Sunday, November 12, 2017

Far Afield




A while back I received an email asking for help with a constant leak. As usual I asked for photos. When they arrived in my email I opened the file to see a Speakman wall mount single handle shower valve with a leaking cold water supply line.The client had done a routine washer change on the inline shower control valve, not the main shower valve, and the leak had begun as a result of that work. 
I'll use my photo instead of the emailed photo.



















The valve was in Spokane Oregon, some 350 miles from where I live near Portland Oregon.
A few emails back and fourth let me know that the local plumber, who would work on older units, had done what he was willing to attempt to stop the leak. He wrote a note for me, a description of the work and the problem as he saw it and that description was attached to one of the client's emails. In it he recommended that the unit should probably be removed and replaced. He ended his missive to me with the comment that "there is no magic". 

The way the work was described to me made me believe that only the cold supply leg had been removed as part of the repair and that that supply had been difficult to put back into place. I thought that was strange because the difficulty of putting the cold supply back into its place would obviously be alleviated by removing the hot supply also and then fitting them both back as partners. That, I thought, was the logical approach. Still, I didn't press that issue with the local plumber. I figured he was done with it. I kept coming back to the comment, "There is no magic".

The leak was at the lower union face and perhaps the threaded nipple of the cold supply. The description I had put doubt in my mind as to the condition of the union, the union nut, and the nipple between the union and the supply elbow under the lower union. I have a slightly later version of the same valve and pulled its supply union apart to see if the union was intended to be gasketed or ungasketed. I believed that my valve, if really needed, could supply union parts for the yet in use valve in Spokane. Clearly the union was to be gasketed. I also knew from the emails that a fair amount of teflon tape had been applied during the repair attempt. I am not a great believer in teflon tape.

The task looked both relatively easy and potentially vary challenging. It was not something I could try to walk the home owner through. Neither did I want to try to co-work with he local plumber over the phone or worse, by email. With all of these thoughts and doubts in mind, with the job being reasonably within driving distance, and with the epitaph "No Magic" challenging me I proposed to go to Spokane to correct the problem. The deal was that if I couldn't make the repair I would get the Speakman valve for my trouble but no other charge.

It took a few weeks to match our schedules and I departed Portland ten AM  on a Monday for what was to be a five hour thirty minute drive. With stops and a meal it was more like seven hours. My wife was riding shotgun on this trip, that was a good thing. Besides, she takes the photos.
The Columbia river gorge I-84 East before noon.


US 395 North

US 395 North North and getting late.


Things are different in Oregon and Washington.

It was dark and freezing out by the time we arrived. I was nervous about black ice and didn't trust anything on the road to be water if it looked wet. We had had a delay due to unexpected truck maintenance and in the interim daylight savings had robbed us of an hour of daylight for traveling. The forecast included the potential for snow on top of that.

It had been suggested that we spend the night in the guest room. It is a large lovely home circa  1912. Introductions were made and we brought in our overnight bags. After that though I wanted top see the job. It was in my mind to do the work that evening so I could rest easy that night. Dinner was cooking but water was drawn and the house water was turned off and drained down. I had my tools in the master bath by then and a large canvas drop cloth in the earthenware tub.
I start right in. I hardly ever remember to get before photos. This time though I had my wife on duty with her camera.

The standing waste is a Hoffman & Billings.I had rebuilt the valves a few years prior via shipment as per normal.  


The valve at the top left is the unit that had been repaired by the client. Pause for a photo. All business.
Teflon tape. That's got to go and there has to be some cleaning before anything else.


A brass bristle brush and a little pocketknife edge to clean away new teflon and old debris.


It took a while to get all of the teflon out of the threads of the union nut. Teflon can be a problem when it gets between the brass and the compression washer. When such a washer is used it is considered a face seal and nothing but the brass and the washer make the seal. Anything else, like teflon tape or thread seal, is not desired.


Clean and dry first.



Fitting the supply leg back the first time I can see there will be a problem. There is no room for gaskets and the lower union joint is slightly off angle.
When I saw that the cold side supply would barely fit back into place with no face gaskets at all I knew I had been right. The hot side would certainly need to come away as well. That would mean only the two brass screws at the shower arm would be holding the entire unit in place though so it was time for four hands. For a moment I became the photographer.
My wife is a better helper than I am a photographer.
The hot side had two matching fiber washers, one at each union. I had brought several fiber washer assortments plus my gasket cutting tool and two thicknesses of fiber gasket sheet goods. I had to make room for washers on the cold side so the hot side was going to need thicker washers. Each original washer was about 50 thousandths of an inch thick, I was going to double that. That made room for washers on the cold side but there was the other problem still to deal with. The brass faces on the cold side were not flush. This was caused by two things, the original installation was not perfect and the lower cold union tail had been removed and set back into place but not as tightly as formerly. It was ever so much higher than I wanted it and I tightened it a little but was shy of really turning it down hard. I did some trial and error. I had the house water on and off again with each trial. Finally it struck me what I had to do. I selected a fresh gasket from the kit I was drawing from and took up a semi coarse bastard file. I then began to thin the gasket on only one side, from twelve to six on the clock face and then working back slowly toward three but taking nothing away at three. I needed a wedge shaped gasket and I was hand tooling one in the palm of my hand with dinner cooking while sitting on the side of the tub.

One last time we turned the house water on and this time there was only a slight moistness where the leak had been persisting before. The fiber washer was wet and would swell with the water so I drew down on the joint with my flat face wrench, tightening it just a bit more and wiped the brass dry. Finally it remained dry.

There had been some leaking at the stem of the inline valve above so with the main problem solved I thought I would take care of the other leak as well. I removed the set screw and removed the handle of the valve. Then I removed the packing nut and cleaned it. It had some of my own packing string in it that I had sent with the standing waste valves a few years before. I took a fresh package out of my tool tote and repacked the valve stem.
Always a flat jaw wrench. I never even noticed the wash cloth until later, single minded as ever. Finding the work in my trifocals.

I have been making my own packing string for years, I even tried to market it once.

Dinner was served. What I had tried to do in thirty minutes turned out to be somewhat harder, it took an hour. I checked it again after dinner and it remained dry so I enjoyed the balance of the evening and slept well that night.

I have been turning wrenches sense I was twelve, I am sixty seven now. What I can't get I make or have made. What I can't do, well frankly I don't tend to think in those terms. Is it magic? No, it is positive thinking, a lifetime of problem solving, and a deep knowledge of materials. It kind of looks like magic though.  














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