Continuing the saga of the plumbing repairs…
(Or, since it’s coming out in just over a month…)
It’s been a long time ago, in a bathroom not that far away….
Yeah, I’m looking for things to lighten the mood. Some time back, I posted an entry about knowing when to have someone else do the work. It pays to know how to do the work, even if you don’t do it yourself. This is especially true when you are attempting something new. I don’t usually handle plumbing torches. Screws, washers, stems, and other bits, sure. If you need me to plan where the PEX (crosslinked polyethylene, a flexible plastic water pipe) would go, sure. I can do that. PVC needs fixing or replacing? No problem. Got a couple screw-together pipes that need to be cut out and have a new section inserted? No sweat… er, yeah, I can do that. Need to solder two pipes together?
(If you hear crickets, then the audio file is working.)
There’s a reason the experts tell you to build it first, before soldering it together. I found this out today, when I discovered one leg of the pipes I had built last night was not only a quarter of an inch too short, it was a quarter of an inch too low. (And slightly sideways, but that’s easily corrected. Had the fixture been able to be placed in the final destination before cutting the pipes to make the new pieces, it would have been easy. Well, easier, anyway. But remember that hole I made? Yeah… nowhere to hang that fixture.
You will notice in the photo that there’s a piece of wood at the bottom of the hole… and on the sides… but nowhere else. This is partially why the previous patch failed. It had bowed in at the fixture somewhere between a quarter of an inch and half an inch. Despite this, it wasn’t that easy to remove. The tiles above this hole are attached to a (mostly) decent section of drywall. Well, they were, anyway. That was before I got to them. I marked on the exposed mastick (magic tile adhesive, for those who don’t speak plumbing) where the new fixture was supposed to go, and roughly where the pipes were. This was for layout purposes, so I could solder up the pieces and simply have sub assemblies to install. (Woodworking habits, you see. Easier to put in three pieces than fifty seven.)
Of course, to put the fixture where it’s supposed to go (32 inches from the floor of the tub), this means the tile above the hole has to go. No problem; that was gone yesterday. I showed photos of the sub assemblies and the fixture body yesterday, and had a problem soldering those together last night. I decided to tackle that today, and realized very quickly I needed more hands. So, I improvised.
Yes, that’s a wooden handscrew clamp along the base wood piece. And attached to the top hand screw is a vice grip. (Or the generic imitation. Funny how we use a trade name to describe a class of items… like Kool Aid (TM) for powdered flavored sugar based beverages, Band-Aid (TM) for self-adhesive bandage strips, Kleenex (TM) for all facial tissues, Channel Locks (TM) for adjustable slip joint pliers, and so forth. Anyway…) I did this not because I was going to lean the pipe against the pieces, but because I wanted something to catch them if they fell. I had one hand on the torch, one on the solder, and I needed another hand on the pipe. Not having it, I used a set of slip joint pliers (I do own a pair of Channel Locks (TM), but they are still in the plastic. The generic ones will have to do for this.) to brace the pipe in place. This being metal that I was heating, I expected that heat to be transferred along that length. I was not disappointed.
Here is a close-up of the locking pliers bracing. You will also notice in the earlier photo that the pipes have been cut out. This was simple to do with the pipe cutter, although I did worry about dropping the cut pieces down behind the tub. For a variety of reasons. The photo at the right is from the perspective of looking down at the sub floor if you were (brave enough) to poke your head through. The cobwebs were thicker than vines, and you might be able to see some discoloration along that mysterious floor. (That’s the big reason I was tackling this project… And no, I’m not tackling that repair next. I’ve learned my lesson. The landlord has been told about this. Repeatedly.)
So, I started with the simpler build. I somehow managed to assemble the pipes, soldering all the way. I say somehow, because I thought I’d be smart and get what’s called a slip coupler, meaning the two pipes are coupled (joined) together by a slightly larger piece of copper that simply slips over the joint. The other option is a no-slip coupler, which has an indentation inside so that the coupler doesn’t slide down the pipe, or leave too little pipe above to be connected. (Care to guess how I know it’s effective?) The soldering connection worked well enough, and I moved on to the other side. This one had two 45 degree bends in it, because the pipes that come up from the floor are too close to the sides of the fixture itself to be able to solder it in place.
Taking a look at the old fixture, you will notice that there are pipes on the left and right, one on top, and the spout on the bottom. The ones to the left and right just run right up into the fixture, while the top and spout pipes are perpendicular and opposite each other. Not needing to cut the pipe from the spout, I left it attached, but needed to cut the upper pipe (which runs to the shower head). This one needed to be cut shorter, which I eyeballed, and then added about half an inch. Turns out this was a good thing; the fixture ended up being lower than I had realized, and the extra length of pipe was able to fit inside the fixture. I soldered up the cold water line (the right side), and left the fixture in place supported by the one side and held in place by the shower line. It was at this point that I discovered the hot water line – the one I soldered into place earlier – was not only short but not tall enough and twisted. I figured it was a simple trick to heat up the slip coupler and pull the pipe out and into place…
I figured wrong.
I took a break, and ran to the hardware store to get the appropriate coupler, (no slip) along with a replacement elbow. It was easier to make a new section of pipe than try to salvage the old. A quick pass with the torch, and I dropped the old coupler lower to make room for the new. Which then got me worried. Because naturally, all that solder on the inside of the two connections had stayed between the coupler and the pipe… which tinned (coated) the top of the joint before putting a coupler on it. Now, the experts I’ve consulted with recommend building before soldering. Building, in this case, means cutting the pipe to length, applying paste flux to the pieces to be fitted together, and then putting the pieces into place. You can do these one at a time, or all together. I chose to start at the top and work my way down – except for that no slip coupler. Wouldn’t do any good to try to put that together after the rest was done. Turns out to be a good move. But I coated all the pieces with flux, fired up the torch, and then started soldering all the remaining pieces. Including the lengthened section for the new spout, which required some more ingenuity. Fortunately that went off without a hitch.
During the assembly of this pipe nightmare, I ended up with a leak. I figured I could fix this without issue, but I ended up making this worse. So after (yet another) trip to the hardware store, I ended up with a tube of Plumbers Epoxy. This is the grey stuff you are supposed to knead together that can fix any leak, and join two pieces of pipe together without soldering. I applied this stuff this afternoon (and let me tell you it stinks worse than skunks), and gave it three hours to cure due to the leak that was present. I got home tonight and figured I’d try it out… and still have the leak. It’s less than it was, but the leak is still there.
Tomorrow, that leak is history. I just worry I’ll burn through the copper before I get solder into the joint. I’m thinking my problem is that I can’t get the flame to where I need it. Fortunately, the fixture is in place and doesn’t need two or three hands to hold everything in place. The bad news is that there’s no room to move the torch, and the top of the drywall hole (and I do think it’s regular drywall with a waterproof mastick, instead of a preferred greenboard – industry name for a drywall product intended for a moisture-rich environment like a bathroom) is just above the fixture. But, on the positive side of the picture, I’ve got 85 percent of the plumbing repairs done, and I feel pretty good about it. Aside from that one leak (and the gaping hole, obviously), this repair is just about done. And now I know why paying a plumber is worth the cost. Maybe not $4200 for a tub, but certainly $300 for the visit. A regular plumber would have been done with this fixture in the four hours everybody tells me should take. But what I’ve saved in costs by doing it myself, I’ve gained tenfold in appreciation for plumbers and the skills necessary to do this. (And the next time, I swear it’s going to be PVC. That only takes me an hour. Or so.)