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Do It Yourself: Get to Know Your Sink #30DaysofGOOD

Use this information to understand basic sink plumbing, so that you're better prepared to deal with leaky faucets and clogged drains.

Things are easier said than done, or so the old adage goes, and we couldn't agree more. That's why we do 30 Days of GOOD (#30DaysofGOOD), a monthly attempt to live better. Our challenge for July? Do It Yourself.

Drip. Drip. Drip. It's a sound many of us live with every day and night.

Leaky faucets are extremely common, and are a huge drain on the world's water resources. Even a slow, once-per-15-seconds leak will flush away 138 gallons of water per year, according to the USGS drip calculator. Fortunately, many sink problems are easier to rectify than you'd think.

Today's task is to become familiar with the workings of your sink. If you've got a leaky faucet or a clog, you can use my notes below to assess what's going on and address the problem. If you don't currently have any issues, use the information to understand basic sink plumbing, so that you're better prepared to deal with any problems in the future.

First things first, make sure to turn off the water to the sink before doing any plumbing work—you'll be in for a rude surprise if you don't. The shut-off valve is usually under the sink, along the water inlet pipes that connect to the faucet. Remember, righty-tighty, lefty-loosey. Go clockwise to keep the water from spraying everywhere when you take components out further down the line. Also, most of these fixes can be done with simple tools—screwdriver, adjustable wrench, pliers, and in some cases, allen wrenches.

Leaky Faucet?

The faucet (sometimes called the tap or the spigot) is the primary sink component we interact with, but since its mechanism is mostly internal, most of us don't give much thought into what happens when the knobs are turned. It is essentially a passageway from the water pipe to the spout, with a moveable piece that blocks or allows the flow of water.

Older "compression" faucets have a handle connected to an internal screw mechanism with a washer on the end. Twisting the handle moves the washer up or down, closing or opening the passageway for water to pour through. When a leak occurs on this type of faucet, it is often a worn washer, requiring the valve mechanism to be unscrewed from the faucet and the washer to be replaced. However, sometimes these leaks are due to corroded threads or valve stems, which will require a full faucet replacement or upgrade.

Contemporary faucets usually use cartridge mechanisms, which are much easier to dismantle and replace. Simply remove the handle to expose the retaining nut or screws; undo those to pop the cartridge out. New o-ring gaskets are available for a few bucks at any hardware or plumbing store, and if replacing those doesn't stop the leak, you can change the entire cartridge itself, again usually for a nominal cost.

For any of these repairs, it's always best to make sure you get pieces that match the original manufacturer. It's not uncommon to bring the failing components to the store to make sure you've got the exact part—with so many faucet makes and models, there are a lot of components with small but crucial differences.

Loose Sink?

If your faucet isn't leaking, but you've found that the whole apparatus feels loosely connected, moving and shifting whenever you turn the water on or off, it likely only needs a quick tightening of the mounting nuts that bracket it into place underneath. Using a flashlight, climb below and peer up towards the inside bottom of the sink. There should be a couple large, threaded brass pipes that the water pipes connect to, and above those, large plastic nuts that butt up against the sink. Get a good grip on the plastic nuts and hand-tighten them into place. You can use pliers if necessary, but do so very carefully, as you don't want to rip the plastic from over-torquing.

And while on the topic of faucet mounting, most faucets have a seal of plumber's putty underneath them, put in place before being tightened down with those plastic mounting nuts, to keep any water around the faucet from leaking through and dripping onto the items stored below. If you're having a problem with water seepage around the faucets, loosen the mounting nuts and lift the faucet out far enough to put a new ridge of plumber's putty around it—a very fast and easy fix.

Clogged Drain?

Directly below the faucet and spout, almost every sink uses a curved drain pipe called a sink trap; it works by catching heavy items that accidentally get washed away, like coins, toothpaste caps, or prosthetic eyes (I kid you not!), while the liquid water flows up the other side of the trap and continues to the sewer.

Fortunately, these traps are pretty easy to open and clear out, especially with newer sinks that use PVC pipes, which can often be loosened and tightened by hand. Older metal pipes usually need a pipe wrench or large adjustable wrench to loosen the large nuts that hold the top and bottom of the trap in place. Before removing the trap, put a bucket underneath to catch the water that will splash out. It can get grimy in there too, so wear some dirty old clothes while doing it. Remember this next time you lose your wedding ring while washing up and frustrations will be minimized.

When to Call the Pros

Finally, there are times when DIY sink repair is beyond the scope of the everyday handyman. If your ceiling or walls have a major wet spot that's leaking all over your house, it's best to shut the water off and call in a professional. Same goes for a burst pipe that's spraying the inside of your garage. And while many people use products like Drano for clogs, there are times when the blockage is just too severe for a liquid fix. The experts have tools that can safely and quickly get water moving again, without you banging the back of your head while trying to figure out how the outlet pipes connect.

We're giving away $1000 for you to share your own DIY skills with others. Participate in our Host a GOOD Workshop challenge.

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