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Trade Secrets

Plumbing is a highly skilled trade but there are some simple jobs you can do yourself and save money on expensive call-out charges.

With charges running at between £35 and £75 an hour, calling a plumber to deal with something as simple as a blocked sink or a loo that isn’t flushing properly can be very expensive. Luckily you don’t have to be an expert to tackle simple plumbing repairs.

Bigger jobs such as installing a whole bathroom or replacing fittings are more complex and shouldn’t be tackled unless you are a skilled DIYer and have expert knowledge of how water and drainage systems work. Remember that the guarantee on new fittings will be void if they are damaged because of poor fitting. Any plumbing work that involves gas (such as installing a central heating boiler) can only be done by a member of CORGI (Confederation of Registered Gas Installers).

If you are keen to know more about plumbing, look out for evening classes and college courses – but sign up early as they are very popular. A recent course held at Hackney Community College attracted 800 applicants! If you are considering plumbing as a profession, contact for full details of qualifications needed and courses available.

Unblock a sink

A blocked sink is a real nuisance – but is usually easy to fix if you have the right equipment. Clearing a WC pan is, however, a job for the professionals because it requires protective clothing and may involve work on the drains outside your property.

This is a method that (almost) never fails to do the trick. Invest in a power plunger (around £24.99 from specialist plumbing suppliers). This type of plunger works by forcing compressed air down the pipe and clears most blockages in seconds. Forget chemical drain cleaners – most are expensive and don’t work.

If the plunger fails first time, unscrew the U-bend beneath the sink. This is easy to do – but make sure you have a bucket. Replace the bend and plunge again.

Really severe, totally unmovable blockages can only be dealt with by a professional drain-cleaning company.

Keep the drain clear

Every week pour a cup of neat bleach followed by a kettle of boiling water down the drain. Once a month, pour down a bucket of dilute caustic soda. Be sure to wear gloves and protective goggles when you do this.

Make emergency pipe repairs

If a pipe springs a leak because it has frozen or has simply split, you can make an emergency repair that will keep the water at bay until the plumber arrives. Drain the pipe and turn the water off first. Cut a length of garden hose long enough to cover the leak and slit lengthwise so you can slip it over the pipe. Secure at each end with Jubilee clips or with tightly wound wire.

Make a longer-term repair with epoxy putty. This is supplied in two parts which begin to harden as soon as they are mixed, giving you about 20 minutes to do the job. Use wire wool to clean a 50mm length of pipe at each side of the leak – this will provide a ‘key’ for the putty to stick to. Mix the putty thoroughly and press around the leak, building it up to around 5mm thick. It will become totally hard within 24 hours but you can use the water immediately if you wrap the putty with plumber’s tape.

Thaw a frozen pipe

Insulating pipes with foam tubing (available from DIY stores) and installing a frost-watcher heater that will switch on when the temperature in the area falls to 1 degree Centigrade will prevent freeze-ups.

If you do have a freeze-up, leave the affected tap open and gently warm the pipe with a hairdryer until water starts to flow.

Repair a leaking tap

Modern taps are fitted with a ceramic disk which very rarely breaks down, but older taps have washers that can fail so the tap drips. Replacing a washer is a simple job.

Switch the water supply off and leave the tap running until no more water flows. Unscrew the cover (the bit underneath the handwheel that turns the tap on and off). You will probably need a wrench to do this, so wrap its jaws in tape to protect the chromework on the tap. Lift the cover and you will see a nut just above the body of the tap. Unscrew this nut with a narrow spanner until you can lift this section (called the headgear) of the tap away from the part attached to the basin. You will see the washer at the bottom of the headgear. Prise it off with a screwdriver, or if it is held in place by a nut, undo the nut. If the nut is hard to move, spray it with WD40 and wait for a few minutes. Fit the new washer and reassemble the tap.

Mend a leaking loo

If your WC is a traditional UK single-flush model and water keeps running into the pan of your WC or out through the overflow, the culprit is the ball float inside the cistern. If you have a continental dual-flush WC, you can’t make a repair but will need to replace the flushing valve that fits inside the cistern. New valves are available from plumber’s merchants and come with instructions.

The water in a single-flush cistern is controlled by a hollow ball float attached to one end of a metal arm, which in turn is fitted to the water inlet valve. As the water refills the cistern, the hollow ball rises and the arm drops, closing the valve. When you flush, the float drops and the arm rises, opening the valve so water can rush into the pan below. If the arm is not adjusted properly the valve may not open or close correctly which means water will continue to drip into the cistern and escape to the outside through an overflow pipe. Fixing this problem is simple. Take the lid off the cistern and locate the metal float arm. Take it between both hands and bend it so that the float is at a better angle to the inlet valve. Bend it downward slightly to reduce the level of water to about 2.5cm below the overflow pipe.

Some float arms are cranked, which makes adjusting the ball float more accurate. Simply move the float up or down the crank arm depending on whether you want more or less water to enter the cistern. The right level is about 2.5cm below the overflow pipe outlet. If the problem persists, the ball float might be leaking. Take the ball off the arm it is attached to and replace it upside down with the hole facing upward so that water cannot get in and it floats again. If this doesn’t work and the float sinks again you will need to buy a new ball float.

Repair the loo flush

If a modern dual-flush WC refuses to flush, the valve needs to be replaced. On a single-flush WC, check first to see that the flush lever is still connected to the mechanism on the inside of the cistern. If it has come adrift, re-attach it.

If the flush lever is attached and working normally, the problem is probably the flap valve at the bottom of the flushing mechanism. First of all, cut the water off by lifting the ball float and tying its arm to a piece of wood laid across the top of the cistern. Flush the loo to get rid of water in the cistern, then use a large wrench to undo the nut holding the flush pipe to the underside of the cistern.

Move the pipe to one side and undo the nut that holds the flushing siphon to the base of the cistern – have a bucket and cloth handy because a little water will come out. Disconnect the arm that attaches the siphon to the flushing handle and gently lift the siphon out of the cistern. There’s a metal cover at the bottom of this small round section. Remove it and replace the diaphragm attached to it with a replacement (flush-repair kits are available from DIY stores). Replace the siphon, reconnect the flushing arm and reconnect the siphon to the inlet pipe. Free the ball float. The WC will fill and should flush correctly.

Sort out radiator problems

If the top of a radiator is cold but the bottom is warm, the cause is an air lock that prevents hot water from circulating properly. This is easily fixed.

Before you do anything, switch off the boiler and the circulation pump. Wait at least an hour before bleeding the radiator to ensure there’s no dangerously hot water in the system. Locate the bleed valve at the top corner of the radiator. Use the square key provided with the radiator to turn the valve anti-clockwise about a quarter of a turn. Be careful not to go any further as the result could be a deluge of water. As soon as you hear a hissing sound, stop turning. When the hissing stops and a dribble of water appears, all the air has been expelled.

The majority of centrally heated systems in Britain are hot water based. These systems first emerged in the nineteenth century when the Victorian’s began using hot water and cast-iron radiators to heat their homes. Today’s modern hot water systems are far more sophisticated, and as well as the common, plain steel radiator panels that we have all grown up with there is a whole host of traditional and contemporary designs to choose from, plus that latest contender, underfloor heating.

For those who do not have the luxury of central heating or simply need to supplement an existing but pared-down system, then look out for the latest electrical models and storage heaters, or consider an independent underfloor system that can be laid in a single room.

Radiating style

Long gone are the days when the radiator was considered an ugly eyesore that required disguising. Today’s models are true design statements in their own right.

As a general rule of thumb, the larger the surface area of a radiator the greater the heat output. However, do not be fooled into thinking this means you will require large bulky models. Today’s modern radiators incorporate acres of surface area by using clever space-saving tricks such as spirals and undulating curves.

As well as the growth of these stunning modern sculptural pieces, we have also seen the re-emergence of the traditional cast-iron radiator in both modern and period properties. If you are thinking of investing in this type of radiator remember that they weigh a ton and require a lot of floor space.

If space is an issue then look to underderfloor heating, modern wall-mounted radiators which slot neatly onto the narrowest of walls or elongated low-lying models that can be sited under a low window.

When it comes to buying period pieces there are a number of companies specialising in restored antique or second-hand radiators and you will also find a wide range of good-quality reproductions on offer. If you are buying from salvage or reclamation yards ask if they carry out alterations, restoration and repair work. Those looking for the latest modern designs should check out specialist companies, as well as your local bathroom or kitchen retailer and DIY store.

Flooring heat

Underfloor heating is the fastest-growing sector of the heating market. It produces an even warmth throughout the room with no cold spots and can be laid beneath tiled, wood or laminate floors, on all levels of your home.

Once installed, running costs are fairly low as underfloor heating is very energy efficient, due to the fact that heat is distributed more evenly than with traditional radiators. This results in the average room temperature being reduced by as much as one or two degrees, without any loss of overall thermal warmth. Installation will depend on the system you choose, but in general pipes and cables are laid under a thin screed or placed on top of a screed under the chosen floor covering.

Underfloor water systems involve plastic piping being laid in concrete or underfloor cavities beneath all the floors in your home. These pipes then distribute thermostatically controlled, centrally heated water beneath your feet. As there are no joints in the non-corrodible plastic pipes no leakage can occur, and as the heat is distributed evenly the water does not need to be heated to the high temperatures required by standard radiators.

Electrical underfloor heating uses low-voltage heated electric cables, woven into a mat or panel. These can be laid directly under the floor covering on a sub base and connected to a thermostat with the minimum of fuss. Ideal for use in individual rooms, the attached electric cables are evenly spaced, so that the mats or panels can be simply cut to size.

DIY Plumber’s Toolkit WD40 for freeing hard to move nuts and connections. Stillson wrench, open-ended spanners in different sizes, long-nosed and ordinary pliers, an adjustable spanner and a mole grip. PTFE tape (known as plumber’s tape and ideal for making watertight joints). Epoxy putty. Selection of Jubilee clips. Some short lengths of wire.

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