Carly Carey is a new mother and a third-year plumbing apprentice in Minneapolis—she’s about two years from taking the state test to become a licensed master plumber. It was during the pandemic that Carly, a middle school English teacher, decided to switch tracks. She now loves using her communication skills to demystify plumbing practices for the rest of us.
As a member of Matriarchy Build, Carly is in good company: an all-women team of pros in the building trades, the online platform offers consultations by Zoom that teach people to tackle basic house projects themselves: read about the group and its offerings in Remodeling 101: Advice from Skilled Tradeswomen.
Tired of steep plumbers’ bills, we asked Matriarchy Builder co-founder Lacey Soslow: are there common bathroom plumbing jobs we can tackle ourselves? She teamed us up with Carly, who responded that there’s no need to call at plumber, at least not at the get go, when faced with these six common challenges. Here’s her advice.
1. Unclog a Bathroom Sink
If you notice your sink is slow to drain, a straightforward way to unclog it is to remove the p-trap—the under sink piping that runs into the wall —and clean it out. To do this you’ll need a bucket, rags, and possibly a pair of pliers if the piping is metal. Place the bucket under the p-trap to catch the water that’s in it, and unthread the nut that connects the pieces. Using the rags, thoroughly clean out these parts, then reassemble the p-trap and run water to make sure nothing’s leaking.
Pro Tip: If the p-trap is old and made of metal, it might be difficult to remove, and might not be able to be put back together, so proceed with caution. If there’s no blockage in the under sink piping, the blockage is further down the line ad you’ll need a basic handheld plumbing snake (available at any hardware store) to remove it. Use caution if your fixture is old: a snake can puncture old and corroded pipes.
More Details: Here’s a Bob Vila article on how to snake a drain.
2. Replace a Sink Aerator
Have you had a sudden drop of water pressure from a sink? A clogged aerator might be the culprit. An aerator, comprised of numerous screens that are threaded to a faucet, adds air and saves water by regulating the flow from your faucet. Cleaning an aerator (or introducing a new one) is an easy way to make your bathroom greener.
Some aerators are recessed and need a specific aerator key to be removed. This key should have come with your faucet when you purchased it (and often gets taped to the cabinet or supply lines that connect to the fixture). Aerator keys are also sold at hardware stores. Some aerators can be unscrewed by hand, others require a crescent wrench or pliers to unthread. Once removed, rinse the aerator to remove the debris. You can also soak it in white vinegar and clean with a toothbrush or Q-tip, then reinstall. If a black rubber washer was removed, fit it back in place—it creates a seal to prevent dripping.
Pro Tip: Put a thin rag around the faucet to protect it from the crescent wrench. If a cleaned aerator doesn’t improve the water pressure, there’s an issue in the fixture or the waterlines, and you likely need a plumber.
More Details: Go to Matriarchy Build’s How to Clean a Faucet Aerator for Carly’s step-by-step instructions and video.
3. Clean a Showerhead
Mineral buildup often plugs the tiny holes in a showerhead. For increased water pressure, use white vinegar as a showerhead cleaner: remove the showerhead (most screw off by hand), place it in a bowl of vinegar for at least 30 minutes, rinse, and reinstall the showerhead. Simple as that.
Pro Tip: If you don’t want to remove the showerhead, pour white vinegar into a plastic bag and put the bag around the showerhead secured with a twist tie.
4. Replace a Showerhead
In addition to the aesthetic benefits, a new showerhead can deliver better water pressure (while also conserving water by using less than your old one). To change your showerhead, you’ll need an adjustable crescent wrench and some plumber’s tape. First, remove the old showerhead by twisting it counterclockwise—if needed, use wrench to loosen. Next, clean the old plumber’s tape off the shower arm. Wrap new plumber’s tape around the threads of the shower arm and tighten on the new showerhead. Turn on the water to make sure there’s no leaking from the threads of the shower arm. If there is, further tighten the showerhead.
Pro Tip: Wrap a thin rag around the showerhead before loosening or tightening to protect it from scratches from the wrench.
More Details: Go to Matriarchy Build’s How to Change a Showerhead.
5. Unclog a Shower Drain
As with sinks, if you find water pooling on the floor of your shower, you have a blockage in your drain pipes. First, try to unclog the drain with a barbed snake drain cleaner (these are plastic and about 30 inches long with barbs to aid in cleaning). Thread this through the drain of the tub/shower and pull out to remove hair and buildup. If the drain still isn’t clear, the blockage is further down the line.
Using a handheld snake will allow you to go deeper: insert the snake in the drain and feed the snake down. Crank the snake slowly and when you feel resistance you may have hit the blockage. Pull out the snake and the blockage along with it. You may need to do this a few times to fully get out all of the hair and other problem stuff. Run the water to see if the drain is cleared.
Pro Tip: If you’re unable to clear a drain with a barbed or classic snake, your blockage may be a more serious matter and you should call a drain cleaner or plumber.
6. Replace a Toilet Flapper
Is your toilet constantly running? A faulty flapper is likely the issue. The flapper is the rubber piece that lifts out of the way when the toilet is flushed before moving back in place. When the flapper fails to create a seal, water runs into the tank. To replace a flapper, turn off the water to your toilet, then flush the toilet to empty the tank. Next, remove the flapper and source a replacement flapper from the hardware store. To install the new one, attach the chain to the handle rod and the plastic tabs to the overflow tube.
Pro Tip: Bring your old flapper to the hardware store so you get the correct one. And make sure the chain to the flapper is the same length as the original. If the chain is too long it can get stuck under the flapper and cause a toilet to run.
A Good Thing to Know for a lot of Plumbing Jobs: How to turn off your water main—here’s how.
Here are three online sources for plumbing supplies recommended by Matriarchy Build:
Frequently asked questions
What are the common bathroom plumbing jobs?
The common bathroom plumbing jobs include fixing a leaky faucet, unclogging a drain, replacing a toilet, installing a new showerhead, repairing a running toilet, and replacing a sink.
How can I fix a leaky faucet?
To fix a leaky faucet, you can start by turning off the water supply, removing the faucet handle, replacing the faulty washer or cartridge, and then reassembling the faucet.
How do I unclog a drain?
To unclog a drain, you can try using a plunger, a drain snake, or a mixture of baking soda and vinegar. If these methods don't work, you may need to remove and clean the drain trap or call a professional plumber.
How can I replace a toilet?
To replace a toilet, begin by turning off the water supply and draining the tank. Then, disconnect the water supply line and remove the old toilet. Install a new wax ring, place the new toilet bowl in position, and secure it with bolts. Finally, reconnect the water supply and test for leaks.
What is the process of installing a new showerhead?
To install a new showerhead, start by removing the old showerhead. Clean the shower arm threads, apply plumber's tape, and screw on the new showerhead. Make sure it is tightly secured and test for any leaks.
How can I repair a running toilet?
To repair a running toilet, you can check if the flapper is sealing properly and adjust the water level in the tank. You may also need to clean or replace the fill valve. If the issue persists, it's recommended to consult a plumber.
What is the process of replacing a sink?
To replace a sink, start by turning off the water supply and disconnecting the plumbing connections beneath the sink. Remove the old sink and insert the new sink in its place. Reconnect the plumbing and test for any leaks.