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Do-it-yourself home repairs not necessarily difficult

by Tim McKeough, The New York Times | December 26, 2020 at 1:39 a.m.
(The New York Times/Melanie Lambrick)

As the pandemic forces us to spend our days hunkered down, our homes face far more strain than usual. Faucets bear the brunt of increased hand-washing, toilets get flushed with greater regularity and appliances experience more frequent use. If you have children at home, it's also possible that your living room now suffers as much abuse as a gym.

Under such increased demands, it's natural for the home to experience more wear and tear. Plastic and rubber components begin to break down, drains get clogged and boisterous children and pets can damage drywall and window screens.

The good news, especially at a time when you might prefer to limit in-person visits from service professionals, is that many common home repairs are relatively easy to complete, with a few tools and a little know-how.

STOP A FAUCET FROM LEAKING

Whether it's a steady dribble or a rhythmic drip, a leaky faucet is annoying and wasteful. Fixing the problem usually involves replacing parts inside the handles. But before disassembling the faucet, the first and most important step is shutting off the water, said Hunter Macfarlane, a project expert at Lowe's, in order to avoid room-soaking geysers.

Find the two shut-off valves under the sink for hot and cold water and turn them off. Then, turn on hot and cold water at the faucet. "If nothing comes out, you're golden — you can proceed," Macfarlane said. If water is trickling out, however, there's a problem with the shut-off valves. If that happens, he said, "stop and call a plumber."

With the water shut off, remove the handles (or handle, on a single-lever model) from the faucet. Usually, they have caps that can be pried off to reveal screws or are held in place by small set screws that can be loosened with an Allen wrench.

Underneath each handle will be different parts depending on the type of valve the faucet uses: cartridge, ceramic disc or ball. Regardless, Macfarlane said, remove the top nut with an adjustable wrench and use needle nose pliers to pull out the parts. Take the parts to a hardware store, he suggested, and ask for help finding replacements that are a perfect match. Then, reassemble the faucet with the new parts in the reverse order and test the repair by gradually opening up the shut-off valves.

Tools and supplies: flathead screwdriver, Allen wrenches, adjustable wrench, needle nose pliers, replacement parts.

REPAIR A WINDOW SCREEN

When your new pandemic puppy puts a tear in your window screen, it doesn't have to be an open invitation for flies and mosquitoes. To fix it, remove the screen, which is usually held in place by small clips or tension springs. Then, find the spline, a thin cord that runs around the outer edge of the screen on one side.

Place the screen on a flat surface with the spline facing up. Find the end of the spline and pry it up with a screwdriver or utility knife, then pull the rest of the spline out of the frame to release the old screen. "Once you get it started, you can usually peel it out with your hands," said Chris Janiak, the service delivery manager at Hippo Home Care.

Buy a roll of screening material to match the old screen and cut a piece slightly larger than the frame. Place it over the frame, and begin securing it by pushing the spline back into the channels with a screen rolling tool (if the spline was damaged during removal, buy a new one). Keep the screen taut as you work, "as if you were installing carpet," Janiak said, "because you don't want a saggy screen."

Once the spline is in place, trim off the excess screening material with a utility knife and reinstall the screen in the window

Tools and supplies: utility knife, screen rolling tool, roll of replacement window screen.

FIX A TOILET

Although reaching into the innards of a toilet might seem daunting, most repairs are straightforward. "The great thing about toilets is that they haven't changed too much over the years — it's pretty simple," said Anne Sebestyen, a plumbing repair merchant at the Home Depot.

If the toilet won't flush, remove the lid from the tank to inspect the chain that runs from the flush lever to the flapper, the circular plug at the bottom of the tank. "A lot of times what's happening is that the chain might not be hooked to the flapper," Sebestyen said. If it is disconnected, reattach it so the flapper lifts when the lever is depressed.

If the toilet won't stop filling, or it sounds like it occasionally flushes itself, the culprit is usually a leaky flapper, Sebestyen said.

To fix it, turn off the water shut-off valve behind the toilet and flush the toilet to remove water from the tank. Next, identify what type of flapper your toilet uses. Most toilets use a two- or three-inch flapper — as long as you buy the right size, most replacement flappers will work with any brand of toilet, Sebestyen said.

Unhook the chain that connects the lever to the old flapper and then unclip the flapper from the bottom of the toilet. Install the new flapper, reattach the chain and turn on the water to test the repair.

Some newer toilets use a canister with a thin rubber washer instead of a traditional flapper, Sebestyen said. In those toilets, replacement washers aren't universal, so it's important to buy a part designed specifically for your brand of toilet.

Tools and supplies: replacement toilet flapper or washer.

PATCH A HOLE IN DRYWALL

When a doorknob or tumbling toddler punctures the wall, it's relatively easy to plug the hole. "You don't have to have a lot of fancy tools, and there aren't a lot of technical steps involved," said Kevin Busch, the vice president of operations at Mr. Handyman, a national home repair company.

Small dings and holes about the size of a nailhead can simply be filled with spackling paste — push the spackling into the hole with a putty knife, scrape it flush, let it dry and then sand it flush with the wall. If a divot remains, add a second coat.

A large hole measuring a few inches or more in diameter requires a more involved repair. Busch said his preferred method is to cut a square or rectangular patch slightly larger than the hole from a sheet of drywall. Hold it over the hole, and trace the shape of the patch on the wall. Then, use a drywall saw to enlarge the hole along the pencil lines. "You make the hole match your piece, as opposed to trying to make your piece match the hole," he said.

Add drywall repair clips to the edges of the hole to hold the patch in place and secure it with screws. Apply mesh drywall tape over the seams. Then, use a joint knife to spread joint compound over the entire repair, while trying to feather the edges of the compound into the surrounding wall. (An alternative to cutting your own drywall patch is to use an adhesive metal drywall repair patch, which simply covers the hole before joint compound is applied.)

"That's really where the artistry comes in," Busch said, noting that making the repair look seamless can be challenging. For best results, complete a few thin coats and sand away excess compound to blend it into the wall before priming and painting.

Tools and supplies: drywall saw, joint knife, extra drywall, drywall repair clips, mesh drywall tape, joint compound.

UNCLOG A SLOW BATHROOM DRAIN

Feeling the water level rise around your feet when showering or watching the vanity basin fill up when washing hands can be disconcerting. Usually, slow bathroom drains are caused by a buildup of hair and soap scum.

The easiest way to try to unclog them is to pour in a chemical drain cleaner, Sebestyen said. However, results can be disappointing, and the chemicals can be dangerous.

A more surefire, and safer, way of unclogging drains is to use a plastic hair snake, an inexpensive tool that resembles a large serrated zip tie, to pull out the gunk.

For access to a shower drain, remove the drain cover. For access to a sink, remove the drain stopper. Most stoppers are controlled by a vertical rod and a horizontal rod connected behind the sink by a clip. To release the stopper, disconnect the rods, then unscrew the nut where the horizontal rod enters the drainpipe. Slide the horizontal rod out of the pipe, then simply lift the stopper out of the sink.

Once you have access, pull out as much material as you can with the hair snake and collect it in a bag or on paper towels for disposal, while trying not to get too grossed out. "You're fishing," Sebestyen said. "But what you're coming back with is not as pretty as a fish."

Tools and supplies: hair snake.

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