Essential plumber’s tool kit

A very efficient contractor I know organizes his tools into several different kinds of kits. He has a different tool kit for each kind of job: a plumbing kit; an electrical kit; a drywall kit. He says arranging his gear in specific job-related kits keeps him from having to carry a bunch of unnecessary stuff around, and ensures everything will be close at hand when he needs it. It sounded like a good idea to me and, ever since, I've been organizing my tools the same way. v While some plumbing projects require only common hand tools, others are made much easier with specialized tools. As you expand the scope of the jobs you're willing to take on, the tools you have in your kit will also grow. Here are the essential tools and techniques to get you started on basic plumbing fixes.

Copper pipe repair

Tools required: Propane torch, flame shield, pipe cutter, tape measure, extra lengths of copper pipe and fittings, including elbows, unions and caps. You'll also need solder paste and brush, solder wire, emery cloth and safety glasses.

Technique: Turn off the water supply and open any nearby valves or faucets. Remove burrs from the inside and outside edges of the pipe using emery cloth or a de-burring tool. Use emery cloth to clean the outside and inside of the two pipes being joined. If the copper isn't clean, the solder might not bond properly and the joint may leak. Brush acid-free flux on both the outside of the male fitting and the inside of the female fitting. The flux cleans the copper and helps prevent oxidation as the pipe heats up. If the pipe becomes oxidized, it might leak.

Dry-fit the two pieces of pipe together, then unroll and straighten about four inches of solder wire, using the roll or container as a handle when applying the solder.

Heat the joint using a propane torch, moving the flame around to ensure that the whole pipe is heated. You'll know the joint is hot enough when the flux begins to bubble. Now touch the tip of the solder to the joint. The solder should melt immediately and disappear into the joint. Remove the heat. Move the remaining solder wire around the entire joint to fill it in all the way around. If the pipe cools before the whole joint has been soldered, reheat it gently as required.

If you're working close to potentially flammable material, use a flame shield to protect the surrounding surfaces from catching fire, and always keep a fire extinguisher nearby.



Plastic pipe repair

Tools required: Hacksaw, white grease marker, ABS cement, torpedo level, extra lengths of ABS pipe and various fittings, including elbows and P-trap.

Technique: ABS pipe is easy to work with and repair. ABS cement is applied to the areas to be joined, and after the pieces are brought together, the surfaces of the plastic elements melt and fuse together. Although this process is not difficult, it must be done correctly to prevent leaks. Measure and then mark the pipe with a white grease pencil, which will show up easily on the surface of the black pipe. Cut the pipe to length with a hacksaw, paying careful attention to cut the pipe square; if not, the pipe will not fully seat in the fitting and is likely to leak. Smooth and bevel the edges slightly with a knife or fine file. If the pipe needs to drain, check its position with a level for the required slope.

Dry-fit the pipe into the correct position and make alignment reference marks on the pipe so you can easily put it back into position once it's disassembled. Brush the outside of the pipe and the inside of the fitting with cement. Immediately push the pipe into the fitting, twisting it into proper position using the alignment marks. The cement sets in about 30 seconds; once the joint is set, it's stuck together for good and must be cut apart to separate.

Drain clogs

Tools required: Plunger, drain auger, pipe wrench.

Technique: The best way to unclog a drain is mechanically. Caustic drain-clearing chemicals can be dangerous to use if splashed on skin or in eyes, so wear appropriate safety gear. Whenever possible, try to unclog the drain with mechanical measures first.

Begin with a plunger. Add enough water to the sink to cover the head of the plunger with water. If it's a double sink in which the drains connect or there is an overflow opening, use a wet towel to cover the hole and help direct the plunging pressure to the clog. Plunge up and down vigorously, keeping the plunger sealed against the bottom of the sink. Once the clog breaks loose, run hot water through the drain to flush out any remaining debris.

If the plunger doesn't clear the clogs, you may have to open the P-trap and remove the clog by hand. If you suspect the clog is beyond the P-trap, open the trap and feed a drain auger cable into the horizontal pipe. When you feel resistance, you are probably up against the clog. Pull an extra 18" of cable out of the auger housing, tighten the setscrew and turn the crank on the auger. Push the cable into the drainpipe as you turn. Once you've worked that portion of cable into the pipe, loosen the setscrew and pull out another 18". Continue this process until the cable bumps release the clog. Once the trap is replaced, run hot water through the drain to flush out any remains.



Specialty tools

Most specialty tools make difficult jobs dramatically easier and are worth investing in as your plumbing skills increase. For example, a cast-iron pipe wrench makes removing and tightening large-diameter nuts much easier. For even larger nuts, such as those that hold a drainpipe to the bottom of a kitchen sink, a spud wrench will make the job a breeze. A simple handle puller can come in handy for removing corroded faucet handles. Similarly, a basin wrench makes it easy to reach those awkward nuts holding a faucet down to the countertop and will likely save some of the skin on your knuckles as well.

Top (left to right)

Drain Auger
Soldering Flame Shield
Propane Torch

Middle pockets

Flashlight, Pipe Cutter
Locking Pliers
Tongue-and-Groove Pliers
Spud Wrench
Pipe Wrench
Basin Wrench
Safety Glasses
Torpedo Level

Bottom pockets

Joint Compound
Paste Brush
Tape Measure
Copper Fittings
Pipe De-Burring Tool
Emergency Repair Tape
Pocket Tool Carrier

On the floor

ABS Pipe
Copper Pipe
Emery Cloth
Solder Wire
Teflon Tape
ABS Cement
Pipe Dope
ABS Pipe Fitting

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