Kay Keating's plum-colored fingernails tap gently against the white china.
Thirty men and women gaze intensely at her and scribble notes. Hands shoot up with questions - What if you have to jiggle the handle to make the toilet stop running? How do you know if it's leaking? Why do some bowls flush themselves?
"People are learning not to be afraid of their plumbing," says Keating, who teaches a three-hour plumbing clinic for customers of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and a "mini-maintenance" course for the Montgomery County Recreation Department.
"Instead of calling a repairman for every little thing, they're starting to pull up the (toilet tank) lid and take a look themselves."
The champagne-blond grandmother, who wears a dainty, gold water faucet on a thin chain around her neck, is the antithesis of the TV commercial's lady plumber. For Keating (sometimes called the "Fix-It Queen"), home-maintenance started out as a hobby and has turned into a way of life.
As the eldest daughter of an electrical engineer she learned how to fix "just about anything" by serving as her father's "gofer" while he remodeled the family's 150-year-old farmhouse in Bethesda.
"Electrical wiring and plumbing was table talk I grew up with," she says. "My father figured if someone put any doggone thing together, he could pull it apart and put it back again."
She honed those skills during the first 20 years of her marriage, when she and her husband lived in more than a dozen different houses and apartments. "We were always following some previous tenant who hadn't done a thing in upkeep," she says.
Now on her fifth round of remodeling the same old Bethesda farmhouse she grew up in, Keating is an expert in household maintenance. She began teaching courses six years ago, has demonstrated maintenance techniques on TV, is a columnist for How-To magazine and recently served as consumer delegate at the International Standards Organization conference in Geneva.
While she does not make service calls, Keating fixes friends' running toilets or leaky faucets and is consulted often by former students.
"I love doing this because it's gratifying the way people respond," says Keating, whose goal is to take the mystery out of maintenance.
"People are realizing most things in their home are not so complicated that they can't understand them.
"For one thing, you can't get anyone to ring your doorbell for less than $15. You should be able to discuss the problem intelligently with the plumber. If you just say, "Go in and fix it," you might as well leave your checkbook on the table."
Preventive maintenance, stresses Keating, helps keep a plumbing system in good shape and minimizes repair bills. Some tips on what Keating calls "TPC" (Tender Plumbing Care):
Get to know your toilet. Take the lid off and flush it a few times to learn how the system works.
Treat your toilet like the china bowl it is. Don't pour extremely hot water into the bowl or tank, since heat may crack it.
Routinely close the toilet bowl cover to minimize the risk of small items such as brushes or toothpaste tubes falling in.
Try a toilet tune-up to test for leaks every six months (or 10,000 flushes, whichever comes first). Pour a capful of food coloring or teaspoon of instant coffee into the water in the toilet tank, and stir to dissolve color. Do not use the toilet for half an hour. If the color comes through from the tank to the bowl without flushing, you probably have a wasteful, expensive leak.
A noisy toilet or one with sediment lines running down the edges of the bowl could be leaking.
Keep a good-sized trash basket in the bathroom, and avoid the temptation to flush such things as gum, bandages or paper towels down the toilet.
Don't overtighten faucet handles. Turn only until the water stops. If you must use great pressure to stop water, the faucet needs repair (probably a 5-cent washer).
Noises in faucets frequently signal something loose, such as a washer, seat or stem.
Don't sit, stand or lean on a kitchen faucet spout or free-hanging sink. Don't lean back against the toilet tank.
Close the drain when combing hair, putting in contact lenses or fastening jewelry.
Keep drains open by regularly treating them with "washing soda," available in the laundry-soap section of grocery stores. Dissolve one-half cup washing soda in one quart of warm water. Run the hottest water down the drain for a few minutes, then pour down completely dissolved washing soda. Flush with hot water. This is particularly important in tub drains if you use bath oils.
Use liberal amounts of cold water with the garbage disposal.
Always run the disposal before using your dishwasher.
Never pour grease, fat or oil into drains, regardless of what the disposal manual says. Avoid putting in stringy items, like celery, or large quantities of rice, potatoes or noodles which may turn into a paste and clog drains.
Don't fill the bathtub above the overflow drain. Many leaks occur around the gasket of the overflow.
Avoid driving nails into walls that contain pipes. The wall behind your toilet and sinks almost always will have pipes behind.
Before you allow landscapers to dig in your yard, make sure the underground utilities are identified.
Never ignore a leak. An insignificant amount of water on the floor under a dishwasher or washing machine can loosen floor tiles, buckle the subflooring and ruin the ceiling below.
Tag your main water shutoff, and be sure everyone in your household knows where it is. Make sure it shuts off all the water in the house, and always shut off the water when the house is empty for long periods. CAPTION: Picture, Kay Keating; by Douglas Chevalier - The Washington Post