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Emergency Do-It-Yourself Tips

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It can happen to any of us. A blocked pipe, a fire on the stove, a blown fuse, a plague of vermin... and other potential disasters. Here's some tips for dealing with a few of them smartly, quickly and safely.


Blocked Pipes

If you use your sink as a rubbish bin you're asking for trouble. When you're left staring at a sink full of scum, try this:

Bail out the water from blocked sinks and baths with a bucket, and pour a cupful of washing soda followed by boiling water down the drain. If this doesn't clear it after a couple of goes then you'll need to use a plunger. Smear the rim with Vaseline1 to get an air-tight seal, place over the plughole and run water until the cap is covered. Pump the handle up and down repeatedly. If the blockage is in the U-bend this won't work.

Blocked U-bend

  • Put a bucket under the U-bend. Disconnect it by undoing the bottom two screws (usually situated on a sideways 'S' shape) and pull it out, checking to see if it's blocked.

  • If it is blocked, poke out the gunge. If the blockage is immovable, you'll need to buy a new U pipe. Take your old one to a DIY store to ensure the new one is the right type and size.

  • When putting the U-bend back, you'll need a spanner. Don't forget it's (usually) plastic, so don't do the screws up too tightly or you'll never get it off again if it blocks up.

If it's anything trickier, in the UK The Institute of Plumbers will help you to find a decent plumber. Similar organisations in other countries can be found in local phone books under the heading 'Plumbers'.

Pan Fires

You're busily frying whatever it is you have planned to eat for dinner and you get distracted. Suddenly you are looking at a blaze on top of the cooker. Do not panic and chuck the burning pan and its contents out of the window. They could easily blow back inside and set you or your curtains on fire. Instead;

  • Turn off the heat - this is perfectly safe.

  • Dampen a cloth and fling it over the pan to cut off the oxygen.

  • Turn off the heat. (Just in case you were too scared before.)

  • Don't touch the pan for at least 30 minutes. If you take the cloth off before then, it could burst into flames again.

  • At this point you may consider ordering in pizza for dinner.

Pilot Light Extinguished

A pilot light is a small jet of gas that is kept burning in order to ignite a gas burner, as in a stove, a hot water boiler or heater. Pilot lights are a means of igniting the gas when the appliance is turned on. A control knob needs to be pressed to allow the gas to flow; this ignites, either by using the spark ignition button, or a lighted taper. Never, ever try to use matches. If the light keeps going out there is likely to be a problem. In the UK call The Association of Plumbing and Heating Contractors (telephone: 01203-470626) for recommended professionals. In other countries information can be found in your phone book under the heading 'Gas Appliances' or similar. In all countries that work with gas, contractors must be registered with the appropriate authorities.

Blown Fuse

A fuse that blows is annoying, as it always happens in the dark, or just as you're about to blow-dry your new hairdo. The fuse doesn't mean to be a nuisance, it's there to protect you from fire and electric shock. Fuses are in the plugs of portable appliances and the main electric distribution board.

For Portable Appliances

You'll need a replacement fuse with the correct rating. This might be marked on the appliance (eg underneath the kettle), in the instructions, or on a sticker on the plug. Don't assume a 13amp plug needs a 13amp fuse, or that the blown fuse was the correct type. Unplug the appliance and whip out the deceased fuse with a screwdriver. Put the new one in, but if it blows again fairly quickly you should get the appliance checked out by a competent repairer.

Distribution Board (Fuse Box)

  • Always shut off power at the mains before changing a fuse.

  • Always tape over the main switch, empty fuse socket, or circuit breaker when you're working.

  • If you move away from the fuse box leave a note there so no one will accidentally turn on the electricity.

  • Keep any fuses you've removed in your pocket.

  • Always check that the circuit is actually dead before you begin working on it. Use a circuit tester or voltage meter.

If you don't feel competent to change one of these then it is best to contact an expert who'll sort it out for you. In the UK The Electrical Contractors Association will be able to recommend someone. In other countries look under 'Electrical Contractors' or similar in your phone book.


If a breeding pair of mice colonise your property you could finish up with 2000 of them a year later. Not nice. If they are in the house, they are never far away from you and yours. As mice don't have bladders they dribble urine and they leave droppings on food surfaces. They can spread salmonella and other nasties.

To clear them out:-

  • Seal any gaps in your walls with cement or wire wool. Mice will munch through wood and paper.

  • Use the old-style break-back traps. Set them at right angles to the wall, so the mouse will turn over the treadle (the bit that sets off the trap) and be killed quickly and cleanly. No need to use bait. Then go ahead and feel guilty. Some people prefer the traps that catch mice alive. This means they can be released somewhere away from your house.

  • Store food like rice and other grain-based goodies in plastic containers and don't leave food unstored overnight are a couple of good tips to keep other vermin such as cockroaches at bay as well.

If you still have company a week later call your local authority or look in the phone book under 'Pest Control'. In the UK The British Pest Control Association provides a list of pest exterminators.

Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Maintenance

Bleeding Radiators

If you've got the heating on, but you're still snuggled up under three blankets then your radiator needs attention. Some heating systems pull in air, and when this fills the radiator instead of lovely hot water it needs to be bled to get the air out.

At the top of the radiator there is a square bit called the air cock. Pick up a special key from a DIY shop to release it. Put an old towel under the radiator, and turn the key a fraction until you hear a hiss. When the hissing stops and water starts to drip there is no more air and you can close it off. You shouldn't have to do this too often. If you do, it could mean the pump needs to be adjusted, or is in the wrong position. In this case you will need to consult a plumber.

Replacing a Washer

Dripping taps normally mean the washer in the tap needs replacing.

  • Turn off the water supply to the tap and unscrew the top half with an adjustable spanner.

  • Place a cloth between the tap and spanner to avoid damaging the metal.

  • Unscrew the large nut inside with an open-ended spanner, remove the valve mechanism, lift out the old washer and replace with a new one.

  • Take the old washer with you when you buy a new one to ensure you purchase the correct sized replacement.

Other helpful suggestions can be found at Handy Household Tips

1Vaseline is a trademark used for a brand of petroleum jelly.

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