5 plumbing disasters to avoid – a professional reveals the expensive mistakes to swerve at all costs

Plumbing professional and author Nicholas James reveals the very, very expensive DIY plumbing mistakes every homeowner should avoid

Plumber under a sink
(Image credit: Nicholas James)

Plumbing and electrics are two elements of home renovation to hand over to professionals. Both, executed poorly, can have disastrous results. 

However, according to professional plumber and author Nicholas James, social media has increased the temptation for homeowners to attempt cheaper, DIY fixes. This, he says, has caused plumbing disasters that are way more expensive to put right than the original job would have cost. 

'Random videos on social media are encouraging more and more people to fix their own plumbing problems. I think this is a good thing, but beware, you do so at your own risk,' he says. 'When it all goes wrong you might really regret it. I’ve been a plumber for 20 years and I’ve come across quite a few DIY plumbing disasters, some of which I share below.'

Nicholas James plumbing
Nicholas James

Nicholas James has been a plumber for more than 20 years, working on high end, urban properties and country homes. This week, he publishes his first novel, Pipe Dreams, at Amazon, a wry tale of the highs and lows of life as a jobbing plumber. 

Plumbing disasters to avoid

Of course, we have a few plumbing pieces on this very site, such as how to use a plunger and when to drip faucets, but they are simple on purpose: we don't want to lead you to make plumbing mistakes. This is what Nick warns against:

1. Don't rely on DIY videos

'Several years ago, someone called me in a panic. He sounded like he was having a heart attack, so I went straight over. It turned out that his shower was dripping, so he looked online and found a video, showing him how to change the cartridge. 

'Unfortunately, he missed the beginning, because his Wi-Fi briefly went down, so he didn’t turn the water off. The house had extremely high water pressure, so when he removed the cartridge, a powerful jet of water hit him in the chest, he slipped, dropped his iPad which broke, so he didn’t know what to do next. 

'When I arrived, he was standing outside his house hyper-ventilating and could hardly speak, so he silently showed me inside. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was like someone had turned on a fire hose. Water was jetting out of the wall and was cascading down the stairs. 

'I asked him where the stop valve was (to turn the water off), but he didn’t know, so I ran around the house trying to find it. I looked everywhere, but it was nowhere to be seen. It turned out that his house had been built by his next-door neighbor, who was a dodgy builder. He’d originally built it for his mom, but had sold it after she died. He cut lots of corners and one of them was that he hadn’t installed an independent water supply into the house or installed any isolation valves. 

'Instead, he’d simply linked it into his house next door, which meant the only way to turn the water off was under his kitchen sink. But he was on vacation, so I was forced to try to fix the shower with water jetting out of it, which took me quite some time, because trying to force a tiny piece of plastic into a shower valve, against a tidal wave of water is very tricky. 

'I don’t think he’ll ever do any plumbing himself again. The point is when you don’t know how your house has been plumbed, things aren’t always as straightforward as they seem on YouTube.'

2. Don't use the wrong products to solve problems

'Another time I was called to a top floor apartment. It was owned by a very highly-strung woman, who had English as her second language, and I got the feeling she didn’t completely understand everything I was saying. 

'She had a blocked sink in her bathroom. All the pipework was boxed in, so I asked her if she had put anything down it (to try to unblock it herself). She said no, so I plunged it several times. The water backed up and spurted out of the overflow all over my hand. I suddenly felt a terrible burning sensation on the back of my hands, so I quickly washed them under the tap. 

'When I quizzed her about it, she said a friend had given her a bottle of drain unblocker and she’d poured it down the plughole about a week earlier. She showed me the bottle. It was 96% sulphuric acid and was only supposed to be used on drains outside. 

'I soon discovered that all the plastic waste pipes in her bathroom had bowed and melted, so I had to dismantle the whole room and replumb it, which cost her quite a lot of money. If she had called me before she put the acid down, I would have easily unblocked her basin, I wouldn’t have burnt the back of my hand, she would have saved herself a fortune.'

3. Don't clean to the extreme

'A couple of years ago I was called to a ground floor apartment, which was owned by a fairly elderly lady who wore very old-fashioned hearing aids. She was (by her own admission) a little overly obsessed with cleaning. She had unscrewed the drain hole in her shower, because it looked a bit grimy, and she couldn’t put it back together. 

'This was because her shower tray sat on a suspended floor. When she unscrewed it, the fitting fell away, so she’d tried to retrieve it. Unfortunately, while she was bending down one of her hearing aids fell off and rolled under the tray. 

'When I arrived, she was getting a lot of feedback, so she could only hear me if her right ear was facing me. The only way I could fix it was to pull up the fitting using an improvized piece of wire (which I made out of a coat hanger), then carefully screw it back together, making sure the washer was straight. 

'This took me several hours, because it was a very delicate operation which really required me having three hands. The only alternative would have been to take the shower tray out and retile it. Amazingly, I did eventually manage to do it, but I couldn’t retrieve her hearing aid. 

'If she’d called me before, I would have told her not to touch it, she would have saved herself some money and she’d still be able to hear without constantly having to look left.'

4. Never, ever tackle the toilet

'But perhaps the best example is when I was called to an apartment with a blocked toilet. The man, who owned it, considered himself to be really quite handy. He had all the kit. Workman’s trousers with knee pads sown into the knees, a toolbelt with hammers hanging off it and a huge toolbox, full of tools that he didn’t know how to use. 

'He’d watched a video online and it said that he should take the toilet out and rod the pipe, so that’s what he did. When I arrived, he was completely covered in... let's not go there. 

'The problem was that the blockage was in the communal soil pipe underground. The pipe served all the flats in the building, so when he took his toilet out, every time anyone in any of the apartments upstairs flushed their toilet, it poured out into his apartment. 

'He didn’t know this of course, because he wasn’t a plumber. If he’d called me before he took his toilet out, I would have lifted the manhole outside and rodded it back the other way, he would have saved himself quite a lot of money, he wouldn’t have got covered in... you know what... or ended up selling all his tools on eBay.'

5. Don't DIY your plumbing to save money

'The point is that many social videos don’t come with the disclaimer saying, "Don’t try this at home", because that rather defeats the purpose. It took me many years to become a plumber and believe me, it isn’t easy. 

'There are often several solutions to any particular problem and choosing the right one isn’t always easily explained online. It comes with experience, and you really have to be there. I’ve been a plumber for 20 years and I still feel like I’m constantly on the cusp of a catastrophe. 

'I’m sure lots of people will think I’m just trying to drum up business, but I assure you I’m not, because I live in London, England. So, telling you all this doesn’t benefit me at all. I’m actually in favor of people trying to fix things themselves, they just need to be aware that sometimes it might actually end up costing them more.' 

Pipe Dreams, $16.99 at Amazon

Pipe Dreams, $16.99 at Amazon
During lockdown I wrote a book,' says Nick. 'It’s called Pipe Dreams, and is full of lots of funny plumbing stories.'

Nick gives his plumber’s-eye view of society in a series of entertaining, amusing and outrageous beneath-the-kitchen-sink dramas. Published 6th June 2023.

Lucy Searle
Content Director

Lucy Searle has written about interiors, property and gardens since 1990, working her way around the interiors departments of women's magazines before switching to interiors-only titles in the mid-nineties. She was Associate Editor on Ideal Home, and Launch Editor of 4Homes magazine, before moving into digital in 2007, launching Channel 4's flagship website, Channel4.com/4homes. In 2018, Lucy took on the role of Global Editor in Chief for Realhomes.com, taking the site from a small magazine add-on to a global success. She was asked to repeat that success at Homes & Gardens, where she also took on the editorship of the magazine. Today, Lucy works as Content Director across Homes & Gardens, Woman & Home, Ideal Home and Real Homes.