5 Basic Plumbing Skills You Should Have

plumbing wrenches on a large pipe

No matter how much you spend on pipes—and on professionals who know what they're doing—things are always going to go wrong with your plumbing. Rubber and metal pieces wear out over time. Leaks happen. Drains get clogged. And if you have to pay a plumber every time something goes wrong, even if you don't understand the problem, you're spending more money than you should.

Luckily, with a few basic plumbing skills, you can maintain your pipe systems all by yourself.

1. Identify and Use Shut Off Valves

pex pipe with on off valve

Major fixtures in your home and the main water line leading into your home have shut off valves. There's a shut off valve in every toilet in your home, the kitchen sink, your water heater, and some bathroom sinks. There's also a shut off valve outside that will shut off all the water in your home.

You'll want very badly to know where this is if you ever have a serious plumbing leak. Find out now.

2. Treat Your Drains Right

gloved hands using a plumbing snake

There are certain things you should never flush down your toilet or put in your sink drains. Don't pour grease or oil down your drains, as this can cause major clogs. Grease and oil should be dumped outside, not poured down the drain.

Nothing other than paper and body waste should be flushed down the toilet, ever. This is not for food scraps. It's not for grease. It's not for hair or for hygiene products. You can avoid a lot of clogs if you treat your toilets right.

There are two types of plungers—toilet plungers and sink plungers. If you have both, you'll be able to manage most clogs if you do get them. All plumbers carry plungers because they're often effective as a first line of defense. Plunge your drains when they clog and you'll be able to get your water flowing again, at least some of the time, which will save you a ton of money.

If a clog gets especially persistent, you might need to reach for a plumbing snake—a device with a long, metal extension that can twist around in a drain, scraping buildup loose.

3. Change a Flapper

toilet flapper valve

If a running toilet has been bugging you, don't call the plumber. Try a quick fix that will cost you less than $20 a few minutes of time. A running toilet can almost always be fixed by switching out the flapper. This rubber piece is usually at the bottom of the tank, connected to the handle used to flush the toilet.

Replace the flapper with a new one, and that will probably fix that running toilet of yours. Any plumber will charge you a minimum of an hour's time, plus travel expenses and material costs, to perform this same task.

4. Winterize and Protect Plumbing Against Cold

plumber wrapping pipes in insulation foil

If you live in a climate where temperatures fall well below freezing, you need to know how to winterize your plumbing and what to do on especially cold nights. Every winter, you need to shut off the water to your hose bibs. During winter, hose bibs very commonly freeze and burst. This means you have to have them replaced in spring when you want to use your hose again. Shut the water off to them every winter.

You may also need to insulate any exposed pipes by wrapping them in heat tape or a pipe sleeve—special insulation made just for plumbing pipes.

When temperatures are especially low, open your lower cabinets under the sinks so warm air can get to the pipes, preventing them from freezing.

5. Light a Water Heater

fingers igniting water heater pilot light

On many gas-powered water heaters, there is a pilot light. This light ordinarily stays lit to provide the heat that will keep your water hot. However, the light may go out sometimes. When that happens, you don't want to have to pay for a plumber to come and fix it because it's easy enough to light this yourself.

If you have automatic ignition, you will see a small box sticking out of the water heater somewhere. There will be a switch reading On/Off/Pilot and an ignition button. Re-light the pilot light by first turning the switch to the Off position. Wait for five minutes to allow gas to exit out of the system. Next, turn the switch to pilot. Push the igniter button. You should hear a noise that tells you when the gas is lit.

If you have a manual ignition, you'll need to light the pilot light yourself with a long lighter. They make these for barbecues and they can be purchased at grocery stores. Remove the access plate from the water heater, turn the knob to the off position and wait five minutes.

Turn the dial to pilot and then light the pilot light, which you exposed by removing the access panel. The flame should ignite immediately. If it doesn't, there is something more wrong with your water heater and you need the services of a plumber.