Electrical and plumbing repairs you can DIY—plus ones you should leave to the pros
Should you fix it yourself, or hire a professional?
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Many homeowners love to get their hands dirty with home repairs. I know—I’m one of them. Here’s my thinking: Why pay a professional hundreds or, even, thousands of dollars for a job I can do myself in a weekend or two?
There’s nothing wrong with this attitude if you have the time, inclination, and aptitude. However, some things in the home are best left to professionals, particularly when it comes to anything that requires plumbing and electrical work. If not done properly, mistakes with plumbing and electricity can potentially result in catastrophic damage. And, this will cost you far more than just bringing in a professional up front.
To get a sense of which types of plumbing repairs and electrical repairs are OK to tackle and which ones novices should stay away from, we got advice from the experts.
If projects loom, get to know your local codes and laws
Each state, city, and town has its own building codes and regulations. Before you take on a major home repair project, make sure you understand the up-to-date requirements.
According to Christopher Deao, owner and master electrician at Deao Electric in Middleton, Massachusetts, building codes, both nationally and locally, are updated every few years, so anytime you make a repair at home, you need to know that it will be compliant with new code.
For example, most homeowners have no idea whether the wiring from a switch to the panel is up to code, or whether they need the switch or outlet to be GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupter) protected, or any of a dozen other requirements. On the other hand, electricians have to recertify every three years to keep current.
Additionally, check into whether the repairs or upgrades you have planned need to be permitted. Not pulling the proper permits, even if unintentionally, can cause problems down the line, like when you go to sell your home. Likewise, if unpermitted and uninspected work develops a problem, your homeowners insurance may not cover the damage and could even drop you if they find out that you have unpermitted work.
Let a professional handle electrical systems 99% of the time
Electricity is one of the most dangerous elements of any house, with enough power running through your home’s wires to kill you. Improper wiring is also a major fire hazard. So, working with even small electrical jobs is not something to take lightly.
If you have any doubt about your ability to do the job, then hire a professional. Deao advises that running new wires, adding new fixtures or outlets, or working on your electrical panel are all things that should be left to professionals.
That said, before you call in a professional, there are some small electrical fixes that you can do yourself. Shaun McCarthy and Bill Kay, owner and field supervisor, respectively, for Handyman Connection in Colorado Springs, Colorado, say to always check your circuit breakers and your GFCI breakers if the power goes out in your home. Chances are good that one of them popped.
GFCI breakers in particular can be tricky. They’re usually located in kitchens and bathrooms, where the risk of water coming in contact with the outlet is high. However, it’s quite possible that a GFCI outlet can interrupt electricity elsewhere in the house, so before you give up, check them all. The GFCI outlet in my bathroom, for example, also kills the power in one of the non-adjoining bedrooms.
Deao adds that motivated homeowners, with the proper research, can usually handle one-for-one switch or fixture changes themselves, although these are a repair he commonly gets called in to fix. It’s also worth noting that three-way switches trip up a lot of homeowners, who then wire them wrong.
Anything having to do with low-voltage wiring like a phone, internet, or a doorbell is also usually fine for homeowners to work on themselves.
If you do decide to tackle any electrical project yourself, make sure that you’re being safe. Always turn off the breaker to any wires that you’re working on, and double check that they’re actually off with a voltage tester.
Always let a pro deal with gas lines
Many homeowners think they can handle plumbing jobs themselves, but in reality, you can quickly get in over your head. While on the surface, plumbing seems relatively straightforward, there are a lot of details and nuances that can be the difference between a tight, permanent seal and a leaky mess.
Franny White, master plumber and owner of White Plumbing and Heating in Spencer, Massachusetts, says there is one plumbing rule for homeowners above all others. “Never fool around with the natural gas lines. It’s just too dangerous if a mistake is made.”
Always hire a professional for gas work.
Many basic plumbing tasks can be handled at home
When it comes to water lines, motivated homeowners can easily tackle some projects with a bit of research.
For example, swapping cartridges in your faucet to fix a leaky sink is pretty easy—although tracking down the correct cartridge can be a hassle. Likewise, McCarthy and Kay suggest that replacing the flapper and valves inside a toilet is pretty straightforward, although again, you need to make sure that you have the correct replacement parts.
Joseph Wood, master plumber and owner of Boston Standard Company, in Boston, Massachusetts, says that many homeowners panic and call a plumber too soon, when really they just have clogged pipes. The little plastic snakes that you can buy at the hardware store can clear a lot of sink or shower clogs.
Similarly, changing a shower head is a simple task involving unscrewing the old, and attaching the new. I replaced my own in less than 10 minutes.
With more complex plumbing repairs, homeowners need to be careful. While White recommends that most homeowners leave their copper water lines alone, if you’re committed to working on them, then he says to avoid soldering. It’s a specific skill that takes time, practice, and instruction to learn how to do properly. A bad soldering job will fail eventually.
Instead, he recommends that DIYers look at Sharkbite products for their own repairs. These are much easier to use than solder, and still create a watertight seal.
Wood agrees. “The stakes are higher with water lines, because they go from zero to 60 very quickly.” When you mess up a water line, you usually don’t have the luxury of waiting it out. You’re going to be without water until you get it fixed. And whatever you do, he says, stay away from using saddle valves, which actually puncture your pipes and are leaks waiting to happen.
A best piece of advice: Make sure that you know where the shutoff valves are, both for the specific section you’re working on, and for the whole house. A broken pipe might pump out 10 gallons of water per minute. Which means that every minute you spend searching for the water shutoff is 10 more gallons of water on your floor.
McCarthy and Kay add that not all leaks are immediately obvious. A tiny, seeping leak can go undetected for days, weeks, or months, and that’s often where problems with mold and mildew come from. So, when you think you’re finished with a plumbing project, dry the pipe and surrounding areas thoroughly, and then lay down some dry paper towels. Come back periodically throughout the day to make sure that the towels are still dry and that you don’t have an imperceptible leak.
Is a DIY repair worth it?
Every homeowner has to answer this for themselves. On the front-end, you can save money by doing repairs yourself. And of course, there’s the wonderful feeling of accomplishment that comes from a job well done. Can you successfully unclog a toilet? Yes, you can, even without a plunger.
But, that savings and pride has to be weighed against the time investment and the risk factor.
Do you really want to spend your limited weekend time fighting with a bathroom trap? Some people absolutely do, but it's not for everyone. If you get in over your head, it’s probably going to cost a lot more to have a professional come in on an emergency service call than it would have been to just have hired them in the first place.
White has one piece of advice for anyone thinking about tackling a project: “When in doubt, don’t.”
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