Plumber expertise

As with other skilled trades, plumbers have different levels of expertise and training. Requirements vary by state, and there could be additional competency requirements for plumbers near you. As a general rule, these classifications are used to denote a plumber's training:

Apprentice plumber: Apprenticeship programs generally provide the most comprehensive training for novice plumbers. Either union locals and their affiliated companies or nonunion contractor organizations can administer this training. Apprenticeships typically consist of at least three to four years of paid, on-the-job training and some hours of related classroom instruction.

Journeyman plumber: Once the requirements of an apprenticeship are fulfilled, plumbers can apply for a journeyman license. Many workers in the plumbing industry are journeymen. Obtaining a journeyman's license requires a fee and the successful passing of an exam. Licenses vary by state, although not all areas require journeymen to be licensed. Instead, the amount of work they are able to perform is limited.

Master plumber: To become a master plumber, a person must have a certain number of years' experience as a journeyman plumber, in addition to an associate's degree or training at a vocational school. A master plumber must pass an exam that typically encompasses both written and practical knowledge. They must also complete continuing education hours every year. Oftentimes the business owner, a master plumber is subject to inspection and must make sure all journeyman plumbers working for his or her company are in compliance with plumbing regulations.

Checking plumbing licensing

Most states require plumbers to be licensed. Many state government websites allow local homeowners to search an online database of professional license holders or, at least, find a number to call in order to check the status of a plumber's license.

The National Contractor License Service maintains a list of each state's professional licensing agency where you can look up your state's licensing information. Check the list of state licensing agencies to find out whether a plumber is licensed in your state. Angie's List also maintains a licensing tool to check state licensing requirements. 

Questions to ask your plumber

If you've got a major leak on Christmas Day and need a plumber, you may be glad to find anyone who will fix it. However, if you're planning a costly renovation, take the time to interview more than one plumber before picking one.

When interviewing candidates, don't forget to ask about:

References: An experienced plumbing company should be able to give you the names of recent customers in your part of town.

Estimates: Get at least three written estimates from three different plumbers. Documentation is often the best ammunition should things go wrong.

Licensed, bonded and insured: Nearly every state in the U.S. requires plumbers to be licensed through a state professional licensing agency. Requirements vary on the need for professional licensing bonds, but all plumbers should have insurance to cover accidents that may happen while on your property.

Payment schedule: On a big job, especially a planned remodeling, the service provider may want the customer to pay 10 to 15 percent of the cost up front and 50 percent paid before the job is completed — especially if expensive materials need to be purchased for the project. Make sure you know what is expected. If you're suspicious, contact your state's professional licensing board or contracting board to ask about local standards. Many states set limits on what is allowed to be paid upfront.

Where the company is located: Be cautious of contractors who give you a post office box with no street address or use only an answering service. Never hire someone who comes unsolicited to your door and can’t provide you proof of qualifications — especially if he or she pressures you to hire fast and pay cash up front.

Kitchen sink infographic

How your kitchen plumbing works

The space under your kitchen sink has gotten more crowded over the years. Originally, there would have been a hot and cold water line going up to the faucet (usually with shut-off valves for each) and a single drain pipe with a curved trap.

Nowadays, most kitchen sinks have two drains, one of which goes into the garbage disposal. Most kitchens have dishwashers, so hot and cold water lines split off for that purpose, and a drain line comes back. You may also have a cold water line splitting off to supply your refrigerator's ice maker.

Kitchen sinks and faucets

Faucets for the kitchen come in an array of styles, and costs vary as well, from simple single handle models running less than $50 to pull down faucets like those used in restaurant kitchens costing more than $200. One handle or two, separate pullout sprayer or pull down, countertop or wall mount, these also feature a variety of finishes from stainless steel to nickel and bronze.

Similarly, there's no shortage of different types of sinks, too. These range from spare single-bowl models starting under $100 to a farmhouse apron front, double bowl made of copper or cast iron that can run $600 or more. Some are mounted under countertops — called undermount sinks — while drop-in sinks are designed for installation in a preexisting space in your countertop. Whatever the type, sinks can uniquely complement kitchen design as do countertops, cabinetry and other features.

The cost for installation of a faucet or sink starts around $75 to $200, which provides consumer pricing information on goods and services. Fees can rise for more difficult or involved installations, such as if access is limited or pipes need replacing.

When a faucet continues to drip after fully shut off, the problem is usually a worn-out rubber gasket or washer. This is a fairly simple do-it-yourself repair if your sink has separate hot and cold handles. However, most kitchen sinks today have a single hot-cold control unit in the center.

If you decide to try this job yourself, be prepared to keep meticulous track of about a dozen tiny parts (put the stopper in the sink so none of them fall down the drain). There are many different faucet designs, so you may not be able to tell what to replace until you've done the disassembly. Whether you do it yourself or hire a plumber, this would be a good time to think about whether you want to upgrade the faucet with a new design.

Water pressure problems are usually easier to fix. If the pressure is fine elsewhere in the house but not in the kitchen, consider these causes:

Clogged screen: Many kitchen faucets have an aerator screen that improves water flow. These can become gradually clogged, resulting in reduced water pressure. These can usually be removed easily by unscrewing them from the end-point of the faucet. If you need to use a wrench or pliers, be sure to cover the metal with cloth to prevent scratching. Just rinse out the screen and screw it back on.

Faulty parts: Faucets last for years, but not forever. If the internal parts go bad, the valves may not open completely resulting in low water pressure.

Leaking pipes: If you have water pressure problems throughout your house, the problem might be a leak in the main water line.

Kitchen garbage disposals

Mounted under the sink, the garbage disposal is meant for chopping up small bits of waste food.  When switched on the motor spins and impellers — also called lugs — throw bits of food against a grinder ring. You should always run water while using the garbage disposal; once the garbage disposal does its job, the water flushes the finely chopped particles down the drain.

Just remember: the garbage disposal is not a black hole capable of swallowing anything and everything.

What NOT to put down your disposal

Stringy, fibrous foods such as celery, artichokes, asparagus, corn husks or potato skins. The fibers tend to wrap around the blades like string.

Bones, fruit pits and other extremely hard food wastes. These can dull and even break the unit's blades. In a worst-case scenario, hard foods will jam the disposal, preventing blades from turning and causing the motor to burn out.

Grease and fat. The grease will distribute a film over the blades, diminishing their effectiveness. Eventually, the grease will begin to decay, causing an unpleasant odor in the kitchen. Grease also tends to clog drains further down the line.

Non-food items such as rubber bands, twist ties, cigarette butts, pull tabs, fabric, sponges and plant clippings. These items cannot break down enough to wash down the drain. 

Clearing a jammed disposal:

When a garbage disposal's spinning mechanism gets stuck the motor could burn out, so many disposals have a built-in circuit breaker to shut it off.

At the center of the bottom of the disposal, you'll find a hex-shaped hole. Find an alum wrench that fits, and turn the mechanism back and forth until you free the obstruction. Then look for a reset button to turn the power back on.

How to keep your disposal clean and non-stinky

Keeping your trash dispoal clean isn't very difficult or time consuming. Fill the sink at least half full of soapy water. Remove the stopper from the drain while simultaneously turning on the disposal. This will fill the entire disposal with soapy water and help to flush out food buildup. It will also clean the blades and flush your pipes with clean water.

Keep blades sharp by occasionally running ice cubes through the disposal. Some people recommend egg shells, but experts say this does not actually work, and concentrated amounts of eggshells can in fact be bad for your disposal.

Eliminate odors naturally using lemon juice or white vinegar. Try pouring 3 cups of lemon juice into the disposal and let stand for 10 minutes. If using vinegar, use 1 cup and let stand for 30 minutes before flushing with hot water.

How to unclog a kitchen drain

If your kitchen drain is stopped up or very slow to drain, don't be too quick to pour in chemicals. The process is similar to how you unclog a bathroom drain, but kitchen sinks have a few of their own quirks. First, try these steps:

Visual inspection: Check inside the garbage disposal for any obvious causes.

Try a plunger: If it's a double sink, use a wet rag or rubber stopper to block the other drain. Place the plunger directly over the drain until it forms an air-tight seal. If you have trouble forming an air-tight seal with the plunger, run it under some hot water to make it more flexible. Move the plunger up and down to dislodge the clog from the drain.

Try natural products to dissolve drain clogs: Harsh chemicals can damage your pipes and become a hazard to your skin if the clog persists and you need to remove the P-trap under the sink.

Clear the trap: If the above methods do not work, the next step would be to remove the P-trap under the sink. Place a bucket underneath the area to catch water then unscrew the two threaded caps that hold the curved section of the pipe in place. Nowadays, most kitchen drains are made of white PVC pipe with connections that can be unscrewed by hand.

Call a plumber: If the clog is not in the P-trap and water flows freely from the sink drain into your bucket, then it's time to call a plumber. The clog is likely further down the line.

How your bathroom plumbing works

Sure, you see water flowing when you take showers, flush toilets and wash your hands in the sink. Still, most of the work your bathroom’s plumbing does occurs behind sealed walls.

Unseen sets of pipes use pressure to move water through supply lines and out faucets, showerheads or into your toilet. In a separate drain pathway, small pipes run from the tub and sink to eventually meet up with a larger one underneath the toilet, carrying waste and wastewater from the bathroom and ultimately out of the house.

Vent pipes also connected to the system, in the wall behind the toilet, allowing gases to escape through a main pipe that runs out of your roof.

So as you go about your morning getting ready for the day, just know the pipes in your bathroom are already hard at work. That is, of course, unless your bathroom plumbing needs to be repaired.

Bathroom faucets and sinks

Many options exist in sinks and faucets to complement the varied looks of today’s bathrooms.

Standard construction ranges from a widespread faucet affixed through three holes — for the spout and two handles, respectively — to a single hole bathroom faucet with a handle on top of the spout. In some cases buttons, not handles, or touch- or motion-activated sensors turn on faucets.

Faucets come in various colors, from gold to black, and finishes, including polished brass to brushed nickel and classic stainless steel. These range in price from around $25 for the most basic, budget models to more than $1,000 for the highest end, motion-activated faucets. Many of the best selling sink faucets cost $200.

Cost to install faucets varies with the job, starting around $75 to $150, though it can run more.

Similarly, bathroom sinks reflect a wide variety of tastes. You can get a wall-mount sink to save floor space in a small bathroom or a pedestal sink that features a basin atop a slim, podium-like structure rather than a traditional wider base.

Sinks can also be mounted from above or below the counter, or vanity, and homeowners have the option to put in a contemporary vessel sink, which sits on top of the counter. Costs range from less than $100 for a basic, porcelain drop-in or pedestal sink, to several hundred dollars or more for a cast iron vessel sink. Install tends to run between $150 to $200 though it can cost more depending on who you hire and the complexity of the job.

How to fix a dripping faucet

A slow drip can waste a lot of water over time, and you may also be tired of hearing it during the still of the night. If your sink has separate hot and cold-water handles, try these steps:

Turn off the water to the sink. This is usually done via the valves beneath the sink, but you may need to turn it off at the water main. Once the water has been shut off, turn the handle to the open position to drain any remaining water.

Most faucets have a cap that you'll need to pop off to access the screw that secures the handle to the valve stem. Turn the screw counterclockwise and remove the faucet's stem.

Check the rubber gasket for signs of cracking or wear. It's a small washer that's located on the bottom of the stem. In all likelihood, it will be the cause of the problem. If so, replace it with a new gasket. They are inexpensive and can be purchased at most hardware stores. Bring the old gasket with you to ensure a perfect match.

Reassemble the faucet assembly and secure everything back in place.

Turn the water back on and test the faucet. The leaky faucet should be fixed!

How to unclog a sink drain

Drain clogs in bathroom sinks can occur over time from the buildup of hair, bits of soap and fibers from towels that accumulates inside of pipes. As a clog becomes bigger over time, it obstructs the pipe, stopping water from draining properly.

Many clogs can be dislodged using a sink plunger. Place the plunger over the sink's drain hole, ensuring there's enough water at the bottom to form a seal. Pump the plunger up and down - while keeping a good seal.

If that doesn't work, try other DIY fixes to unclog a sink like pouring hot or near-boiling water down the drain. The water's heat may break up any organic compounds or soap scum within the clog. Add baking soda to boost clog-busting power.

Although it may be tempting to pour in over-the-counter drain-clearing products, many plumbers advise against it. Not only are the chemicals toxic if exposed to human skin, they may also damage drain pipes if overused.

Plumbing for showers and tubs

Bathe retro with a $1,000 cast iron clawfoot freestanding tub. Or go futuristic with your soaking comforts as your body “listens” to music through sound waves emanating from underwater resonant speakers in a tricked out corner tub costing thousands.

Want something simpler yet still stylish? Soak in the middle of the room in a drop-in tub, starting at $600; or step into a no frills all-purpose $500 alcove tub tucked in three walls, with a showerhead for every day.

Simple bathtub faucets start around $50 and run 10 times that or more. The average cost to replace an old tub with a new one runs $2,500 to $3,500.

Whatever your preference and price point, there’s a tub to sooth. That’s, of course, if you want a bathtub. Many homeowners — particularly those who don’t have young children living with them — have thrown the tub out with the bath water in favor of installing a walk-in shower. Just make sure to consider the pros and cons of tub to shower conversions.

Among popular options, are walk-in showers wrapped in a frameless glass enclosure or tiled walls, with or without a door to seal in the steam. Then there’s the choice of what angle you want the water to hit you.

Options range from the standard wall-mount showerhead, overhead, and handheld showerheads to multiple showerheads that spritz targeted spray, rain and mist. You could spend less than $50 for a basic showerhead, or thousands for a shower “system.”

The price to install a shower can range from a hundred or so to put in a showerhead and add a curtain to an alcove tub or $1,000 for a simple shower stall. Expect to pay $5,000 to $10,000 or more for a tiled walk-in shower enclosed in glass.

You can cut your water consumption during showers nearly in half by installing a low-flow showerhead. This would also make it less likely you’ll run out of hot water during times of peak water use in your home.

According to standards set by the federal government, a low-flow showerhead uses no more than 2.5 gallons of water per minute at a water pressure of 80 pounds per square inch. That’s less than half the rate of water used by some older traditional showerhead models. Low-flow showerheads come in two main types, aerating, which creates a mist, or laminar-flow that sends water out in a steady stream.

Whether you switch to a low-flow shower head or just want to replace your old one, the steps are simple:

1. Remove the old showerhead by twisting it to the left. If you need to use a wrench, wrap a soft cloth around the shower head and tighten the wrench around it to prevent scratching the plumbing lines.

2. Clean off any gunk in the threads of the shower pipe and wrap it with fresh plumber's tape. The tape should overlap itself by about 50 percent as you move across the threads. Wrap clockwise so the tape wraps in the same direction that new head will screw on.

3. Attach the new showerhead and tighten it as much as you can by hand.

4. Turn on the shower and watch for leaks. If you see any, wrap the showerhead with the cloth and use the wrench to gently give it one more quarter turn.

To save water elsewhere in the bathroom, newer faucets come with aerators, which screw on to the tip of the faucet, that reduce flow rates. Check into adding one if yours doesn’t already come equipped.

Outdoor plumbing

You might run water outdoors for a variety of reasons. Whether it's as common as hooking up a hose or sprinkler or as unusual as installing an outdoor shower or sink, you need to know the details that go into outdoor plumbing. For hints and tips, check out the Angie's List Guide to Outdoor Plumbing.

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