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Can A Mechanical Valve Replace A P-Trap?

Some things just work. No matter how much someone tries to improve on a device, the standard method just works best. This statement applies fully to P-traps. If you don’t know what a P-trap is, this Boston plumbing tip is for you!

A P-trap is a small piece of drain plumbing that fits under your sink. It has a unique curved shape to it, and it is designed to prevent sewer gases from escaping into your living space. (That’s good because aside from the obvious “fresh-air” benefit, sewer gases can build up and explode.) Traps also prevent harmful bacteria from being introduced into the living space and serve to catch little items (like rings, earrings, Lego blocks) that accidentally make their way down the drain.

Over time, nasty debris – like biofilms, decayed material, hair, and soap films – also build up in the trap. Generally, traps are easy to remove and can be cleaned out mechanically without too much effort and without the need for special tools.

Traps work because after each use, the trap fills with water. The water in the trap acts like a plug and prevents the gases from escaping out of a drain hole. All plumbing fixtures – toilets, basins, tubs, etc., – must have a trap of some sort that prevents sewer gases from getting back up the drainpipe.

Traps have been in use almost since plumbing moved indoors. Newer plumbing codes restrict or prohibit the use of certain types of traps (S-traps, specifically) but P-traps are the gold standard of traps. They’re simple and they work better than anything else on the market.

Enter the mechanical P-trap. The mechanical P-trap is a straight piece of pipe that includes a membrane that is supposed to perform the same function as the “water plug” I discussed earlier. The biggest potential problem I see with a mechanical P-trap is malfunction.

When a traditional P-trap gets clogged with debris, biological buildup or a mechanical object, it still performs its basic function – blocking the movement of sewer gases back up the drainpipe. It can’t’ fail at this job because as long as there’s water (or sludge, debris, biofilm, etc) occluding the trap, the sewer gas isn’t going anywhere.

When you interfere with the open-and-close mechanics of a mechanical valve, the valve can potentially be held open. The design of a straight pipe – by its nature- will allow the offending gas to escape the pipe. In other words, when the valve fails, you can’t be sure that you’re protected from the dangers that unchecked sewer gases and bacteria present.

The traditional P-trap works even when it clogs because the design of the pipe itself provides the protection you really need. There are no moving parts to worry about so mechanical failure is impossible. P-traps can dry out – the water that forms the seal can evaporate over time if the fixture isn’t used, and deterioration of the pipe or the joints can force replacement of the trap. But under most circumstances, it’s hard to conceive of an improvement to the P-trap that’s worth taking a chance on.

If you have questions about your plumbing, or smell sewer gases when you use your plumbing fixtures, contact Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911 for an inspection. We’ll find the source of the odor and recommend a solution!

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Hidden Water Damage, Part 2: Drains

Faucets aren’t the only possible leak points. Drains leak, resulting in just as much damage. Drains also carry dirty, unsanitary water, so they’re generally messier and more unpleasant to repair than a leaking faucet. A leaking drain can produce a flood of dirty water and will start to smell bad in short order. If you come home one day and are confronted with a rotten sewer-like odor that you can’t quite pinpoint, check your drains for leaks!

Before you get too far into diagnostics and repair, verify that your drains are free-flowing. Clogs can cause backups and leaks around joints, so working with a clean drain is essential. If your drain is clogged or partly clogged, try using BioClean to clear the drain. Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating sells BioClean, a non-hazardous enzymatic drain cleaner that won’t harm your plumbing and is safe to handle. We use it and recommend it.

Once you’ve determined that the drain is clear, the most likely place to find leaks will be at the joints, or connections in the drain pipe. The hardware that actually joins two pipes together is called a fitting. Turn the water on and let it drain. If you spot leaks, make sure the drain fittings are tight.

Before you take any action, look for other telltale signs of trouble around your drain joints. If they show signs of deterioration, rust, mineralization or other corrosive damage, merely tightening the fitting isn’t going to help, and might actually make things worse. Corroded metal is permanently damaged and should really be replaced. Applying torque (force) to a damaged or weak fitting may break or crush the fitting and you’ll have to replace it anyway.

Most often, drains either use compression fittings or threaded fittings. Compression fittings are often found around sinks, faucets, and valves, and as their name implies, use a compressive force applied to an inner metal ring to make a tight seal. If a compression fitting is loose or damaged, a leak in the joint may occur. If you have a compression fitting that’s leaking, you can try to remove it, clean it and reapply it. If the fitting still leaks or the compression band appears to be damaged, replace it instead.

If you have compression fittings, it’s not a good idea to use Teflon tape or pipe dope to make a seal. These sealers are designed mostly for use with threaded fittings and may actually prevent a compression fitting from making a good seal.

Threaded fittings work just like a cap on a container. If you have threaded fittings, your drainpipe will also have threads to receive the connector. Replacing drain couplings is an uncomplicated and inexpensive repair. As long as you know the diameter of your drainpipe, you can find the right parts for the job at your local hardware store. If you have threaded fittings, clean off the pipe threads before applying the new fitting and use Teflon tape or pipe dope to seal the threads.

If you’re uncertain how to replace a drain, have problems with the main drain for your home, or need additional assistance with a plumbing repair of any kind, please contact Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911 and we’ll be happy to lend a hand. We can check your drains for clogs and leaks, and repair potential drain problems before they cause real damage.

Using A Plunger

Plungers don’t come with an owner’s manual, so using them should be intuitive, right? Maybe, but even the most useful tool can be misused to the point of complete ineffectiveness. Plungers are designed to push an obstruction forward through the pipe using air trapped in the plunger. They’re not, contrary to popular belief, designed to bring the obstruction back out of the drain. If you have a sink or drain clog in your Boston home, here are a few tips on choosing and using a plunger.

There are two main designs for plungers; one is classic, the other is modern. Both can clear clogs. The classic plunger design consists of a thick rubber “bell” attached to a wooden handle. The plunger bell is usually coarsely threaded onto the wooden handle. If you select this kind of plunger, make sure the handle and bell connect solidly. The last thing you want is the bell separating from the handle when you need it most!

Look for good quality rubber, too. The bell should have no cracks or stress marks on it, and the handle should be relatively straight and smooth. Buy one plunger for each toilet in your home, and buy a sink plunger (a miniature version of The Classic) and use this only for sinks and tubs.
The modern plunger has a bulb shape to it with a tapered opening toward the bottom of the bell. This kind of plunger is designed to work with modern toilets and has a series of collapsible rings that, when used properly, can supply more force than the classic plunger can.

When your toilet drain becomes partially blocked, and flushing doesn’t cause the bowl to overflow, it’s tempting to flush the toilet again to see if you can dislodge the blockage. Don’t! If the bowl isn’t draining properly, you’re likely to cause a sewage overflow, and then you’ll have a much larger problem to deal with.

To plunge a toilet, place the plunger completely over the drain, making sure that the outside edge of the bell makes a complete seal against the toilet fixture. Push down slowly and pull up quickly several times. You may feel or hear the clog release. Remove the plunger and let the rest of the water in the bowl drain. Once the bowl is empty, flush the toilet again to make sure the drain is completely clear.

To plunge a sink, you may need to remove a built-in stopper. Plunging a bathtub drain usually doesn’t require this step. Depending upon the design of your sink drain, you may be able to release the stopper with a quick twist, or you may need to dismantle the stopper assembly from beneath the sink.

Sinks and bathtubs often have built-in emergency overflow drains. These drains are built into the sink itself at the top of the bowl. In bathtubs, the overflow drains are normally found underneath the lever that controls the bathtub drain. In both cases, these drains feed water directly into the drainpipe. These emergency drains will not allow you to form the good seal you’ll need to plunge a sink drain effectively. To create good suction in a sink or tub, you’ll need to block these drains. A wet towel or washcloth held over the emergency drains often does the trick.

As with a toilet, you’ll want to push the plunger down slowly and pull up quickly. Repeat this motion until the clog releases. You may need to take a break; plunging can be hard work!
Try to clear a clog using a plunger first. Do not attempt to plunge a drain once you’ve added a drain cleaning product to the clog. Drain cleaners, especially those that contain lye, can be highly reactive. These cleaners cause a chemical reaction that generates heat and can spew caustic lye upward and out of the drain. Once you’ve added a drain cleaner, stop plunging until the cleaner breaks through the clog.

Boston Standard Plumbing recommends Bio-Clean for clearing clogged drains. Bio-Clean is a bacterial-enzymatic cleaner that clears a variety of drain clogs. Bio-Clean is 100-percent safe for your plumbing and will not harm your skin if it comes in contact with you.
If you would like more information about Boston Standard Plumbing’s drain cleaning and sewer services, or you would like to try Bio-Clean drain cleaner, contact us at Boston Standard Plumbing at 617-288-2911.