Save Money by Fixing Your Own Plumbing

Everybody wants to save money to reach financial independence, but it’s even more challenging to avoid unnecessary expenses. Sometimes “spending avoidance” requires sweat equity, training, and experience. Other times you can avoid expenses with a little knowledge and good habits. The trick is to find the balance where “do it yourself” is not slave labor.

If you’re a little bit familiar with the design of a house, and if you read a free website or a weekly e-mail (or subscribe to a monthly magazine at $10/year), then you can save yourself thousands of dollars.

Here’s a real-life example.

Our neighbor had a plugged kitchen sink drain: on New Year’s Day, just a couple of hours before company showed up for dinner. I have no idea what plumbers or handymen cost on that holiday– $100? $250?!? I doubt you could even persuade one to show up. By the time our neighbor called for help she was very worried.

Their kitchen sink drain line first plugged about 2-3 years ago. Back then they didn’t want to spend real money for a real plumber, so they bought a tool for a garden hose: a jet nozzle in front of an expanding rubber bellows. You screw it onto the end of the hose, stick it in the drain pipe, and turn on the water. The water pressure in the hose inflates the bellows against the pipe and seals it, while the jet fills the downstream drain pipe with water. Between the jet and the water pressure, the clog is supposed to get broken apart and pushed down the pipe to the sewer line.

If the drain line is clogged, and the hose is inserted under the sink to block that line while adding more water, then the water will fill the vent line all the way up to the roof.

Kitchen sink drain and vent lines

Unbeknownst to my spouse and me, this drain-unclogging evolution had turned into a quarterly requirement. (This is not normal, and it meant that a clog kept re-forming.) The kitchen sink drain would stop draining again, so the neighbors would take apart the trap under the sink and stick the nozzle in. (See the diagram from Terry Love’s plumbing forum.) The water jet would clear some of the clog pretty quickly (but not all of it!) so they’d put everything back together… until a few months later when it clogged again.

The New Years’s Day clog was especially bad, or maybe it had been a few months since the last jetting. When they took apart the trap and stuck the nozzle in, the clog didn’t break up. They kept the hose running, which squirted more and more water into the drain line.

They didn’t know that kitchen sink drain lines are also vented to the roof. (That link starts a 90-second video showing how vent lines work.) They squirted enough water into the drain line to fill up the pipe against the clog (which refused to budge), and then the drain line filled back to the kitchen sink where the hose was inserted (which was sealed by the bellows). After that, the water filled the vent line– up the wall, above the kitchen ceiling, and up to the roof. After filling about 10 feet of vent line, it started to fountain out onto the roof– overflowing the gutter and raining outside the kitchen.

This can be pretty upsetting, especially if you don’t know how it can happen. You’re putting water into the drain and it’s spraying out onto the roof?!?

They shut off the hose water but thankfully they left the hose (with its expanded bellows) plugging the sink drain. That hose bellows was the only thing holding back the gallons of water that was still filling the vent pipe all the way up to the roof.

Seen from the outside wall, with the decorative cover removed.

Kitchen sink drain cleanout plug

Once my spouse and I saw the layout, we understood the problem. We went to the drain cleanout plug on the outside wall (on the other side of the kitchen sink drain trap). It hadn’t been used in years and its cover had been painted to the wall. We pried the paint off the cover and unscrewed the retaining screw in its center.

Unfortunately, that cover’s screw was so long that it had punctured the plastic drain cleanout plug underneath. As soon as I pulled the screw & cover off the wall, a stream of water started peeing out of the hole in the kitchen drain cleanout plug and onto the front lanai. (This caused some consternation among the observers.)

The “good” news was that the roof’s vent pipe was draining. While we waited for that to finish emptying onto the lanai, we searched for the house’s main drain cleanout plug which is downstream toward the street’s sewer line. It turned out to be a cast iron metal cap under a driveway cover, and it didn’t have a fitting for a wrench. I’d never seen that design before but we later learned (thanks, Google!) that we’d have to soak it in WD-40 before hammering it loose with a chisel and a sledge. I didn’t want to mess with that, at least not until a quiet weekday morning when the plumbing supply store was open.

Unscrew the plug to see inside the drain piping. Now you can work on the drain piping without being in the kitchen or under the sink.

Kitchen sink drain cleanout plug pipe hole

We headed back to the sink drain cleanout plug, which was almost finished squirting water through its hole. We put a wrench on the plug and unscrewed it out of the drain. Water was standing in the pipe right up to the rim of the plug, so we knew that the drain was still clogged.

Up to this point, our tools came out of the standard homeowner’s repair bag that’s available at most home improvement stores for $20: a razor knife, screwdrivers, and an adjustable crescent wrench. We could have stuck that garden hose jet down into the drain pipe from the cleanout plug (where the bellows would keep the water from flowing back up the vent!) but I wanted to try a plumber’s snake.

Hopefully, you never have to buy this tool (see the final three paragraphs of this post) but they’re under $20. My spouse and I are home-improvement enthusiasts with a collection of specialty toys tools, so we have a 50-foot snake that we expected would reach all the way to the driveway cleanout plug.

Insert the pointy end into the drain pipe and push it down the drain. As you turn the handle, you'll spin the snake in the pipe to clear out the clog.

A typical plumber’s snake

We stuck the snake in and immediately found the clog at the drain pipe’s right-angle bend a couple of feet below the sink. I sawed back & forth for a while to dislodge it. (Yummy pasta and chopped onions– just like clearing the galley drains on a submarine.)

While my spouse chatted with our neighbor about using more cold water with their disposal, I kept inserting more snake. Sure enough, there was a second clog about 20 feet further into the drain. I worked the snake some more and suddenly heard water gushing down the drain to the sewer.

Since we still had the hose jet ready for use, we pulled it out of the kitchen sink trap and moved it outside to the drain cleanout plug. We stuck it a couple of feet down the drain line (below the trap and the roof vent) and turned it on. The bellows expanded to seal against the pipe walls and the drain started to fill with water again. The hose struggled for a few seconds but then you could almost feel the pressure pulse as it completely washed away the remains of both clogs.

If we had been able to open the driveway cleanout then we could have watched a flood of ancient food debris spewing into the sewer (or maybe into the gutter). Hopefully, we never have to unclog this drain again, but if we did then that driveway cleanout plug would be the next step. We let the hose run for a few minutes (just in case there was a third clog) but the drain seemed fine now!

We pulled the hose out. I started to pull out the plumber’s snake and… *clunk*. It was stuck. Clunk. I tugged on it some more. Clunk-clunk. I tried chanting the magic words “[expletive deleted]“.  Clunkclunkclunk. Still stuck.

Modern drain pipes are a plastic called ABS. (Older ones are wrought-iron pipes.) ABS plastic is pretty tough, but if you crack it then you have to dig a hole in the yard (maybe through a concrete sidewalk) to replace it. As I thought about that, little fine beads of sweat began to pop out on my forehead. Luckily after more patient twisting and some steady, firm, sustained pulling… the snake popped free. (It was probably stuck on a flange by a joint in a bend of the drain piping.) It came out of the rest of the pipe with no problem.

We filled the hole in the kitchen sink drain cleanout plug with silicon caulk, screwed it back into the drain pipe, and put the sink trap back together. Water happily flowed down the drain and gurgled to the street sewer. The neighbors could buy a new plug another day, along with a shorter screw for the drain cover.

Our neighbor was relieved. The crisis was averted. Dinner (and kitchen cleanup) proceeded without a hitch. The rest of the day was a success.

Ah, but you submariners know that we have not yet addressed the “root cause” of the casualty. (“Muster on the mess decks for the incident critique.”) Why did the sink drain keep clogging up in the first place? They’re not supposed to clog at all, let alone need quarterly cleaning with a hose jet!

The best answer is to only put watery liquids down a drain. Never any grease or fats, as little food debris as possible, and hopefully no pasta or rice or onion peels or coffee grounds. Use a sink strainer to stop the food waste, and dump that in the trash (or a compost pile!) But if food waste does get into the drain, then use the disposal to grind it up. Flush everything down the drain with plenty of cold water. Hot water seems easier, but cold water solidifies any grease and fat for the disposal to chop into small pieces and flush into the sewer. Hot water merely dissolves the grease/fat to cool and reform further down the drain line.. and clog it.

Of course, there are plenty of other problems that could clog a drain: jewelry, kid’s toys, broken drain piping, dirt seeping in through a hole, tree roots infiltrating the piping joints… it’s a long list. I hope we’ve found the answer, and I hope that better kitchen cleanup habits keep that drain clear for years.

The next question is usually: “Gee whiz, Nords, where do you learn this stuff?!?” Luckily you don’t have to go to sea on a submarine (although that certainly gives you plenty of practice). You can start with an Internet connection and Google. Eventually, you’ll find a site like FamilyHandyman.com or the home of the Samurai Appliance Repair Sensei. If you’re even mildly interested in home maintenance and repairs then subscribe to a newsletter or a hardcopy magazine. Get small monthly doses of knowledge & inspiration, and eventually, you’ll gain the confidence to tackle your own repairs. Better yet, you’ll recognize the symptoms of impending doom trouble and know when to seek professional help– before it’s a holiday crisis!

Related articles:
DIY home maintenance
DIY home improvement
Lessons learned from DIY home improvement

WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

3 Comments
  1. Reply
    Mandy @ Money Master Mom January 19, 2013 at 1:33 PM

    Sounds like you and my Hubby share the ability to fix things by yourself! Although I wouldn’t advertise you’ve got a knack for plumbing or you may find your phone ringing off the hook :)

  2. Good point. The key is to pick the simple tasks you feel comfortable with and to build up from there as you gain experience.

    Comment? Question? What's on your mind?