Again, do not attempt to meddle with your plumbing unless you feel confident in what you are doing. Plumbers often complain that householders only make things worse by initially trying to cure a fault themselves.
In an emergency such as a burst pipe, turn the mains stopcock clockwise to cut off the water before carrying out repairs. If the U-bend beneath the sink becomes seriously blocked, you may need to empty the trap. Place a screwdriver or a spanner between the two lugs on the plug at the bottom of the U-bend and twist anti-clockwise. However, modern plastic bottle traps unscrew by hand. Place a bucket underneath to catch water and debris.
Cleaning a blocked sink
First try boiling water plus a small bowl of washing soda crystals; solidified grease is a common cause of sink blocks, and this may do the trick. Or you can buy branded drain-cleaning liquids from a hardware store. A rubber plunger, which you can buy from a hardware store, is a good standby. Get one now: don’t wait for your sink to be blocked on a Sunday morning! Use a wet dishcloth to block the overflow of the sink; if you have double sinks, put the plug in the other sink and also block its waste with a damp cloth.
Place the plunger over the sink outlet and add water to cover the plunger cap. Press the plunger up and down vigorously, and listen for a gurgling noise to indicate that the blockage has freed itself. A new, and very effective, gadget for unblocking sinks is like a little bicycle pump, and shoots a powerful jet of water down the drain; but it is more expensive.
If the plunger method fails, you must empty the trap, a U-shaped piece of piping underneath the sink. First put a bucket or bowl in position to catch the dirty water. Then place a wooden batten between the two sections of the U-bend to hold them steady. Use a screwdriver or spanner placed between the two lugs on the plug at the bottom of the U to twist it anticlockwise and open. If the plug has a six-sided bolt head, use a spanner or pliers to undo it. Modern plastic plumbing can be unscrewed by hand. Extract the blockage with tweezers, scissors, flexible curtain wire, or a piece of wire bent to make a hook at the end. When the U-bend is clear, screw the plug back in again.
Clearing a blocked lavatory
You may be able to shift minor blockages with a long piece of springy wire pushed up and around the U-bend. Otherwise use a special plunger fitted with a metal disc. Push this as far as you can down inside the pan, and work it up and down. It may take some time to clear the blockage, so persevere.
Stopping a cistern overflow. Remove top of cistern, and tie the lever arm which operates the ball valve to a piece of wood placed across the top of the open cistern. A faulty ball valve is often the cause of the overflow, and if this is the problem, unscrew the ball from the lever arm, take it to a plumbers’ merchant and buy a replacement of the same type.
Sometimes, it is simply the level of the ball float that needs adjusting, and this can be done by bending the lever or arm slightly downwards.
Clearing blocked drains
If the blockage is at all serious, it is wisest to call your plumber or drain clearance specialists, at the outset.
A gulley at ground level collects rainwater from downpipes, and waste water from sinks, baths and basins. From this gulley, a pipe with a bent section called a ‘trap’ leads to your first manhole. But lavatories are connected to this manhole directly through an underground pipe.
If water is not running away through the gulley, first remove the grating over the drain and see if you can clear away any debris, but be careful because you could push obstructions farther into the drain where they may block the trap. The trap itself may need clearing, and you can try using a spoon tied on to the end of a stick for this.
If the water continues to overflow you can try lifting the manhole cover, but be careful because it will be heavy; you may need to scrape away earth from around its edges and use a lever to lift it safely; lift from one side. You will see two pipes coming into the chamber, one from the gulley and one from the lavatory. There will also be an outlet pipe leading to another manhole.
If the chamber is clear of water, you can assume that the blockage is in the pipe leading from the gulley, and you can try using a garden hose with as strong a jet of water as possible to flush out the blockage. It is also possible to hire sets of drain rods which screw together to make a long thin probe with a hook or brush at the end. Push them down the drain and turn them with a clockwise action: if you turn them anti-clockwise they will unscrew and add themselves to the blockage! It is not a good idea to try and improvize with any other tools.
If the manhole chamber is full of water, the problem lies somewhere along the length of pipe that connects the chamber with the next manhole. Again, you can try flushing out the blockage with a garden hose, or using drain rods.
Changing a tap washer
Taps drip because the ring-like washer is no longer making a watertight seal inside the tap. Buy a black synthetic washer, which will be suitable for hot or cold taps. The most common sizes are I cm and 1.5 cm , and you should keep a couple of spares in both sizes. But large bath taps may need a 2.5 cm washer.
Before you proceed any further, you must turn off the water supply to the tap. For the kitchen tap, turn off the mains stopcock which may be under the sink, or in the cellar if you have a large old house. For other cold taps, there should be a stopcock to turn off the supply near the cold water cistern in the roof. A stopcock for the hot water tap will be near the hot water cylinder, possibly in the airing cupboard. Turn off any heaters or 160 boilers that might burn out without a water supply. Open the tap until all water has run out. Then put the plug in the basin to safeguard against any tiny parts falling down the drain.
Unscrew the little grub screw in the side of the handle and then, using an adjustable spanner over a rag, unscrew the domed cover plate below the tap handle. Modern taps may have handle and cover all in one piece, with a small screw holding them on at the top or the side. Some modern handle/covers simply pull off.
When you have removed the tap handle/cover, use a small spanner or adjustable pliers to undo the large hexagonal nut inside. This will enable you to lift free the inside of the tap, called the ‘head gear’. Pull the bottom part – a brass stem called the jumper’ – away from the top part and you will find the washer on the bottom part, held in place by a retaining nut which can be undone with a spanner. Remove all the bits of old washer, and fit a new one of the same size. Re-assemble the tap and open the stopcock.
Supataps are a modern design which can be rewashered without turning off the water supply. The handle and nozzle are in one piece, pointing down into the sink.
To change the washer on a Supatap, loosen the locking nut above the nozzle with a spanner. Then hold the nut and unscrew the whole nozzle anti-clockwise. Any water coming out will stop as soon as you remove the nozzle. Now turn the nozzle upside down, and gently knock it up and down on a flat surface. The washer and its mounting will fall out attached to the finned anti-splash device. Prise out the combined jumper and washer and fit a new Supatap washer, then reassemble tap.
To cure a dribbling tap: in this case there is no need to turn off the water supply. Open the tap fully and remove the cover of the tap to expose the gland nut that holds the headgear onto the body of the tap. Tighten this gland nut a little bit, using an adjustable spanner. Now open and close the tap a little, to see that it works easily, and slightly loosen the gland nut if it seems too stiff. Then re-assemble the tap.