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Plumbing 101: Experts offer advice for drips

Jerry Schatzke finds fascinating objects in people's toilets. As he has tackled - auger in hand - stubborn clogs over the years, the journeyman plumber of Don's Plumbing in Fargo has uncovered toothbrushes, combs and deodorants. "You name it, I'v...

Jerry Schatzke finds fascinating objects in people's toilets.

As he has tackled - auger in hand - stubborn clogs over the years, the journeyman plumber of Don's Plumbing in Fargo has uncovered toothbrushes, combs and deodorants.

"You name it, I've probably pulled it out of a toilet," he says.

Once, he even discovered a duck, a hunting trophy whose proud owner had inadvertently dropped it in the toilet as he was plucking its feathers and decided it would be more dignified to flush it than try to fish it out.

Unless they are faced with fowl or other sizeable objects lodged in their pipe, homeowners can often tackle minor plumbing problems successfully without the help of a professional like Schatzke.

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Some plumbers are opposed to any layman intervention, even in the case of a routine clog. But Mike Monson, owner of Speedy Plumbing Service, says he's all for residents dealing with minor glitches, as long as they stick with tasks they are fairly comfortable they can handle.

"It's not rocket science, but it's good to know your skill level," he says. "If a person can fix that kind of stuff on their own, the more power to them."

Here are a few relatively uncomplicated plumbing tasks and how to approach them.

Clogged sinks

Step 1: Prevention

"Garbage disposals are job security for plumbers," says Schatzke, who claims that reckless dumping of food down the drain accounts for a good chunk of his business.

He advises against disposing of rice, which swells when wet, and string vegetables, such as green beans and rhubarb, whose strings might hold food particles together.

Also, "Feed food slowly into the disposal and use a lot of water to flush it," he adds.

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In addition, several plumbing Web sites recommend pouring boiled water into sinks regularly to flush developing clogs.

Finally, be sure to take action at the first signs of a clog. "If you notice things getting slower, they won't get better on their own," he says.

Step 2: Plunger

Fill the clogged sink to cover the plunger head. Stuff a wet rag in the vent or second opening to ensure air doesn't escape and interfere with suction. You might coat the rim of the plunger with petroleum jelly for a tighter grip. Plunge up and down vigorously, and don't give up after just two or three strokes.

Step 3: Chemical cleaners

Most plumbing professionals advise against using chemicals to unclog sinks. "I've seen more times when they'll eat through the pipes than solve the problem," Schatzke says.

If you are tempted to try chemical products, says Brett Hanson, Lowe's plumbing specialist, go for an alkali product rather than the more aggressive acid-based ones. Be sure to follow safety rules: always wear rubber gloves; never use a chemical cleaner in a garbage disposal or if the blockage is total; never mix alkali and acid products to avoid an explosion.

Clogged toilets

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Step 1: Plunger

Schatzke says that plungers tend to be more effective with toilet clogs than with sinks because the lack of vents and openings ensures better suction. Consider using a force ball-type plunger, which exerts more pressure than the regular type. Fill the bowl with enough water to cover the plunger head. Again, make at least a dozen forceful strokes before giving up.

Step 2: Auger

Monson recommends using a special closet auger because it comes with vinyl tubing that prevents damage to bowl surface. "There'll be not a scratch on the china when you're done with it," he promises. Don't forget to shut the water to the toilet off before you start. Snake the auger into the bowl and continue to crank it until it becomes tight.

If that doesn't work, it's time to summon a pro to the rescue. "Some clogs are just more stubborn, in which case you might want to call a plumber," says Hanson.

Faulty toilet flappers

Step 1: Prevention

Plumbers unanimously advise against inserting hygiene products in the closet tank. Not only do chlorine pucks tend to float up and clog toilet bowls when they shrink, but, "They pretty much ensure failure of the flapper," Monson says.

Some plumbers recommend replacing the flapper every year. But if you have waited for a malfunction, you'll know it's time for change when you hear that trickling sound inside the tank.

Step 2: Removing flapper

Turn off the water supply to the toilet and flush the water in the tank. Make a mental note of the length of the flapper chain attached to the flushing handle, which will save you time later.

Step 3: Buying a flapper

Monson suggests taking the old flapper to the plumbing supplies store with you to make sure you get a compatible product. "It's not a one size fits all thing," he says. "There are 30 flapper styles out there." Schatzke recommends buying a flapper with the sturdier metal chains.

Step 4: Installing flapper

Install the new flapper on the toilet by adjusting the chain as it was before you removed the old flapper. Turn the water on and flush to see if you need to make any adjustments.

Leaks: First response

Step 1: The homework

In case of plumbing emergencies, the first thing you need to do before you settle down to wait for a plumber is shut off the water supply to the misbehaving fixture or, in more dramatic cases, to the whole house.

"You'd be amazed at the number of people who don't know where their valves are," Monson says.

To save yourself the mad scrambling in case of an unpleasant plumbing surprise, locate your shutoff valves now. The valves to specific fixtures are easier to find, usually directly beneath the fixture. Your main valve, which will cut off water supply to your entire home, is generally on the lower level of the house, often in a basement or utility room.

Step 2: Fixture valves

If the emergency involves a specific fixture, find its shutoff valve and turn it clockwise. If the fixture has two valves for hot and cold water, turn both of them.

Step 3: Main valve

If the problem goes beyond a single fixture or you find that fixture does not have a separate valve, you will need to cut off supply to the entire house by turning the main valve clockwise. You might need a wrench to turn the valve, says Monson, and it's a good idea to have one handy.

And to avoid calamities in your absence, "If you're going on a trip for a couple of days, by gosh, turn the water off," says Monson.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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