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As a homeowner, one fact you learn quickly is that home improvement projects almost never seem to end. Most of the time something in your home needs to be repaired or replaced: whether the dripping faucet, the gurgling toilet with the flapper that won’t seal unless you jiggle the lever, the light fixture with the broken switch that you turn off by unscrewing the bulb, or the ceiling fan that rattles ominously when it’s turned on high.

Don’t be intimidated by the fact that some problems relate to plumbing and/or electricity. Even if you’re not a professional plumber or electrician or consider yourself handy with tools, you will find that with a little instruction, you can tackle many home plumbing and electrical projects on your own and save some cash in the process. Thanks in large part to the huge number of DIY stores, DIY TV shows, and DIY websites, you will find no shortage of competent instruction available.

As you study the details of a project, you may also find yourself saying, “I can do this!” Then when you actually do the project and get it right, you become more confident in your ability to tackle other home improvement jobs.

Do-It-Yourself Plumbing 101

Some plumbing jobs in your home require the skill and expertise of a professional, but many don’t. Bathtub overflow cover replacement, like many home plumbing repairs, is a simple job and requires only common household tools. The only additional expense is a replacement cover. You can generally expect to have the job done in fifteen to thirty minutes.

First, you will need the following tools:

  • A screwdriver appropriate for the drain cover screws, usually a flathead
  • Needlenose pliers
  • Replacement overflow drain cover that matches your old cover

Your bathtub overflow cover may have a toggle switch in the middle. The purpose of that switch is to keep water in the tub or allow it to drain out. If you want to take a bath, the switch goes up to block the main drain and keep water in. If you want to shower, the switch goes down to open the drain.

To replace the overflow drain cover:

• Remove the two screws. Don’t discard them. You will need them to attach the new cover.
• Carefully pull the cover plate away from the wall of the tub.

The stopper assembly is attached to the back of the overflow cover. This assembly sits inside the overflow drainpipe. As you pull the bathtub overflow cover from the hole, you will see it consists of two connecting rods—collectively called the linkage–and either a spring or a cylinder-shaped plunger, also known as a lift bucket, at the bottom. Pull this entire assembly out of the bathtub overflow drain.

Next:

• Use a needlenose pliers or other appropriate tool to detach the linkage from the back of the bathtub overflow cover.
• The stopper assembly may be covered with sludge from hair, soap, and other debris going down the drain and accumulating over time. Rinse the stopper assembly thoroughly.
• Remove the new bathtub overflow cover from its packaging.
• Use the needlenose pliers to secure the linkage to the back of the new bathtub overflow cover.
• Feed the stopper assembly back into the drain. It may be difficult to insert because of the angle. Don’t force it. Rattle it gently back and forth and let it drop into place.
• Re-attach the overflow drain cover to the tub wall. Take care to ensure it is right-side up.

Homeowner Hint: if you have a tub without a stopper, buy a drain screen at a hardware or DIY store. Better yet, buy two. Put one in your bathtub drain and the other in your sink drain. You don’t need tools. You just put it in place. The screen sits in the drain and helps keep shaving cream, toothpaste, soap, hair, and other debris from clogging your drain.

When and how you should replace an overflow drain cover?

The more you know about the workings of your home, the more competent and confident you will be as a homeowner. With that thought in mind, here is how your tub’s overflow works. The purpose of the overflow, as the name indicates, is to keep water from overflowing out of the tub in case someone turns on the tub water and forgets about it or the tub is overfilled when someone gets in.

Overflow drain hardware

The overflow linkage is attached to the back of the cover plate. At the end of the overflow linkage is either a spring or plunger.

Spring System

On a spring-operated system, the spring sits at the bottom of the drain atop one end of a rocker arm. The other end of the rocker arm is below the stopper. When you turn the overflow cover switch up, the spring drops down onto the rocker arm and the stopper in the main drain goes up, like a teeter-totter. When the switch is down, the spring comes up and the stopper goes down, keeping water in the tub.

Plunger-Operated System

On a plunger-operated system, the plunger blocks the bottom of the overflow drain. Since the main drain goes into the overflow drain, water cannot drain out of the tub when the plunger is down. A plunger-operated system also does not need a stopper in the tub drain.

When and Where to Check for Problems

Aside from any functional problems with your bathtub plumbing, you will probably want to replace your overflow cover plate purely for cosmetic reasons. Like any other fixture, an overflow cover plate can age and its appearance become degraded over time. If you’re going to give your bathroom a makeover and replace the fixtures, don’t forget a new overflow cover plate.

Overflow drain covers, as simple as they are, can also have mechanical malfunctions. If you find that your bathtub either isn’t draining or won’t hold water, the overflow system is a good first place to check for the problem.

The Tub Won’t Drain

First, check the slit at the bottom of the overflow drain cover. The slit may be blocked with hair, soap, or other debris. Blockage like this is unlikely, but possible.

If a blocked cover isn’t the problem, remove the cover. If you have a plunger system and don’t see linkage connected to the back of the cover plate, it has somehow separated from the cover. As a result, the plunger will sit in the bottom of the overflow drain, keeping water from draining.

Reach into the overflow drain with your fingers and retrieve the linkage. Pull it out and re-connect it. If it shows obvious signs of breakdown, replace it. If the plunger has disconnected from the linkage and is sitting at the bottom of the drain, use a magnet, wire hanger, or other device to retrieve the plunger.

If you have a spring system, the spring is obviously not reaching the rocker arm and pushing it down. As a result, the stopper will not go up to drain water. The stopper assembly may be plugged with debris. Remove the overflow cover plate, linkage, and spring. Clean off any sludge thoroughly and replace them.

The spring may also not be reaching the rocker arm because the linkage is too short. The linkage has a mechanism to adjust its length. Use the mechanism to lengthen the linkage.

At this point, since you now have the stopper assembly out, it’s probably a good idea to use a plumbing snake on the overflow system. In case you aren’t familiar with a plumbing snake, it’s a very common and effective tool used to clean out blocked pipes. It consists of a hollow, donut-shaped housing that holds a length of cable, at the end of which is a small spring. The housing also has a cranking handle.
Snakes can be either electric or manual and come in different lengths. For household use, a 25-five foot drain snake is usually sufficient.

Plumbing snakes are a good long-term household investment, since you never know at what ungodly hour you will need to clear out a clog in a sink, bathtub, or drainpipe.

In order to use a snake on your overflow system, loosen the retaining screw on the snake that holds the cable in place. Feed the spring end into the top of the overflow pipe as far as it will go. Leave a space of about six inches between the snake housing and the opening of the pipe. Tighten the retaining screw. Turn the crank.

As you turn, the cable will rotate and the spring will start to twist and “snake” its way deeper into the pipe. As it does, the housing will pull closer to the opening of the drain, which is how you know the snake is doing its job.

Loosen the retaining screw. Pull the snake handle back about six inches. Tighten the retaining screw down and turn the crank again. The spring will snake its way farther into the drain. Repeat this procedure several times.

To check whether or not you have reached the clog, withdraw the snake simply by pulling it out of the drain. Pull slowly, as a considerable amount of accumulated sludge can be expected to come out with it. You don’t want to be spattered.

If you pull out a large, disgusting glob of sludge, there’s a good chance you’ve found the source of the clog. The only way to be sure, of course, is to run the water to see if it drains. If it still won’t drain properly, use the snake again more deeply, using the entire length of the snake.

If you’ve snaked the overflow drain and the tub still won’t drain, you may have a blockage in the main drain between the main drain outlet and the overflow pipe, where the snake didn’t go. To check this area, insert the snake into the main drain outlet and turn the crank. Since this part of the drain is only about six inches long, you should be able to find the clog pretty quickly if it is there.

The Tub Won’t Hold Water

If you have a spring system and your tub won’t hold water, the spring may be stuck on top of the rocker arm in the down position. As a result, the drain stopper is stuck in the up position. Remove the cover and ensure the linkage is connected. If the linkage has disconnected, retrieve the stopper assembly from the drain. Clean any sludge off the stopper assembly and re-connect. The linkage may also need to be shortened. Adjust as necessary

If you have a plunger system, the linkage may have somehow become twisted. Check for twists, as well as for proper length of the linkage.

The Tub Leaks

The overflow drain connects to the outside of the bathtub. A gasket sits between the outside of the tub and the top of the overflow pipe for a waterproof seal. Over time, a gasket can become worn and degrade. If you have a free-standing tub, you will be able to see where the overflow drainpipe connects to the tub. If the overflow ever leaks, you should see water going down the outside of the tub, beneath the overflow.

If you have an alcove tub where the outside overflow connection isn’t visible, you may not realize you have a problem until one day you notice a water leak on the ceiling of your basement. If the water spot is where the tub sits, the back of the tub should be a good place to start looking. Your house should have a panel or other means of access to the back of the tub.

To replace a leaky gasket, remove the overflow cover plate. Push the overflow drainpipe back slightly. Pull out the old gasket. Scrape excess gasket material off the tub surface and drainpipe surface. Insert the new gasket so it forms a seal between the tub and the drainpipe. The narrow edge should be on top due to the slant of the tub. Screw the overflow drain cover back on and tighten down.