You, Too, Can Fix Leaky Faucets and Broken Outlets

By Gary Dymski
Saturday, March 25, 2006

A few years ago, an old-fashioned handyman told me of a specific task he did for a couple each spring. Both husband and wife were so mechanically challenged that they'd hire him to change their light bulbs.


Another time, speaking before a senior-citizen group of about 50 women, I asked how many of them knew the locations of their utility shutoffs. In case of emergency, did they know to close the valve for water or natural gas? Could they find the main breaker switch on their electric service panels? About 10 hands went up. One woman muttered, "My husband always took care of those things."

Married or single, every homeowner should be able to do a few household tasks. These range from the simple -- locating valves and breaker switches that feed water, natural gas and electricity to the house -- to the modest -- like replacing a light switch (a switch, not a bulb).

The tasks listed below don't require special tools. You'll find most of them in your toolbox or utility drawer. If they're not there, you can buy them -- most of the tools are less than $10, and the materials less than $20 -- at hardware stores or home centers.

Why should you know how to perform these tasks? The reasons range from saving money to gaining a measure of independence.

For example, a widow recently told me an electrician would replace several of her faulty outlets for $145 apiece. Another electrician estimated $45 for each. "Why such a disparity?" she wondered. She never got an answer. If she were able to do it herself, she wouldn't need one. Depending on style, receptacles cost between $4 and $20 (ground fault circuit interrupters are more expensive). Replacing one is a 10-minute job.

Fix a Faucet

Why: That drip-drip-drip sound drives you crazy. And you're wasting water.

Tools and materials: Adjustable crescent wrench, screwdriver, hex wrench set, washers, O-rings or a seal-and-spring replacement set.

Procedure: Turn off water -- hot and cold -- at the shutoff valves, usually inside the cabinet or vanity. Open faucet to drain water. On newer two-handled washerless faucets and old lever styles, a plastic index cap often hides the handle screw.

Pop up the cap, and remove the screw and handle. (A tiny inset screw keeps the handle in place on some lever models. Use the hex set to remove the screw.) The stem or faucet body is now exposed. Use the crescent wrench to remove the retainer ring or lock nut, which holds the stem or body in place. To stop the leak, replace the O-ring on washerless faucets. On lever styles, a rubber-like cover, called a seal, hides a spring inside the faucet cartridge. These need replacing. On older stem-and-seat faucets, the washer is at the bottom of the stem and is held in place by a washer screw.

Tip: As you disassemble parts, line them up on a towel or rag in the same order they were removed. Don't be shy about taking the entire stem piece to the hardware store to purchase the correct replacement parts.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company