How to talk to your plumber (© Jupiterimages/Getty Images)

© Jupiterimages/Getty Images

We often have a strange relationship with plumbers. They save our bacon in emergencies, and yet they sort of make us nervous.

Many of us don't understand what plumbers do when they're banging around under our cabinets. We only know that it usually leaves our wallets lighter. How should you talk to your plumber to remove the mystery from this relationship? (Bing: Simple toilet repairs)

We asked the experts to walk through the top five reasons that homeowners call plumbers, including clogs and mysterious odors. For each problem, here's what to ask and what to say when the person with the wrench arrives — and what you should be asked in return, so your money is well-spent.

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1. Backed-up drain or toilet
What's going on:
Food particles, oils and debris build up inside pipes and constrict flow, says Chuck White, vice president of technical and code services for the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association. In tubs and showers, the problem usually is soap scum and hair that accumulates over time, says White, a third-generation plumber. "The professional is going to come out usually with a cable — a drain snake — and scrape the edges and return it to as near to a wide-open pipe as he can."

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Toilets are a different story.

"Obviously, you can have too much material, papers, solids, and the toilet just can't handle that," White says. "But other times, things will just get dropped in the toilet. A common thing is a toothbrush."

When people try to flush these items, they get caught, bend in the pipe and back up the drain. If an item can't be removed, it will likely continue to cause backups; toilet replacement is the next step, White says.

What to do: If your drain won't stay clear for more than a few days after you plunge it, and if you're not handy enough to disassemble the pipes yourself, you likely need a plumber, White says.

  • Ask early about cost. Your conversation with your plumber should begin even before that van arrives in your driveway. Cost is often the source of confusion, miscommunication and discord. So get on the same page starting with the first call. Different contractors charge different rates; some charge a flat rate, while others charge for the trip, diagnosis and repair, White says. "If you're cold-calling a plumber … it's a fair question to say, 'What's your hourly rate and how would you charge to fix my drain, change my water heater, whatever? If you come to my house, what's my minimum cost?'"
  • Share your history. "With drains, usually try to know a little bit of the recent history," White says. Ask yourself, "'What have I done? Have I changed how I run things down the drain?'" he says. "Try to figure out what has changed" that might have contributed to the problem. Share that information. It will help the plumber diagnose the problem — and may prevent you from doing it again.
  • Milk the plumber for information. Consider the price of a plumber's visit an education. Learn from it. When the drain is fixed, ask what you can do differently so it doesn't happen again, White says. "If it's a recurring pattern, then the question for the plumber is, 'Do I have a system problem?'" If so, the plumber can tackle the root problem instead of the symptoms.

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2. Fixtures that need a fix
What's going on:
Sometimes a faucet won't stop leaking, no matter how much wrench you apply to it or how many new rubber O-rings you buy from the hardware store to try to seal the connection. Water under pressure carves new holes, and those holes grow, says Robert Niederhelman, a retired plumber and residential handyman south of Daytona Beach, Fla., and author of the blog "Ask Bob the Plumber. "If you're not handy, call a plumber.

What to do:

  • Anticipate the plumber's questions. When you call to schedule an appointment, be armed with info for the plumber, White says. Know the faucet's brand, style and age. Arm yourself with answers to these questions, too: Does the faucet have one or two handles? If it's a kitchen faucet, does it have a sprayer? Is it chrome, brass or nickel-plated? This information will help the plumber know the scope of the project and what parts to bring, White says.
  • Discuss options. Let's face it: We all want to save money. Many of us would rather fix things than buy new ones. With fixtures, however, an older, oft-used fixture might not be worth repairing, White says. "The consumer should ask, 'Is this really fixable, or if you do fix it, what's the time frame of this holding?'" he says. Experienced plumbers know which brands and models of faucets will take new parts better than others, he says. Ask the plumber if your fixture is even worth saving before he starts tinkering with it, White says. The better option may not be the one you expect. "I always tell people, it will cost a little more money to buy a new faucet right now, but in the long run, you're going to be better off."

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3. Pipe leaks
What's going on:
Leaks "seem to happen when you're least expecting it, and they seem to happen in the most unusual spots," says Linda Stanfield, a plumber for 27 years and owner of two Benjamin Franklin Plumbing franchises in Phoenix's East Valley. While some pipes will rupture because of freezing or similar temperature issues, most leaks come from wear and tear, Stanfield says. "All plumbing will wear out. And all plumbing will break when it starts to age."

What to do: If you have a leak, tell the plumber what you've seen. If the leak seems to be in front of the dishwasher, mention if you've seen it elsewhere, too. "Did you hear noise? Did you see lower pressure of water?" Stanfield says. "Those areas can help a plumber get to a solution easier."

  • Ask for a pressure test. If you've sprung a leak -- or even if you haven't -- "always ask plumbers to take the plumbing pressure," Stanfield says. Pipes' pressure comes from the city pushing water through main delivery pipes, which pushes the water around your house. Think of it like your own blood pressure. Too much of a good thing is, well, bad. Excess pressure can cause pipe leaks, burst washing-machine hoses and other problems, Stanfield says. Most appliances recommend a pressure no higher than 75 pounds per square inch, she says. If yours is too high, professional plumbing devices can regulate it, Stanfield says.
  • Invite your plumber over before the next leak. "Ninety percent of plumbing problems can be caught and fixed before they happen," Stanfield says. Don't wait for a leak that causes thousands of dollars in damage to talk to a plumber about the condition of your pipes, she says. Consider getting an annual plumbing inspection. Think of it like your annual physical, and your home as your own body, she says. "There may be little things that your body is telling you that just don't feel right. It's the same thing with your plumbing," she says. Share the quirks you notice. Maybe the hot water doesn't always stay on. Maybe there's a knocking sound behind the toilet. "Your plumbing system really has a language, and it talks to you," she says. "It gives you signs, and it gives you warnings."

4. Water-heater problems
What's going on:
Water heaters typically last eight to 10 years. Plumbers often are called when one starts leaking or is no longer heating properly. Minor problems can be repaired. But once a leak begins, the water heater can't be repaired — only replaced. "If you keep ignoring it, it's going to be a gusher," White says.

What to do:

  • Ask about protection. "On a new heater, I would want to know what's the warranty — the standard is six years, and there are 10-year (warranties) available," White says. Ask about the installer's labor warranty, too.
  • Ensure the relief value is working. When a new heater is installed, have the plumber check that the water-shutoff valve is working. This relief valve, on or near the top of the water heater, has a test lever that can get calcifications on it that can seal it shut. "If it's stuck, it really must be addressed," says White, adding that the $8 to $10 part is a "vital safety device." If there's any issue, you want to be able to turn off the water right away. Normally, the plumber is going to turn off that valve to swap out the water heater and turn it back on when refilling it. Make sure that happens.
  • Know where the fuel shutoff is. If there's a problem in the house, it's good to know how to shut off the electricity or stop the gas, as well. That's usually just a matter of the plumber pointing out the control.
  • Take the temperature. Ask the plumber to check the device's water temperature. "Right now, all the manufacturers are recommending 120 degrees," White says, adding that the risk of scalding "goes up dramatically" with higher temperatures.

5. Mysterious odors
What's going on:
Sewer systems emit gases from all the nasty stuff going through them. You'll know it when you smell it — a sour, rotten-egg smell. Modern toilets and drains hold water in a trap to prevent gas from entering your house, but sometimes it creeps in, especially if water has not run down the drain in awhile and the trap is dry.

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What to do: You could remedy this yourself by filling a trap that is dry or by pouring water down a rarely used drain, such as in the floor of a laundry room. A cap or fixture replacement, to seal or remove an opening to the sewer system, also could work.

  • Sniff out the problem. Before the plumber inspects your traps, he will ask where you notice the smell most or where it is strongest. Be ready to answer. "Are there any conditions that make it worse? Windy days? Or when it's raining hard?" White says. If a trap isn't the culprit, the plumber will look at the toilet seal, or the ring that seals the pipe beneath the toilet. A toilet with a damaged seal can be resealed and salvaged.