Be Your Own Plumber

Forget expensive plumbing bills — here’s how to install your own fixtures easily using basic tools.
By Steve Maxwell
August/September 2006

Flexible water supply hoses connect the copper water supply pipe to the fixture and are reinforced with braided steel mesh.
SCOTT HOLLIS
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If you’re a do-it-yourselfer — and especially if you live in an old house — at some point you’ll likely want to improve a bathroom in your home. Fortunately, many upgrades are simpler than ever, thanks to advances in plumbing fixture design and materials. The general knowledge and instructions outlined below will enable you to save money by handling some routine plumbing projects yourself.

Replacing a Faucet

New sink faucets typically install easily, thanks to flexible water supply hoses that connect the copper water supply pipe to the fixture. These hoses are reinforced with braided stainless steel mesh and have threaded connections at both ends. Connecting the faucet to your home’s supply hose is as simple as screwing the two hoses together and tightening them with a small adjustable wrench. If you already have this flexible hose setup in your bathroom, then upgrading your faucets will take less than half an hour. If you have an old copper-pipe installation, then the job may take several hours.
If your house is more than a couple of decades old, you probably have solid copper water supply pipes that connect directly to your faucets. In the past, changing a faucet in this situation required precisely cutting and soldering the copper pipe and faucet together, but now all that has changed. If the faucet you’re replacing is connected directly to copper pipes, then you won’t even have to unsolder it to remove the old fixture. Instead, just shut off the water supply valve, cut the copper pipes with an inexpensive pipe cutter so at least several inches of copper pipe extend from the floor or wall, then lift out the old faucet.

Now hook up some flexible supply lines. The best way to connect a flexible supply line to copper piping is by installing a shut-off valve that includes a threaded compression joint. One end of this valve is threaded to accept the flexible water supply hose that connects to the faucet, and the other end slips over the end of a half-inch copper pipe and tightens with a compression ring. Simply slide the threaded compression nut onto the copper supply pipe, then slip on the compression ring. It’s a brass ring with tapered edges, which barely fits around the outside of the half-inch copper pipe. Push the valve body onto the end of the supply line, slide the ring up to it and tighten the compression nut. When you tighten the nut, the thin edges of the ring squeeze against the outside surface of the pipe, sealing it without solder.

Replacing a Toilet

Most weekend DIYers will have no trouble changing out a toilet, provided they are savvy to a couple of installation tricks. (As you read these directions, refer to this illustration.) It’ll take just a few hours and a few wrenches to get the job done.

Start by shutting off the water supply valve to your existing toilet. Remove the water from the tank and bowl by flushing to expel most of the water, and then soak up the rest with a sponge. The drier you can get the tank and bowl the better.
At the back of the toilet, undo the pipe connection either by unscrewing the flexible water supply hose or by cutting the copper supply pipe with a pipe cutter. If you haven’t done so already, upgrade this old system to a flexible screw-on line that will make future disconnects a snap.

Now pry off the two domelike caps on the toilet base near the floor. You’ll see two nuts that secure the toilet to bolts that extend down to a flange around the waste pipe. These nuts and bolts are typically made of brass, so they shouldn’t be seized with rust and corrosion — but that does not always mean they turn easily. If the nuts don’t loosen with moderate force from a wrench, then cut them off with a hacksaw blade.

Toilet drains are never pretty, and here’s your chance to see for yourself. As you lift up the old toilet with the help of a partner, be prepared for some odor and an ugly sight. Most of what you see will be the dirty old wax ring seal between your toilet and the drain.

Move the old toilet out of the way (preferably outside), then grab a 2-inch putty knife and begin scraping the old wax ring off the flange. Scrape the flange clean so the new wax ring seats properly. To keep the floor clean, drop the sticky blobs of wax into a plastic bag.

Unless the bolts that anchor your toilet to the drainpipe flange are in good shape, you should replace them. New brass flange bolts are inexpensive and will last for a long time. The bolt heads slip into holes at the ends of the slots that run around the flange on the drainpipe.

It’s now time to install your new toilet. If it has two pieces, you’ll find the job easier if you temporarily leave off the tank. Now flip the bowl upside down and press a new wax ring in place over the toilet exit port. One wax ring probably will be sufficient, but you’d better double-check. Flip the toilet upright without letting the bottom touch the floor, then carefully lower it onto the drain flange with the flange bolts extending up through the two holes in the sides of the toilet bowl base. Have someone help you lower the toilet into place, and don’t let your helper leave until you’ve taken a close look at everything. Make sure the toilet is resting on the wax ring and not on the floor.

Ideally this ring should compress under the weight of the toilet, creating a solid seal. Because the toilet is now sitting on the wax ring, the toilet also should have a squishy feel when you rock it back and forth. If not, lift the toilet off again and look at the wax ring. If you don’t see evidence that the entire ring was in contact with the flange, then you need to add another layer of wax. To fill a wide gap, press a second ring over the first one. If you’ve got a narrow gap, slice a second ring in half lengthwise like a bagel, then push it into place before lowering the toilet down on the flange.

Sit on the toilet to apply downward pressure while rotating the toilet an eighth of a turn in both directions. When you feel the toilet make contact with the bathroom floor, reinstall the nuts and tighten them, but don’t overtighten — the base of the toilet may crack.

If you bought a two-piece toilet, now you can place the tank on the new base and attach the water supply line. If you’re upgrading from a copper supply line to a flexible one, cleanly cut off the copper pipe, then install a new valve that connects to the copper with a compression fitting. Test your toilet with at least three flushes, using a flashlight to help you inspect all the connections around the tank and bowl perimeter for leaks.

Does your toilet wiggle slightly from side to side, even after you have tightened the bolts? This is common, especially in bathrooms with tile floors. If you do not correct this wiggle, your toilet will leak, and the bowl may crack eventually. I tap wooden wedges into the widest part of the gaps, and then trim them flush with the edge of the bowl. Work some tile grout or silicone caulking into the gap around the perimeter of the toilet. Once this has hardened, your new toilet will sit rock-solid and work leak-free for years. (Although new toilets use less water than older ones, some models work better than others. For help choosing the best low-flow toilet for your home, read “Half the Water, Twice the Flush!”— Mother.)

Installing Drains

New faucets and toilets are just half of the bathroom plumbing basics. Installing a wastewater drain in a sink or shower involves a different set of skills. (As you read these directions, refer to this illustration.) The work here can take a few hours or a few days, depending on your situation. Installing a wastewater drain is simple if you’re just tapping into an existing drainpipe in its original location. But the task can become substantially more complicated if you need to move a drainpipe, especially when you don’t have open access to the pipes from below.

In the case of simple drain replacement, you need only a few basic tools: a can of drainpipe cement for bonding the pipe joints, something to cut the plastic pipe — an electric chop saw works well — and a tape measure. The trick is arranging the pipes so they drain water properly and keep sewer gas at bay. You can anchor the drainpipe to floor joists and framing using a combination of wood framing and flexible metal support straps.

When you plan a drain installation in your bathroom, count on using 1 1/2- or 2-inch-diameter plastic drainpipe for sinks, showers and tubs, and 3- or 4-inch-diameter pipe for toilets. Local plumbing codes vary, so check details before you begin.

All effective plumbing drains have four key features: a tailpiece and a curved pipe segment called a “trap” located below each sink, shower and tub; solid anchoring of the pipe; a consistent downward pipe slope of a quarter inch per foot of horizontal travel; and a system of air vents (called a vent stack) that allows wastewater to drain smoothly.

All renovations are unique, but most plumbers begin drain installations at the fixture and work back to the main drainpipe. Toilets are sealed from the sewer line by the standing water in the bowl, but all other fixtures require a curved drainpipe trap directly underneath the drain, which retains water and creates a liquid seal that prevents gases in the sewer line from wafting into your bathroom.

Cutting and fastening plastic piping is simple. Saw the length of pipe you need, swab a generous coat of cement on the pipe and the connector you’re assembling, then push the parts together. In a couple of seconds, the cement bond is permanent and waterproof.

As you cut and fit piping to build your drain system, be sure you don’t forget the all-important quarter-inch slope downward for every foot of horizontal pipe travel. Water won’t drain properly in piping with less slope. But more slope also can be a problem, because wastewater can drain too quickly, possibly leaving behind solids that can clog the drainpipe over time.

In addition to establishing a good drainpipe slope, you also need to install drainpipe venting. As wastewater travels down a drainpipe, it creates suction behind it. And without something to relieve this suction, you’ll hear loud gurgling noises in your sink, shower or tub. Even more serious, water can be drawn out of the drain trap, eliminating that all-important seal between the sewer line and your home.

This is why all drains have a secondary system of pipes that work as air vents to relieve suction. Ideally this should be installed within a few feet downstream of every connection to the drain. These secondary vent pipes connect to the vent stack, which extends vertically through your roof to the outdoors. In this illustration, the drainpipe connects directly to the vent stack.

Sometimes, it’s not easy to connect a vent pipe to the drain you’re working on and have it run back to the vent stack. In cases like this, you can install a one-way vent valve made especially for this purpose, called an air admittance valve. This valve must be installed as close as possible to the drain opening under a sink, countertop or shower drain, and connected to the drainpipe with its own short plastic pipe. A spring automatically seals the air admittance valve when no suction is present in the pipe, which prevents sewer gases from seeping into the bathroom. But when water travels down the drain and pressure drops within the pipe, the valve automatically opens and admits room air into the pipe, relieving the suction.

As you build your system of drainpipes, secure them every 4 to 6 feet with wooden blocks and flexible metal straps. The easiest metal strapping to use comes in a roll that’s pre-punched to accept screws. Unroll what you need, cut it to length with tin snips, then wrap it underneath the pipe and drive a couple of anchor screws into surrounding floor joists or wall framing members. Use a tape measure to guide pipe placement and slope by following the underside of the subfloor as reference. If that surface isn’t handy or trustworthy, put a carpenter’s level on the pipe. Slope the pipe so a quarter to half of the bubble lies outside the level lines so the water will flow correctly.

Learning to do your home’s plumbing does more than just save you a bundle of money. When the job’s done and you’re cleaning your tools and putting them away, you’ll enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done.

Learn to Solder Copper Pipes Successfully

Plumbing your bathroom with DIY-friendly PEX-AL-PEX water supply lines (see “Easier Plumbing with PEX,” June/July 2006) offers many advantages. While you can buy fittings for making solder-free connections between old copper piping and new PEX, you also can solder transitional fittings to bridge the gap between copper and PEX when replacing drains and toilets. You might even want to stick completely with copper pipes to keep costs down. Regardless of your situation, soldering is surprisingly easy to learn.

Soldering (also called “sweating”) is a process that uses molten metal to join copper water supply pipes with a bond that’s strong, permanent and waterproof. Plumber’s solder originally was made of lead, but because lead is now known to be toxic, solder is now mostly made from tin. But regardless of the metal it’s made from, the soldering process involves the same three steps: clean and heat the metal, add solder and then let the joint connection cool and harden.

All good solder joints begin with brightly polished, dry copper pipes, because molten solder flows best into the pores of clean copper. Both the inner and outer sides of every joint — as well as the solder itself — must shine before assembly. Use 120-grit sandpaper or an emery cloth to polish all outside surfaces of plumbing joints, and use a wire brush made specifically for this job to clean inside surfaces. Before you assemble the joints prior to soldering, coat both halves of each joint with flux, a Vaselinelike substance that helps the solder flow and bond to the copper piping.

Now assemble the joint, put on your safety glasses and light a hand-held propane torch. Heat the joint area with the tip of the flame until the copper itself is hot enough to melt the solder when it touches the pipe. It’s vital that the heat of the pipe, not the flame, melts the solder. You know that you’ve completed a well-soldered joint when you can see a silver line of solder flowing on its own all the way around the pipe joint. A solder connection doesn’t require much melted metal, so use a light hand when applying it. If your solder melts and sticks to the pipe in blobs, then the pipe isn’t hot enough. If you want clean-looking joints, wipe the joint with a damp rag to remove excess solder when it’s still molten.

The only thing that might cause you trouble is water inside a pipe. Even a drop or two can keep the pipe from becoming hot enough to melt the solder for a joint. There’s another option if you’re adding piping to an existing network that contains water you can’t drain out. Don’t be afraid to drill a hole an eighth of an inch in diameter at a low spot nearby to let all the water escape. You can easily patch the pipe later with a blob of solder after you’ve completed the joint.

Tools for Soldering

Pipe cutter and pipe minicutter: For about $30, these tools make cutting copper pipe easy, clean and fast. Use the minicutter in places too tight for the full-size tool.

Propane torch: A multipurpose tool that’s economical to operate; ideal for soldering copper water supply pipes.

Emery cloth and cleaning brushes: The perfect pair for cleaning the inside and outside surfaces of copper pipe joints.

Flux and flux brush: Chemically cleans copper for best results. Brush makes flux application neat and easy.


Contributing Editor Steve Maxwell has been helping people renovate, build and maintain their homes for more than two decades. “Canada’s Handiest Man” is an award-winning home improvement authority and woodworking expert. Contact him by visiting his website and the blog, Maxwell’s House. You also can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook and find him on . 


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