Hole in the wall – Part four

Or: Wait… wasn’t this finished already?


Yeah, that hole.  By now, I should probably give it a name.  Something charismatic, something insightful, something descriptive.  Something that tells the world how I really feel about it, and the quality time I’ve been spending with it and not my family or my homework.


Somthing like…. Charyibdis.  Anathema.  Abomination.  Or maybe Scourge.


Yeah, I’m fed up with it.  You see, there was a time when I thought plumbing was simple.  “Connect two pipes,” they said.  “Water goes through it,” they said.  “Simple,” they said.  Let that be a lesson: don’t trust people who are laughing.


(OK, maybe that’s not the lesson.  I spent a couple years working at a comedy club.  Let me tell you that comedians laugh often, but not at what you think.)


Hole in the wall... See the leaK?
Hole in the wall… See the leak?

So the last we left of the saga of the shower was that there was this new fixture in the wall, and the pipes had been soldered together.  I had determination on my side, I had gusto, I had knowledge, and I had enough.  That fixture was going to be done, fraggit!  I felt all warm and fuzzy (inside and out) but was thrilled I was able to do something about the outside.

Woe and behold: there’s a tiny trickle of water from the bottom of the fixture.  Turns out, there’s a tiny little hole in the back of the joint, at the bottom of the fixture, that water leaks from.  And since it’s the part that runs to the spout, it’s getting used every time the water turns on.


(Due to the way the fixture was designed, water flows from the hot and cold pipes through the fixture, and down to the spout.  When the little rod on the spout is pulled up, a lift gate inside the spout blocks off the pipe inside the spout, and the water is put under pressure.  This pressure forces the water to flow elsewhere, which means back to the fixture and up the pipe to the showerhead.  Thus, we get rain-like effects, and thus we get clean smelling people.  Well, wet people who can use products to get clean smelling.  But anyway: simple.)


Except when there’s a little leak inside the pathway, this system works very well.  When there’s a hole, the water tends to not go where it’s supposed to.  Now, it’s not enough to stop the shower completely.  But it was more than enough to irritate, and plenty more than enough to make it wet in places it shouldn’t be.  So…. I opened up the hole (removed the escutcheon) and tried to solder it shut.  You might think this would be easy…


It should be, if you have an access panel.  Particularly this fix, because the repair would be immediately accessible to any traditionally placed access panel.  But as I have mentioned before, there is no access panel in this instance.  And we moved faster than we should have, when we installed the wall.  So there was a little bumping, and some questions about spacing.  I assumed the flame would be able to reach the places I needed it to go, and the heat would spread through the fixture.  Maybe not uniformly, but having done some metal work, I figured the heat would be able to soak through and transfer all the way around.


You remember what happens when you assume, right?



Renovation plate: a typical example.
Renovation plate: a typical example.

There is a fix, of course.  The fastest way is to install something known as a “renovation plate,” or a cover – typically plastic – that goes between the wall and the escutcheon.  This is put in to hide the fact that there’s a larger hole in the wall than you might expect.  Most of the time, the hole is the size of the escutcheon.  (This is the fancy name for the circular panel that the faucet handle sticks out of.  It’s part cover, part guide, part instruction panel, and part plug.  Among other things, but I’ve listed the most important for the time being.)  It serves a couple important functions, the first being to keep the water from flowing down the wall and into the spaces beyond.  The second is a mounting plate for the handle, so you can get water going at all.  When converting from a three handle shower to a one handle shower (as my conversion was), the renovation plate often lets people simply cover the three holes without having to redo the wall completely.

And therein lies the rub, as the phrase goes.  The best way to take care of this is to take out the wall, finish up the soldering correctly, and put a wall back in.  But I didn’t want to do that, for two reasons.  One: that wall was just recently put in.  I didn’t want to yank it out when it had only been in for a week.  Two: I didn’t want to put in another wall just for a teeny tiny crack.  There had to be another solution.


Rough lines of how big the hole needs to be.
Rough lines of how big the hole needs to be.

Thankfully, there is.  The renovation plate lets me expand the hole in the tile, giving me those precious couple of centimeters of access.  (Yes, that’s how little I needed.)  Since there are no smaller tubes to install, there are no tighter curves for the torch to use, and there’s no gooseneck option to send the flame back at me (nor is it recommended), I needed a couple of centimeters either way to make the torch tip go where I needed it to go.  And since you can’t do the bottom of the hole without doing the top of the hole, I had to make a wider hole.


Now, there are a couple ways to do this.  Because the tile was already up, this limited my options to what I had on hand.  I have an oscillating tool, with a variety of bits.  These are the same tools doctors use to cut casts off people, and have been around for a few years (decades).  One of the trade names associated with this tool is Fein, and the Fein MultiMaster.  (Mine is not from Fein: it is a Chicago Electric version.)  I used the carbide bit I have, and proceeded to spend about an hour to cut the tiles to a wider hole.


Going through the grout was easy.  The tiles… not so much.  I started working on the upper portion of the hole, and discovered that the bit wasn’t cutting.  Turns out, I’d worn the carbide grit off the edge of the tool while trying to cut through the tile.  A trip to the hardware store gave me the insight why: tiles, being a baked product, are harder than grout.  The carbide cutting tool I was using was not really designed to go through tile (it could, but it would wear out, as I had discovered.  Especially cheaper versions such as those from the same retailer that sells the Chicago Electric tools.).  The best option should have been my first option: a diamond blade for my angle grinder.

Utility. Also known as the big guns, the big boy toys, and the right tool for the job.
Utility. Also known as the big guns, the big boy toys, and the right tool for the job.

Now, I consider the angle grinder a truly utilitarian tool.  It can accomplish tremendous amounts of work.  Sanding, grinding, cutting multiple types of materials: the angle grinder makes short work of many problems.  But it’s not a quiet tool.  And it’s not a tool you want the skittish to hold.  There will be sparks, regardless of what you are cutting.  (If there are sparks when you’re cutting wood, though, there’s really a problem.)


But I broke out the angle grinder.  Using it, I ended up punching both of the arbor guides out of the blade center.  This is not a good thing – the blade tends to spin freely when I shut off the power.  The arbor has stopped, but the blade has so much momentum that it takes longer to stop.  And then there was the issue of the dust guard not being lined up correctly, so I was inadvertently cutting through it while trying to work on the tile…


All cut. Now to knock out the drywall
All cut. Now to knock out the drywall

Long story short, (I know: too late) the angle grinder finished in ten minutes what had taken me an hour to do with the oscillating tool.  And the hole was wider.  Just like that.  Back to the oscillating tool to cut the drywall (I could have used a knife, but the tool was tremendously faster.  And you might recall that this project has been going on a while…)  Flick of the lighter, quick flame, and I’m sitting there for three minutes.


Soldering is done, but I want to check.  Because I’ve been burned before on this job, both figuratively and literally.  So the water pressure is tested at low levels.  Then at normal levels.  You know what?  No leaks.


Yeah.  Finally.


then comes the fun part of putting the renovation plate on.  Here’s where you need three hands.  One to hold the plate, one to hold the screw going through the plate, and one to start the bracer strip on the screw.  The one inside the wall.  It took a little bit, but I was able to get this all done.  The second screw was easier, because the plate was (mostly) in place on it’s own now.  Then I try to put the escutcheon back in… and discover that things don’t want to fit.  I’m about ready to scream in frustration and either give up or force things to fit (neanderthal solve problem with big stick), but somehow my mind kicks back in.  The plastic float plate (the part of this whole fixture that doesn’t get seen) has a large cutout.  It’s to enable people to turn off the built-in shutoffs on the fixture, without having to shut off the water to the line, or the house.  A little back and fill, some juggle and persuasive language, and it’s inside the hole.


Finished. Complete. Finis. El Done-o.
Finished. Complete. Finis. El Done-o.

In an entirely anti-climatic way, the fixture gets the trim pieces it needs, the last screws go in, and the handle goes on.  Then the shower begins to flow.  To use a line from a favored show from my youth: “Now we so happy, we do the dance of joy.”


Let me pass along some advice to those who might be inspired by these posts: yes, you too can do this.  Everybody I’ve spoken with, every website I’ve checked with, says this is an advanced level project.  Aside from the bi-metal fixtures, this really isn’t that hard.  If you get fixtures that have screw threads instead of slip joints, it’s even easier.  There’s compression fittings (sometimes called “Sharkbite” after the trade name), PVC fittings, and screw together fittings.  PEX is another option.  All of these are simpler than the slip joint version, which requires soldering joints together.  If you can, go for the soldering.  If you’re worried about it, go for the other types of plumbing options.


And lastly, once you’ve completed your project, don’t stop and rest on your laurels.  Scratch it off your “to do” list, and get started on the next one.  The boost in morale from having completed one project is so much more momentum than you might think.


(If you want to reminisce, the project started here, then moved to here, and then here.  Now that it’s done, I can move on to another project.)


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