Most people know little about the plumbing in their homes. Turn the spigot on, water comes out. Turn on the dishwasher or washing machine, water comes out. Flush the toilet, waste goes away, fresh water fills the bowl.
In this post we look at the Basics of Plumbing, helping homeowners understand what’s going on behind the scenes in their kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms.
A basic understanding of how residential plumbing works will allow homeowners to make dozens of fixes or repairs themselves or — just as important — to know when to call a professional plumber or plumbing contractor for help.
In future posts we’ll dive a little bit deeper into he nuances of residential plumbing, but for now it’s just the basics.
The Basics of Plumbing
Plumbing follows the basic laws of nature — gravity, pressure, water seeking its own level. Here’s how it works.
The plumbing system in your home is composed of two separate subsystems:
- One brings freshwater in.
- The other takes wastewater out.
We’ll start with freshwater, then look at wastewater.
Water that comes into your home is under pressure. How else would it get to where you need it?
As water enters the home, it passes through a meter that registers the amount you use. Chances are that meter is owned by the Water Works, the utility that provides residents and businesses with water and issues you a monthly bill.
Water Main Shut-off Valve
At the meter is the water main shutoff, or stop valve. Many homeowners are unaware of where this valve is located — or they forget because it’s not something they use often.
Note to Homeowners: Learn where the water main is located and how it shuts off. If you are uncertain, the next time you call a plumber for repair, get him to show you not only where it is but what you need to do to shut it off in an emergency. This is important: If a pipe bursts, it can quickly flood your house and cost thousands of dollars in additional expense.
Individual Stop Valves
Now, if an emergency is confined to a sink, tub, or toilet, you may not need to turn off the home’s entire water supply. Just turn off the individual stop valves, which are located near the fixture.
Cold and Hot Water
Water flowing from the main supply is immediately ready for cold water needs — drinking, cooking, washing dishes or clothes.
For hot water, the journey requires another stop. One pipe carries water from the cold water system to your water heater, which may be located in a closet inside your home, in the garage, upstairs, or in an attic.
From the water heater, a hot water line carries heated water to all the fixtures and appliances that require hot water. A thermostat on the water heater maintains the temperature you select by turning the devices heating elements on and off when needed.
Note to Homeowners: The normal temperature for a water heater is between 140 degrees Fahrenheit and 160 degrees F, but 120 degrees F is usually adequate and more economical.
It does not matter if your home is on a sewer or septic system. Water and waste drain essentially the same.
Drainage systems do not rely on pressure like supply systems. Waste water leaves the house because drainage pipes all pitch, or angle, downward. Gravity pulls the waste, and the sewer line continues this flow to a sewage treatment facility or it goes to the homeowner’s septic tank.
Drainage systems are not as simple as they appear. Along the way there are vents, traps, and clean outs, and all provide important functions to keep your home’s plumbing system functioning properly. Homeowners usually can take care of traps and clean outs, but they may want to call a plumber or plumbing contractor to inspect and repair, if needed, any issues with the vents.
Vents stick up from the roof of the house to allow air to enter the drainpipes. If there was no air supply coming from the vents, the wastewater would not flow out properly and the water in the traps would need to be siphoned away — a nasty prospect.
Traps, located under every sink, are vital. They are the curved or S-shaped section of pipe under a drain. Water flows from the basin with enough force to enter and go through the trap and out through the drainpipe. Enough water stays in the trap afterward to form a seal that prevents sewer gas from backing up into your home.
Every fixture requires a trap.
Toilets are self-trapped and don’t require an additional trap at the drain. Bathtubs often have drum traps that not only form a seal against sewer gas but also to collect hair, dirt, debris, soap scum in order to prevent clogged drains.
Some residential kitchen sinks have grease traps to collect grease, but these are not as common in homes as they are in restaurants. Grease traps are convenient because you do not want congealing grease to clog drains. If your home does not have a grease trap, pour grease into a jar or old coffee can and discard in the trash. Don’t pour it into the drain. Bad idea. Do this enough and a call to a plumber or plumbing contractor for repair may be needed.
Traps often have clean-out plugs that give homeowners easier access to remove or break up any blockage.
Most of the time homeowners can take care of clogged drains themselves. However, with prolonged neglect, clogs become more difficult to eradicate and may require a visit from the plumber or plumbing contractor.