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Wendell Presgrave is a fortunate man. He absolutely loves his job. He has been a plumber for more than 30 years and has looked forward to getting up every morning and going to work. Given the opportunity, he'll quickly communicate his enthusiasm, whether he's talking up employment opportunities within the industry or conveying to homeowners his belief that plumbing need not be a great mystery.

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On Toilets and Taps

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Presgrave: There's not much a plumber can do that a homeowner cannot learn if he's prepared to put the time and effort into getting the books, reading up on the project, and then taking it slowly, step by step

Wendell Presgrave is a fortunate man. He absolutely loves his job. He has been a plumber for more than 30 years and has looked forward to getting up every morning and going to work. Given the opportunity, he'll quickly communicate his enthusiasm, whether he's talking up employment opportunities within the industry or conveying to homeowners his belief that plumbing need not be a great mystery.

Today, Presgrave runs a business that employs 125 people in three states - Virginia, Maryland and California. It all happened because of a fortuitous phone call he made back in 1968, the year his son was born. Tired of working in the lab of a research and development company, Presgrave was actively seeking employment in sales and not getting very far. Then he called a friend. "I don't know of any openings in sales," came the reply, "but there's this guy who's looking for someone who knows nothing about plumbing so he can train him from the ground up." Plumbing had "never even crossed my mind," Presgrave said,"but I went to see the old fella, he took me on and I took to everything he showed me like a duck to water."

Most plumbing businesses in the United States are small, ranging from one employee to half a dozen. On the other end of the scale are six to eight huge companies, known in the trade as consolidators. These companies target promising regions, where they buy up local firms to form one large operation. Presgrave's company, My Plumber, is something of an original. His employees are centered on three branch offices and for the most part work out of their homes. The company calls in assignments on a daily basis and supplies the workers with parts and other essentials. Hiring a plumber today costs anywhere from $40 to $200 an hour. Presgrave's company charges around $100. With such high prices, he tries to determine if the problem is minor enough for clients to fix themselves. "We'll speak on the phone first and see if we can talk them through the problem," he said. "If we can't, then we go out. There's nothing worse for spoiling a relationship than to have to charge $100 just for pressing a button."

Perhaps because he took to the craft so readily, Presgrave sees little reason homeowners can't master the basics of plumbing. In fact, he said, "There's not much a plumber can do that a homeowner cannot learn if he's prepared to put the time and effort into getting the books, reading up on the project, and then taking it slowly, step by step." The only reason a plumber can do it better, Presgrave said, is "because he does it all the time and has all the right tools. He'll probably do in two hours what it takes a homeowner four or maybe five hours to complete." Lack of time is the real enemy for do-it-yourself plumbers, he said. "Often homeowners run out of patience, so they call in the plumber when they're three quarters of the way through a project, like installing a kitchen sink. They say, "I've spent the whole day trying to put this thing in, you come over and fix it.' -- Bigger projects aside, Presgrave said there are several simple things homeowners can and should do to protect a home's plumbing and reduce the need to call in a professional. Monitoring water pressure is at the top of his list. High water pressure - above 80 pounds per square inch - "wears out the plumbing, strains pipe joints, faucets, everything in the system," Presgrave said.

In Virginia, where he's based, the plumbing code requires a pressure-reducing valve set no higher than 80 psi at the point where city water enters the home. City water pressure often fluctuates, depending on how many people in the area are using it. "A controlled pressure prolongs the life of the system considerably," he said. He even recommends a setting slightly lower than code. In his view 60 to 70 psi will still give you good pressure at the tap. His advice is to have a plumber check the pressure the next time one comes to the house.

Another tip from the pro is to be careful what you throw down the sink or into the disposal. That's a particular problem during the holidays, when food preparation is a major part of the celebration. "Every year, without fail, calls for help go up during these times. During the week of Thanksgiving fully 90 percent of our calls are to clear sinks that are stopped up," Presgrave said. Less frequent, but significant nonetheless, are blocked toilets. "Keep the lid down," he advises. "Toddlers are fascinated by toilets and drop or even throw in toys. The toy is flushed away but doesn't go far, traps most everything else that follows, and pretty soon you're in a mess. "Also, remember that a toilet is a specialized system," Presgrave warned. "It isn't designed as a general-purpose disposal." More than once he's had a client drop the contents of the kitty litter pan, litter and all, into the toilet. "You know what happens to clay litter when it gets wet? It expands. A whole lot."

If you have a septic system, disposing of strong disinfectants in a toilet or down a sink is something else to avoid. They can reduce or even destroy the helpful bacteria that consume the sewage. Finally, if you live in colder parts of the country, check that the shutoff valves to outside faucets don't leak and allow water to continue running, even in a trickle. Ice can travel back into the house and freeze several feet of pipe. Frozen pipes become burst pipes, which translates into big money. While he's confident that there isn't much a competent homeowner can't tackle with patience and a well-illustrated how-to book, Presgrave cautions that there are some things only a professional should do. For example, never attempt to tackle plumbing problems that involve wells, particularly the pumps. "If the pump comes loose from the piping at the bottom of a 400-foot well, that's where it stays forever," he said. Stoppages - at least those not fixed by using a standard rubber plunger - are also best left to the professional.

Snakes, designed to unclog pipes far from the kitchen or bathroom, can extend several hundred feet, and it's not unusual for them to turn and go in the wrong direction. Presgrave recalls one instance in which a colleague was trying to clear a stoppage in a downstairs bathroom. Suddenly the homeowner rushed in to tell him that the strangest thing had just happened. "The covering on my toilet seat in the upstairs bathroom has disappeared. It was there just a few minutes ago!" Sure enough, it was retrieved eventually on the end of the snake. A misaligned T-joint in the wall had directed the snake up the pipe instead of down, and it had eventually entered the upstairs bathroom - and snagged the toilet seat cover.

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