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Plumbing Tips

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This page was last revised on December 30, 2004.

  1. When deciding what to use for water supply plumbing, your choices are few. The oldest homes were plumbed with lead pipe, which is a BAD idea. Then threaded galvanized steel pipes were used, which are still available. Then copper became the standard. Next, CPVC (chlorinated polyvinyl chloride) plastic became available. PVC (polyvinyl chloride) can be used for cold-water supply. Lately, mobile homes have been plumbed with "Qest" plastic, a type of polyethylene. My recommendation? Without a doubt, it's copper. Here are the characteristics of some of these:
  2. NEVER mix steel and copper plumbing directly; you'll get something called galvanic or electrolytic action that will corrode both metals rapidly, quickly clogging the pipes. Also, do NOT use black steel piping; this is intended for natural gas use only. If you need to patch together copper and steel, then use what's called a dielectric nipple or use a plastic adaptor fitting in between to avoid the galvanic corrosion.
  3. When soldering copper pipe, carefully follow these steps:
    1. Before preparing to solder pipes and fittings, cut the pipe to size and assemble everything to make sure that it will fit properly. Use a good pipe cutter to cut the pipe, and make sure that it has a sharp, well-fitting cutting wheel in it. Lightly clamp the cutter onto the pipe, and twirl it around the pipe in a circular motion. Make sure that you push it straight around the pipe, and make sure after one revolution, that it meets the first part of the score. If it doesn't, then try turning the cutter the opposite direction. If you just can't get it to go straight, then you probably have a really cheap cutter, or it's damaged, or it's got a bad wheel. For cutting existing pipe that's already installed, use a mini-cutter. Quality in a cutter is actually quite important.
    2. Use a wire brush, made for the purpose, to clean the insides of the fittings. Turn it in a circular motion, and make sure that the entire contact surface inside the fitting is brushed and clean/shiny.
    3. Use a different type of wire brush, again made for the purpose (combination wire brushes that have both types in one tool are also available), to clean the outside of the pipe where it will fit into the fitting, or use plumber's emery cloth. This is a type of sandpaper that comes in coiled strips, and you just tear some off to use. Wrap it around the end of the pipe and turn it to clean it. Again, the entire end of the pipe that will be going into the fitting, plus a little beyond that, should be clean/shiny when you're done. If cleaning old pipe, the emery cloth will work much better than the wire brush.
    4. Use a small flux brush (or a corner or a rag, or even a CLEAN finger) to coat both the inside of the fitting and outside of the pipe in the cleaned area with flux. The flux must be a high- temperature flux intended for lead-free solder. It only takes a very small amount of flux, but it should be applied evenly and completely.
    5. Fit the pipe together. Never prepare more joints than you can solder quickly, but always solder all joints in a single fitting at the same time. In other words, if soldering a tee, then make sure that all three pipes going into the tee are being soldered at the same time.
    6. Using your propane torch, heat the fitting evenly. Play the flame over the fitting, trying to reach all parts of it. The very tips of the blue cones of the flame should be at the metal. Always heat the fitting, not the pipe: thus, the fitting is hotter than the pipe, and has expanded more than the pipe during heating, so that as it cools with the solder, you have a good compression joint as well as a solder-type metal weld.
    7. When the solder melts spontaneously on the surface of the copper, without putting the flame to it, then solder the joint. Touch the tip of the solder to the crack of the joint, playing it around as far as convenient until you can see that the solder has flowed all the way around the joint. This is done without the flame.
    8. Then solder the other outlets of the fitting.
    9. Immediately take a reasonably clean rag and wipe around the joint to smooth out excess solder and remove excess flux. Let the joint cool.
  4. When repairing copper pipe that has already been carrying water, it's important to drain it out thoroughly first or you'll never get the pipe hot enough to get a good solder seal. Open the highest-level taps in the house for the water line, as well as the lowest ones, to drain out as much water as possible. Then make your cuts in the pipe to prepare for the repair. Next, plug the pipe to stop water drips after you've drained out as much water as possible. A quick and easy way to do this is to take a slice of store-bought white ("balloon") bread, wad it up, and shove it back into the pipe firmly. When the water is turned back on, the water will easily dissolve and flush out the bread. Gelatin plug kits are also available at hardware and building supply stores.
  5. Each plumbing fixture and appliance in the house has a trap. It's part of the body of the toilet, but for most fixtures and appliances, it's part of the plumbing beyond. The trap is a sump, or dip in the plumbing, that always holds water so that it makes an air seal between the inside of the house and the sewer system (or septic system). This prevents sewer gases from coming into the house. Sewer gases can actually be very dangerous as well as obnoxiously smelly; they can asphyxiate people or even explode. The traps also helps keep the heat in the house in the winter and to keep vermin out all year-round. It's important that all traps have water in them at all times. However, if there is a sink, floor drain, washing machine outlet, toilet, or other item that is not being used, the water in the trap may dry up. It's a good idea to pour water through any unused traps at least twice per year. It also may be a good idea to add a capfull or two (CAPfull, NOT cupfull) of bleach to the trap for disinfection.
  6. There are actually four type of plumbing in the average house. The water supply plumbing is only one of the four. The other three are: waste, drain, and vent. You will see some plumbing fittings designated "DWV," which means "drain/waste/vent," and means that the fitting is approved for all three uses. These three types of piping usually all connect together. The pipes that carry away waste water from fixtures such as toilets and sinks are the waste pipes (the actual waste from a toilet is called "soil"). Drain pipes are only those that directly serve to carry away stormwater or water from floor drains. Vent pipes connect to waste pipes, and sometimes drain pipes, to provide a source of air and a place for gases to go. Each waste pipe from each fixture in the house is supposed to have an individual vent pipe attached beyond the trap. These vent pipes attach together when they are at least six inches above the "flood rim level" of each fixtures, to make sure that they never become waste pipes. The vent pipes provide a source of air flow so that flowing waste water don't suck traps dry, and also provide a place for sewer gases to go so that they don't push their way into the house through the traps. Vent pipes that pass through the roof should always be at least three inches in diameter to prevent icing-up problems.
  7. In the past, DWV systems were made of cast-iron "soil pipe." However, the soil pipe does eventually corrode away, and it's very heavy and hard to work with. Today, DWV plumbing systems are usually made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride). Schedule 40 DWV is required for waste systems. Lighter weights (Schedules 20 and 30) are strictly for vent and drain systems, not waste. The heavy schedule 40 is very strong and rigid and does not clog or corrode. Also used sometimes is ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene), but it is not as common or reliable.
  8. To properly glue together PVC, the ends of the pipes should be first cut square. Many people find this difficult. Usually, a hacksaw is used. However, a circular saw or chop saw may also be used, and many people find it much easier to properly cut the PVC with one of these tools. Then, a cleaning solvent should be used that's made for the purpose. Both the surface of the inside of the fittings and the corresponding surface of the outside of the pipe should be thoroughly cleaned with the cleaner. This both cleans the surfaces so that the glue will hold better, but also softens the plastic itself so that the glue will properly weld it together. Then, the glue should be applied to completely coat both surfaces, and the pieces should be fitted together with a twisting motion until completely seated.
  9. When installing a water heater, use heat-trapping nipples in the top. These are usually sold in pairs, and feature internal ball valves that automatically open to allow water to flow, but close when no water is flowing. These reduce heat loss from the water heater. They usually also are configured to stop galvanic action. Also use unions (two sweat or thread fittings that fit together with a smooth interface, and a nut then clamps them together) so that the water heater may be easily connected to and disconnected from the system.


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