The most common problems (especially in older houses) are: firstly, that there isn’t a cold-water storage tank because the local Water Board didn’t require one; secondly, that you don’t have a hot-water cylinder because there is gas or electric instantaneous water heating directly off the rising main. If you are moving into a new house you may find instead of a cold-water storage tank in the loft, a ‘plumbing unit’ with hot and cold water storage combined in a cupboard on the top floor.
Basic knowledge of the system
Somewhere in the pavement near the front gate you will find the Water Board’s stopcock which, they stress, is theirs — not yours. From this stopcock the water supply for your house is laid, preferably in a clay drain below the garden path up to the house. Sometimes there is a stopcock just inside your garden. Immediately inside the house is the main stopcock, which is yours and not theirs. From this stopcock a ‘rising main’, as it is termed, branches off to supply the kitchen sink with drinking water, to the cold-water storage tank in the loft, the feed and expansion tank for the central heating and in some cases to the washing machine. All these branches should have stopcocks next to the appliances like the stopcock you will find below the kitchen sink.
Water flowing into the storage tank is governed by the ‘ball-cock’ which is simply an airtight ball made of copper or nowadays plastic, that sits on the water’s surface in the tank and is held in position with a lever arm which, as the tank fills, forces a stopper into the rising main. Just in case the ball springs a leak or the level arm jams, an overflow pipe is fitted to the tank above the normal water level. If you are up in the roof it’s always fun to hold the ballcock down and make the tank overflow. Just to see it work — or not.
The ‘down services’, as they are termed by plumbers, are the pipework runs from the tank to the kitchen and bathroom. There are generally two pipes leaving the base of the cold-water storage tank: one to supply cold water to the hot-water cylinder and one to supply cold water to the bathroom and WC. The hot-water cylinder has a pipe popping out of the top which goes back to the cold-water storage tank so that, should the water in the hot-water cylinder get too hot, it has room to expand. Off this expansion pipe the hot water ‘down services’ are run to the bathroom and kitchen sink. You may find ‘gate valves’ on the down services next to the cod-water storage tank and the hot-water cylinder. A ‘gate valve’ has a red wheel top and does the same thing basically as a stopcock.
As you well know, you can’t be everywhere at once, so to avoid flooding the house, know this method, which should also avoid airlocks. Know this method backwards and you’ll also know how to get turned off — in emergencies, going away on holidays or just for something to do at weekends.
- Turn off all sink and basin taps.
- Turn off all stopcocks and the cold-water storage tank (CWS) stopvalve including the feed and expansion tank for the central heating system — if you’ve got one. Turn on main stopcock.
- Turn on stopcocks and let CWS cistern fill up.
- Turn on CWS cistern stopvalve.
- Go round and try all taps, WC cistern.
If the water’s been off for a while this procedure will generate a lot of gurgling, spluttering and coughing, but don’t worry — it’s only air being pushed out of the pipework by the water. Remember never to force a stopcock without being sure that you are going in the correct direction: clockwise for off and anti-clockwise for on. Always turn a stopcock back half a turn from being completely off or on, to avoid the stopcock jamming. If no water is coming past the Water Board’s stopcock don’t attempt to turn it on yourself. Ring the Water Board. You’ll find them on your doorstep before you’ve drunk your tea (out of a flask).
If you’ve turned on and can’t get water out of the bathroom tap or kitchen hot tap, for example, it’s probably an airlock — air trapped somewhere in the pipework and blocking the water flow. You should be able to budge this by connecting the offending tap to the kitchen sink cold tap with a garden hose suitably secured with a hose lock. Turn the offending tap on. Turn on the kitchen cold tap and the mains pressure should release the air locked in the pipe.
Don’t confuse air locks with ‘water starving’, which is the term used when one tap reduces the flow in another when both are turned on, and is caused by bad plumbing design. For instance when someone is running a bath there may only be a trickle of hot water in the kitchen sink. Normal plumbing systems have ¾ ” down pipes serving the bath from both the cold-water storage tank and hot-water cylinder, with ½” branches to sinks, basins and WC cisterns. Your plumber may have saved a bob or two — have a look.