A couple of weeks ago my friend Joyce called me about the dripping faucet in her kitchen. I told her that would be no problem, I could take care of it and I’d come over. I’ve fixed dozens of dripping faucets. Well, actually more than a dozen but less than 24, I don’t know for sure.
I’ve done a dozen or so full faucet replacements as well; I guess that’s what adds to the number confusion. A new faucet does stop the drip.
I collected my big Channel Lock pliers, some Teflon tape and a little box of washers and headed down to Joyce’s Soho loft.
The first bad news was that the plumbing had been installed sometime in the ‘70s, meaning the faucet and all its attending valves are forty plus years old. Old valves, especially the screw-type gate valves are never fun. Give me a ball valve any day.
I took all the stuff out from beneath the sink and turned off the water, careful not to over-tighten it. There was still a little water coming from the faucet, so one or both of the valves wasn’t holding. But it was enough to be able to take the stems out of the faucet and not have water shooting everywhere.
I used my trusty Channel Lock to take the cap nuts off of the stems and pull them out. Both had worn-out washers. The washers in the caps were worn out as well, that’s why there was also water seeping from them before I took everything apart.
It would have been best to replace the whole faucet, but we wanted to save money. Washers are the cheapest solution.
I didn’t have the right size washer, that’s the problem with not being a professional plumber- you’re not as well equipped. It was off to the hardware store.
The washers I got were ok, but I wasn’t too successful in scraping out the old washer from the retaining cap, and this hardware store did not carry the caps.
Thankfully I only did it to the hot water, which now dripped even worse when I turned the water back on. I called Joyce and suggested that we replace both stems. She agreed and I took pictures of the stems.
When I turned the water back on I discovered that the hot water supply valve was leaking badly in the open position. The loft has no inlet shut off valves; only these old screw valves beneath both the bathroom and kitchen sinks. I was going to have to shut off the water from the basement to re-pack the valve.
I looked up the faucet on line, the Chicago Faucet Company. Luckily they are still in business, and my favorite plumbing supply, New York Replacement Parts on Lexington Ave. had the stems. I made the trip to 94th Street the next morning and got the stems and some graphite packing string to fix the valve.
I made it to the loft, shut off the water in the basement, replace both stems, re-packed both the stem caps and the wonky valve and turned on the water.
The valve under the sink was no longer dripping and both the hot and cold water were working fine, and the repacked hot water supply valve under the sink no linger dripped. I cleaned up; feeling very satisfied with myself and left the loft (I had the keys) after texting Joyce a picture.
The next night Danusia and I went to see a show at the Preforming Garage, just down the block from Joyce’s loft. It was the show I wrote about in my last blog. After the show we were on the C train somewhere north of 72nd Street when my phone rang. It’s still a little disconcerting to hear your phone ring god knows how many feet underground while you are between stations. It was Joyce but when I answered, the call dropped. I waited and when we pulled into the next station I played the message, where Joyce was frantically screaming “IT EXPLODED! THE WATER EXPLODED!”
My heart sank. Did I fuck it up? Always the first thought, I fucked it up.
But I’d done everything right. It’s like riding a bike, you learn how to do it and you know how to do it forever.
We got off the train at 96th Street and I got her on the phone. She was a little calmer but not by much.
“I got the downstairs neighbor to come and turn off the valves, but there’s still water dripping from the spigot.” I looked at the picture she’d sent me and listened to the drip on the phone as Joyce held the phone to the sink.
“Listen, It’s under control, you’ll be fine until the morning,” I assured her. Danusia was urging me to go back down, but there was nothing I could do without the proper tools.
“I’ll leave my phone on in case you need me,” I added.
The next day I saw that the cap to the cold water had loosened, and I had no idea how it had happened. I tightened everything up and turned on the water, but now the cold wouldn’t shut off. Either the stem had gotten damaged or it was faulty.
I took it back to New York Replacement parts, where the big guy with the shaved head that exchanged it for me said, “If it happens again it’s not the stem.”
When I got back I figured the packing string I used might have had something to do with it. I used a washer that seemed to fit the cap instead. But now when I turned the handle it was very tight. I turned off the water and started all over again. I didn’t want any more calls in the middle of a subway ride.
I found an O-ring that fit and didn’t rub against the smaller O-ring on the top of the stem. This time the tap handle moved freely and everything held.
There was still a little dripping from the stop valve underneath, but there was nothing I could do until we get some shut-off valves put in. I tightened the packing nut as much as I dared and emptied out the little cake pan Joyce’s dad had put under the sink for this singular purpose, the valve has been dripping for years, it seems.
The apartment downstairs is being renovated, and they are installing new valves, so when they do theirs I’ll be able to take care of that drip.
Out of all the things a handyman gets to do plumbing is the scariest and hairiest. If you fuck it up there can be a lot of property damage. I keep that foremost in my mind every time I start a plumbing project.
Next blog- hair in the drain.