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The One Reason NOT to Do It Yourself

Plumbing Repairs Make Good DIY Projects, But You Shouldn't Take Them On For This Common Reason

I’ve taken on a whole lot of do-it-yourself (DIY) projects over the years.  I built furniture (end table, bookcase, coffee table…) in high school and college.  Thanks to owning a couple of old Volkswagens (’61 Beetle and ’65 bus), I’ve done a lot of car repairs and even rebuilt the engines in each of those VWs.  My biggest DIY undertaking was building a house in 2001.  And now I’m remodeling my basement, doing some of the work myself.

The Ugly

Let’s start with the worst parts of do-it-yourself jobs.  For example, you may end up doing damage to the thing you’re trying to fix.  Heck, you could even flood the basement, blow up the water heater, or burn your house to the ground.

Then again, maybe it’s just you that gets damaged when you fall off the roof or electrocute yourself.  Back when I was building a house, I knew of an owner-builder who suffered severe injuries when he fell off a ladder.

Can you burn your house down with a DIY project?
Can you burn your house down with a DIY project?

Perhaps the problems you create aren’t quite that severe.  If the water is off for a few days, you may have an unhappy family but life can continue.  Whether it continues with your marriage intact is another matter, though.

And then there’s the possibility that you end up with things going so wrong you have to call in a professional to clean up your mess and fix the original problem plus any new ones you created.

The Bad

When you haven’t been trained in the skills needed to do a project, it’s going to be harder and take more time.  You won’t always know the right steps.  You may not know which tools you need.  Sometimes, you’ll create obstacles that a skilled trades person would have avoided.

Take my plumbing project over the past three days as an example.  I’ve done plumbing in the past and taught myself to solder a couple of years ago.  So I decided I’d move some plumbing lines as part of our basement renovation.

Do-it-yourself plumbing retrofit as part of a basement remodel
Do-it-yourself plumbing retrofit as part of a basement remodel

I thought the job would take a day, maybe a day and a half.  It took three.  And the water to the house was turned off most of that time.  By the end of the second day, though, I did get one toilet working in the house.

The delays came from:

  • Bad fittings.  Not my fault, but it slowed me down.
  • Installing the pressure regulating valve backwards.  Totally my fault, and I should have examined it carefully to notice the arrow showing the direction of water flow.  When installed backwards, it doesn’t let water through.
  • Damaging the pressure regulating valve by installing it backwards.  After turning it around, I noticed that it had developed a leak.  D’oh!  That meant another delay.

I ran into a few other obstacles along the way, too, and ended up going to Home Depot 5 times, Ace Hardware twice, and Noland’s plumbing supply once during the three day project.

The Good

I love doing stuff to improve my house!  I loved the process of building a house.  Planning things out.  Making lists.  Tearing out the old and putting in the new.  It all makes me happy.

Well, I should amend that.  It makes me happy when things are going right and when it’s done.  As my wife can tell you, there was plenty of yelling and cursing during my just-completed plumbing project.

But you just can’t beat the satisfaction that comes from doing it yourself.  It could be something as simple as making a nice solder joint or as big as seeing a pile of building materials turn into a house that you then get to live in for three years before the divorce.  In the case of my first big DIY project, it was the sound of that 40 horsepower VW engine starting up after I’d spent weeks rebuilding it in the summer of 1981.

My first big DIY project was rebuilding the engine in this 1961 VW Beetle.
My first big DIY project was rebuilding the engine in this 1961 VW Beetle.

The one reason NOT to do it yourself

It’s easy to get excited about taking on a do-it-yourself project when you read articles or watch YouTube videos.  But if you embark on such a task solely to save money, you’re likely to be disappointed.  It’s certainly possible to save money doing it yourself, but that’s far from guaranteed.  And it could cost you more than hiring a pro.

As I mentioned at the outset, a lot can go wrong with DIY projects.  Are you prepared for the worst?  Even if you don’t get the worst outcome, your chances of saving money will depend on your skill level, the size of the project, and even the hidden problems that crop up after you start.

How to succeed with DIY projects

Here are a few tips on how to improve your chances of completing the project to your satisfaction.

  1. Experience and skill.  How much of a stretch will this project be?
  2. Toolbox.  Do you have what you need?
  3. Support network.  When I was rebuilding that VW Bug engine, my grandfather was a great help and so was the local VW mechanic.
  4. Attention to detail.  As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”  Paying attention to details can make the difference between success and failure.
  5. Persistence.  Are you willing to push through the hard parts and find a way to get it done?

Still want to do it yourself?  Are you ready to question your sanity?  Go for it!  Just don’t do it solely to save money.  Do it because you love a challenge.

What’s your take on DIY projects?


Allison A. Bailes III, PhD is a speaker, writer, building science consultant, and the founder of Energy Vanguard in Decatur, Georgia.  He has a doctorate in physics and is the author of a bestselling book on building science.  He also writes the Energy Vanguard Blog.  For more updates, you can subscribe to Energy Vanguard’s weekly newsletter and follow him on LinkedIn.


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This Post Has 27 Comments

  1. Hi Allison, I’d like to emphasize how important the support network is. Even the most experienced contractors run up against things they’ve never seen, so it’s good to know where you can go to get help. I often visit place called for mechanical related questions. I know a bit about energy and hot water, so share and help get people out of hot water through that site.

    Another thing is that jobs work better fro me if I slow down and get a clear picture in my head of exactly how I want things to turn out. If I can get that clear picture, I can build it. If the picture remains fuzzy, It isn’t going to work. I know this from having pushed ahead too often, when I should have spent more time figuring it out.

    Yours, Larry

    1. Larry: Thanks for sharing here. It’s a great resource, and I’ve been there a few times myself. The trick with online resources, though, is to find the people who post consistently and have a record of providing good info. When you’re new to a site, you can walk away even more confused because of the differing opinions you find there.

      And yeah, the clear mental picture is critical. I learned early on in my blogging career here that that was one of the most important things. Sometimes I’d start writing without a clear picture of what point I wanted to get across, and I’d have to stop, back up, and sometimes abandon what I’d written.

      Thanks for your tips here, Larry!

  2. I’ve been working on my home renovation for two years now. Golly gee -has it been that long??!! My wife’s family keeps wondering what the heck is going on. Ha ha! My reason for commenting is to thank you for the wonderful information you provide here. I found your blog when I was trying to design a duct system as part of the process to secure the building permits to renovate my 60’s bungalow. Guess what! Thanks to your teachings, I was able to complete the Schedule J calculations I needed to plug in to the Schedule D spread sheet; that gave me the duct sizes I needed to present the system on an architectural drawing. I had to do that to get a permit for the mechanical permit. In addition, you’ve taught me about proper kitchen ventilation and lots, lot more. Your words of caution are warranted ; I had just passed my kitchen electrical rough when my brother caught my attic insulation on fire grinding off some nails! The fire department came and wrecked the ceiling in the kitchen! Thankfully, no other harm. So caution advised when working with flame or sparks near blown in insulation!! Thanks for all the knowledge you share!! DIY is not for everyone, but you really helped me.

    1. Rory: Fire is definitely something to watch out for. I’m glad you got away with most of your house intact after that attic fire you had. Seeing some of the scorch marks on floor joists from the soldering done by previous plumbers, I’m kinda surprised my house didn’t burn down before I ever saw it. Some of them look bad enough to have supported flames.

      Thanks for the kind words! I’m glad you’ve found this blog helpful.

  3. Regarding point 2, Toolbox:
    Heck, that’s why I start most DIY projects, a justification to buy more tools!

    In the last couple of years I taught my son to drive stick on my trusty Toyota Tacoma with one caveat, I explained that his learning process would undoubtably shorten the life of that clutch significantly so when it went, we would replace it together. Oh yes we ran into challenges. Being in the Northeast we ran into plenty of rusted bolts (only broke one thankfully and managed to get it out), ended up also having to replace other old parts while under there like the clutch cylinder, starter, and flywheel which weren’t on the original agenda, and it took more time than planned by a lot. But I also got to buy some flare wrenches, a bearing puller, some pry-bars, and a dremel tool to grind off a rusted mounting flange nut. Woot, new tools! But the best part was that time spent with my son in the driveway getting greasy then the pride on his face as we took it off the ramps and test drove it the first time, priceless.

  4. Pex is a wonderful thing and if you want copper like flow you go Pex A with a Pex expansion tool you buy or rent. It can freeze and not leak and allows affordable home room distribution.

    1. Rj: I do have some PEX, including parts of what I did this past weekend. When I redo the whole thing in a month or two, I’ll have mostly PEX. I did use PEX-A this time but didn’t need an expansion tool because I used push fittings.

  5. Among the many projects I saw a figured out on the way to building in my house rehab was under-floor hydronic heating with instant, wall-mounted combination boiler/DHW. Studied, learned that I should have paid more attention in HS algebra, and listened in on some interesting how-to conversations. Works amazingly well. But 3 years in, the Combi boiler/DHW stopped heating the house, though could still deliver a really hot shower. When you are a 100% DIY, just try to get professional help to fix a problem. Friends “in the business” would not return my phone calls. Unless I was willing to have a pro do some serious messing with my system and purchase a multi-year service plan, the cavalry was not coming. Fortunately, the maker of the boiler had several good service videos and the boiler was designed for easy service. I was able to drill into their tech desk and got an excellent tech guy to give me a proper “hint” and point me to a plumbing supply house that I use to get the proper part. 45 min later, I was back up and running. I now know a whole lot more about my heating system. So, if you are going to DIY install, you need to expect and be able to do a DIY repair.

  6. Designing a new house following principles in PGH and “building an affordable house”. Allison contributed to both books on keeping things affordable. I think most of the “budget” saving is in the design, then in the labor. Keep it simple and straightforward (KISS) makes project easier for the DIY – which may save you money. When designing the house, I always look for “Self-Maintenance” 3-5 years down the road. Can I get to the filter and replace it when I am 90 years old? Does the maintenance involve a ladder or can I work from the ground? Can I get that reverse-indirect hot water heater through the door without banging up knuckles? Do I have to go through a snow bank to fix a heat-pump? Again, design with eye toward DIY maintenance is always helpful.

    1. William: You’ve hit on something really important here that I didn’t talk about in the article. Designing for ease of future maintenance is something rarely considered…but should be.

  7. I seem to have the opposite problem. I grew up working for a home builder (my father) so I can pretty much handle any DIY problem. But now I am getting old and lazy and often hire “professionals” to do this work. The problem is that they rarely ever do as good of a job as I think I would have done, so I get pretty frustrated. I guess my point is that it is getting harder and harder to find good qualified “professionals” for small jobs.

    1. RoyC: I have a similar problem. I’m particular about how things get done, so after a contractor leaves I always find things that I wish they had done differently. For example, the pipe for the sump pump goes up and out through a crawl space vent, but they put it closer to the wall than I wanted. Or a cabinet installer will put a piece of trim in the opposite way I would have. Or…

  8. I have worked in every field imaginable from ASE master tech to commercial refrigeration/electrician and many other fields and all this stuff is just easy for me. However I’m also the type that does my research on the minutia of certain things to find best practices if it’s something I want to do better than a so called Pro would. I tend to absorb technical information and I am always the one that everyone asks for information as well. But often people are intimidated by someone that knows far more than they do.
    The problem is when I look at things I sometimes assume that people are more capable than they really are because I am always reminded on YouTube just how little many people know about doing things and I often wonder what was going on in their mind when they were doing something.

    When it comes to hiring a *Pro*.. Remember that the only thing being a PRO means is that you are paid to do the work. In my experience it’s uncommon to find someone that is good in their field and actually tries to improve their knowledge and quality of work.

    I would encourage people to talk to others they know that have knowledge in whatever field it is but don’t badger them. I don’t mind asking a few questions but I have done way too much help and even onsite helping friends etc and no none of them really see the value in your time and they have no desire to ever return the favor or do anything to compensate you for your time or labor. That said I still help but not anywhere to the extent that I used to. Only one person over the years has ever returned the favor.
    I do have a tiny channel over on YT that I share help on old car restorations and other little things. There is very little payback but the better half said hey you should film that stuff and put it up… I’m not that entertaining (I’m boring) and the production quality isn’t great etc but I put out useful information. That said there is allot of bad info out there on all platforms on everything.

  9. I find all of this DIY work in the USA quite fascinating. None of the plumbing work you did, Allison, can be completed in Australia by anyone other than a licensed plumber!

      1. Drop Bears. Do unlicensed plumbing? Drop bears will find you.

        I suspect they are speaking mainly from experience in urban areas. I know people from US cities/suburbs who also think this is how the US works. I can’t imagine that every remote ranch/estate in a huge country is calling a plumber from hours away each time some minor work is needed.

        It’s less of a problem anyways, when plumbing leaks there the water (I assume) falls UP.

        1. Water should fall in the direction of the local gravitational field unless there is a strong electric field nearby. That will mean towards the center of the Earth (an inward radial direction) which will still be perceived as down in Australia, even though its Cartesian coordinates will be opposite the down in the US (and approximately aligned with up in the US).
          It would make sense to me if plumbing is more tightly regulated in Australia because small water leaks affect the larger population more readily in a desert climate.

        2. He would be even more surprised to learn that in a number of states that there are no permits or inspections when you are outside city limits. And then some places like parts of AZ flat out admit that permitting and inspections are just a revenue collection agency and allow you to pay a flat fee and opt out of the program. They get their $ and you get to build your structure.
          But like mentioned the people in the US wouldn’t stand for not being able to do their own work. For one it would mean people living with everything broken since many wouldn’t be able to afford a tradesmen to come out for every little thing needed.

          And when running Pex don’t worry about the reduced sizes of fittings on Pex B. The pipe still flows way way more than the restrictor in the faucet or showerhead will allow to flow through it. Also why on home run set plumbing you use 3/8 pex instead of 1/2. Cheaper easier to run still flows more than the faucet and the hot water gets there faster since there is less water in the pipe. Speaking of that if I ever do another kitchen in the next house…. It’s getting a commercial sink faucet. Filling anything with these low flow faucets takes a week.

  10. The one reason not to DIY? Maybe I just flat missed it, but I read the article and all the comments.
    I’ve been getting things done DIY ever since I first bought a house. For some reason, those projects seemed rather trivial, although I did waste a lot of gas going to and from Home Depot.

    The disease began to get serious when I sent my 94 Celica out to get the clutch replaced and it came back without two of the three bolts that tie the engine to the passenger side motor mount, the ones that require the mechanic to go under to put the nuts back on. That fact was discovered after my wife barely struck a curb with the right front wheel, causing the motor to break free and drop maybe 3 inches. Since then I have not sent any of my vehicles out for maintenance or repair, for better or for worse. No one person is a superman.

    The fact is, you are unlikely to get a completely proper job done on your vehicle by an automobile technician no matter where you take your car for service. The need to constantly raise profits has technicians all pushed into the corner where they must take shortcuts, do a less than proper jobs, tell a customer a job has been done when it hasn’t. It’s all very sad, but doing a job yourself can go a long way toward having jobs done properly, saving your vehicle for many more years of performance.

    It was much later on when my wife and I took an HVAC course at the local community college, thinking ahead that our 1997 gas pack was nearing EOL. So, today we have a 3-Ton 18.5 SEER Bosch Heat Pump sitting proudly outside our house, quietly ramping up and down due to whatever its’ current heat load. I thought I was lucky when a City Inspector informed me that I could do that job my myself as a “Home Owner Acting as His/Her Own Contractor,” so long as I became conversant with about a half dozen building codes, including the NFPA 70 (Electrical Code). But, hey, my first degree was a BS in Electrical Engineering, so I thought, seriously, I can do that.

    One might expect that the next thing I am going to say might be the “one reason not to DIY.” To accomplish that heat pump installation, I had to do a Manual J (heat load calculation) before I could select a machine that could handle the heat load of the house. To do the Manual J, I needed all the construction details for my house, so I asked the city for whatever was filed on the building permit used to build my house. Sorry, they said, they had to toss out those documents several years ago because file space was a problem.

    That meant that I had to reverse engineer my house. It was not the end of the world, but I can tell you that you would not enjoy having to do that while thinking how easy it might have been if the original building plans had been retained. I used the (expensive for me) Wrightsoft HVAC design software for the Manual J (heat load), then the Manual S (equipment selection), and then the Manual D (duct design) to enter all the necessary data and select a machine I would be glad that I installed myself. Thank the support staff of Wrightsoft who put up with my unremitting stream of questions. Oh, and I found free sources of the building codes I needed to become “conversant with” on-line. So, what’s the problem?

    The Problem? It took me the better part of THREE YEARS working almost full time to learn all that I had to learn in order to get that job done. But, that wasn’t the reason I would say it should not be done DIY. The reason it should not be done DIY is that HVAC equipment manufacturers have a system of distributors and contractors through which they have built up a profitable business model for themselves and those obtaining and installing their machines. And, to make that system work to the benefit of the professionals involved, most of the manufacturers decided not to deal with anybody desiring to buy and install one of their systems DIY. There are exceptions, but I would not personally want to DIY inferior equipment. As a result of my persistence (stubborness), I have an expensive, technologically advanced machine working fantastically, providing comfort to our home, but when it experiences a failure (as it eventually will), I am at the mercy of the on-line seller who (among very few like him) would sell me the machine I selected. Those 10-year warrantees, well the equipment has to be installed by a legitimate contractor in order for you to be worthy of that benefit. I just have the word of the on-line seller that he will help. Nothing in wrighting means nothing, legally.

    Heck, when the City Mechanical Inspector dropped by to inspect my installation, he spent 15 minutes exclaiming in fine detail how good a job I had done, with this and with that, and how much better my installatioin looks than 95% of the contractor installed systems he has been called to inspect.

    Yeah, all the cons mentioned in these comments about DIY jobs pale into non-problems when you have to deal with an industry that is dead set against you doing a job you want to do with their equipment DIY. However, I am living proof that it can be done. Like where there’s a will there’s a way?

    To a somewhat lessor degree, automakers try to make it difficult for DIY people. As an example, say Toyota, since I have had a couple. They make about half their profit from selling Toyota OEM parts, which are quite expensive if you buy through a dealer, so if you want to work on your Tacoma DIY, and you want a certain part, you need to know the part number. so you can search for a cheaper OEM part supplier. Well, for Japanese cars, my secret is a place named, located in Dubai (not the only one). On their website I can reference any Japanese made vehicle and find a catalog that contains all the parts explosion diagrams needed to push down and determine the part number of any part in my vehicle, selected by VIN, within minutes. When you are a DIY you will have to develop tricks like this to survive. The more you do, the more you learn, the better you get. And yes, sometimes you end up paying more.

  11. When I first saw our house in May of 2019 it was just to take a look for fun. I remember walking up the front walk thinking “oh boy, now I am about to open a can of worms”. We moved in in November, and broke ground Spring of 2021 lifting the house to put a new basement under it as phase one. Phases two and three are remodeling the first and second floors of our Victorian. I am the owner builder contractor and worker and I am NOT sure I am saving money. If someone bids the work then they eat the inevitable time overage assuming no changes and it will almost certainly get done faster tho as folks previously have noted, probably not as well done. After three years the result is beautiful and at a cost of nearly what we paid for the house. Fortunately we got a good deal on the house but still! Most interestingly at age almost 74, I have learned so many skills I probably never will use again, examples, how to tie steel and set foundation forms, current plumbing, electrical, mechanical, and general residential codes. This is my third and most substantive remodel where I have been all trades. I will do but don’t like and usually hire out drywall, same with concrete placing and finishing. Luckily I have a guy who is as meticulous as I who works with me for $35/hour nearly full time. So, it’s all very satisfying, maybe not money saving, and, all useful skills that I probably will never use nor make any money from. I sometimes wish I had just started fresh with raw dirt. Did that once and it was satisfying too. So the question is, why do we do it??

  12. Dale, I found your question unsettling, at first.

    “So the question is, why do we do it??”

    You really made me think, as I don’t remember ever asking myself that question. And, I think, deep down, I was scared of what the answer might be.

    One thing I know, the answer has to be ever so personal. Why do we do anything? We more or less personally decide what we are going to do, moment by moment. They don’t yet put a gun to our heads and demand that we do something, so it is our choice and we can only blame ourselves if there is anything blameworthy done, any accidents had, and so forth.

    In my case, I have long told myself that I was a “lifelong learner.” And, that seems to be true, as I have been in “school” almost all the way along. And I detest the feeling of my mind not being fully engaged in answering some new question. Then I remembered a line from a broadway play I attended many years ago “Fiddler on the Roof,” and that line went like this. . . “Life is what you do while you are waiting to die.” That made me not want to waste my time. Another nugget came from a working colleague “In 100 years, it won’t matter to anyone.” So, I could shirk off any idea that I might not be able to succeed because I fear I might screw it up. That just never happens to me, despite making my share of mistakes.

    Those were just thoughts along the way toward finding my answer to your question.

    Then, with those half-baked ideas in mind this morning, I opened and read an article. . .

    After reading that, like a clap of thunder, it struck me what my answer is. I do love to learn new things, and I love even more when something I have learned turns out to have a longer term benefit in my life. That article I stumbled upon this morning reflected me back on why I came to love reading this blog by Allison Bailes, including his comment section. I love the way he writes. I love the subjects he writes about. I find each article he writes a nugget worth as much as gold. That means that his book is an absolute gold mine for people like myself.

    So, my answer to your question is that I do things DIY because of how everything I have done DIY has taught me something new that effects my later life.

    As an example, take that link above. As one of the “building codes” I was required to become conversant with to do my HVAC job was the ENERGY code. Once I read that code, I found that it made great sense, so much so that I was an immediate convert, and I began reading everything I could find that could help me eventually upgrade my 1997 home to be as good and energy efficient as the existing ENERGY code is, or better. Saving money is my connection with capitalism: there is income, and there is spending (outgo), so whenever I have the tools and the time to do a job we have to have done anyway, I am saving money. And as I upgrade my home to make it more energy efficient, I begin to multiply my savings.

    You probably agree with me that every job you do DIY opens some new door, avenue, world, adding some new bit of knowledge to your acquired knowledge base (starting with Google, YouTube, whatever source). Sometimes I feel downright proud of something I did that I believe was better than what someone else might have done. Maybe that self-satisfying realization, that thing done, and having done it myself, when I add something more useful or more beautiful to my life, well that hits home. I know it doesn’t happen too often, but it does happen, right? It happened today when I read that article I gave the link for this morning.

    You see, I live in North Carolina, the state about which that article applies, so it effects ME! And it effects me in a bad way, long term. Having done all this DIY stuff in the past prepared me to be able to read that article with understanding, and especially it made me capable of understanding its ramifications. I don’t need to ask anybody, and I don’t need to feel that the knowledge has passed me by. Moreover, I can use it in my everyday interactions with my fellow citizens. I can tell them what their government has done and point out why it’s a problem for them as well.

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