Friday, March 13, 2015

How to Replace a Kitchen Faucet

January 30, 2003

-          I would like to be a plumber.

My heart lifts at this comment by Joshua, my fifteen-year-old son..  Parenting is a constant balance between insane euphoria and abject terror.  I reply cautiously.

-          You have to be careful about electrical shocks.  It’s common to ground electrical equipment through the plumbing.  You should also keep your tetanus and hepatitis shots current.  There are opportunities to own your own business.  Like anything else, if you’re good you should always find work.  The hardest part is walking into the bathroom and saying,

- -This is going to cost twenty grand.

My kitchen faucet has been dripping.  It’s getting steadily worse.  I have become adept at moving the faucet to minimize the noise it makes.  I could call the owner.  A number of things in the apartment could be fixed.  He could raise the rent.  I could move.  I prefer the present arrangement.  I’m not working right now, which would make finding a new place more difficult.  Six months ago, the board of the building had notified us that they would be inspecting apartments.  They didn’t get to my apartment.  I suppose they were after someone else.  Still it seems irresponsible to be lowering the water pressure of the building.  A small project in my child’s professed area of interest may be an opportunity for bonding.

I have in my possession a large channel lock pliers with rubber grips that I had originally used to remove bolts from the license plate on my father’s car.  This is a master tool; it can open anything, except faucets.

My father’s ex girl friend, Karen, needs to visit the Home Depot for one of her crafts projects.  Josh and I give her a ride.  While there, I select an Allen wrench set.  Undoing the Allen nut in the faucet, I strip the wrench.  I am unable to remove the handle to the faucet.  While at the Home Depot, I had surveyed the kitchen sink faucet repair display.  In ancient times, I could have undone the faucet, and replaced the washer.  This is no longer the case.  I suppose there are people who write to the manufacturer and receive detailed instructions on faucet repair.  Some of those people may even successfully dismantle their faucets, soak the parts in vinegar to remove the lime and then replace the damaged parts.  If this project depends on my ability to figure out plasti-crap I may as well give up now.  What would a plumber do?  They would replace the faucet.  Has anyone ever heard of a plumber repairing a faucet? This is America; we don’t repair, we replace.  I am now able to jiggle the faucet handle and reduce the drip.  I congratulate myself on avoiding the obvious diversion of repair.  Josh advises me to hire a plumber.

The more expensive the faucet, the uglier it looks.  I don’t want to get all Mies van der Rohe, but all I’m going to get from a faucet is water.  I select the cheapest one from Mutual True Value.

Reading the instructions, it dawns on me that I have bought a replacement faucet, not a replacement faucet kit.  I return to Home Depot and purchase two supply lines, some Teflon tape, and clear silicone caulk, as specified in the instructions. The supply lines are no longer metal.  They are sensible long inexpensive plastic.  At home, I practice trimming the end off a plastic supply line with a razor blade in a razor blade holder.  The flattest cut is when I rotate the supply line under the razor blade.  I put Teflon tape on the new faucet connections.

The first instruction is to remove the old faucet.  I hear the grim chuckle from those of you in the audience with experience in these matters.  Of course, the bolts holding the old faucet have corroded.  They are impervious to my huge groove lock pliers.  The cut off to the cold water works, but the cut off to the hot leaks.  I decide that it’s about time I got a wrench set and I return to Home Depot.  While there, one of their clerks sells me a compression cap that I can put on top of the hot water cut off while I am replacing the faucet.

I am able to remove the old hose assembly and install the new one.  I want to be able to use the sink, so I reconnect the old hose to the faucet underneath; otherwise, the water runs out of the old hose connection.  I can’t shift the corroded bolts, but they are holding a plastic piece that then holds the faucet to the sink.  I don’t have to move the bolts.  I just have to break the plastic. Then I attempt to detach the supply lines from the cut offs.  My wrenches don’t have enough leverage.

If at first you don’t succeed, buy another tool.  On another trip to Home Depot with Karen and Josh, I select an adjustable wrench with a large handle.  It successfully loosens the supply line fittings.  But when I attempt to screw on my cutoff cap, it is too small.  I hurriedly put back the original supply line.  On examination, I discover that I have half-inch compression fittings going to half-inch supply lines.  The current standard is three- eighths.  I suppose that in earlier times we may have had better water pressure.

At this point a professional plumber would have turned off the water in the apartment building, removed the old cut offs from the galvanized pipe and installed cut offs with a three-eighths compression fitting.  Short of actually hiring the plumber, this solution holds little interest for me.

Returning to Home Depot I examine my supply line options and discover polymer twisted braid.  I find a twenty-inch length that has a half-inch compression fitting at one end and one-half pipe thread at the other.  This is so wonderfully simple that I feel guilty.  It shouldn’t be necessary, but I purchase a half-inch compression cap.  I ask the clerk if it is possible to step down the half-inch compression fitting to three-eighths inch and he tells me that he doesn’t have such an adapter.   

Allow me my Ira Glass moment when I state the perfectly obvious as though I were telling you something.  Up until now, this had been an amusement to distract myself from the realization that I can’t find a job.  But I was tiring of this and the metaphor was becoming too obvious.

I test the twisted braid by replacing the cold-water feed on the old faucet. Examining the old supply line, I notice that it feels gloppy inside.  I had noticed a brown residue on my dish drainer and had assumed that this was the consequence of living in a suburb, Highland Park, with old water main lines and accumulated corrosion.  Indirectly I suppose it is, but the red glop coating the inside of the pipe doesn’t feel like rust.  I believe this is a chemical added to the water to diminish lead poisoning.  There are no leaks and the replacement was easy.  The brass compression ring won’t come off the old supply line, trapping the two fittings above it.  The ring is actually squishing the supply line.  I realize that the brass ring is heated to fit over the supply pipe and when it cools, it forms a tight fitting.  Figuring this out gives me a feeling of comfort. The twisted braid has little slack to it.  My new faucet has shorter connections.  Is the new supply line too short?   I pull out the tape measure and this is the case.

It’s a game of inches.  Imagine how proud the designer of the faucet was when they realized that shorter fittings would save money, packaging and breakage. Perhaps they live in a country with shorter people and lower counter tops.

I pick up Josh at his moms the next Friday evening.  On our way to pick up Karen’s son Mathew for dinner, we stop by the Home Depot on North Avenue.  This is the best Home Depot, and it is open 24 hours.  There I find thirty inch twisted braid with half-inch connectors.

The next morning I begin removing the faucet.  I remove the hot water supply line and screw on the half-inch compression cap.  It leaks slightly and I put a bowl underneath it.  The rags I keep under the sink are getting soaked and are stained brown.  Removing the old faucet is difficult because its supply lines are the same length and it’s difficult to wiggle both supply lines through the hole in the sink.  I bend one of the lines to get it through.  The handle falls off the old faucet. Perhaps it would have been possible to repair it.  I clean off the top of the sink where the old faucet was.  I put the silicone caulk on the new faucet base.  The new faucet supply lines are staggered and much easier to fit through the hole.  Josh holds the faucet in place while I tighten the connectors underneath. I attach the new faucet hose to the new faucet. I remove the compression cap and install my twisted braid.  I said, I said, install my twisted braid.  It connects to the faucet, but the not the compression fitting.  I bought the wrong supply line.  It has two half-inch pipefittings, not a pipefitting and a compression fitting.  I put back the compression cap.  I put the bowl underneath.  Leaving Josh to bail, I change my wet shirt for a fresh one and set out for the Home Depot.  

It’s Saturday afternoon and the clerk is busy.  When he gets to me, he can’t offer much help.  There isn’t a twisted braid that long with those fittings.  He doesn’t have an adapter that will step down a half-inch compression fitting to three-eighths.   He suggests a plumbing supply in Mundelein.  The True Value clerk says much the same thing, including the plumbing supply in Mundelein. I drive by the neighborhood hardware store, but it’s been replaced by a lighting supply.

Returning to Josh, I wrap the hot water cut off compression fitting with Teflon tape and screw back on the compression cap.  It holds.  I don’t have a working faucet, but the condition is stable.  Some of the water leaking out had come from the hose connection.  I make a note to myself to wrap that connection with tape as well.

It’s interesting that the old connections hold without Teflon tape, but the new ones don’t.  Is it because of differences in thread or composition?

That week, I look up Builders Supply in Mundelein.  It’s on Armour.  My internet connection is failing due to some glitch with passwords, but how big is Mundelein?  I search the downtown and eventually ask the paint supply store for directions.  The plumbing supply is not downtown, in fact it is barely in Mundelein and adjacent to Vernon Hills, off Butterfield road down from 60, across the track, behind something else.   Obviously, this is a place for the trade.  I imagine plumbers passing around the secret location.
I explain my problem to the clerk.  He assures me that there is no twisted braid long enough with the correct fittings.  He also assures me that there is no adapter to step down the half-inch compression fitting to three-eighths.  He sells me two chrome coated copper thirty-inch supply lines and a pipe cutter.

I proceed from Mundelein to Oak Park.  There I pick up my girl friend, Christine, to take her to the Stones concert at the Arena.  The date goes very badly.  The next day I realize that the plumbing supply gave me three-eighths supply lines.  Christine invites me to lunch on Friday.  Christine once told me:

-The next guy I marry is going to know how to fix stuff.

So this is all her fault.  Plumbing isn’t her thing but she offers to look at the pipes.  After lunch, I drive up to the plumbing supply store and return the three-eighths supply lines.  They don’t have half-inch, thirty-inch supply lines in stock, but I can order them.  I order three just in case.  They are ten dollars each.

Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations starts by asserting, “The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greatest part of the skill dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.”

I wash my dishes in the bathroom sink. Perhaps I can turn this newfound knowledge to advantage.  I could advise other residents of the building. Christine is thinking of buying a faucet.  She has a dishwasher.  There must be a splitter after the cutoff to supply the dishwasher.  It would have to fit on the compression fitting.  My blood pressure shoots up.  My head is snapping around on my neck like two gun Pete.

I pick up Josh Saturday morning.  We run an errand he wants.  Coming back to my place that evening after visiting Karen, we stop by the Home Depot.  Josh complains but I remind him that we ran his errand that morning.  He naps in the car.  I have decided to indulge in some social engineering. I ask the clerk,

-I’m planning to install a dishwasher.  The splitter should go after the cutoff, right?

He gives me a splitter. Examining it, I say,

-Oh, I have a half-inch compression fitting.

He responds,

-You need an adapter, hold on here it is.

The young man hands me a half-inch to three-eighths inch compression adapter.  He shows how to attach it to the splitter.  I ask him to show me where it is on the chart that Home Depot has posted of the fittings it has in stock and he obliges.  I purchase two adapters.

Returning to the car, I show Josh the adapters with bitter tears.  He doesn’t believe me.  He mocks me.  When we get back to the apartment, I rest.  Josh is impatient.  He wants to try it right away.  He offers to do it himself.  I courteously decline his offer.  First, I disconnect the sprayer hose, wrap the connection with Teflon tape, and reconnect it.  Then I remove the forlorn length of 20 inch twisted braid hanging from the cold-water compression fitting.  I screw the adapter onto the cold-water compression fitting.  I measure my plastic three-eighths supply line and cut it with the razor blade allowing for some slack.  I put the two fittings on the supply line, the first from the sink, the second from the adapter.  Then I heat the brass compression ring from the adapter using my stove and a screwdriver.  I drop the ring on a plate and stick the line into it.  I’m nervous that the ring won’t go far enough on the line and I burn my fingertip trying to push it up.  Then I put Teflon tape on the fittings and install.

By now, you must have realized that I am a computer programmer.

When I turn on the cold-water cut-off, it holds. Even the hose doesn’t leak. But when I turn on the faucet, the water runs out the other faucet connection. I turn off the cold-water cut-off just to be safe.  I put the three-eighths compression cap on the adapter with some Teflon tape.  I replace the cap on the hot water fitting with the capped adapter.  Then I measure off the supply line and proceed as before, yes, including burning my fingertip.  When it’s time to install, I swath the fittings with Teflon tape.  When I turn on the cut-offs everything holds but not that much water comes out of the faucet. Removing the aerator, I find some pieces of packing plastic that I discard.  It works.

I say to my son,

-You know it’s pretty much like this in any job.  Do you still want to be a plumber?


-Why not?

-It’s wet.


-It’s not a good wet.

Of course, that’s not the end of it. I cancelled my order with Builder’s Supply Monday morning.  I have to fuss with the cold-water fitting until it stops dripping.  I have just received a negative invoice from Builder’s Supply.

I looked under Christine’s sink.  She has a hot water radiator under there that makes everything kind of cramped.  I didn't see where the cutoffs where. The waste from the dishwasher and the garbage disposal looks odd.  If she were to ask me, I would recommend hiring a plumber.  She says she has a handyman who can do it.

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