Home & Garden

About the House: Why Is a Good Plumber Worth $130 an Hour?

By Matt Cantor
Thursday April 30, 2009 - 07:06:00 PM

I have suffered so that you don’t have to. I’m going to share a plumbing secret. The desire for knowledge of this secret has produced much gnashing of teeth, and the frequent abuse of the many names of God. In order to reduce heretical behaviors and to increase the likelihood that you will be welcomed at the Valhalla of your choosing, I offer the following: 

Plumbing is part muscle—say, 10 percent, and maybe 40 percent mechanics and physics, 30 percent logistics (where is that Teflon tape?) and at least 20 percent shopping skill (that might be logistics too, but I tend to place it with economics). 

Plumbing repair (not so much new installation) is about taking it apart—and putting it back as it was, only without the leak (or whatever other problem one might be having). The secret is that, once you take things apart and put them back together, everything wants to leak. One of the most common mistakes that novice plumbers make is to buy only the one part that relates to the repair. I did this myself this week and felt like I’d fallen in a trap I thought I’d long since mapped. 

When taking apart a plumbing fixture—let’s say a sink drain—it is best to get the seals and other obvious replacement parts for everything you are going to touch, move or think about. A sink drain starts with a tail piece that comes down for the drain. If you are absolutely certain that there are no leaks at the tail-piece or drain, and can feel that these are quite firmly connected to the sink, you might get lucky enough to leave them alone. If you have any doubt, it’s better to take them apart, buy all the seals that go with the tail-piece and drain as well as a little tub of “plumber’s putty.” This doughy emulsion is used for the marriage of porcelain and metal and is rarely used for anything else. When one sets a sink drain into a sink, a little hand-worried snake of this stuff should be laid in a ring around the sink hole prior to pressing the drain into place. This will fill any voids between the imperfect china and the more perfect metal funnel-shape that gets called a drain-piece. A nut on the back side of this affair will pull the drain down into the putty until the putty has pinched itself off at the junction. If you’ve done it right and centered the piece properly, the pinching will be uniform around the edges. If you miss your Playdough fun factory with its little star and triangle shapes, you’ll get your fix doing this job.  

From the drain on down, every single seal should be replaced. The right way to do this, especially for the beginner, is to take the drain apart and take the whole thing, in a bag, to a good hardware or plumbing store. There are many different sizes for each thing you are handling and the most common thing in the world is to come back from the store with the wrong sized thing. By taking your parts with you, you decrease the likelihood of this wretched occurrence. To be sure, one can easily look squarely at the wrong part and surmise it to be the right one. Check twice. Lay all the old parts out at the store and, one-piece at the time, fit each new part to the old one until you’re sure that you have everything you need. 

Locknuts on drains are cheap to replace and I am quick to buy them, even if I don’t intend to use them. This is another major secret. Lock nuts can either break or will turn out to have a little bur inside that keeps them from threading on fully, and when you’re back on the job putting things together, the option to replace one can be a Buddha-send. 

When buying seals, like the little rings that go under those lock-nuts on drains and traps, buy an extra. They’re cheap and if you mangle one or lose one on the way, you’ll save tooth enamel by having another. Actually, the replacement of an entire trap or other piece might be well worthwhile, even as a backup. The economics go something like this: Let’s say you spend an extra $25 on parts that you didn’t really need while at the store. OK, a trip to the store takes 40 minutes round trip if you’re lucky. How much do you make in an hour? What does a plumber cost for an hour? What’s your frustration/equanimity worth? When in doubt, just buy it. Buy everything you might need to complete the job. If you’re wise, you’ll save the receipts, keep all the extras in one paper bag and when the job is really, really done (are you sure?) then you can put the bag in the car for return. Most hardware stores are pretty good about returns, but even if they refuse to take back an item that you marred or is now missing an essential part, it doesn’t matter. You saved yourself from making one more trip to the damn hardware store. That’s worth it right? 

While you’re getting every single seal (and maybe the whole set of parts that you’re holding in your hand), be sure to get sealants for the marriage of these various parts. Here are a few suggestions to help you through the job with your mid-brain intact. 


Blue Block: 

This stuff comes from an alternate universe where everyone has gunk stuck to their hands and nothing leaks. Use it sparingly. It is so gummy that you can actually get piping that doesn’t fit quite right to hold water or gas. Very good for gas. For water, it’s not the best idea because you’ll have little specks of blue goo coming through your showerhead for a month. Nonetheless, it will stop leaks and will increase sanity under many conditions.  


TFE or PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene or Teflon Paste): 

This is extremely useful stuff for joining threaded fittings together. It provides some sealant value but is primarily designed to get threaded fittings to tighten to their maximum point by decreasing friction. The material is carcinogenic in high aerosol volumes but it’s certainly not easy to breathe it in. TFE paste is quite similar to it’s sister product… 


Teflon Tape: 

Don’t do any plumbing job without Teflon Tape. Apply it clockwise, two to five revolutions, over the male threads that you intend to insert into a female fitting and you’ll find it lubricates and seals these connections nicely. Been a boon since I was in my teens. Back then, we all used good old fashioned… 


Pipe Dope or Pipe Lubricant: 

This is still available and still works well to join piping. It requires that pipes fit well because it lacks the additional sealant properties of Teflon or the arresting fascism of Blue Block. 


Rector Seal No. 5: 

This sadly named product is the old standby for gas piping, although I prefer Blue Block for it’s surreal ability to prevent failures on gas tests. If you are using all new fittings or genuinely believe that everything will fit tightly, this is a reasonable product to use. It’s still very popular and can be used on water fittings and with all metals, which is largely true for our other friends above. 


So, to repeat, take everything with you. Replace every seal you touch or look at. Use sealants where you’re threading items together, but not where a rubber or plastic seal is doing the job. This is a common mistake. When there are two similar seals that you are offered at the store, get both. Try them out and see what seems to fit better. There are, to this day, numerous methods available for many common plumbing connections, and often it isn’t clear until you try to fit things together which will work best for what you have in your hand. 

By the way, much of what I’ve said above applies to a faucet, a shower valve set, a hose spigot or any number of other plumbing applications. While I am not a consumerist and prefer the Goodwill to Mervyns (shudder), I do believe that when faced with potential purchases at the plumbing supplier, just buy it. 



Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor at mgcantor@pacbell.net.