Fear of plumbing

plumbing 10 light

The light at the end of the tunnel is … a trouble light?

It all started with an annoying drip, no matter how hard I shut off the faucet.  $600 later, … but let’s not rush things.  Let’s savor every step in the saga of the downstairs sink.

The washers

The faucet was the cheap “compression” kind, with washers.  I’d replaced them many times before.  They only lasted a few months; and it was obviously time to do it again.  I shut off the water, popped off the little plastic “H” and “C” caps, and unscrewed the handles from the stems with a Philips screwdriver.  I turned over the hot stem, unscrewed the mashed-in washer with the same screwdriver and replaced it (I keep a box of them around).  I turned over the cold stem.  Hmmm, no washer screw?plumbing 20 washer

The washer was just sitting there on the end of the stem; it was probably too mashed to drop out.  Who worked on this faucet last, anyway?  Maybe the screw fell into the plumbing system and has become nomadic, drifting around the house and causing trouble.  If I put a new washer on the stem and didn’t screw it on, it would go nomadic for sure.  I took the hot stem apart again, fished out the matching screw and pawed through my entire screw collection; I had nothing close to it.

To the hardware store, then, on a quest for a screw, with the stem in hand for testing purposes.  I usually go to the screw aisle and puzzle over the screw tips, head shapes and diameters listed on the tiny labels of a million little drawers until a clerk comes and rescues me.  But this time would be different.  I found a screw gauge, which for some reason I’d never noticed before, and measured my model screw.  It was a diameter 9, 3/4 inch long oval-head brass screw.  Armed with this information, I proceeded to peer at the tiny labels of a million little drawers until a clerk came and rescued me.

He led me three aisles over to the plumbing aisle, flipped open an unlabelled steel box and handed me a screw.  I tried it in the stem; it fit.  Investment so far; 43 cents.  I went home, reassembled the faucet and turned the water on.  It still dripped.

I found a web page with advice on repairing leaky faucets.  I was going to have to deal with the seats against which the washers pressed.  I settled down to once again remove handles and stems.  But where was the Philips screwdriver?  I emptied the tool box, and the dresser drawer of my dad’s old tools; no Philips.  I looked all around the bathroom.  I checked a parallel project site in the garage, where I was trying to remove the blade from my lawn mower to sharpen it.  (Maybe I’ll write up that adventure here too, if I ever finish it.)  I remembered that Pat had put another Philips screwdriver in a kitchen drawer.  I looked at every surface in the house.  There was no Philips screwdriver to be found.  Who used it last anyhow?

I didn’t want to make two trips to the hardware store, one for a screwdriver and another for seats.  So I looked at the Safeway.  They had one of those six-in-one universal screwdriver sets; but I just wanted a simple screwdriver.  I found one in the drug store.  Back at home, I brought my new tool downstairs, and noticed a glimmer of yellow on the floor by the piano.  It was my old screwdriver, camouflaged by an oriental-style carpet, gloating.

I took the faucet apart again and looked at the washers on the stems; they looked fine.  The web page mentioned O-rings and seats.  I could see another rubber part midway along the stem; was it the O-ring?  I couldn’t figure out how to get it out, and anyhow it looked okay.

The seats

I remembered that the seats in my faucet are removable, unlike the ones described in the web page.  I’d bought an L-shaped gadget for that purpose last time I wrestled with the seats; and, remarkably, I found it in a drawer amidst my dad’s old woodworking tools.  (Big old augers, a monkey wrench with a dental problem, a leather-covered spool of steel measuring tape with a crank on its side … I think he inherited some of this stuff from his dad.  I hardly ever use it, but I’ve grown quite fond of it.)   I pushed its small square tip into each valve and unscrewed each seat.  It didn’t grip very well;  when I got the seats out I saw that their sockets were really more hexagonal than square (probably a lot more, originally).  The seat rims looked okay, though.

A seat (lower right) with the L-shaped gizzie for removing it.

A seat (lower right) with the L-shaped gizzie for removing it.

By now the counter was covered with grimy plumbing parts, and the faucet was an empty shell.  I’ve always hated it.  Why not just replace the whole thing?  I took the seats to the hardware store, thinking that I would just look over the new faucets before I settled down to a humiliating search for matching seats.  Being endowed with very powerful foresight, I measured the distance between the valves before I left the house; it was eight inches.

The faucet

Except for the joystick kind, all of the faucets on display had valves that were eight inches apart.  Signs on the display specified how many sink holes each faucet was designed for.  I hadn’t thought of that variable.  The rescue clerk approached while I was wondering how many holes my sink had and what would happen if I guessed wrong.  He told me that, if the faucet had no vegetable sprayer (and mine didn’t), the sink must have three holes.  All I had to do was disconnect the old faucet from the water lines, remove it and connect the water lines to the new faucet.  I picked out a faucet for $80 that had no washers; it would be worth it to solve the problem once and for all.

Back at home, I was faced with the reality of a really awkward job.  The downward bulge of the sink and the distance to the back of the counter meant that I had to empty the cupboard under the sink and lay inside it, working upside-down.  The bathroom had been finished about 32 years ago, and since then this cupboard had never been emptied.  It held an incredible amount of nearly-empty bottles, soggy powders, every dreadful household chemical you ever heard of and several you probably haven’t.  I also found two nomadic toothbrushes; a gang of orphaned rubber gloves; and black, slimy grit.  The grit was from the underside of the sink around one of the valves; apparently it had been leaking for years.

I piled all the detritus in the rec room to deal with later, and washed out the bottom of the cupboard.  I put in some old towels to lay on, hung the trouble light on a water line, started up my ’70s hard rock testosterone feed and set to work.  The space between the rear of the sink and the wall was so restricted that, with an adjustable wrench, I could only turn the nuts on the ends of the water lines a little at a time.  Finally I got them loose from the threaded pipes sticking down from the faucet, and started getting wet.  Doh!  The water lines were still full of water.  I got a small bucket to empty them into, stood up for the triumphal moment, and pulled up on the faucet.  Nothing.

Back into the cupboard, while Gracie Slick sang mysteriously about rabbit holes.  Each threaded pipe had a big flat hex nut and washer set holding it against the underside of the sink.  I measured a nut from side to side; two inches.  I didn’t have a wrench that would go that big.

Sink nut (?)

Sink nut (?)

I got my digital camera, crawled back under the sink, photographed them, and took it to the hardware store.  The clerk, who was starting to look familiar, said “Oh.  You’ll need a channel lock for that.”

“What’s a channel lock?”

He took me to the tool aisle and showed me the channel lock pliers.  They look like medieval tooth-pullers.  I remembered that my dad had told me never to touch a nut with pliers because they would strip the outside of the nut.  Telepathically, the clerk picked up my worry and advised, “It’s okay to wreck those nuts.  Or you could hit them with a hammer and straight-edged screwdriver and break them up; they’re just plastic.  Your new faucet has new ones packed with it.”

plumbing 60 pliers

Laughing channel lock pliers.

I already had channel lock pliers, I just didn’t know they were called that.  But I didn’t know if they would open wide enough.  So I bought pliers for $5 as insurance against yet another trip to the hardware store.  He measured the distance the jaws could span to make sure they opened wide enough.  When I got them home I saw that they were identical to the ones I already had.

plumbing 70 waterline

Our new under-sink shower.

This is where the petal hits the metal; these sink nuts were covered with slimy rusty grime, and more of it started falling on me from the underside of the sink as I removed them.  I washed the cupboard and the underside of the sink.  I stood up and pulled out the horrible old faucet and put it and all its accouterments in a plastic bag.  (As if I would ever install it again; but you never know …)  I washed away more grime that had been concealed by the faucet base.  In went the new faucet.  Back into the rabbit hole to screw up its sink nuts (they had little ribs on them so I could do it with my fingers).  I got to the water lines and my triumphal march slowed to a crawl.

Rubber fittings on the tips of the lines were supposed to seat against the ends of the threaded pipes, while the hex nuts tightened the seal.  I poked each water line into its pipe and cranked up the hex nuts.  Ta-da!  I turned on the cold water.  It was like a shower went on inside the cupboard.

I cleaned up the mess, removed the water line and carefully reattached it, making the hex nut really tight.  Another shower.  I had some plumber’s tape for sealing threads; but a green tag on the new faucet had warned not to use any sealant, because it was designed to seal itself by compression.

I tried again.  This time the nut seemed to alternate between feeling very tight and getting loose, and I wondered whether I was stripping it.  It was late at night, my back and shoulders were sore, and I was tired of the ’70s.  I had a late supper and went to bed.

The plumber

plumbing 90 truckNext morning I called a plumber.  He took a look in the cupboard and said, “How old is this house?”

“1975.  The sink was put in around 1982.”

“To get that faucet to seal, I’ll have to replace the water line with a modern one.  The one you have is one piece with the shutoff valve, so I have to replace both the line and the valve.  It will be about $530 with the senior discount.”

I said fine and slunk upstairs.  The sound of pipes being sawed echoed through the house.  In an hour he was done.  $530 for an hour’s work?  Now I really need some testosterone.  The least he could have done was put all the junk back under the sink.

Anyway, the drip is gone!  As for my fear of plumbing … well, that survived the experience intact.

In fact, it’s bigger and better than ever before.

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