Plumbers are pretty impressive problem solvers. They can save you a pretty penny and even spare your health if they diagnose dilemmas before your pipes burst or mold takes up residence, saving you from costly repairs or having to pour nasty chemicals down your drain. We tapped some plumbing pros to see what dirty little secrets your bathroom reveals about you—and what to do instead.
1. You don’t turn on the fan when you shower.
When mold moves into your bathroom, it can colonize in the crevices, the caulking, and even grow on your bathroom ceiling. “If the shower is moldy, it should be kept drier,” says Roger Wakefield, a master plumber and owner of Texas Green Plumbing, who suggests running the exhaust fan during and after a shower or hot bath to remove excess humidity. If that doesn’t give it the heave-ho, water could be getting behind the tiles or tub, or there may be a leak behind the wall. Fight mold with antimicrobial tea tree oil; add 15 to 20 drops to a spray bottle filled with water, and use it to spray down shower tiles after use. Also, be sure to shake out the shower curtain post-shower and only close it halfway to let air circulate.
2. You’ve been ignoring that hairball in your drain.
If your shower drain is on slow-mo, hair could be the culprit. It collects and combines with soap residue and can turn into a rat’s nest–size blockage. Prevent the problem in the first place by picking up a hairguard at the hardware or dollar store. If the clog is close enough to the top, try pulling it out with tweezers. Otherwise, use a wire clothes hanger with a ‘J’ hook at the end, says Wakefield. “Stick it into the drain as far as you can, turn it a few times and slowly pull it out,” he says. And brace yourself—what comes out isn’t going to be pretty.
3. You’ve been flushing condoms down the toilet.
Your toilet isn’t a garbage disposal or trash can. “The only thing you should flush down the toilet is human waste and toilet paper,” says Eric Perrot, master plumber and service manager at Len the Plumber in Baltimore. That means no dental floss, tampons, pads, wipes (even the “flushable” kind), cotton balls and swabs, Band-Aids, or condoms—which can clog the toilet and pollute waterways.
If something does go down that shouldn’t, it’s time to plunge. The best plunger for the job is a flange plunger, which has an extended rubber lip that fits nicely in the drain. Place the flange in the drain hole and push all the way down with forcible strokes, keeping enough water in the bowl to cover the plunger.
4. Your water is hard.
That white film on your showerhead and plumbing fixtures means you have hard water. Hard water, which comes into contact with rocks or soil, has higher levels of essential minerals like calcium and magnesium than soft water does. “Soft water is better for plumbing fixtures simply because minerals can actually damage plumbing appliances over the long haul,” warns Wakefield. Soft water also means cleaner clothes and dishes with less detergent (bonus for the environment!), while hard water wins for taste and gives your body much-needed minerals. So how do you know if you have hard water? If your shower curtain is scum-free, your water’s likely soft. For a more scientific test, there are many inexpensive water-testing kits available at the hardware store.
5. You’re a big fan of Drano.
If you think chemical solutions like Liquid-Plumr and Drano are a quick fix for clogged drains, think again. Their caustic contents can eat away at your pipes and irritate your lungs, not to mention they’re horrible for the environment. And that chemical smell wafting out of your drain is a dead giveaway. “The best and most long-term solution for unclogging a pipe is by snaking the drain,” says Perrot. “This will help physically break up the clog and get water flowing through.” To do so, feed a snake cable (you can pick one up at any hardware store) into the drain. When you feel the cable stop, tighten the lock and crank the handle clockwise to snag the clog and pull it all the way out.
6. Your leak is wasting serious water.
There’s one quick plumbing fix everyone should know: how to turn off the main water valve. “If you’re having a flood and can’t get the water off quickly, it can cost you thousands of dollars,” says Wakefield. Your main water valve is usually in the basement or inside a closet, and in warmer climates, it’s often on an outside wall or inside the meter box near the curb. Just don’t save the search party for an emergency. “If it takes a special tool, like a meter key, know where it is and how to use it,” adds Wakefield. Stick the meter key into the box’s key slot, turn it counterclockwise, and lift off the lid. Locate the valve lever inside and, using a T bar or wrench, turn it clockwise to shut the water off.