A big chunk of our hard-earned money ends up in the greasy, grimy hands of plumbers, electricians, heating and air conditioning technicians, etc. Owning a house comes with maintenance costs that can amount to $4,000 or more per year. It’s about time we focused on how to save money with some basic DIY plumbing skills!
Many basic repairs are DIY-able
Here’s a list of the things you (yes, YOU) can do around the house yourself. No technical skills required. Beyond basic DIY plumbing, just about any aspect of your home is within the do-it-yourself realm.
1.) Toilet Repair and Replacement (this post)
2.) Faucet Repair and Replacement (this post)
3.) Cable Pulls (internet or cable TV – though you don’t need cable TV, right?)
4.) Window Sash Replacement and Screen Repair
5.) Tiling and flooring
6.) Appliance and Hot Water Heater Repair
7.) Door Lock Swaps and Re-keying
8.) Light Fixture and Dimmer Installation
9.) Basic HVAC / Ducting
DIY Plumbing 101: Toilet Repair (and Replacement)
Toilet repair is among the more seemingly straightforward, but also frustrating experiences. The most common problem is a clog (yuk!) or leaking tank. When it’s a clog, you go for the plunger and go to work. And hope, and flush, and pray, and plunge, and so on…
For any issues with the tank, you don’t need to worry about dirty water. The inside of the tank is probably one of the least contaminated spots in your home. Only clean water goes in there, trust me. But don’t go drinking a glass of toilet tank water or anything silly like that.
Your first step in making any repairs within the tank is to turn off the water to the toilet. The shut-off valve is located near the bowl. This will allow you to flush whatever water is in the tank so you can easily replace worn or broken parts without cold water in your way.
Your local hardware shop can help you find the right flapper, flush lever, or fill valve for your particular toilet model. There are tablets you can buy at the hardware store that’ll dissolve in the tank. Do not flush – if your toilet is leaking water, you’ll have colorful blue water in the bowl within minutes.
Replacement of other parts, like the fill valve, are pretty straightforward. Again, just take a picture of the tank’s inside with your phone, and bring the old fill valve to your local hardware store.
Side Note: Try to walk or RIDE YOUR BIKE to the local hardware store if you’re within a couple miles or less. It’s much less frustrating to roll back there on two wheels to get the RIGHT part the third time, than it is to drive back twice. At least you gain some exercise from the process!
To replace the entire toilet, turn off the water supply first. It’s the little valve behind the toilet covered in pee and dust. Once off, flush the toilet a time or two, then sponge out the rest of the water (don’t worry, it’s clean!) from the tank.
Next, unscrew the supply line from the tank (underside of the tank). You should be able to loosen and tighten with your hand. Never over-tighten the supply, but do make sure it’s a tight fit.
You might need to hack off the bolts holding down the bowl to the floor, if the bolts are too rusted. Just make sure the new toilet has enough fit and clearance with the wall behind the tank.
Removing the toilet isn’t too terrible. After the nuts are unthreaded from the floor mount bolts, simply pull the toilet up and away. Set the old toilet out in the backyard for now. Maybe a passing neighbor will have an interest?
I always take an old rag to pop into the drain in case any gases come up strong. You’ll next want to pop in a new wax ring over the drain. Even though the old one looks gross, remember it’s just wax. Scrape it off with a putty knife and pop in a new wax ring, centered.
Set the new bowl right on top of the wax ring, again very centered, and push down. Once settled, you can pop the nuts back on the bolts, tighten good, and put the little decorative caps over the bolts. Those look good, but they also prevent rusted nuts (never a good thing!)
Attach the water supply to the tank and use a little teflon tape to ensure no leaks. Seal around the base with a bead of caulk to stabilize the tank on the floor. Voila! Who needs a plumber?
Here’s a very good video from This Old House that’ll walk you through the entire process.
Faucet Repair and Replacement
For this kind of work, you might want to stretch out the back muscles a bit, because you’ll probably be doing a good amount of the work lying on your back under the sink. Just like with toilet repair, there’s no big secrets or mysteries to fixing or replacing a kitchen or bathroom faucet.
If you know you have to replace your faucet, or are simply upgrading, make sure you turn off the supply valves first, which should be right under the sink (hot and cold).
Oftentimes, a newer faucet from a reputable company (e.g., Kohler) comes with a lifetime warranty. We’ve had Kohler send us a brand new faucet head for our kitchen faucet TWICE in the past year due a clogging issue. Free. No questions asked.
A reduced flow of water from the hot or cold supply could be due to a few factors: the supply pipes may be rusting out from the inside if they’re old galvanized steel, or, the supply on/off valves are defective.
If you’ve isolated the problem to the valve (you can check this by comparing hot vs. cold valves – both rarely fail at the same time), be sure to replace with a quarter turn valve. They are more reliable and durable.
Compression fittings are easy to install – no soldering required. Just remember to apply a little strip of teflon tape – enough to go around the threads for to six times. Be sure to apply the tape in the direction of the threading for best results.
For your viewing pleasure, our friends at This Old House have a great video on leaky faucet repair.
Many of the same concepts apply for fixing leaking drain pipes underneath the sink. The great thing about drain pipes is you don’t have to worry about turning off supply valves before you work on them. But you should have a bucket and rag ready to catch any water resting in traps.
PVC tubing is simple in its design, and easy to work with. Simply unscrew joints with your hands to disassemble the length of drain where the problem (clog or leak) is isolated. One of the things I’ve learned from our rentals is it’s super important to a.) limit run length as much as possible (shorter the distance, the fewer the joins and failure points) and b.) make sure the fit is as square as possible.
Crazy how some people don’t bother to get a proper fit and wind up with leaks and failures over time. All it takes is a tape measure and a few seconds with a hacksaw to get it right!
How much can you save with DIY plumbing skills?
In a typical single family house, with one kitchen and two bathrooms, you’ll probably run into two or three repair jobs per year. Usually, the parts cost no more than 10% of the labor cost of a professional plumber. I learned how to tackle these jobs without any experience, but a few resources sure came in handy:
1.) Your DIY Bible: The Reader’s Digest New Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual
2.) YouTube (you’re going to put Joe the Plumber out of business!)
Sometimes you just need to trust in your ability to learn and turn (wrench or screwdriver, whatever the tool for the job happens to be.) With an average of three service calls avoided per year, at a cost of $150 per hour, you can figure to save close to $500 per year with some basic DIY plumbing skills.
Let’s look at the 40 year opportunity cost of these skills. If you start using your toolbox in your 20s, you could save $127,000 by the time you start collecting Social Security.
You’ll come to enjoy nailing your thumb with that hammer…
Now, consider the rest of the list we started with up top. Brick on brick, the savings will stack up to some huge dollars. Admittedly, you will find yourself making a few extra trips to Home Depot as you learn to be handy. You’ll spend a lot of time in the beginning figuring shit out, and some choice swear words will emerge… Dammit! (my thumb!!)
It’s perfectly understandable that you’d prefer to relax and unwind after a hard day in cubicle land. Heck, I’d rather read a novel or play golf instead of replacing a dirty old toilet too!
That said, it’s pretty damn rewarding to fix problems yourself, and work with your hands. The money you save is icing. Give yourself a sense of accomplishment and show a friend how it’s done. You might get a beer or two out of the deal!