How to deal with plumbing problems
Learn how to prevent and fix the most common plumbing problems
Water can cause serious damage to your home, so acting quickly is essential if a problem occurs in the plumbing system. Keeping a few basic repair tools and materials in your tool kit and knowing what to do in an emergency will prevent most situations from getting out of hand.
Turn off the power and water
If you do suffer a burst pipe, a leak or flooding of any kind, the first thing to do is turn off the electricity supply at the fuse box immediately.
When the leak has been repaired and the water mopped up, examine all sockets, switches, ceiling roses and electrical equipment nearby to make sure they’re dry. If water has got into them, don’t turn the power back on until they’ve thoroughly dried out.
In this situation it’s really important to know your plumbing system – the location of the valves, particularly the main stop valve which allows you to turn off the supply in an emergency or for essential work. Check valves every few months to ensure that they can be opened and closed easily. Applying a little penetrating oil or lubricant to a valve shaft will help free it. Never leave a valve completely open, as this will make it more likely to seize up, preventing you from closing it when you really need to – close it by a quarter to a half turn.
A pipe repair clamp is the quickest way to stop water leaking from a burst pipe, and it doesn’t need the pipe to be drained before it can be fitted. Some clamps are screwed on, whilst others are simply clamped on over the burst area. However, repair clamps should only be regarded as a temporary repair.
Another option is to use a self-fusing repair tape to make a quick watertight seal. Here’s what you need and how to fit it.
Wipe the pipe clean either side of the damaged area to remove any grease or grime.
Unwrap about 20 cm of tape and cut with a pair of scissors. Remove the backing from the tape. It’s important that you work fast once the backing tape is removed, otherwise the tape won’t stick to itself.
Stretch the cut tape out to about twice its length. Start about 30 mm to 40 mm away from the hole and wrap the tape tightly around the pipe. Keep the tape tightly stretched out as you wrap it round with a 50% overlap so the tape bonds to itself.
When you reach the damaged section of pipe, leave a gap (where the hole is) and wrap the tape over to the side of the hole. Carry on wrapping tightly for another 30 mm to 40 mm on the other side of the damage before coming back the other way with another layer of tape. This time cover the hole. Don’t forget to always keep a tight 50% overlap on the tape.
Keep going back and forth until the damaged area is completely sealed. When you reach the end of the tape, press down firmly so the end of the tape bonds with itself.
A burst pipe can be repaired with a burst pipe coupling provided the damaged section is no more than 40 to 50 mm long (but always check the manufacturer’s guidelines).
You could also use a push-fit pipe repair kit, which repairs a damaged pipe without having to dismantle the existing pipe set-up or use a flexible hose connector. Otherwise you’ll need to insert a new section of pipe
Plastic push-fit joints on copper pipes destroy the continuity of a plumbing system’s earth bonding. This must be restored by joining the two copper pipes with a length of 4 mm² single-core earth cable, secured by two bonding clamps.
Push-fit pipe repair kit
Requiring no specialist tools, a push-fit pipe repair kit is easy to install onto copper or plastic pipes. Once the damaged section has been removed, simply push the fitting fully onto the pipe (plastic pipes require an insert, supplied with the kit, to be pushed into the pipe first, to help keep the pipe’s shape) and then twist the plastic nut clockwise to lock it in place. Full instructions are provided with the kit.
- Pipe cutter or pipe slice
- Mini or junior hacksaw
- Narrow half-round file
- Steel wool or deburring brush
- Pipe wrench or waterpump pliers
- Adjustable spanner
- Compression (straight) couplers, olives and capnuts, 15mm or 22mm
- Push fit pipe repair kit, available for 15mm or 22mm pipes
- PTFE tape
Turn your water supply off and drain the pipe.
Ideally use a mini pipe cutter to cut each side of the damaged area and remove that section of pipe. You may find that you have to free the pipe from any nearby clips so that you can rotate the cutter around it. If that’s not possible, use a hacksaw.
Remove the burrs from inside the cut ends with a narrow half-round file and steel wool or deburring brush to remove any paint, tarnish or limescale from the copper pipe.
Slip the cap nuts and olives (metal rings) off the pipe coupling onto each cut pipe end. Wrap PTFE tape about five times clockwise around the threads of each compression joint. PTFE tape repels water and will help create a watertight seal. When putting PTFE tape on a thread, wrap the tape in the opposite direction to the thread on the pipe so it doesn’t unravel when you tighten the nut.
Insert the cut pipe ends into the burst pipe coupling. Hold the coupling with a pipe wrench or water pump pliers and tighten the nuts with an adjustable spanner.
Remaking a soldered pipe joint that’s leaking requires some skill, but it’s much easier to use repair putty, which will stop the leak permanently. Then, when the putty’s hard, you can sand, smooth and paint it.
Shut off the water supply to the affected section of pipe and drain it.
Dry the pipe with a cloth, then key the area that needs to be repaired with a wire brush.
Wearing rubber gloves to protect your skin, twist or cut enough 2-part epoxy compound to carry out the repair.
Work the material between your fingers until it reaches a consistent colour. At this stage, you’ll have to work quickly as you only have about 5 minutes before it begins to harden.
Press the repair putty around the joint, forcing it into the gap between the pipe and fitting. Smooth it as much as possible, but work quickly, as the putty dries rapidly.
Leave for 24 hours to harden fully before reconnecting the water supply and checking for leaks.
If you’ve drained and refilled your plumbing system, air might have become trapped in the pipes. This will make your taps splutter, or possibly cut off the flow completely.
To cure the airlock, connect a garden hose to the kitchen cold tap, which is on mains pressure (or any cold tap if you have a direct system) and the other end to the affected tap. Turn the broken tap on first and then the working one, and leave for a few minutes.
The mains pressure should force the air out of the system, but if this doesn’t work, you may have to repeat the process a couple more times. Turn the taps off and leave the taps alone for a few minutes before trying again.
When the taps are working again, remove the hose from the highest tap first, and then from the lowest tap. Don’t forget to drain all the water from the hose before you carry it out of the house.
All the pipes in your loft, under your ground floor, in your garage or any other areas where they're exposed to very low temperatures should be lagged to protect them against freezing. However, lagging will only delay the onset of freezing. If the temperature is low enough for long enough, ice may still develop and stop the flow of water to your taps and other outlets. At worst, the ice may actually split your pipe or force apart a joint.
For this reason, it's wise to take some precautions if you go away for a substantial amount of time in winter. Set your heating thermostat at the lowest setting, or use the 'frost setting' if you have one - this makes your heating come on automatically if temperatures drop near to freezing point. Alternatively, you can turn off the main stop valve and drain your system completely.
To thaw a frozen pipe, warm it with a hair dryer - gradually working along its length from the tap or valve until the water starts to flow again. Another solution is to drape a hot water bottle over the pipe, or you could soak hand towels in hot water, wring them out and wrap them around it. But whatever you do, don't use a blowtorch as an open flame in a home can present a serious fire hazard. Also, excessive heat from a blowtorch applied to a frozen pipe can cause the water inside the pipe to boil and possibly explode.
All pipes in lofts, under ground floors, in garages or any other areas where they will be exposed to very low temperatures should be lagged with pipe insulation to protect them against freezing.
However, lagging will only delay the onset of freezing, and if temperatures are low enough for long enough, ice may still develop, stopping the flow of water to taps and other outlets; at worst, the ice may actually split the pipe or force apart a joint.
For this reason, if you go away for a substantial amount of time in winter, you should take precautions. Set your heating thermostat at the lowest setting, or if there is one use the ‘frost setting’, which will cause it to come on automatically if temperatures drop near to freezing point. Alternatively, turn off the main stop valve and drain the system completely.
To thaw a frozen pipe, warm it with a hair dryer, gradually working along its length from the tap or valve until the water starts to flow again. Alternatively, drape a hot water bottle over the pipe or soak hand towels in hot water, wring them out and wrap them around it. But whatever you do, don’t use a blowtorch.
Water storage cisterns and tanks are usually situated in the loft or on the upper floor of a house. This means that if a leak occurs, the first you will know of it is water pouring through a ceiling. You must act quickly or the ceiling may collapse.
First turn off the electricity at the main power switch and the water supply at the main stop valve.
Position containers to catch the leaking water and turn on all the taps and flush all the toilets in the house. This will empty the pipes and cold water storage cistern, and they will not refill while the main stop valve is off.
Investigate the cause of the leak, which may be a burst pipe, a loose joint, or the cistern itself leaking or overflowing due to problems with the ball valve and overflow.
If the leak is coming from a hot water cylinder, turn off the boiler and empty the cylinder by running a hose from the draincock near its base to an outside gully. Make repairs or replace items as necessary.
It can be really frustrating when you turn on a tap and nothing happens. Here’s what you can do to get your water running again.
Turn on the cold tap in your kitchen – or any other cold tap on a direct system. If there’s no flow, make sure your main stop valve is open. If the problem continues, call your water supplier.
If your mains cold tap is working, inspect the cold water storage cistern in the loft. If it’s empty, make sure the ball valve isn’t jammed. Dismantle and clean the valve or replace it. If there’s no flow when the valve is held open, your rising main is blocked – this can be caused by ice in winter.
If your cold water storage cistern is full but there’s no flow from your bathroom taps, there must be an airlock or blockage in the supply pipe from the cold cistern or hot water cylinder.
If sinks become slow to drain, or stop draining completely, there’s likely to be a blockage somewhere in the waste pipe. The likely cause of slow draining is an accumulation of grease or fibres caught below the grid on the plug hole. If water doesn’t drain away at all, then there’s a complete blockage and an obstruction in the waste pipe. There are different ways you can try to solve the situation which we’ll talk you through below.
Chemicals can splash up and cause chemical burns on your skin. It’s really important to rinse the chemicals from your sink before using a plunger.
Before you start
Unblocking a sink can be a dirty job, so it’s best to be prepared for the worse. Put on an apron or old top, wear rubber gloves and put on a pair of safety goggles.
If a sink is completely blocked, first of all remove any visible debris from the sink and the remove the pop-up plug from the sink.
Partially fill it with water and place the cup of a sink plunger over the plug hole. Stuff a damp cloth into the overflow to prevent loss of pressure. If you have a 2-bowl sink, also block the other sink holes with a cloth to create enough pressure for the plunger to work effectively.
Then pump the plunger up and down vigorously for 15 to 20 seconds. Take the plunger away and see if the water drains. You may need to repeat this three or four times.
If that fails, try using a chemical drain cleaning product. Firstly, smear some petroleum jelly around the rim of the plug hole to protect it from damage.
Wear protective gloves and goggles and follow the instructions carefully, as it will be highly toxic. Do not use where other chemicals, such as bleach, may be present, as this could cause dangerous gases to be released.
If the blockage hasn’t cleared, then you’ll have to remove the waste trap. Put a bucket beneath the trap to catch any spillage. Unscrew the trap and empty the contents into the bucket. Replace the trap making sure you replace any washers or O-rings. Don’t overtighten it or it will be difficult to undo in the future. If this hasn’t unblocked the drain, use a drain auger to probe into the waste pipe.
Instant drain unblocker
Instead of harmful chemicals, an instant drain unblocker uses a gas that expands on contact with water, generating a strong turbulence that will clear drains up to 20 m away by agitation, not pressure. It will remove blockages caused by hair, soap build-up, paper, grease and food particles in seconds. Use it on blocked or slow-flowing sinks. Don’t forget to always read and follow the product instructions before use.
A blocked lavatory pan causes the flush water to rise almost to the rim, and then drain away very slowly. It will probably be blocked in the pan outlet, but if not then it could be a problem in the main drainage system.
Try pouring a bucket of warm water into the pan from a height; this often clears a minor blockage.
Place a large toilet plunger over the pan outlet and pump the handle up and down.
If that doesn’t shift it, use an auger designed for a lavatory. Its probe extends around the U-bend and rotates as you turn the handle, dislodging the blockage.
Wear protective gloves and read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Don’t forget to clean the auger thoroughly with bleach after use.