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No string for me

I had such grand plans for the day… I was going to wind up some yarn, and do a bit of dyeing, work on the Lithuanian weaving that I started a couple weeks ago, maybe start the new weaving piece (and associated blog-article), finish the Jaywalkers, spend some time with the new books…

But first, I needed to accomplish a few household tasks. The usual sorts of Saturday morning activities: load the dishwasher, clean the kitchen floor, do some laundry. But first, I wanted to fix the leaky bathtub faucet. It will no longer shut off tightly, and has been getting steadily worse. Definitely time for a new washer. Nick picked up one (or rather, three) of those generic faucet washer packets last week, so all I needed to do was take the faucet knob off and swap in a new washer. If one’s bad, the other is likely to be replaced (this is a two-faucet tub), so I might as well do them both.

I even knew where to find a screwdriver. That is sometimes a problem in this house, so I stashed a multitool somewhere where Nick wouldn’t be tempted to rearrange, borrow, or otherwise misplace is. That part was fine – there wasn’t even one of those caps to pry off – but I could not get the faucet off. They are supposed to just pry off. Easily. Heh. I got Nick to give it a shot. Still no success, but a few whacks with a rubber mallet finally got the faucets off. When in doubt, hit it with a hammer.

Look at that, a rotten washer on the bad side. This is going to be easy. But wait, it doesn’t match anything in any of the three (different) packages of common replacement parts. Humph. I guess now is a good time to run to Lowes. (This is a Penn State home football game weekend, so when I can and can’t happily leave the house is determined entirely by when the 100,000 sports fans are trying to get to or from the stadium.)

No washer.

If we replace the faucets and stems, then we don’t need to worry about matching the washer. These are just whatever old fixtures were put in last time the house was remodeled, and not anything so great. Replacing them probably isn’t a bad idea anyway, since they’ve got to be at least twenty years old. Nick and I pick out a replacement kit that the plumbing guy tell us is likely to work. The kit even comes with a wrench – how convenient!

Back at the tub, the stems and all come out easily with the cute little wrench. But look at that other piece, how do we get that out? Oh, we don’t have a seat wrench, and neglected to buy one at Lowes. And the football game just let out, so there’s no way to get across town. (It’s better here than in our first house in State College. That house (a rental) was on the main road to the stadium. The road was one-way toward the stadium before the game, and one-way the other direction after the game. I literally couldn’t leave my house then. Now it’s just figurative. Mostly.)

There’s a neat store in town called Houts. It’s the kind of place you can go for a seat wrench, some cornmeal, and a replacement handle for a favored saucepan, and we did. A seat wrench, it turns out, is a simple but clever gizmo. It’s a right-angled piece of metal. One end is a tapered hexagon, and the other is a tapered square, so it will fit all sizes of both common shapes of seats. (If you’ve never taken apart a faucet, a seat is a little threaded piece of metal kind of like an inside-out nut. To put it in or out, you need a wrench that fits inside it, rather than grasps it from the outside like a regular wrench.)

Okay, got everything this time. Back home to finish the job. You see, the last plumber to work on this never put in a shutoff valve, so to turn the water off for the tub, we had to turn it off for the whole house. I was eager to get it all fixed so I could do the laundry and dyeing, and, well, even just wash my hands.

Yup, a seat wrench is really pretty good for removing seats. We probably could have gotten the old one out with a big allen wrench, but the new one had a square hole so we needed the wrench anyway. That is, we could put the new one in with the seat wrench if it had the same outside diameter.


The Lowes guy did say likely. This seat and valve won’t fit our plumbing.

Back to Lowes to return the replacement kit and find something else that will work so we can turn the water back on. This time at least we take the entire valve and seat assemblage so that we can find something that really matches. Nick and I can’t find anything on the shelf that matches, so we showed it to the same plumbing guy we talked to earlier, who has no idea what we need. Fortunately, he directs us to Kevin, the incredibly wonderfully helpful head of the plumbing department. Kevin looks at our faucet bits, measures everything, and comes to the conclusion that not only do they not stock those parts, he can’t order them, and they may not even exist.

Kevin walks us through all the alternatives – putting in a shutoff so we can at least use the water (a good idea regardless), ways to get our valve and seat to work, and so on. We finally decided that the most straightforward solution would be to just buy and install a whole new faucet set, plumbing and all. They come with the part of the pipe that the seat sit in, so everything would definitely go together. One catch – the existing pipes might be soldered instead of threaded, and neither Nick nor I are good enough at pipes to remove and replace the fittings in a non-leaky manner. So Kevin the wonder-Lowes-plumbing-guy explained the wonders of the new CPVC pipe and equipped us with all the fittings and connectors and bits to redo our bathtub with new fittings.

We got home again, and set to work on this new, expanded project. Something actually went right – the joints were all threaded to attach the bath fittings, and not soldered after all, so we didn’t even need to mess with the CPVC plastic pipe. Hooray! Copper is better, but soldering is a pain. Nick set to work taking apart the existing fittings. I thought the most useful thing to do was stay out of the way, so I asked Google to tell me about the manufacturer of this non-existent faucet stem. It turns out that the manufacturer is Central Brass, a US company that has been making cast brass plumbing bits since 1895. This isn’t, after all, some old cheap crap that they threw in when they remodeled, but heavy, solid, all-metal components. I looked more closely at the handles and faucet. Rather than being chipped and corroded chrome, as I’d thought, they were solid and in good shape, just covered with many years of lime accumulation. The difference was particularly noticeable when comparing the new name-brand components, mostly plastic, with the solid metal bits we were replacing.

Meanwhile, Nick has been banging and prying on the pipes, and has gotten everything free so that we can pop the new fittings on. There may have been some cursing involved; I was trying not to listen too closely. He did learn that the reason there was no shutoff valve installed is that there’s no room for a shutoff valve on the line between the main water pipe and the tub itself, so we had to get everything done tonight so that we could have, oh, flush toilets.

There’s a T-shaped piece of pipe that connects the two handles, the faucet, and the line to the shower. This piece comes in the new faucet set. But somehow the old one has female connectors, and the new one has only male connectors. Now, I’m quite liberal, but in the matter of plumbing I’m convinced that male and female are the only possible functional combination.

So guess what? Back to Lowes. It’s now 8:35pm, and Lowes closes at 9pm. There’s no way we’re going to have time to find and purchase the right assortment of adapters, but since the ends are threaded, we can buy end caps to seal off the open pipes so that we can have running water. If we leave right now, that is.

Zoooom. I drive up to the entrance at 8:55pm and Nick jumps out of the car and dashes into the store. We will get the end caps tonight.

We started this fifteen-minute washer replacement project at 11am. At 10pm, we got the water back on, after four trips to two hardware stores. The tub still isn’t functional, we don’t have all the parts we need, but we’re making progress. All I wanted was one washer. Instead, I have a whole new faucet set, plus a bunch of CPVC bits and copper-to-CPCV connectors that I don’t need, and that I’ll take back to Lowes tomorrow when I acquire the new batch of bits and pieces.

It looks like we can actually get the replacement washers for the heavy cast brass original parts from a high-end online plumbing dealer. The quality is so much better than in the new one that I think it is worthwhile to swap it back if we can really get washers. Otherwise I might even be able to sell the leftovers as spare parts. But first, we have to get something working right away so that we can use the tub.

Lowes opens at 9:00am on Sundays.

2 Comments on “No string for me”

  1. #1 Rob
    on Nov 4th, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    Oh dear. And oh how familiar. The profound pleasures of home ownership… I hope today you will get flush toilets, the tub, and some fiber time.

  2. #2 Laura
    on Nov 5th, 2007 at 2:29 pm

    Holy cow. I understand far too well–similar sequences of events happen in my non-household projects all the time. Even when I think I’ve planned it all out, I can find myself running to the hardware store/art supply store/fabric store multiple times. Arg! Gnashing of teeth. At least you were “done” in somewhat less time than it took my brother to install his wireless network. I know that took him at least 4 or 5 trips to the hardware store over multiple days.