drainsAre chemical drain cleaners safe and effective?

When drains clog, your first impulse may be to purchase a chemical drain cleaner. For some blockages these cleaners will work; however, other mechanical procedures will usually clear the clog more completely and safely.

If you decide to use a chemical drain opener, make sure to read and follow the directions on the bottle. These cleaners contain harsh chemicals, so wear goggles and rubber gloves to protect your eyes and skin. Also make sure that drain cleaner is safe for your septic system by reading the warnings on the back. Some cleaners contain chemicals that can disrupt the bacterial action of your septic system. After following the directions on the bottle, remember to run plenty of water to flush the chemicals out of your pipes.

Where is the clog?
When faced with a clogged drain, determine where the clog is. If only one sink, shower, bath, or toilet in the house is backing up, your task should be fairly simple since the clog is probably confined to the trap of that fixture. If more than one fixture is clogging up, the blockage will usually be in the main drain line. Unclogging the main drain is a little more difficult, but not impossible.

Unclogging a drain
One home remedy
One simple method for clearing small clogs is to use a tried-and-true combination of baking soda and vinegar. Empty one-half cup baking soda down the drain, followed by one-half cup white vinegar. Cover the drain and let mixture stand for a few minutes. Then pour a pot of boiling water down the drain. The baking soda and vinegar dissolve fatty acids, allowing the clog to wash down the drain.

Cleaning strainers or stoppers
Many clogs collect around the strainer or stopper in the sink or bathtub, so to unclog the drain, all you may need to do is remove the strainer and clean it.

  • If there is a strainer over the clogged drain, you should remove any screws holding the strainer in place and then pry the strainer up with the tip of a standard screwdriver. When the strainer is loose, remove and wash away anything that has collected around the strainer. Clean around the top of the drain.
  • Stoppers need to be cleaned on a regular basis since hair tends to twist around their base. First remove the sink stopper. Some stoppers are removed by turning them with your fingers. Others require that you unscrew a pivot rod that is connected to the opener. This rod should be located under the base of the sink. If you need to use pliers to remove the stopper, make sure to pad them so you won't chip the chrome finish. Once the stopper is removed, clean it and wipe out the base of the drain opening.

Using the plunger
One of the most trusted tools for unclogging drains, the plunger, can usually clear the blockage if it's not too far into the main drain. Follow these tips to make plunging more effective.

  • Block the overflow holes, other drains in adjacent sinks, or any other openings by stuffing wet rags into the holes.
  • If water is not already present in the basin, run two to three inches of water over the drain hole. The water helps to force the obstruction out of the way and lets you know when you succeed in pushing the clog out.
  • Apply a thick layer of petroleum jelly to the rim of the plunger. The petroleum jelly helps to create a tighter seal, thereby producing greater suction.
  • Force the plunger handle down powerfully numerous times. After plunging for a minute or two, stop to test whether water will drain from the sink. Try plunging again if the drain is still sluggish. When clear, run hot water to flush away any remaining particles from the clog.

Cleaning the trap
If a plunger won't clear the clog, you'll need to clean the trap under the sink.

  • Make sure you have a bucket in place to catch waste water.
  • Check to see if there is a clean-out plug in the trap; it will be a square or hexagonal plug in the base of the bend. If so, remove the plug and push a straightened coat hanger or bottle brush around the bends of the trap to remove debris.
  • If the trap does not have a clean-out plug, remove the trap by loosening two couplings that hold the trap in place. If you have chrome pipe fittings, you'll need to pad the water pump pliers to protect the finish. Penetrating oil may help to loosen a stubborn trap joint.
  • Hold the trap over the bucket and insert a straightened coat hanger or bottle brush into the trap. Force the hanger or bottle brush around the curves and push out debris.
  • Wash the trap with hot, soapy water.
  • Before reconnecting, check the trap for wear or corrosion. The metal or plastic material may begin to thin and start to leak. If you notice wear, replace the trap. When you reassemble the trap after cleaning, you many need to reseal the threads. Use pipe joint compound or Teflon tape.

Using a sewer snake
If the trap is clear and the drain still clogs, the blockage is further into the sink's drain pipe or the main drain. To clear these drains, you'll need a plumber's auger or, as it is more commonly called, a sewer snake.

  • With the trap removed, insert the snake into the sink drain line and push in until you meet the obstruction.
  • When the tip of the snake is against the clog, try to hook the clog by twisting the snake's handle clockwise.
  • When the debris is solidly hooked, twist and push the clog back and forth until you break up the clog. Flush the pipe with cold water.
  • Once the clog is gone, reassemble the sink's trap. When you reassemble the trap after cleaning, you need to reseal the threads. Use pipe joint compound or Teflon tape. Run water for a few minutes to make sure the clog is completely flushed and the trap is not leaking where it has been reconnected.

Unclogging the main drain
If more than one sink, bathtub, or toilet is clogged, you'll need to clean out the main drain line or the sewer.

  • To clean out the main drain line, find the clean-out plugs located on the large drain pipes. Look for these plugs on the vertical pipes in your basement or crawl space. In some houses these drains may be located in a garage or pantry closet, or there may be access to these plugs outdoors along the foundations of your house. Usually these pipes will be vertical, but occasionally a plug may be located on a horizontal pipe.
  • When you find a steel or plastic cap for the pipes with a square fitting at the top, remove the fitting with a wrench. Be sure to have a waste bucket in place when opening up the drain.
  • Use a plumber's snake to break up any clogs. Make sure to insert the auger in both directions of the pipe. You can also use a powerful stream of water from your garden hose to break up any debris.
  • Replace the steel cap of the drain pipe.

How can I prevent clogged drains?
Okay, you've finally gotten that drain unclogged. You'd prefer never to experience the mess and inconvenience of a clogged drain again. Keeping your drains clear is probably easier than you think. With a few simple precautions, you can prevent your drains from clogging.

Tips for the kitchen sink

  • Pour grease into cans and throw them in the garbage. If you empty grease into the sink, the grease collects along the sides of the pipe and then food particles stick to the pipes, eventually contributing to a clog. Also, too much grease can eventually cause sewer blockages since the bacteria in sewage systems cannot readily break down grease.
  • When you are grinding up food in a disposal, run plenty of cold water to flush food particles down the pipe. Using too little water can contribute to the particles collecting along the sides of the pipe.
  • Don't empty coffee grounds in the sink.
  • Pour a kettle of boiling water down the drain once a week to melt away any fat or grease that may have collected.
  • If your drains clog often, periodically you may want to put 1/2 cup of baking soda and 1/2 cup of white vinegar down the drain. Let this mixture sit for a few minutes with the drain covered. Flush the mixture down with a kettle of boiling water. The baking soda and vinegar mixture should break down fats and keep your drains smelling fresh.

Tips for the bathroom

  • Clean the pop-up stoppers in sinks frequently. Hair often collects here and causes clogs.
  • Never flush heavy paper products down the drain. Excess paper can clog the toilet and/or the whole sewer system.

General Tips

  • Never dump chemicals like paint or paint thinner down the drain. Avoid pouring hot wax or other substances in the drains. Dumping acid into your septic tank system is against the law.
  • Beware of products that claim to maintain a septic system or unclog greasy soil by enzymatically attacking grease. The general consensus is that these products are ineffective and may even be harmful. Some products may use chemicals that kill the bacteria needed to break up solid wastes.
  • If you have your own home septic tank, have a professional inspect it every two to three years. Some regions require septic tank inspection on a regular basis. Check with your local health board about the rules in your community.

Simple toilet repairs
Parts of a Toilet
If you're going to make simple toilet repairs, you'll need to know the parts of the toilet.

  • Ballcock - Water supply valve
  • Float ball - The ball that rides on the surface of the water in the tank. When the tank is full, the float ball shuts off the ballcock.
  • Flush valve - Connection that consists of the flapper and the flush valve seat.
  • Flush valve seat - Brass or plastic sealant ring located at the bottom of the tank.
  • Lift arm - Thin metal rod inside the tank that connects to the flush handle and raises the flapper valve.
  • Main drain - The slanting pipe in the basement or crawl space that carries wastes to a sewer or septic tank; also called building drain.
  • Main water valve - Located on the wall near the floor, this is a knob you twist to turn the water supply on and off.
  • Overflow pipe - Long, hollow tube, fastened to the bottom of the tank.
  • Flapper (also called stopper, tank-ball, seal or disk) - Rubbery plug attached to the lift chain.
  • Tank - Large, oblong ceramic container that's located behind the toilet bowl.
  • Trap - Where waste water goes as it leaves the toilet bowl.

How a Toilet Works
To better understand how your toilet works, take the lid off your tank and flush it a few times. Here's what you'll see.

  • When you push the handle, the chain lifts the flapper valve (also called the stopper or tank ball).
  • Water in the tank flows through the flush valve opening into the toilet bowl.
  • The water from the tank forces waste water in the toilet bowl through the trap and into the main drain.
  • Once the tank is empty, the flapper valve seals the tank and the ballcock refills it.
  • When the tank is full, the float ball shuts off the ballcock.

The Toilet Handles Sticks or Is Loose
Remove the tank cover and clean the mounting nut (located on the inside behind the handle) so the handle will operate smoothly. If there is a buildup of lime around the mounting nut, clean it with a brush dipped in vinegar. Check the chain that connects the lift arm to the flapper valve. There should be about half an inch of slack in the chain. You can adjust the slack by hooking the chain in a different hole in the handle or by removing links with needlenose pliers. If the chain is broken, it must be replaced.

The Toilet Won't Flush At All
Check the handle, lift arm, chain, flapper valve, and the connections between each one of the parts to make sure all are functioning. The handle may be too loose or tight; the lift arm may be bent or broken; the connection between the lift arm and lift chain may be broken or out of adjustment so it doesn't raise the flapper valve far enough.

The Toilet Won't Flush Completely
You may need to remove excess slack in the lift chain.

The Toilet Is Clogged or Overflows
You need a plunger. Place the cup of the plunger over the drain opening and force the handle up and down rapidly. By doing so, you should produce enough suction to loosen the clog. When you believe you have removed the clog, slowly pour water into the bowl to flush debris. If a plunger doesn't work, you'll need a closet auger or "snake" designed especially for this task. You'll need to insert the auger into the drain. When you hit the blockage, try to thread the auger through the clog. After snagging the source of the clog, continue to twist the auger as you pull it from the trap. If the toilet overflows each time you use it, an object (such as a pen or a toy) may be lodged in the passageway that lets water pass. To remove a solid object, use the plumber's auger.

If more than one toilet or drain in your home is backing up, the line is likely blocked downstream from the point where the waste lines come together. Long augers are available for these situations, as are long metal tapes with pointed heads. (Both styles are commonly called "snakes.") These tapes are inserted into the drain line, pushed through the clog and then pulled/pushed back and forth to dislodge the clog. If your main drain line contains no clean-out access, these long snakes may need to be inserted directly through the toilet flange. This requires the temporary removal of the toilet.

The Toilet Won't Stop Running
Here are some things to try if your toilet won't stop running:

  • Start by jiggling the toilet handle. If the running stops, you need to either adjust the lift chain attachment or the handle.
  • If that doesn't work, remove the tank cover and check to see if the float ball is touching the side of the tank. If it is, bend the arm to reposition it away from the edge of the tank.
  • Lift the float rod above the water level. If the water stops running, gently bend the rod down until the float is at rest when the water level is about one half inch below the top of the overflow pipe.
  • Check to see if your float ball is leaking. If more than half of the float is underwater, it may have a leak. Turn off the shutoff valve below the tank and flush the toilet to empty it. Unscrew the float and shake it. If you hear water inside, replace it.
  • Sometimes the flapper valve becomes worn or distorted and doesn't seal the tank. This problem is easy to fix. Just empty the tank, remove the flapper, and replace it with a new one.
  • If the flapper valve seat is pitted or cracked, the whole unit can be replaced. Kits are available for this purpose, but they usually require that the tank be removed from the bowl. For this repair, follow the directions included with the flapper valve/seat replacement kit.
  • If the toilet still runs, empty the tank again and remove the screws that hold the float rod and its attached linkage to the intake valve. Pull the intake valve plunger up and out of the plunger seat. You may need to pry it gently with a screwdriver to get it started. Replace the washer at the base of the plunger and the washer or packing that fits in a groove on the plunger body. As an alternative, entire ballcock assemblies are available in economical replacement kits. They come completely assembled and need only to be installed in the tank. Follow the manufacturer's instructions.

There's Water on the Floor Around the Toilet
If you have water on the floor around your toilet, you need to fix the problem right away so moisture doesn't damage your subfloor. Start by checking all connections: the tank bolts, the ballcock mounting nut, and supply tube coupling nut. Is everything tight? If so, you may need to replace the washers.

If moisture is dripping from the tank during humid weather, that's probably just condensation. You can fix this problem by installing a toilet liner kit (a foam panel placed inside the tank). To install a liner, you will need to cut off the water, drain, and clean the inside of the tank. Cut the panels to fit your toilet and attach to the tank.

Is the toilet tank cracked? If so, you need to buy a new tank. In fact, unless your toilet is fairly new and direct replacement bowls are readily available, consider getting a whole new toilet. This will eliminate the potential problems associated with trying to find a tank that matches the old bowl.

Water around the base of a toilet could be caused by a wax ring that no longer seals or by a cracked toilet base. If the toilet leaks constantly, the toilet base is cracked and must be replaced. If leaking occurs during or after a flush, replace the wax ring.

I Hear Splashing Water in the Tank
Adjust the refill line that runs into the overflow tube in the tank. You may need to replace the washers in the inlet valve.

My Toilet is Noisy
Replace the ballcock. It's easier than it may sound. Replacement ballcocks are reasonably priced and can be installed simply by following the manufacturer's instructions.

Septic System Care
How it works:
First let me provide an explanation of how the system works. Fear not, we will keep the discussion to just "solids" and "liquids". Everything that goes down the drains in your house makes its way to the septic tank. This is a large, generally concrete tank. (Older ones might be steel). The waste enters the tank near the top of the tank. There are a pair of baffles in the tank to keep the solids in the tank, preventing them from flowing out of the tank with the liquids. Now, there are some solids that sink and some that float. Bacteria in the tank break down the solids as much as they can into a liquid form and this with the water entering the tank leaves the tank on the other side of the baffles. The liquid then flows to a leach field or a dry well where the liquid enters the soil and is absorbed by the ground.

As long as things are working properly, no solids make their way to the leach field and the soil absorbs all the liquid that winds up there. Ok, the solids in the tank that the bacteria can't break down build up over time. If these are not removed by periodic pumping, the tank will eventually allow solids to get washed out to the leach field and begin clogging the soil there. When the soil gets clogged enough, the system will no longer handle a flush. With that kind of failure, the whole leach field will need to be replaced, often including replacing the soil. (read: VERY expensive).

Maintenance Needs:
The main way to avoid septic system failure is periodic tank pumping. You HAVE to do this. Systems can appear to "work" for a long time without maintenance. You may hear about a system that "crashed." This means that the septic system appeared to be ok for a long time, but was actually getting in so much trouble that by the time a problem was noticed, it was too late to do anything about it. The system crashed and was beyond repair. When a tank is not pumped often enough, there is less settling time for waste entering the tank. Small bits of floating solids are then carried out into the leach field and begin clogging the soil. This will shorten and eventually end its life.

Tank pumping frequency depends on:

  • Tank size or capacity
  • The volume of wastewater (number of occupants)
  • Amount of solids in wastewater (garbage disposals)

The Table below lists estimated pumping frequency according to septic tank capacity and household size.
septic graph














Note: More frequent pumping is needed if you use a garbage disposal.

Septic tanks will not fail immediately if they are not pumped. However, an un-maintained septic tank is no longer protecting the soil absorption field from solids. Continued neglect may result in system failure and even replacement of the soil absorption field. In some cases, site limitations may make replacement of the absorption field impossible.

I didn't make a mistake by leaving out a discussion of additives for your septic system. They are a waste of money (literally pouring it down the drain) and often do more harm than good.

So what does it cost to have your tank pumped?? Well that will vary by your location, but you can figure on between $100 and $200 dollars. And THAT is not money down the drain!

Leaking Faucet
You may be able to fix that faucet for under $2.00. The only tools you will need are a philips screwdriver and an adjustable wrench.

  • First turn the water off to the faucet from below the sink. These valves are seldom used so it may turn hard. Turn it clockwise to shut the water off.
  • Turn the faucet on to be sure the water is off, and relieve the pressure.
  • Pop the top off the top of the faucet handle to expose the screw that holds the handle on. Remove the screw and handle. Remember the orientation of the plastic cartridge.
  • Using the adjustable wrench loosen the large nut holding the cartridge in.
  • Lift the cartridge out.
  • Inside you will find a rubber seat and spring; remove these.
  • Check the bottom of the cartridge and be sure the flat under surface is smooth and not cracked.
  • If it cracked or cut or rough, replace it.
  • Check the size of the rubber seat and spring with the new ones to be sure they will fit, and set the new ones in place.
  • Sliding them onto your screwdriver's shaft, and then guiding them into the proper place.
  • Install the cartridge in the original orientation.
  • Replace the nut and tighten (not too tight).
  • Replace the handle and screw it down.
  • Check for smooth operation, then turn on the water from below, and again check operation.


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