Category Archives: plumbing

Straining to do the dishes (and the coffee)

SkillLevel1

My ever-loving wife, “Skippy” (not her real name), likes to move. Move, as in from one house to another and one state to another. She got this endearing quirk by growing up in a family that moved frequently. She claims it had nothing to do with running from the law or staying ahead of bill collectors and I believe her. Really.

So we move a lot. It’s in her blood.

One advantage of moving into new houses every few years is the appliances are always new. The A/C is new. The stove is new. The dishwasher is new. Everything works like new because it is new. I conveniently forget that things wear out–especially if you don’t perform regular (ugh) maintenance. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the easiest policy. (I know a guy whose motto is, “If it ain’t broke, keep fixing it until it is,” but I wouldn’t recommend that approach.)

We lived in one new house a couple of years too long. I learned the hard (expensive) way that you really are supposed to have the A/C serviced twice a year. The compressor burned out and we had to buy a whole new air conditioner. If we had just moved a year earlier ….

In our current house (of about 7 years) the dishes didn’t seem as clean as they could be. Right up front I want to say that it wasn’t Skippy’s fault. She did in fact put the dishes in the dishwasher (yes, with soap) and turn it on. But they came out a little hazy-looking.

Bosch dishwasher drain filter
Bosch dishwasher drain filter

So I pulled out the lower dish rack and cleaned out a few bits of food in the bottom of the dishwasher where the dirty water goes down the drain. Some dishwashers have a little plastic screen over the drain for trapping the gunk that you just pop out and rinse off in the sink. But this was a Bosch and it had a screw-in cylinder screen, which I had never seen before.

Drain filter removed
Drain filter removed

I took it out and looked at it closely and saw that a lot of the screen was plugged with a filmy layer. Continue reading Straining to do the dishes (and the coffee)

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Royal (water heater) flush

SkillLevel1The hot water in the shower seemed to be kind of wimpy, which is to say that it wasn’t very hot. The temperature ranged all the way from lukewarm on the one extreme to tepid on the other. My ever-loving wife, “Paris” (not her real name), is not one to complain but she made it clear that it was not up to “Hilton” standards. I turned up the temperature dial on both water heaters from the “A” position to the “B” position and then  to the “C” position but it didn’t make much difference. Every once in awhile, the shower would put out a brief burst of water that was actually hot. This made me think there must be a blockage somewhere in the hot water pipes or the water heaters.

I did a little reading on the subject and apparently you are supposed to drain hot water heaters once a year to flush out the sediment and corrosion in the bottom of the tank. I calculated my water heater flush rate: number of years in house: 5; number of times flushed: 0.

I was a bit behind schedule. Continue reading Royal (water heater) flush

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Overzealous kitchen faucet sprayer

SkillLevel2So I was down in the carport, which is under the house, minding my own business when I noticed water dripping on the sheets of MDF for my new workshop. I ran up stairs to the kitchen where my ever-loving wife, “Hazel” (not her real name), was cleaning up the dishes. “Something’s leaking!” I announced in my this-is-serious-but-do-not-be-excessively-alarmed voice. Hazel had been unaware of the problem because the sink and faucet looked fine but when I opened the door under the sink we were looking at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Old faucet
The old faucet doesn’t look so bad but …

After taking out the soggy contents of the sink cabinet and sopping up the water we figured out that the faucet leaked only when it was turned on and only under the sink. I pulled out the sprayer, which is on a flexible stainless steel hose, and made sure the hose was screwed on tightly to the sprayer because recently the faucet was leaking a little and that was the reason. When I turned on the faucet, it looked like the water was spraying out of the middle of the hose, which I have to admit I’ve never seen before.

I shut off the water supply, disconnected both ends of the hose, and then sawed off the connector on one end so I could pull out the rubber tubing inside.

Old leaky pullout hose with one connector cut off
Old leaky pull-out hose with one connector cut off

As you can see in the next photo, it had a good-sized hole in it. This faucet was about 9 years old and the hose saw relatively little use. (I am in no way saying Hazel doesn’t use the kitchen sink very often. She does the dishes and cleans up just as often as any other American housewife. She just doesn’t pull out the sprayer excessively when she uses the faucet. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

Hole in faucet hose
Hole in faucet hose

Apparently these hoses fail pretty often because the Big Box stores carry replacement hoses that you can put in fairly easily. It wasn’t too hard to imagine some other part failing on that aging faucet in the near future so I bought a new faucet instead. Besides, I’ve never gotten in trouble for buying something new for my ever-loving wife’s kitchen.

Tools for installing a faucet. The faucet wrench is on the right with the red handle.
Tools for installing a faucet. The faucet wrench is on the right with the red handle.

Getting out the old faucet is not rocket surgery but it can be tricky because there is no room to work. To get the nut off that holds the faucet in place you really need a special faucet wrench, which is shown in the photo. You put the jaws around the nut and then twist the handle to unscrew it.

New faucet with top ring slid up over the tubes
New faucet with top ring slid up over the tubes. The plastic and metal washers and the big nut on the counter will be slid up from below after the faucet is inserted.

I gently pressed the tubes of the new faucet together so I could slide on the top ring and feed the tubes through the hole in the counter top. Then underneath the sink I slid the big washers and nut over the faucet tubes and tightened the nut to hold the faucet in place. This is where it would have been helpful to have an assistant to hold the faucet from above to keep it from turning as I tightened the big nut with the faucet wrench. Unfortunately, my ever-loving wife was unavailable at the time and I had to prairie dog it: go under the sink, tighten a little, come back out and turn the faucet straight, back down under the sink, tighten, …

Faucet connections. It's a bit crowded under there.
Faucet connections. It’s a bit crowded under there.

Hooking up the water supply tubes to the faucet tubes is not difficult–if the tubes are long enough. The tubes on the new faucet were shorter than the old faucet, which meant that the supply tubes didn’t reach. The tubes on the faucet are different lengths so that their connectors don’t hit when you feed them down the hole in the counter top. I took the longer supply tube and connected it to the longer faucet tube. Since I didn’t want to make another trip to Lowe’s right away, I “appropriated” a longer supply tube from another sink that we don’t use very often.

I have since read that it is a good idea to replace the supply tubes when you replace the faucet because they do wear out and leak. Get a handful of sizes of the braided tubes when you buy the faucet and then return the ones you don’t need. Saves trips to the store.

New faucet with soap dispenser
New faucet with soap dispenser

The old faucet used two holes in the counter top (one for the handle and one for the spout) but the new faucet uses only one. So instead of replacing the old soap dispenser with the new, I decided to install the new soap dispenser in the hole next to the faucet and leave the old one in the outside corner of the sink: one for dish soap and the other for hand soap.

Hazel is happy with the new faucet because it is stylish and easy to use. (Did I mention that she frequently washes dishes? Multiple times a week, I’d say.) I’m happy because my lumber isn’t sitting under Niagara Falls.

 

At your disposal

SkillLevel2When my ever-loving wife, “Contessa” (not her real name) yelled, “It’s all wet under the sink!”, my finely honed senses from many years of wedded bliss detected that the tone of her voice meant something other than, “Oh, I’ve been waiting such a long time and I’m so glad it finally got wet under the sink.”

We’ve had a variety of problems with disposals. Sometimes they won’t turn on. Sometimes they make that awful crunching-rock sound. Sometimes they plug up and the water won’t drain out of the sink. Sometimes they sound like a truck up against a brick wall with the gas pedal floored.

This time it was a wet sink cabinet floor, which as we all know is where you keep the dishwasher soap so it stays dry. Contessa was not amused.

Water was dripping out of the bottom of the disposal in a pretty steady stream. (Check the video below.)

I decided to check the selection of new disposals on line. Big mistake. There must have been hundreds of different brands and sizes. Apparently, the garbage disposal business is pretty lucrative and everybody and his brother make and sell them. Most houses have a disposal and the typical warranty is 1 – 2 years! You can do the math. (If you are looking for a new business opportunity, you heard it here first.)

So I went to the local Big Box store, which narrowed the field down to about eight choices and picked a medium quality disposal (with a whopping 3-year warranty!) that was fairly quiet. We don’t run a disposal often enough that noise is an issue but it is usually a good indicator of quality and durability. Many reviews ragged on disposals with plastic cases because they crack so I made sure this one had a metal case.

What’s nice about replacing a disposal as opposed to adding one for the first time is you don’t have to install the special collar in the sink drain that supports the disposal. You can just leave the old one there and hook on the new disposal. That saved me a lot of time.

The dishwasher drains into the disposal for two reasons. Dirty dishes can have chunks of food on them that get flushed out the dishwasher drain and you want to be able to grind them up so they don’t clog the sink drain. The other reason is that dishwasher water is hot and soapy and helps to clean the disposal and reduce odors. Wash your dishes; wash your disposal. It’s a two-fer.

Drain hose from dishwasher has a low spot instead of a high loop
Drain hose from dishwasher has a low spot instead of a high loop

After I cleaned out the soggy mess under the sink I saw problem #2. Continue reading At your disposal

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How to keep pipes from freezing

SkillLevel1

If a cold snap made your water pipe snap you have a few options on how to prevent it in the future. (The only way to prevent it from happening in the past is to use time travel and that is beyond the scope of this article.)

Outdoor faucets are prone to freezing because they are full of water and exposed to the cold air. The pipe to which the faucet is connected is also at risk for bursting for the same reasons. One approach is to have a dedicated shutoff valve inside the house that will turn off the water to the whole pipe feeding the faucet. When winter approaches, turn off the water using the shutoff valve and then open the faucet to drain the water out of the pipe. Leave the faucet open so that any water that didn’t drain out will have room to expand if it freezes. If there is a lot of water left in the pipe because it has low spots or sections that run uphill on the way to the faucet the pipe could still burst.

If the pipe enters a warm part of the house within a couple of feet of the faucet you can replace the faucet and the last portion of the pipe with a “frost-proof” or “freeze-resistant” faucet. These devices have a long rod between the faucet handle and the valve that stops the water.

When you turn off the water using the faucet handle you are actually turning a valve about a foot or so inside the pipe, which is in the warm area of the house. The pipe should be sloped toward the outside of the house so that any remaining water drains out. With this type of faucet the potentially cold part of the pipe is always empty. Replacing a standard outdoor faucet with a freeze-resistant faucet requires about SkillLevel3

 

Insulating a water pipe with foam insulation

doesn’t do very much when it gets icy cold because it has an R-value of something like 2. Pipe insulation will slow down the freezing process but won’t stop it.

If more than a foot or so of the water pipe is exposed to the cold air your best bet is to wrap it with heat tape.

The heat tape is plugged into an electric outlet and has a thermostat that turns on the electricity to heat the pipe when the outside temperature drops to about 38 degrees  or lower. It uses very little power. The water pipe can be metal (copper or galvanized steel) or plastic (CPVC, PEX, etc.).

I wrapped heat tape in a spiral around some PEX pipe that was exposed to the outside air.

heat tape around pipe heat tape with insulation heat tape insulatedThen I sealed the pipe with foam insulation to keep the heat next to the pipe when the thermostat turns on the heating wires.

A short extension cord connects the heat tape to the nearest outlet. After it is plugged in you can forget about it because it is totally automatic and will come on only when needed to keep your pipe from freezing.

Living in coastal South Carolina you would think that I have no reason to know any of this information but thanks to the Polar Vortex our water pipe burst last winter. (See “Polar vortex burst my PEX.”) Now I’m ready for Polar Vortex II. Alternatively, I would welcome any suggestions for constructing the time machine.

 

 

 

Mounting the throne

Skill levelskill2

A day that shall go down in the history books. An important day for all mankind. A day celebrated across the entire inhabited earth. I refer of course to March 11, 2014, “World Plumbing Day.”

In honor of World Plumbing Day, we decided to move the toilet out of the attic, where, admittedly, it was not especially handy, and install it in the bathroom, where, we hoped, it would be more useful. My ever-loving wife, “Poopsie” (not her real name), and I have been replacing the vinyl flooring in the bathroom with porcelain tile and the water closet floor was now finished and ready for the toilet.

Making the perilous trek from our upstairs bedroom to the downstairs bathroom in the middle of the night while the upstairs toilet was out of commission was sub-optimal but Poopsie didn’t complain as much as I did.

With the simultaneous arrival of World Plumbing Day and the completion of the floor we knew the stars were aligned to give Poopsie a potty. Continue reading Mounting the throne

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(Door) size matters

Skill level skill3

Forget Masters and Johnson or Dr. Ruth. Where size really matters is shower doors.

With the basin for our new shower glued down just as nice as you please (see “Basin or Mason“), we turned our attention to walls and doors. The walls were going to be covered with 1” glass tiles.

12" x 12" sheet of glass tiles for the shower
12″ x 12″ sheet of glass tiles for the shower

My ever-loving wife, “Jenny Mae” (not her real name), wanted frameless glass doors because they look the best, which they do. It turns out you can get them either “exact fit” or with side pieces that can adjust an inch or so wider or narrower. The side pieces kind of clutter up the clean look so we opted for the exact fit.

Measure twice (OK, about 10 times) and order once

Frameless DreamLine shower door
That’s a fine looking shower door right there, I don’t care who you are, that’s a fine looking shower door.

The pressure was on this Math major to measure the door opening precisely. The rough opening was 60″. The tiles are glued on sheets of 1/2″ thick Hardibacker, which is like cement backer board but a whole lot lighter and easier to work with. Two sides make it 1″. Subtract that from 60″ and we should order doors 59″ wide. Done.  

The fur starts to fly

The next step is to get the walls ready for the tile. But before you screw the 1/2″ backer board to the studs, the instructions said to put 1/4″ furring strips on the studs to keep the backer board inside the little walls of the shower pan. For those of you animal rights activists, furring strips are strips of wood not whatever else you might be thinking.  Continue reading (Door) size matters

Basin or mason

Skill level skill3

After defeating the fiberglass dragon (see “Ripping out a fiberglass shower“), it was time to select a shower basin for the new glass tile shower. Showers tend to spray water everywhere and the shower basin has to collect all of that water running down the walls and funnel it into the drain.

Masons get paid to play with mud

The old-school way to do a shower floor is to “mud” it, which means you get a big pile of mortar and shape it with a trowel so that the water will run downhill from any direction into the drain. Let’s just say it requires some skills that we don’t possess (and aren’t interested in acquiring).

Order a basin to go

Back in Manhattan “The Little Apple,” Kansas, my ever-loving wife, “Penelope” (not her real name), and I had built a master bedroom suite with a marble tile shower.  We found a place where we could order a cultured marble shower basin and I described the dimensions to the salesman over the phone because it was a couple of years B.E. (Before Email). It came in a big, heavy crate.

Cultured marble shower basin
Cultured marble shower basin

It fit perfectly and worked well but it was pretty expensive. Did I mention it was really heavy?

This time around we were looking for something lighter and less expensive. That’s in addition to it being water-tight, except of course for that big hole in the middle for the drain. Continue reading Basin or mason

How to shut off the water

Skill levelskill1

When water is spraying out of a place it shouldn’t, you need to shut the water off right away. Some fixtures have their own shutoffs–usually a round knob that you turn to the right–but many don’t. If the water is coming out of a leak in a pipe, you have no choice. You need to turn off the water to the whole house. Fast!

Plan ahead

If you take a little time now to find where the main shutoff is you’ll save valuable time when you have to shut the water off quickly before it ruins the floor, the cabinets, etc.

There is a main shutoff right next to the water meter in the ground near the street if your house is in a city or suburb in a moderate climate. (In colder climates, like, I don’t know, Minnesota, your shutoff is inside the house in the basement. See below.) Look for a metal cover in the ground that looks like this.

water meter cover
Water meter cover near street

Or this.

water meter cover 2
Newer style water meter cover

Pry up the cover (you might need a screwdriver).

Inside you will see the water meter, which has an “odometer” for how much water you’ve used, and the main shutoff.

meter annotated
Inside the water meter enclosure

When the metal bar on the top of the shutoff is pointing down the pipe, like in the photo above, the valve is open and water flows. If the bar is perpendicular to the pipe, the valve is shut. Think of that bar as being in the pipe itself. If it is crosswise it will block the water.

shut off with wrench
Using a crescent wrench to turn the shutoff valve

There is a special tool for turning the shutoff valve that you or your neighbor might have. If not, use an adjustable wrench or a pipe wrench. The valve will turn only a quarter turn.

These valves can be hard to turn. You might need to tap the end of the wrench with a hammer to get it moving.

Turn it clockwise to close it and shut off the water. Counter-clockwise to open it and let the water through.

Around the globemain shutoff lever closed

Some houses will have a main shutoff knob in the basement next to a meter that you turn like a typical outdoor hose faucet. These are called “globe valves.” Keep turning to the right to turn off the water.

Inside main water shutoff and meter
Inside main water shutoff and meter
GLOBE_VALVE_8
Globe valve

Make it better

Main shutoff lever open (water flowing)
Main shutoff lever open (water flowing)

A better setup is to have a separate in-line shutoff closer to the house
or inside the house. The one shown in the picture is a simple lever model, which is called a “ball valve”, that works as described above. In this position the water is on.

To shut off the water, turn the lever a quarter turn so that it is perpendicular to the pipe as shown in the next photo.

main shutoff lever closed
Main shutoff lever closed

If you don’t have one, I recommend installing a lever-type main shutoff in the basement or crawlspace that is easily accessible. This type is very easy to open and close and it clearly shows if the water is on or off.

 

main shutoff lever closed

 

Polar vortex burst my PEX

Skill level skill3

The voice on the other end of the line said, “Uh, Mr. Pardun? This is Security.” Conversations that start out like that generally do not bring good news.

“Your water pipes have sprung a leak. We’ve shut off the water to your house.”

It was cold last week. Really cold. The polar vortex swirled down out of Canada, through the Midwest and Northeast, and froze the pipes of our beach house all the way down in coastal South Carolina. That just ain’t right.

Total exposure

Beach houses in our area are built on top of large poles to keep them above any storm surge caused by a hurricane. This means that the main water line runs totally exposed from the ground up 10 feet to the house itself. If this isn’t a prime target for freezing, I don’t know what is.

When we arrived at the house, I asked my ever-loving wife, “Molly” (not her real name),  to watch the pipes while I turned the water main back on. It’s not that I wanted her to be the one to get sprayed, of course, but I had to be the one to kneel down in the dirt to turn the valve. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

When I turned on the main, the water sprayed out of the pipe feeding the outdoor shower in Molly’s general direction a few feet away from the main water supply pipe and not the main pipe itself. This was excellent news. We could easily turn off the shower shutoff without turning off the water to the whole house.

2014-01-10_11-52-04_958  2014-01-10_11-53-50_795 Continue reading Polar vortex burst my PEX