Like most folks, you probably take your home's plumbing system for granted — that is, as long as it is working normally. There's nothing like a backed-up toilet or burst pipe to grab a homeowner's immediate attention, though. This type of plumbing emergency is not only inconvenient, it can also be very expensive to repair. It makes much more sense to take good care of your system and prevent a disaster.

1. Inspect your fixtures frequently. Keep an eye out for unexplained water bill spikes (probably caused by leaks), and don’t delay in fixing problems. Even a small leak can, if neglected, lead to big trouble (and plumbing repair expense) sooner or later. Other warning signals — a toilet that rocks on its base and signs of moisture such as stained walls, peeling paint, or unexplained musty odors.

2. Be kind to your toilet. Don't put anything in it but toilet paper and Numbers 1 and 2 ... and be cautious even with the toilet paper if you have a cranky septic system. Flushing diapers, feminine hygiene products, leftover food or deceased goldfish puts your plumbing at risk. Pouring oils and fats down the toilet or garbage disposal might seem like a neat and tidy way to get rid of them but that grease will wreak havoc with your plumbing pipes.

3. Be careful what you inflict on your kitchen garbage disposal. Bones and fruit pits are too hard; celery stalks, artichoke leaves, and corn husks are too stringy; oatmeal, pasta and rice are so starchy that they clog up the machine; and tossing non-food items like plastic, metal, or used sponges is plain and simple a bad idea. The disposal is basically equipped to handle small amounts of food left on dinner plates or mixing bowls. The rest should go in the trash can or, better yet, the compost pile.

4. Avoid treating — or that is, attempting to treat — drain clogs with harsh chemicals. They are too hard on your water pipes. Instead, find out how to use a plunger or drain snake to dislodge minor clogs. More serious clogging should be taken care of by a licensed plumber.

5. Drain your water heater tank annually to remove sediment build-up. Be sure to shut off the electricity or gas and the heater's cold water supply valve first. In addition, you should inspect it once a month to check for drips or other problems.

A shower strainerStrainers are an easy to prevent hair and other gunk from clogging up your pipes. (Photo: Jari Hindstroem/Shutterstock)

6. Buy sink strainers. Use them to keep hair and other gunk from washing down the drain and blocking the pipes. While you're at it, pick up a larger version for your shower drains.

7. Insulate your plumbing pipes if you live in a cold climate. On particularly harsh winter days, open cabinets to expose piping to the warm ambient air and leave the faucet dripping slightly to prevent the pipes from freezing. Every fall, close outdoor taps and detach hoses. Clear standing water out of your sprinkler system.

8. Learn where to find your main water shutoff valve. It's usually at the front of your home, near the water meter. Switching off your water supply in case of a broken pipe or overflowing appliance can keep a relatively small problem from mushrooming into a full-scale emergency. Ensure that the handle is easily turned (on cold winter days, it can stiffen up, so test regularly).

9. Make sure you know where underground plumbing is located. If you have a lawn sprinkler system installed, request a detailed diagram of the below-ground setup from the contractor. And before doing any excavation on your property such as for a new home addition or a swimming pool, have a professional use pipe locator technology to prepare a map of the plumbing. Once you've opened up your underground plumbing system for remodeling or repairs, take photos to help with any future plumbing work.

10. Have a reliable neighbor watch out for potential plumbing emergencies. This is especially important while you're away from home for an extended period. Many smart house systems can be programmed to detect in-house flooding as well. And be sure to turn off the water supply to your washing machine before heading out of town.

This story was originally written by Laura Firszt for Networx and was republished with permission here.

10 ways to prevent a plumbing emergency
Don't wait until you need waders to get around your house before thinking about your pipes.