Because Toilets Run and Faucets Drip: Plumbing 101

Course: Basic Home Plumbing

Institution: Jill of All Trades

Instructor: Naomi Friedman

Location: San Francisco/Mission District

Price: $100

There’s nothing quite so harrowing as being intimidated by your hot water heater. I was getting into my car the other day when I swore it hissed at me. I turned around and stared at it. I realized in that moment that I didn’t have the faintest idea how to approach the 6 foot tin monster.

Later that evening, after wrestling a gob of hair from the drain in my bathroom sink (I swear I must lose enough hair every day to stuff a small animal), I decided that I needed help. I googled “plumbing classes San Francisco” and discovered a basic home plumbing course for women. I signed right up.

Our instructor was a plumbing contractor who lives in the east bay and has a self-professed love of repairs. I’m not sure that’s exactly what you want your plumber to tell you but I liked her enthusiasm for all things plumbing.

She started the class by asking the attendees (6 of us) what questions or issues brought us to the course. They were
1. Shower diverter
2. Running toilet
3. Hot water heater (this was my entry)
4. Installing a basin
5. Leaky faucet
6. Low shower pressure

She then distributed a hand-out with plumbing basics, including a history of plumbing. Early civilizations in Babylon, India, islands in the Mediterranean Sea and Rome had plumbing. Most pipes were made of clay at the time and women were often the manufacturers.

Next, we moved onto tools. You know you’re in a class for women when the instructor coos over baby bent nose adjustable pliers: “They’re just the cutest things in the world.” We covered the uses of a water meter key, channel locks or wide-mouth adjustable pliers, pipe wrenches and screw drivers. She wrapped up by emphasizing that “a big pipe needs a big jaw.” Indeed.

Familiarized with our equipment, we were each tasked with dissembling a faucet and finding its washer. A washer is a little piece of rubber in the faucet responsible for controlling the water flow. If it goes, you’ve got yourself a leak. It is easy to replace, however, if you know how to get to it. This is often not very straightforward. I, ever the eager student, stripped my faucet to within an inch of its life and indicted a poor unsuspecting piece of rubber with my screwdriver before the instructor set me straight.

I found this to be the best part of the class. Plumbing, in essence, is about solving mechanical problems. The mechanics of plumbing are really quite simple. What is more difficult is getting familiar with the various systems that support these mechanics. To get to know them you have to tinker. But who wants to tinker on their own plumbing set up? And most women know that if you have a husband, boyfriend or father within a one mile radius of your mechanical problem, you will not get a chance to tinker with it.

While I was decidedly the only woman in the class who receives regular manicures, I appreciated that I didn’t have to contend with a dude hogging the tools. Left to my own devices, I worked some screwdriver magic on a couple different faucet set ups and got the hang of it quickly. Our confidence built, we moved on to toilets.

As I’ve had run-ins with running toilets, I was already up on how they work. Most traditional style toilets use a ballcock (or fill valve) and float ball set up.

Alicia Morga plumbing 101

Fixing running toilets is usually just a matter of making sure the flapper (the black rubber stopper at the bottom of the toilet tank that allows water to exit the tank into the bowl) is sitting properly on its seat. We hovered over a disconnected toilet while the instructor pointed out components and explained their actions.

As we were a room full of women, we also talked hair and the havoc it wrecks on drains. Mesh drain plugs were highly encouraged. The easiest way to understand the location of a drain clog is to note how fast the sink fills when washing your hands. If it fills quickly, the problem is most likely in your trap.

Alicia Morga plumbing bathroom sink

For most sinks, you can actually go in and remove the debris in the trap yourself or use Drano (though she didn’t encourage the use of chemicals). If the sink takes a while to fill while washing your hands then the stoppage is likely in the wall and if that’s the case, Drano won’t help a bit. Her advice if the clog is in the wall? “Oh, yeah, then you call a plumber.”

We ended the day with hot water heaters. I cozied up to one and realized they’re not so tough. After step-by-step instructions on how to relight the pilot light, I was feeling positively cocky.

The biggest revelation was how the fix is often something really simple and plumbers get paid big bucks to come out and do something most home-owners could have done themselves. While I won’t be tinkering with my plumbing anytime soon, at least now I’m no longer afraid of my hot water heater.