For easy reference here are some tips for dealing with some common plumbing problems. Most of these cause great inconvenience and it is useful to be able to deal with them yourself as soon as they occur.
The usual cause of a dripping tap is a washer that needs replacing. The method of taking the tap apart depends whether you have old-fashioned pillar taps or the newer shroud-headed type. With pillar taps, you must first turn off the water supply to the tap. Then unscrew the cover and you will see the headgear nut. Holding the spout of the tap, undo the headgear nut with a spanner. You will now be able to lift out the headgear, revealing the jumper, the brass component on which the washer is fitted. To remove the old washer you will either have to undo a small screw on the end of the jumper or prise the washer free. If you cannot take the washer off, you should replace the entire jumper unit. Otherwise replace the washer, reassemble the tap, and turn on the water supply. Leave the tap slightly open when turning on the water. This will help eliminate any air pockets in the pipes.
With a modern shrouded-head tap, the procedure is the same, except that the method of taking the tap apart is slightly different. You either remove the cap on the top of the shrouded-head and undo the screw beneath, or undo a screw at the side of the head.
When replacing an old or broken tap with a new one, it is important to remember the correct sequence of fittings and washers that you attach to the tap when you connect it to the supply.
Above the surface of the sink or basin should be a ring of non-setting mastic (nearest the top of the tap) and a plastic washer. When these have been fitted, the tap can be inserted through the hole in the sink. Next a fibre washer is fitted to the tail of the tap, followed by the back nut. A tap connector can then be screwed on to the tail and connected to the supply pipe. For a good joint, wrap PTFE tape around the tail before fitting the connector.
Frost, corrosion, or a hole caused by an accident such as nailing through a pipe can all cause leaks. If you find a leak, turn off the water supply immediately and drain the pipe. Quickly check whether any electrical appliances or wiring have been affected by the leak. If this has happened, disconnect the relevant appliances or turn off the power supply and call in a qualified electrician.
As a temporary repair, use one of the commercially available kits. These consist either of a plastic putty that you mix with a hardener and force into the hole or of a waterproof adhesive tape that is wound round the affected length of pipe. Another alternative is a rubber-lined pipe clamp that is held together by a nut and bolt.
None of these solutions provides a lasting repair, however. For this, you need to cut out the length of pipe in which the leak has occurred and replace it with a new piece.
If water will not drain away, first check the outlet itself is not blocked. If it is clear, the most likely place for a blockage is in the trap directly under the sink. There are three main types of trap: the old S-bend type, and the modern P-trap and bottle trap. The S-bend type is usually made of lead and has a small screw at the bottom which you can undo to remove any debris. Take this off with a spanner and push a length of wire up
both sides of the trap and pull out any debris. Keep a bucket under the trap.
With a modern P-trap or a bottle trap, you can unscrew and remove the whole trap. This allows you to clean it out under a tap.
If the trap is not blocked, use the length of wire to probe along the outlet pipe and pull out any debris that has collected there. If this fails, the blockage must be in the drainage system outside the house.
Thaw a frozen pipe as soon as possible after you discover it — the longer it is left frozen, the more likely it is to result in a burst. If it has already burst, turn off the water supply before attempting to thaw the pipe.
The best way to thaw a frozen pipe is to use a hot-air paint stripper. A hairdrier provides a reasonable alternative, although it does not generate as much heat and therefore will take longer. Do not use a blowtorch — the fire risk is much too great.
Unblocking a WC is best done by a professional with specialist equipment, but if you prefer to tackle it yourself, the method depends on exactly where the blockage is sited. Look under the outside drain inspection cover. If it is full, the obstruction is in the exterior drains and you will have to clear them using rods. If it is empty, the problem is between the pan and the chamber.
You may be able to shift the obstruction by pushing wire down the pan. If this does not work, try plunging. The best way to do this is to use a mop with a plastic bag tied to the head. As you plunge the pan, get someone to stand at the inspection chamber and intercept anything lodged in the pan, so that it does not escape into the drainage system and cause another blockage farther away from the house.
If this method does not rectify the problem, call in a professional plumber.