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Home-Repair Tool Basics

Electrical Tools and Plumbing Tools

Electrical and plumbing systems make up the backbone of your home. Therefore, it's imperative that you know how to make basic electrical and plumbing repairs. In this section, we'll tell you about the tools you'll need to fix your electrical and plumbing problems.

Electrical Tools

How does electricity work? It must have a continuous path, or circuit, in order to flow. Think of it as a two-lane road from point A to point B and back. If one or both lanes are blocked, traffic stops. The flow of auto traffic over a highway is measured with a traffic counter placed across the road. The flow of electrical current is measured by placing an electrical tester at two points in the circuit. Most electrical problems can be solved by using a voltage tester, a continuity tester, or a volt-ohm-milliammeter (VOM), also known as a multimeter or multitester.

Voltage tester: A voltage tester is the simplest of these tools. It consists of a small neon bulb with two insulated wires attached to the bottom of the bulb housing; each wire ends in a metal test probe. This type of tester is always used with the current turned on to determine whether there is current flowing through a wire and to test for proper grounding. It is also used to determine whether adequate voltage is present in a wire. Look for a tester rated for up to 500 volts.

To use a voltage tester, touch one probe to one wire or connection and the other probe to the opposite wire or connection. If the component is receiving electricity, the light in the housing will glow. If the light doesn't glow, the trouble is at this point. For example, if you suspect an electrical outlet is faulty, insert one probe of the tester into one slot in the outlet and the other probe into the other slot. The light in the tester should light. If it doesn't, the outlet may be bad.

To further test the outlet, pull it out of the wall. Place one probe of the tester on one terminal screw connection and the other probe on the other terminal screw. If the tester bulb lights, you know the outlet is malfunctioning -- there is current flowing to the outlet, but it isn't flowing through the outlet to provide power to the appliance plugged into it. If the test bulb doesn't light, there is no current coming into the outlet. The problem may be a blown fuse or tripped circuit breaker, or the wire may be disconnected or broken behind the outlet.
Continuity tester: A continuity tester consists of a battery in a housing, with a test probe connected to one end of the battery housing and a test wire with an alligator clip connected to the other end. It is used with the current turned off to determine whether a particular electrical component is carrying electricity and to pinpoint the cause of a problem.

A continuity tester (left) and VOM, or multitester (right).
©2006 Publilcations International, Ltd.
A continuity tester (left) and VOM, or multitester (right).

To use a continuity tester, unplug the appliance and disassemble it to get at the component you want to test. Fasten the clip of the tester to one wire or connection of the component, and touch the probe to the other wire or connection. If the component is receiving electricity and transmitting it, the tester will light or buzz; this indicates that the circuit is continuous. If the tester doesn't light or buzz or it reacts only slightly, the component is faulty. Caution: Do not use a continuity tester unless the appliance is unplugged or the power to the circuit is turned off.
Volt-ohm-milliammeter (VOM): A voltage tester and a continuity tester are adequate for many diagnostic jobs, and they are relatively inexpensive. But for more serious electrical and appliance troubleshooting and repairs, invest in a volt-ohm-milliammeter, or volt-ohm meter (VOM). A VOM is battery powered and is used with the current turned off. It's used to check continuity in a wire or component and to measure the electrical current -- from 0 to 250 volts, AC (alternating current, as in houses) or DC (direct current, as in batteries) -- flowing through the wire or component.

A multitester is used with plug-in test leads, which may have probes at both ends or a probe at one end and an alligator clip at the other. An adjustment knob or switch is set to measure current on the scale desired, usually ohms. The dial indicates the current flowing through the item being tested. Caution: Do not use a VOM unless the appliance you want to test is unplugged or the power to the circuit is turned off.

A VOM is useful for testing appliances because it is used while the power is turned off, so there's no danger of electric shock. It provides more precise information than the continuity tester and, therefore, is preferable for testing many components. Learning to read a VOM is very easy, and manufacturers provide complete operating instructions with the meters.

Compressed air: A can of compressed air, sold under a variety of names and brands, is very useful for cleaning appliances and electrical fixtures. Compressed air can remove particles of food or even help dislodge loose parts from a toaster, for example. Some compressed air cans come with an extension tube that fits in the can's nozzle to precisely direct the air. If you cannot find canned compressed air at your hardware or home supply store, try a computer shop where it's sold as a dust remover for keyboards and other electronics.

Electrical contact cleaner: Electrical contact cleaner is simply compressed air with a cleaning agent that evaporates, such as isopropyl alcohol. It is useful for cleaning electric components that have food, grease, or oils on them. It can dislodge foreign elements and clean components. Several brands of electrical contact cleaner are available at larger hardware stores, electronics dealers, and hobby shops.

Plumbing Tools

You may already have many of the tools necessary for most plumbing jobs because they are the same tools used for other do-it-yourself projects. Other special tools include pipe wrenches and various plumbing aids. Check them out:
Pipe wrenches: You'll need a medium-size adjustable pipe wrench to tighten and loosen pipes and other plumbing connections. You can purchase one at hardware stores and plumbing-supply houses.

A basin wrench is a specialized tool that allows you to reach tight spots under sinks and basins. The jaws of a basin wrench not only adjust to accommodate nuts of different sizes, but they also flip over to the opposite side so you can keep turning without removing the wrench.

A socket wrench set is useful for removing recessed packing nuts and for use on tub and shower fixtures as well as other do-it-yourself household repairs.

Plumbing tools such as these can be used for most jobs.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Plumbing tools such as these can be used for most jobs.

For changing a toilet seat, you'll need a wrench, or perhaps a deep socket wrench. If you need to remove a toilet for replacement or repair, you may need a spud wrench. Older toilets frequently have a large pipe -- called a spud -- that connects the tank to the bowl. The spud is held to the bowl and tank by extra-large hexagonal slip nuts. A spud wrench is designed to remove these slip nuts. The adjustable type of spud wrench is far more versatile than the nonadjustable type, which has a fixed opening at each end.

Plumbing aids: Plumbers' snakes, or drain-and-trap augers, come in various lengths. A short snake is all that's necessary for most plumbing repairs. A closet auger is a version of the plumbers' snake designed specifically for clearing clogs in toilets. The closet auger is shorter than a regular snake, and it comes encased in a plastic or metal housing with an easy-to-use crank.

Plumbing tends to be a challenging task, whereas painting is something most people can do fairly easily. In the final section, we'll go over the essential painting tools you'll need to get started.