Monday, September 15, 2014

The One Minute Toilet Repair

I had a call, today not far from the shop, to stop a toilet leak. What I had gleaned from the initial call was that the toilet was a couple of years old, was installed in lieu of repairing the old toilet, and was leaking. I arrived at the job near to the agreed time of 4:30 hoping I would not have to drive to town for some proprietary parts. Having parked the truck I took a second to consider not taking the tools in. I decided not to and went to the door empty handed to find out what was wrong with the toilet and if I needed to bring in tools or head off to town for parts before everyone was closed. The home owner lead me upstairs to a one piece toilet, its lid was off and the water level in the tank was low. As I was looking at it the owner brought me a selection of various 3" toilet flappers so that I might be able to tell him which one was the correct flapper. Another new flapper was already installed. Meanwhile he explained that the toilet was cycling. That is to say the fill valve could be heard refilling the tank when the toilet was not being used in any way. Cycling usually indicates a bad flapper that is allowing tank water to drop down into the bowl. This drains the tank to the point where the fill valve must open to top off the tank. That feeds the flapper caused leak and so on. He was tired of the noise and the wasted water so the angle stop was closed.   
I was barely paying attention, I already knew what the trouble was and it was nothing to do with the flapper. I turned the water back on to confirm what I was certain of.
I really like the line of products made by Fluid Master. Their stuff is innovative and reliable. Their toilet fill valves are installed as original equipment by a few toilet manufacturers. Other manufacturers use off brand fill valves that mimic the engineering Fluid Master pioneered. All this is not to say that their fill valves don't have quirks but the main quirk only occurs when the instructions are not followed.
There it is, right in those pesky instructions.

The fill valve I had in front of me today was an off brand "works like a Fluid Master". It worked enough like one to have the quirk regarding the primer tube siphon. The primer tube siphon works like this. The primer tube is long enough to fit various toilet tanks. It comes with a factory tip that fits to the overflow tube so that the fill valve is anti-siphon. The overflow already has a primer tube holder that kept the original primer tube set into the overflow tube. So, the new adapter is cast aside and the new primer tube is pushed into the old primer tube holder. Its full uncut length is pushed into the old primer tube holder. This runs the new tube down the overflow to some point well below the water level in the tank. As soon as the toilet is flushed and the new primer tube is filled with water a steady siphon is set up as tank water is forced through the primer tube by the weight of the water in the tank.

This arrangement is good for flapper sales but not for water conservation.

As the home owner presented me with a couple of 3" flappers to choose from I interrupted him to show him the leak. I lit the flashlight on my I-Phone and let him see the steady trickle of water streaming out of the primer tube which was a good 3 inches down the overflow. Then I drew the tube up and out of the old primer tube holder and let him hear the low gurgle of the siphon breaking. I then removed the old primer tube holder from the overflow tube. A quick trip to the truck for one of my salvaged Fluid Master primer tube adapters and I announced that the leak was stopped and the toilet had been repaired.
He was confused so I ran through it again. I explained how the nuisance leak worked, how it was stopped, and let him hear the siphon breaking at the end of each fill cycle.
I had seen what was wrong and made the repair before he was done explaining the symptoms. I had done it with no tools and a salvaged Fluid Master primer tube adapter.

This is the new style primer tube adapter. Used by Fluid Master.

This is the old style primer tube adapter. Used by Fluid Master. 

These photos are not from the job detailed above.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Close approximation fabrication.

It’s a curious thing, working with vintage fixtures. It is common to come up against the need of a part that is near impossible to acquire.  Though one gets good at sourcing and is constantly making new connections, inevitably parts must be made for some projects. 

Once I have determined that fabricating a part is unavoidable there are certain decisions to make. Will I go to a machine shop and ask them to make the part for me? Will I try to make it myself with my small lathe, drill press, and hand tools? Can I make what I need by altering some preexisting part? This last direction is the way I try to go, it is faster, less expensive, and when it works establishes a way to make that same part in the future. 

This blog post is about the small part I provided for a project last week, but more than that it is about my process and these small journeys of discovery.  

When technologies are in flux, when ways things should and could be done are still being established, engineers tend to all go in different directions and so manufacturers tend to create products that differ widely in function and form. That was the way with plumbing fixtures in the first half of the previous century.   

 How many ways can one attach a handle to a stem? Center screw or set screw right? In 1925 there were also compression nut, counter nut, and no doubt a few other ways to go about it. There were just as many ways to index a handle for hot and cold as well. Standard Sanitary Company had two ways to attach their porcelain cross handles and index their handles, both involved the assembly of four or more parts and were entirely different from each other. 
The problem of course is that the small parts tend to get separated from the large parts over the decades and once on their own it is far from obvious what they are and where they go. I had to provide four counter nuts, or lock-nuts if you prefer, and I only had one. One is a lot better than none at all as I have something to emulate when I have one. During my obligatory fruitless search for factory original parts I discussed my project and quest with colleagues wherever I went. One fellow suggested I use brass flair nuts to fill in. I gathered up my tools and headed off to Ace Hardware to look at the flair nuts. I had an ID-OD micrometer, my one original part, and my faucet seat gauge. I was using the faucet seat gauge to establish the size and thread pitch of the male threads of my nut. I threaded the nut into the seat gauge so as not to lose track of it, it is 5/8ths” and 24 or 27 threads per inch. Both of those are common faucet seat sizes and my mind was already moving toward, “What would I have to do to a 5/8ths X 27 thread faucet seat to use it as my nut?” At Ace the flair nuts were all wrong, mostly the threads were way too coarse and as soon as I saw this I felt as though I should have known that.  

Driving back to the shop I was envisioning faucet seats, how I might get at least two opposing wrench flats onto them, and the hand filing or machining that  might be required for it. 

I have to be careful in that moment. My inner vision when problem solving can get me into trouble. It is why I try not to park across the street from places where I work, going to and from the truck for parts I am aware that I can forget to be careful of traffic. In the same way my mental process can amount to distracted driving so I was only half thinking about my project. 

In that moment though I had an epiphany and went home on a whole new track.  It had occurred to me, as I had conceived of ways to get my required wrench flats, that there is a part that has six wrench flats and a male thread, perhaps a fine male thread, and perhaps the size I needed if I could be that lucky. Arriving home I went to my containers of old new stock faucet stems and began to paw through them, searching. While most of them were late enough to be stem sealed with modern O-rings, a few were still using packings and those packings were contained and compressed with packing nuts. It wasn’t long before had a stem in my hand with a packing nut that was about the same diameter in the wrench flats as my sample, visually.

I slipped it from its place on the stem and tried it in the seat gauge. It was amazing! It had that same feel in the gauge. It threaded in but just loosely enough to go into both the 24 and 27 thread per inch holes without me being able to wiggle it in or out not turning it. It was a few turns longer than my original but I could lathe those off if I felt like it. I would definitely need to open up the ID but that seemed like nothing compared to sitting with a machinist trying to convey exactly what I needed in all of its parameters.  
The rest was simple. I had to have a few more like stems from my supplier as I only had one. I drilled the first to my desired ID but without a purchase for the bit tip it was awkward so I used the lathe to do the rest of them. If I took the few extra thread off and had them polished and plated they would be indistinguishable from the original in anything but their new or old luster.  
Not bad, not expensive, and easy to do again later.       
Details of photos:
Top, The assembled stem has the factory original nut.
The exploded view has my altered packing nut.

Second, Note the female thread in the handle and the octagonal shape of the handle and the insert adapter. 
The adapter top screws into place at the end of the stem.
The counter nut traps the adapter into the handle, thus holding the handle to the stem. 

Third and forth photos show the donor stem with packing nut in place and then lose.

Fifth photo shows the before and after the small amount of machining I needed to do to alter the packing nut.   

Last photo shows a better view of how the handle assembly works.