Due to the COVID 19 pandemic that is sweeping the world right now, the UK Government has imposed strict lockdown rules, instructing the public to stay at home to help slow the spread of the virus.
The new rules have raised a lot of questions surrounding what services are still available. What happens if you have a boiler on the blink, a broken sink, or a leaking shower? Can we still employ tradespeople such as plumbers to carry out work in our homes?
Given the increased amount of time we’re all spending at home right now, there’s been a sharp surge in plumbing issues across households across the country, and many people have questions and concerns.
In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about fixing your plumbing issues in these trying times. We’ll discuss the current regulations and guidelines from the Government, when to call a plumber during the lockdown, precautions to keep everyone safe, as well as ways to keep your property in good working order to avoid any unnecessary call outs.
So, if you’re faced with a plumbing problem during the COVID 19 pandemic and you want to know the best course of action to take, read on!
We’ve collated lots of useful information to help you get the best information you need. See below!
- What do The Government Guidelines Say?
- Is There a Shortage of Plumbers Operating During The Lockdown?
- Finding an Engineer
- When to Call a Plumber During Lockdown?
- When it Can (And Should) Wait
- Can I Get my Boiler Serviced During The Lockdown?
- Safety First
- Safety Guidelines For Plumbers And Customers Inside The Home
- Tips on Preventative Maintenance During The Lockdown
- How to Fix a Blocked Toilet Without a Plumber
- Other Ways to Protect Your Pipes And Avoid Having to Call Out a Plumber
- Virtual Plumbing Services
- Can I Still Get a Quote For Future Plumbing Jobs?
- What Other Services And Tradespeople Are Still Operating During The UK Lockdown?
What do The Government Guidelines Say?
On the 23rd March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the UK would be entering a period of lockdown, requiring members of the public to only leave their homes for essential items like food or medicine, or to travel to and from work ‘where this is necessary and cannot be done from home’.
Confusion has followed surrounding the definition of ‘absolutely necessary’ with many job roles, including tradesmen such as plumbers, called into question. The government has since taken steps to clear up some of these uncertainties and has identified several ‘key worker’ roles.
According to official guidelines on the government’s website, those employed in the oil, gas, electricity, and water sectors are all classed as key workers and can continue to work.
Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government released this statement to help clear up any confusion:
“Work carried out in people’s homes, for example by tradespeople carrying out repairs and maintenance, can continue, provided that the tradesperson is well and has no symptoms.”
“Again, it will be important to ensure that Public Health England guidelines, including maintaining a two-metre distance from any household occupants, are followed to ensure everyone’s safety.”
“No work should be carried out in any household which is isolating or where an individual is being shielded, unless it is to remedy a direct risk to the safety of the household, such as emergency plumbing or repairs, and where the tradesperson is willing to do so. In such cases, Public Health England can provide advice to tradespeople and households.”
“No work should be carried out by a tradesperson who has Coronavirus symptoms, however mild.”
So in short, according to government guidelines, plumbers are classed as key workers and can continue to work in people’s homes, providing they have no symptoms and follow all of the necessary protocols.
Is there a shortage of plumbers operating during the lockdown?
Despite official government guidelines making it clear that plumbers and other tradespeople can continue to work during the lockdown, a significant portion of people in the plumbing trade have either scaled back or halted their business for the time being.
Some larger companies don’t feel comfortable putting their workers and customers at risk, and many plumbers have personal circumstances that limit their ability to continue to work; they have a vulnerable family member who is isolating in their household, or they or a member of their household is displaying symptoms.
That being said, if you have an urgent situation that requires the attention of a plumber, you still be able to find a suitable person for the job.
Finding an Engineer
The Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (CIPHE) is the professional body for the plumbing and heating industry in the UK.
If you find yourself in need of a plumber, they advise that you first contact your regular engineer if you have one. They are more likely to be familiar with you and your home and will be better equipped to handle any potential risks and take the necessary precautions.
If you don’t already have a regular engineer, or he or she cannot carry out the job, then the CIPHE advises that you visit their website www.ciphe.org.uk, which has a full database of professional plumbers for every area of the UK.
CIPHE ensures that all of their engineers adhere to a Code of Professional Standards, and are sufficiently qualified and experienced. They have also been briefed on all of the latest safety precautions and advice surrounding the pandemic.
When to Call a Plumber During Lockdown?
There are many reasons why you might need to call in a plumber, be it for general maintenance issues, home renovations and improvements, annual servicing, or plumbing emergencies such as burst pipes.
With the current lockdown in place, it can be unclear as to what type of situations it’s acceptable to call out a plumber, and what may have to wait until the restrictions are lifted.
The CIPHE has put together some guidelines and advice for consumers needing plumbing and heating services during the pandemic. In a statement on their website, they make it clear that for the majority of domestic plumbing and heating professionals, it is ‘not business as usual’ and that they expect most tradespeople to be working in emergencies only.
So what constitutes an emergency and what are some valid reasons to call out a plumber during lockdown? We’ve put together a list of some of the most common issues that you may face where it’s acceptable to call out an engineer.
- A water or gas leak
- Water shut off valve failure
- Burst pipes
- A sewer backup
- No heating or hot water
- Flooding from within the home
- A broken or failed sump pump
- Broken external water lines
- Severely blocked or overflowing toilets
All of these issues can put yourself and your family at risk. If you experience any of the above, call a suitable company or tradesperson registered with the CIPHE and explain your situation. They’ll be able to advise the best course of action and send out an engineer to you if it’s safe and necessary.
When it Can (And Should) Wait
The most important question to ask yourself is ‘is this work urgent?’ If the answer is no, then you should wait until the lockdown restrictions have been lifted.
Some Examples of Non-Urgent Plumbing Work Include:
- A bathroom or kitchen upgrade
- Installing a new dishwasher
- Installing plumbing in an unoccupied home
- Fixing a dripping tap
- Fixing a faulty sink or toilet where there are alternative facilities within the home
Can I Get my Boiler Serviced During The Lockdown?
Many plumbers are also Gas Safe registered and routinely carry out boiler maintenance services. The government has indicated that ‘essential maintenance’ falls under the acceptable list of reasons to have a tradesperson inside your home during the lockdown.
If your boiler is due for a service, the best course of action is to contact your regular engineer or a CIPHE certified engineer for advice. If both parties are satisfied that the work can be carried out, then you can proceed as long as you follow all the necessary precautions.
It’s worth noting that some companies have extended their boiler servicing window by 3 months to support customers who are isolating yet keen to protect their warranty. It’s worth checking your boiler company’s website or giving them a call to see if they are allowing this extension.
There are also calls for the government to extend the gas servicing certification for landlords and the social housing sector from 12 months to 18 months, although currently the normal rules still apply.
Even before the UK entered the current lockdown, the cost of hiring a plumber varied quite a lot depending on where you live in the UK, and this rule still applies. For guidance, the average hourly rate pre-COVID 19 was between £40 and £60 per hour. Call out charges are usually twice the standard hourly rate, but should also include the first hour’s labour within the price.
If you need to contact an emergency out of hours plumber, you can expect to pay two and a half to three times the standard hourly rate.
Remember that plumbers are working in extremely difficult circumstances right now. Even your regular plumber may have to charge a little more than usual as they have to cover the costs of PPE, cleaning, and safe disposal methods.
Make sure that you know exactly how much it will cost before you employ a plumber to do work in your home, so you don’t fall victim to any nasty surprises.
It can be helpful to get quotes from several engineers before choosing one to go ahead with the work. If time allows, and especially if it’s a high-value job, try to get a quote from 3-4 plumbers before going ahead; you could save as much as 40%.
If you determine that you have an emergency or need essential maintenance that requires a plumber to enter your home, you must follow strict precautions. There’s always a potential risk that you, the tradesperson, and members of your household could transmit or contract Coronavirus, so it’s more important than ever that we look out for the health and safety of each other.
- If you or any member of your household has symptoms of Coronavirus, or you have been in contact with anyone who does, do not allow an engineer to enter your property. You should be self-isolating and following the official NHS guidelines.
- If you are self-isolating but have a real and genuine plumbing emergency, call your engineer and explain the situation. Make sure they fully understand that you have, or potentially have COVID 19. They may still be able to arrange for an emergency engineer to attend if it’s absolutely necessary.
- Your plumber should only be entering your house if they are well and display no symptoms of COVID 19.
- All work carried out by tradespeople is at their own discretion. If they feel it’s unsafe to enter and carry out work in your home, they are under no obligation to take the job.
Safety Guidelines For Plumbers And Customers Inside The Home
To protect the safety of workers, the CIPHE has asked all members to assume that the premises and the system that they are working on are contaminated with the virus.
You, members of your household and the plumber must all follow certain rules to keep each other as safe as possible.
- Practice social distancing. Follow the regular rule of keeping at least 2 metres apart.
- Do not shake hands.
- Practice regular hand washing. Wash your own hands before and after your plumber’s visit. Your plumber should also wash their hands as soon as they enter the premises, before they leave, and throughout the visit.
- Wear PPE where possible. Eg. gloves and a facemask. This applies to you and members of your household, as well as the engineer.
- Avoid offering refreshments. In normal times it’s polite to offer your plumber a cup of tea or coffee, but during the global pandemic, it carries a high risk. If the job is expected to take a long time, ask the plumber to come equipped with their own refreshments, and to take any rubbish with them when they leave.
- Disinfect any surfaces that your plumber may come into contact with before their arrival. The boiler surface and surrounding pipes.
- Both yourself, members of your household and your plumber should avoid touching their face and safely dispose of any tissues immediately after use.
- Your plumber should clean their tools before starting a job, and clean them again before returning them to a tool bag or van.
- Your plumber should change clothes when they return home after a job, or ideally upon leaving before entering their vehicle.
- Once the plumber has left, be sure to clean down all surfaces that they have come into contact with using a disinfectant or alcohol solution. Ideally, wear gloves for this task. When you’re done, wash your hands, yourself, and the clothes that you were wearing to avoid potential contamination.
- Do not accept a visit from a plumber who is using public transport. The risk of contracting and spreading the virus after using public transport is much higher than when travelling in your own vehicle.
Tips on Preventative Maintenance During The Lockdown
Lockdown or no lockdown, in an ideal world we’d all like to avoid needing to call out a plumber to fix a problem that could have been avoided.
With the recently stockpiling of toilet paper and the resulting empty supermarket shelves, many people have had to resort to using alternatives. However, it’s important to remember that flushing anything other than toilet paper can cause serious damage to your plumbing and sewer system. The pipes in these systems are generally small and can easily get clogged.
Do not flush any of the following items:
- Kitchen roll, paper hand towels, or any other paper product not specifically designed to be flushed.
- Any type of disposable wipes, even if the package says they are flushable. This includes baby wipes, antibacterial wipes, and makeup wipes.
- Sanitary products and their packaging, including tampons, sanitary towels, and panty liners.
- Any type of cotton wool, including cotton wool balls and pads.
If you find yourself having to resort to using these items in place of toilet paper, make sure they go directly in the bin. If you have younger children at home, it’s important to make sure they understand what they can and can’t flush.
How to Fix a Blocked Toilet Without a Plumber
A blocked toilet is a potential health hazard at the best of times, and during these unprecedented circumstances, it’s more important than ever to practice preventative measures to make sure it doesn’t happen to you.
If you do find yourself with a clogged toilet, there may be a few things you can do before you reach for the phone to call a plumber.
Here are a few tips to deal with a blocked toilet yourself:
Wait it Out
Toilets work with the force of gravity. If the blockage isn’t too severe, it may unclog itself given a little time and the help of gravity. If you have more than one toilet, try waiting 12-24 hours before trying to flush again.
The Baking Soda Method
Mix up a solution of 1 part baking soda and 2 parts vinegar and pour it into the toilet bowl. This can help loosen the blockage. Wait for about an hour, and then try to flush. If you don’t have any baking soda or vinegar, you can use washing up liquid with similar effects.
The Hot Water Method
Boil the kettle and let it cool slightly before pouring into the toilet bowl. Similarly to the baking soda method, this can help break down the waste that is blocking the pipe. Make sure not to pour water still at boiling point into the toilet as you risk damaging and cracking the ceramic.
The Mop Method
Ideally, choose an old mop that can be thrown away. The most effective type of mops are the large old fashioned string mops. Attach a sturdy plastic bag to the end of the mop and secure it tightly with an elastic band or cable ties. Then with enough force, firmly push the mop into the toilet. It can take several tries before the blockage is cleared.
The Plunger Method
If you’ve tried the above methods but still had no success, using a plunger is a good next step. A standard cup style plunger usually doesn’t work too well on toilets; these are designed for drains and won’t give enough of a seal over the toilet bowl. You’ll need to use a specially designed toilet plunger that you can pick up at most hardware shops and even some larger supermarkets.
These generally come in two types. One has a rubber sleeve that hangs below a domed section, and the other is shaped like an accordion. Both can work well on a blocked toilet.
Wearing gloves, lower the plunger into the toilet at an angle making sure that the rubber sleeve or accordion section doesn’t fold up as it’s inserted. The idea is for the plunger to fill with water, rather than air. Press down so that the plunger seals as tightly as possible around the hole.
When you’re using the plunger, both the upstroke and the downstroke action will help to loosen the blockage, so apply plenty of force on both. It can often take several attempts to clear the pipe, so don’t give up after the first go.
The Auger Method
If you’ve still had no success, then your last resort is to try a specially designed toilet auger, which you can also find at most hardware shops. It’s made to accommodate the sharp bends in a toilet and should remove most blockages if used correctly.
The auger has a hand crank attached to a flexible rod along with an auger device at the end which breaks down any blockages and retrieves them from the toilet.
Lower the auger down into the toilet as far as possible (most of them reach around half a meter). When you feel the resistance of the blockage, clamp and turn the hand crank and push it gently in and out to loosen the blockage. Now you should be able to either pull the blockage up and out of the toilet or push it down to fully dislodge it.
If the object blocking your toilet is a cloth or a sponge, twist and crank the auger in a clockwise direction before pulling it out of the toilet.
Important Information When Unclogging a Toilet Without The Help of a Plumber
If you go to flush while using these methods and your toilet bowl threatens to overflow completely, you can stop the flow of water with this simple method.
Take off the lid to the tank and close the round, rubber seal (known as a flapper) that sits over the large hole at the bottom of the tank.
If this fails, you can also simply turn off the water supply line to the toilet. This is usually found on the wall behind the toilet bowl several inches off the ground. If you can’t find your toilet’s water supply line, switch off the water at the mains in your house, usually found under the kitchen sink.
Other Ways to Protect Your Pipes and Avoid Having to Call Out a Plumber
It’s not just your toilet that you can take steps to protect. By using the following tips, you’ll be helping to maintain your plumbing and avoid unnecessary callouts.
- Use dishwasher and washing machine cleaning tablets. These help to clear your machines of limescale and detergent build-up that can stop them from working and cause a blockage in the system.
- If you have a waste disposal unit in your kitchen sink, use specially designed cleaning tabs once a week and follow the instructions on the packet to help clear any blockages and bring any food scraps to the surface.
- Use a shower or bath plughole cover to catch hair before it goes down the drain and clogs the pipes.
- Use a similar device designed for the kitchen sink to catch any scraps of food so they don’t get caught and clog your drains.
- If your preventative measures have failed and you do end up with a blocked sink, shower, or bath, liquid drain unblocker is usually powerful enough to dislodge whatever is clogging up your pipes.
- Another effective tool is a drain snake, also known as a plumbing snake. It’s a flexible piece of long plastic that can be inserted down drains to dislodge whatever is clogging the pipes. For a particularly stubborn blockage, try both the liquid drain unblocker, followed by the drain snake.
Virtual Plumbing Services
Many tradespeople are thinking up clever ways to take their business online, and plumbers are no exception. Several independent plumbers and plumbing companies across the UK are offering virtual consultations for a much smaller fee than their usual call-out charge.
These virtual visits are a great way to show a plumber your faulty taps or leaking shower without risking anyone’s health and safety in the process. The plumber will then be able to decide if the job is deemed essential and if it’s possible to carry out the work during the lockdown, and they will also be able to give you a quote before entering your property.
Some plumbers have taken it a step further, like The Plumb Doctor, a York-based family-run plumbing company that operates entirely online. They offer 15-minute video consultations which cost £15, and 15% of the money goes to the NHS to help in the fight against COVID 19.
The Plumb Doctor’s owner James Gray launched his business since the UK lockdown began, and says he’s already helped many people to fix their own minor plumbing issues over Skype video chat. “A lot of these problems that people face around the house day-to-day can be fixed virtually,” he says.
Several plumbers are offering these types of virtual consultations right now, so if you’re relatively confident with DIY and would like to attempt fixing your dripping tap or other small plumbing problems with a real plumber watching and talking you through the process, this could be a great option for you.
It’s not just plumbing services on offer; there are a growing number of virtual handymen, skilled technicians, and other professionals who can help people to fix all kinds of issues around their homes through the power of the internet.
Of course, there are also endless free YouTube videos to help you with all kinds of home improvements, but having a professionals undivided attention as they talk you through the process makes tackling these jobs a little easier.
Can I Still Get a Quote for Future Plumbing Jobs?
Absolutely. Now is a great time to take stock of your plumbing needs and think about any future jobs that you might want to do in your home after the COVID 19 lockdown restrictions are lifted.
You could give your regular plumber a call and see if they’re willing to do a video consultation with you and provide you with a quote for future jobs. Most sole traders and larger companies are adapting to this method of communication and it will help to speed up the process of your plumbing job after lockdown.
What Other Services And Tradespeople Are Still Operating During The UK Lockdown?
As the days get longer and the weather heats up, this is a popular time for people to carry out both essential and non-essential home and garden improvements. But with the UK lockdown still in full effect, it can be difficult to know which services are still available. Let’s take a look at some of the more common domestic services.
Similarly to plumbers, the UK government has classed electricians as key workers during the COVID 19 lockdown and they can continue to carry out essential and emergency work in private households. Customers should avoid calling in electricians for non-essential, optional work, such as replacing light fittings and fixtures that aren’t broken, and instead wait until the lockdown measures have been lifted.
It’s important to follow all of the same safety guidelines we outlined for plumbers and their customers during the lockdown, such as the 2-meter rule, hand washing, and PPE.
The current government advice states that gardeners, although not classed as keywords, are still allowed to work provided it is safe to do so and they practice social distancing rules.
Unlike many tradespeople, gardeners work exclusively outdoors and so most can carry out their regular duties without coming into contact with customers.
If possible, ask your gardener to enter the property through an external entryway, for example, a back gate or passageway, avoiding the need for them to come inside your house. If you usually pay your gardener in cash, consider paying via an online bank transfer or PayPal to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
Many cleaners have found themselves out of work during the UK lockdown, and many families who usually employ cleaners have taken the sensible decision to put their services on hold until the current restrictions are lifted.
For some households, particularly the elderly or disabled, cleaners are an essential service. In this case, the government says they may still go to work, as long as it is safe for them to do so.
In all cases, cleaners and their customers must practice social distancing and remain at least 2 feet apart at all times. Ideally, PPE should be worn, such as gloves (which should be changed regularly) and face masks. Regular handwashing, particularly upon arriving and leaving, should be practised, and both the customer and the cleaner should consider the risks versus the benefits before continuing their usual arrangement.
The COVID 19 pandemic has changed the way we go about our daily lives. Living in lockdown has meant many services that we once took for granted have now been called into question.
As it stands, the current guidance remains that plumbers and other tradespeople are classed as key workers and can continue to operate essential and emergency services for their clients.
By following the safety guidelines we can help to protect each other and come out of the other side of this global pandemic sooner, rather than later.