet develops a leak, replace them. If the faucet still leaks, replace them again. Once you've said enough bad words, call a plumber.


Many homeowners save on their water bills by replacing their showers heads with more efficient models. Shower heads supposedly screw on and off with ease, but here's a guarantee -- they'll leak when you're done. Better to stick with your existing shower head until the flow is reduced to a trickle. It might take hours to get a decent shower, but better that than a nervous breakdown.


Sewer problems are not for amateurs. If you've developed a severe clog in your sewer line or a sudden sinkhole in your yard, the best step would be to sell the house immediately.

Now that you've been fully briefed, you're ready to tackle any emergency. But keep the plumber's phone number handy, just in case. It helps if you can find one who doesn't laugh much.

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