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Home maintenance isn’t restricted to repairs. In fact, certain tasks, when performed regularly, may actually prevent things from breaking in the first place. But when things do go wrong — and it’s inevitable that they do — try these backup plans before you grab the phone to call a pro. Appliances and plumbing are the most frequent offenders, but they also can be the simplest to care for.

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Kitchen sinks: Poison perfume

Drains 101: Skip the plumber and tackle these tasks yourself (© Popular Mechanics)

Garbage disposal and drain odors are making your kitchen an unpleasant place.

The quick fix:
Garbage disposals can retain food bacteria in the blades, making for an olfactory nightmare. Clean out the unit by pouring a cup of white vinegar followed by a flush of very hot water. For a drain, pour in a cup of white vinegar; let it stand for 30 minutes, then rinse with hot water.

Slime time

Drains 101: Skip the plumber and tackle these tasks yourself (© Popular Mechanics)

You’re right in the middle of preparing that big Thanksgiving feast when your kitchen sink chokes on all the grease that you’ve been allowing to go down the drain.

The quick fix:
Use a heating pad wrapped around the drain trap (or a hair dryer if you’re willing to hold it there) until the metal becomes hot. This will melt the grease and allow you to flush it away with a running stream of hot water.

Disaster prevention

Stopping clogs is a battle fought on two fronts. First, you should be careful about what goes down the drain. Second, you need to take regular action to clear small deposits that inevitably form in any drain.

  • Use drain screens to keep hair, soap scum and other solids from making their way into the drain.
  • Never pour grease down the drain, and clean greasy pots and pans as thoroughly as possible with a paper towel before cleaning in hot water in the sink.
  • Never dump chemicals such as paint or paint thinners down a drain — even a shower drain or utility sink.
  • Clean all your sink stoppers regularly.
  • Once a week (make it a regular part of your weekly cleaning schedule), pour boiling hot water down your drains.


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Bathrooms: Slow motion

Drains 101: Skip the plumber and tackle these tasks yourself (© Popular Mechanics)

Your bathroom sink is draining little but your patience.

The quick fix:
The handy plunger is one of the best tools for a slow-moving drain. Fill the sink with a few inches of water to provide a good seal around the plunger. Next, stuff a wet rag into the overflow opening of the sink. Try to completely fill the opening so that you get a good seal. By blocking the opening, no air can reach the drain, which greatly increases the effectiveness of the plunger. Finally, plunge away.

Clean out

Popular Mechanics (© Popular Mechanics)

Your drain won’t — and the plunger you have isn’t strong enough.

The quick fix:
In an emergency, you can use a wet/dry shop vacuum to help clear a clog. Put the mouth of the vacuum hose over the drain opening and seal around it with a wet cloth (also plug up any overflow holes). Turn the vacuum on and off quickly until the clog clears.

Standing water

Popular Mechanics (© Popular Mechanics)

Soap scum and the residue of other body and hair products have packed your shower drain to capacity.

The quick fix:
If simple plunging, hot water or chemical drain cleaners don’t work, you may need a more powerful ally. Run a garden hose in through a nearby window and secure it in the opening of the drain (drying the shower floor thoroughly and duct taping the hose securely in place is a good option). Once you’re certain the hose has been sealed in the drain, turn on the spigot full force and it should blast the clog free.

Safe and sound

Dangerous additions: How NOT to unclog a toilet

The quick fix:
Trust us, nobody likes to plunge a toilet. But the frustration that comes from having a clog can lead to some inadvisable home remedies. Never put boiling water down a toilet. Although it seems like this might break up a clog, the water in your toilet is cold (in winter, it may be very cold) and the difference in temperature can lead to damage to your toilet or pipes. If for any reason you put bleach into the toilet, do not combine it with any other cleaner or chemical clog remover. The combination could create deadly chlorine gas. For most toilet clogs, the best answer is usually a mechanical one, such as a snake or — sadly — the old-time plunger.

BingCan't fix it? Find a plumber.

Basements: Unplanned pool

A big rain has flooded your basement. And since it knocked out the power too, your usually reliable sump pump won’t pump.

The quick fix:
If you live on a slope, try making a siphon. First, fill a garden hose with water from the outside spigot. Seal one end with your thumb and have a friend seal the other. Place one end through the cellar window and into the standing water. Then, have your friend carry the other end as far downhill as possible (the outlet has to be below the intake). Release your thumbs and let gravity do the rest.

Trapped below

The water in the trap of your basement floor drain dried up, and now your cellar smells vaguely of nasty, nasty things.

The quick fix:
Pour nontoxic plumbing antifreeze down the drain to fill the trap. You can use water in a pinch, but it evaporates faster than antifreeze, so you’ll need to repeat the process more often. If you have pets in your home, make sure to block access to the area.

Excerpted from When Duct Tape Just Isn’t Enough, by the editors of Popular Mechanics.