Things you really need to know about plumbing

Posted: November 29th, 2011

Anyone who follows me regularly on Twitter will be aware of my recent painful travails involving near madness induced by leaking taps, and the subsequent frustration at the costs incurred for what appeared to be a quick bit of twiddling to fix them. I therefore decided to enrol on a plumbing course to see for myself just how hard it all was. If nothing else, I mused, I’d be duly armed with the lingo so any subsequent call-outs wouldn’t have me gesticulating wildly and referring to the broken plastic watsits on the big black pipe thingy. Additionally, having formerly trained as an architect, I never forget that keeping water out is the key to cosy homes. Thus the Staunch and Flow Basic Plumbing course was duly booked, so thrilled was I by the promise of two-years training in three hours. And well worth the £60 it was too. I can now confidently sort my own leaky taps, muck about with the boiler and fiddle with our radiators. Whether this is a good thing is yet to be determined. Nevertheless, herewith, some of the stuff I learned that wasn’t exactly in the official notes…

Over time houses move. Grout moves. Baths tend not to. This is why showers are a frequent source of leaks. And don’t even start on wet rooms, they prompt much sighing and whistling through plumber teeth.

Poo used to be called “night soil”, apprently, hence that big thick pipe going out the back of the loo being called a “soil pipe”. This is probably my favourite new fact.

A basin is not the same as a sink. The former resides in your bathroom, the latter in a kitchen. They require different taps because sinks are fed by cold water straight from the mains at a higher pressure. Basins are not. It doesn’t explain why sink taps are so much more expensive, or why it’s nigh on impossible to get a matching tap for the kitchen as bathroom, but that’s tap design for you.

More on taps: you get what you pay for. They are mini feats of engineering involving in some cases ceramic cartridges. Because of this it’s essential to note down the make and model number in case of problems, that way you’ll know what to ask for regarding spares. If not you can kiss goodbye to the whole tap. For the same reason step smartly away from those suspiciously good deals on obscure-brand hardware often found in large DIY stores, chances are they’re a one batch wonder and you have a better chance of winning the lottery than finding replacement washers that fit.

Water pressure is also quite a big deal when it comes to choosing taps, especially if you’re drawn towards posh European designer ones. Europe generally has higher pressure systems than here in the good old UK, consequently their taps have tiny pipes. Our drippy systems need bigger nozzles, so be alert to this when being seduced by chrome. Mr Plumber Teacherman was specifically rather rude about Vola taps. He repeated this several times, so I duly pass it onto you. Sorry Vola. However I believe that if you install a pump to boost your pressure, you can have as many Vola taps as you like. Whew.

On washers: they’re important. Quoting Mr Plumber Teacherman: “You cannot connect two hards without a soft inbetween”.

Curiously, the trap underneath your sink (or basin), is not for catching your earrings, or other small items accidentally dropped down the plughole, although it is mightily good at this. Rather it “traps” water in the U-bendy bit as a seal against stinky smells coming through from the sewer. The fancy-pants chrome bottle traps (ie shaped like a bottle rather than a U) are therefore recommended only for basins, as they don’t do much trapping of anything much because there really shouldn’t be any stinkiness coming upstairs. I think this was roughly the jist of this on the reducing stink front. Very important.

Rice is a common culprit for gunking up your sink traps. And children’s toys are what usually blocks the loo. This is why plumbers ask if you have kids when you call them. They’re not being chatty or unnecessarily personal. It helps them determine where the blockage might be.

If you happened to be digging down aboout 75cm outside your house, any blue pipes uncovered are your water mains, the pretty yellow ones are gas. Leave them both alone.

When it comes to valves, nuts, and things that may need twisting at some point, right-is-tight (ie clockwise = closed) and left-is-loose (anti-clockwise = open). But if you fully open something, always twist it back a turn to give yourself some wiggle room for when it gets furred-up and stuck and you inevitably desperately need to close it.

Which brings me neatly onto The Golden Rule of Plumbing: turn everything off before you get all fiddle-knickers. This is why it’s imperative that you know where your “stop cock” is (who names these things?!), also that “isolation valves” are your saviour and they should be fitted anytime you install a new appliance. These can be big red taps, plastic blue (cold) or red (hot) levers (commonly seen behind washing machines) or sometimes rather subtle fixings soldered into the run of copper piping with a screw-head type thing on top. These obviously need a screwdriver to turn them, so be warned, disrete fixings are deeply unhelpful in a flood. As such I rather love the great big red taps. Oh and make sure they’re put somewhere you can get to them easily. Isolation valves should never be isolated, or concealed.

On radiators: if a radiator is hot at the bottom but cold at the top it’s got excess air in it and needs to be “bled”. This means you get a snazzy little key from a hardware shop, slot it into the end of the radiator valve that’ll fit it and turn it gingerly left-for-loose until you hear a whooshing noise. As soon as any water appears, turn swiftly right-for-tight. If you have a combi-boiler it will start freaking out now as the pressure will have dropped in the system. Then something involving a “filling loop” is involved and I got a bit lost. More lever twisting methinks. The whooshing bit works very well though.

There is some very odd verbiage in the plumbing world. Words like “basin spanners” for undoing “top hat” washer; “O-rings”, “close-coupled suites” and “wheelhead valves”. Mr Plumbing Teacherman also mentioned “sprocket trunnions” at one point, but I don’t have a clue what those are as I was too busy carefully writing it down.

On technical drawings the convention for a valve looks like a little bow-tie. Look here!

Always book the first appointment of the day to avoid being caught in the because-men-can’t-multitask-mare of a non-reliable schedule.

The reason overflow pipes from cold water storage cisterns are nearly always highly-inconveniently placed right above your back doorways is so that it’ll drip on your head and alert you to the ensuing horrors in your loft. If it was more discretely placed, it’d be ignored wouldn’t it. I thought this was plumber genius.

If someone comes round to fit some lovely new wooden flooring for you and they’re armed with a nail gun, you must demand they show you the depth of their weapon. I admit that reads rather oddly. In other words the nails must be no longer than the depth of your structural floorboards otherwise they might punch straight into your pipes. However, if a lead pipe gets punctured I am reliably informed that a speedily-inserted matchstick is advisable as the wood helpfully expands to fill the hole. I suspect it should be replaced with something rather more sturdy for the long term though.

On wall-hung loos. Make sure the supporting frame is designed to be bolted to the wall, rather than the floor. Why? Because most UK floors are wooden and they won’t be strong enough to support loo plus you.

And a personal note from me. Choose your taps BEFORE you order your sinks, or any bloody basins. That way you’ll know how many tap holes to specify. Otherwise you’ll end up with a living room full of one-hole basins and the only taps you finally decide you love, and can afford, require two. Enough said. This has been a long and arduous journey my fellow Deco-ites. I suffer so you don’t have to.

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