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Plumbing Emergencies When You Can’t Get a Plumber Over

Plumber working at the bathroom sink.

Podcast Version

We’re two months into COVID-19 lockdown now, and it’s definitely starting to wear down on us. We’re vacillating between days feelings like years or seconds. Houses full of unruly kids who don’t feel like attending their Zoom classes and spouses or roommates who aren’t used to working at home are equating to pressure cookers that are just about ready to pop. Lockdown sucks, it’s stressful, we don’t know how long it’ll go on for, but hey, if you’re alive and not fighting off the ‘rona, you’re one of the lucky ones.

Of the many challenges that have arisen in attempting to manage our day-to-day lives while under quarantine, it’s not just the people in our dwellings who are cracking under pressure. The structures we live in are under more stress than usual.

Even if you cooked at home regularly before all this, you’re probably looking to store even more food at home to make fewer trips so that means investing in an upright or chest freezer. But you still probably didn’t make EVERY single meal, especially if you and other denizens of your household were out and about frequently. For those of us who aren’t used to cooking at home frequently, it’s been hard adjusting. So this means more wear and tear on sinks, garbage disposals, and of course, the crapper. More continued usage = more potential problems that could arise.

Hilariously, before the pandemic was declared and mass chaos broke out, I actually had a piece up about stopping your procrastination on your 2020 home improvement projects. But while you can put off those cosmetic fixes you wanted to make or that long-overdue decluttering, you can’t really do the same if your kid jams the car keys down the garbage disposal or the toilet starts letting forth one wave after another like it’s a college freshman on spring break.

So what do you do if you can’t get a plumber over to the house and something goes horribly wrong? I interviewed Joe Wood of Boston Standard Plumbing to find out, you can listen to the linked podcast episode!

Related: Credit Cards for Plumbers | Types of Plumbing Pipes | Types of Plumbing Tools | DIY Plumbing 

Our Home Fixtures Are Seeing as Much Usage as Commercial Ones, So Be Cautious

Public restroom lavatory

Being under lockdown has made us realize a lot of things about our daily lives, not just the future plans that got waylaid. It certainly made me appreciate living in a city where food options are available for nearly every taste, budget, and degree of health consciousness, and I hadn’t realized just how often I ate outside the home before this. I ran my dishwasher maybe twice a week before, three or four times a week if I was home more. Now I’m running it at least two or three times a day.

Think about how often you have to occupy the shitter. Chances are you were also doing that at work, going out, in train stations, or wherever else you’d be on a typical day. Throw in both the ceaseless hand-washing as a coronavirus preventative measure then multiplying it by your household size, and our expert here says that we’re absolutely stressing our pipes, fixtures, and appliances as much as commercial ones.

It’s also a perfect storm for plumbing disasters right now because you’ve got kids home from school with no daycare available so things that don’t belong in the bathroom could be apt to wind up in the toilet, toilet paper shortages causing people to make some dastardly substitutes, and all this extra stress from commercial grade usage of fixtures that aren’t meant to be stressed this much.

It turns out that just like how you can use telemedicine to see your doctor when you can’t risk a visit right now, you can also do the same with plumbers. Joe says, “We’re definitely trying to talk people through things, and starting in the kitchen because everyone’s doing high usage on their fixtures right now.” But while this extended usage is going to be our reality for a while, and we don’t know just HOW long yet, take as many precautions as you can. 

Don’t dump grease down the kitchen sink, try to keep hair and other objects out of the drain, and if all else fails, tamp the toilet lid down when it’s not in use. You might not be able to control the pipes, especially if you live in an old building with pipes more temperamental than that teacher who always had it out for you, but taking precautions with your fixtures can at least slow down if not prevent the need to call a plumber.


Tools to Keep on Hand

Various tools in a toolbox

If you have a garbage disposal, Joe recommends keeping the key that came with it somewhere you can easily find it, along with a set of Allan wrenches. If the disposal’s jammed, a broom handle turned upside down will also work in a pinch to un-jam the gears in a true adventure game fashion.

If you’re like me, and you’re constantly plucking out these clumps of hair from the drains and wondering why the hell it’s not staying on your head, those ultra-fine sink strainers do a better job at this in most bathtubs than your average bathtub drain cover where the holes are too big. You can also order those “sink snake” tools that have the little piece of Velcro or a mascara wand type attachment that are a cheap, safe, and efficient way to un-stop slow sinks.

While these tools are easy and portable enough to have on hand, condo owners like myself might not have access to the big guns like wet vacs if there’s a leak or other major problem. You can recount my hilariously awful tales of living in a prewar basement apartment when I explored why some homes had carpeting in the bathroom that made me long for a wet vac, but remember that this is why you need homeowners’ insurance even if you own an apartment and not a house.

But if you own your home and thus need to keep more tools around in the event of emergencies, a wet vac’s up there and so is a snake cable. You can easily order them and they’re pretty much exactly what plumbers use to get the job done, and Joe recommends keeping a closet auger handy if you’ve got fixtures prone to leaks and other issues. Thanks to today’s technology, a plumber can assist you through a phone or video chat if you’ve got the right tools on deck. If you don’t have the right tools or are as adept with them as the average Congresscritter is at getting anything done, remember that they’ll only send someone in with a Hazmat suit if they really have to, so a kickstand for your phone would also be handy for both telemedicine and teleplumbing.


Don’t Flush Anything That’s Not Toilet Paper!

Toilet paper fortress

This is America, so people were already doing this before the pandemic. But now it’s been cranked up to 11 as people have had to er, get creative with toilet paper shortages. While the initial wave of panic-buying has slowed since the pandemic was first declared, on account of both our grim reality setting in and some retailers setting strict limits on how many packs each customer may purchase per visit, some stores are still running low on the stuff. 

“We are seeing people flush things that should not be flushed!” Joe states of the current situation. He says it was always like this, but Boston Standard is seeing an uptick in customers flushing things that shouldn’t have been flushed.

I’ve seen people tweet into the ether about how they’ve had to use paper towels and coffee filters out of desperation. That’s understandable, when you need to clean your cheeks, hey, you do what you gotta do with what you got on hand. But if you had to split up your last packet of coffee filters between the kitchen and the bathroom because there’s no toilet paper, Joe advises against flushing them and to put them in the trash (along with paper towels or any other thick paper products that won’t break down). While the filters get super soft and tear easily once they’ve made that pot of coffee, they don’t break down in the toilet as easily. So when in doubt, throw it out!

Even if the packaging says things like cleaning products are flushable, don’t do it. These claims are made by marketing departments rather than the people who have to do the actual dirty work. Because no, those blue Clorox disks don’t go away. They come back like all those 90s sitcom reboots we didn’t want.

Tune into the episode to learn about the craziest things Joe’s found in people’s toilets on the job and other tips on keeping your fixtures in shape while we get through this quarantine hell, it was a fun and educational interview!