One of the biggest amenities of modern life is also one we normally take for granted. Running water allows us to cook, clean, bathe and dispose of waste. When it works, no one thinks about it. When it doesn’t, we panic. It’s little wonder that plumbers can command a high labor rate in some areas, in excess of $100 an hour—to make sure things keep flowing smoothly.
To better understand how these pipe whisperers keep civilized society intact, we spoke to several industry professionals. Here are a few things you might not know about the very patient people who are sometimes squeezed in under your sink.
1.THERE’S SOMETHING FAR WORSE THAN TOILET CLOGS.
While sewage lines are bad enough, there’s actually something worse than fecal matter. “Restaurant kitchen sinks,” says Mike, a plumber working in the Cleveland, Ohio area. “Everything gets down in there and solidifies. It tends to be fact-based, and no soap works on it. The stench just sticks to you. It’s far worse than sewage.” A rough sink job, he says, can mean using rubbing alcohol to clean his skin or just throwing out his clothes entirely.
2. THEY WISH YOU’D STOP USING DRAIN CLEANERS.
Over-the-counter chemicals used to break up clogs in drain lines don’t always do an effective job. When a homeowner has poured some down the drain and then calls a plumber to fix the persistent issue, the plumber often sighs. “They are almost always ineffective and are definitely only temporary,” says Tom Parker, a plumber in Maryland. “They can also cause corrosion in the drainage system. And if I have to snake the drain, I can get those chemicals splashed all over me. Please at least warn me ahead of time.”
3. YOU SHOULD STOP TRYING TO FLUSH CELL PHONES DOWN THE TOILET.
According to Mike, a surprising number of people who accidentally drop their cell phone into a public toilet make the unfortunate decision of trying to abandon it by flushing. “Most people are grossed out by it and aren’t going to want to use it again,” he says. “They think it’ll go down.” (It does not go down.)
4. SOME OF THE OTHER THINGS YOU THINK ARE FLUSHABLE AREN’T.
Other popular causes for toilet clogs: feminine hygiene products (which are designed to swell with fluid) and “flushable” wipes, which do not break down as easily as toilet paper. “The flushable wipe business has been good for the drain cleaning business,” Mike says.
5. HIGH-RISES GET POOP FLUSHES.
A hydro-flush is a preventative service provided to apartment complexes to help avoid any potential blockages in sewer drain lines. According to Andreas Samaris, a plumber working in Canada, the job is basically one big engineering enema. “It’s essentially a pressure washer that you shove down a pipe in the bottom of the building that needs to be done once a year, so that the building doesn’t get as many blockages,” he says. Once the line has been uncapped, it tends to seep brown or black liquid. “It’s honestly the most disgusting thing, but I am not too grossed-out about it.”
6. YES, THEY GET HIT ON…
Tradesmen have a shorthand for flirtatious customer encounters: “near-sex experiences,” or NSEs. “It’s not like I flirt with customers, like, ‘Hi, help me take off this shirt,’” says Mike, who is happily married. “But female customers can flirt. I’ve been hit on.”
7. … UNLESS THEY’RE COVERED IN POOP. WHICH HAPPENS A LOT.
Cleaning out drains means getting rid of waste clogs backing up the line, and they have to go somewhere. If a plumber is stationed at a point of poop access, odds are he’s going to get hit. On one of Mike’s first jobs, he was accompanying his supervisor while they were snaking a second-story drain above them. “He wasn’t paying attention, but he heard it,” Mike recalls. “30 to 40 gallons of raw sewage. His face was six inches from the pipe.”
8. WHICH IS WHY SOME OF THEM MIGHT NOT CALL YOU BACK.
James, a plumber in the Pacific Northwest, says that some plumbers may suddenly discover they’re all booked up if your call involves a poop-flooded basement. “I actively avoid jobs where I know it’s going to be an issue,” he says. “It’s too disgusting to seek it out, and I don’t like to charge more for jobs that are unpleasant, so I try to avoid them if I’m already busy enough. I can refer you to seven other great plumbers in the area, though.”
9. THEY CAN GET EXTREMELY SICK
James might have the right idea. Close encounters with human waste put plumbers at risk for a variety of illnesses, including E. coli, stomach parasites, and hepatitis. “A lot of plumbers wind up dealing with hepatitis A at some point,” Mike says. “You’re getting stuff splashed in your face and mouth. Every single plumber I know has dealt with something rough.”
10. YOU MAY NEED TO GIVE THEM A HAND.
Most of the plumbers we spoke to had nice things to say about their customers, with one exception: Not everyone bothers to give them an unobstructed path to the offending plumbing. “I need access,” Tom says. “Bathroom sink clogged or faucet broken? Please remove all the stuff piled under the sink. Does the water heater need replacing? Please be sure it is clear and I have a clear path to remove the old one and bring in the new one.” If not, you’ve effectively hired a $100-an-hour moving service.
11. THEY HAVE A TIP TO CLEAN GARBAGE DISPOSALS.
Ice cubes. But it’s not to sharpen the blades, because disposals don’t really have blades. “They are blunt pieces of curved metal that whip around and pulverize everything,” Tom says. “Then the pulverized stuff is forced through a perforated plate. Over time, food matter can build up on the blades and the holes. A couple of ice cubes can knock some of that debris loose to clean things up in there a bit. Adding some lemon peels can help with odors, too.”
12. NEW TOOLS ARE NOT NECESSARILY A BAD SIGN.
Conventional wisdom says that a plumber with brand-new tools should be eyed suspiciously, as any experienced laborer will have a bag full of rusty, poop-encrusted wrenches. Not so, according to Tom. “There are many reasons why a plumber may have new, clean tools,” he says. “Maybe he’s just starting a new company, maybe he had his stolen, maybe he just replaced a few broken bones and those are the only ones he needed to bring into the building.” A better sign of experience, James says, is how well his tools are organized.
13. IF YOU NEED ONE, WAIT UNTIL TUESDAY. (OR THE NEW YEAR)
People try to avoid calling plumbers on weekends so they don’t have to pay them for overtime. That means a lot of business on Mondays. “Generally speaking, after New Year’s Day it will be slow, too,” Andreas says. “People tend to not want to fix things due to lack of money from Christmas.”
14. THEY KNOW FOOD.
And not just after it’s been digested. “When you have the opportunity to go out to lunch, go with a service plumber,” Mike says. “He’ll tell you where something’s good locally.” You might notice that he doesn’t eat the corner of his sandwich, where his fingers have touched it. According to James, they don’t bite their fingernails either. They know better.