Most of the time when I am plumbing something it means I am checking to make sure it is ‘plumb’ or straight up and down. This week I had to take care of the other kind of plumbing — the kind that involves water, pipes, fixtures, wrenches and the occasional bout of cursing.
As a preservation carpenter, handy-man or DIY-er having a little exposure to plumbing is a valuable skill. You never know when you’ll have to shut off a supply line, change a fixture or repair the work of overly aggressive plumbers that have hacked away at timber framed elements which do not handle the same way as modern stick frame construction.
In my adventures this week I had to take care of a plumbing issue at my own home. We’re lucky enough to live in a colonial home that was well built and only 12 years old. Unfortunately up here in NH the water is very acidic and on my street we have pretty high water pressure, both of which are tough on plumbing fixtures. The bathroom is pretty plain vanilla — nothing too fancy, but the builder picked all name brand fixtures etc — in this case Moen. We’re expecting our first child in August so while my wife and I would rather I get rid of the fiberglass jetted tub for something fancier with a tile surround the baby is fast approaching and I need to build a crib so we agreed on a modest refresh and making sure we have a nice complete and working bathroom ready for the arrival.
Here is what I was starting with — a plain chrome Moen ‘Legend’ Posi-Temp fixture and simple shower head:
The Before Photo (Circa 2000 fixtures as that is when the house was built)
This tub had two problems:
- The downspout when used in shower mode would leak into the wall and water and the can lights on the lower level do not mix well.
- The valve was not mixing hot and cold well and unless you like cold and colder showers something needed to be done — and fast
I figured, no sweat I can change the cartridge — it’s a Moen after all I should be able to get parts at my local store and this will be a quick job. On closer inspection of the handle I came to find out the set screw in the handle had fused on. After trying every penetrating oil, WD40, heat gun, allen key and torx bit I could find I decided to drill out that set screw which made the handle and the piece it connected to useless. During this time I also noticed whomever installed the backing plate had tightened it on so tight it was deforming the metal and just about ready to rip through.
OK, if the tub spout leaks, the handle is shot and the cartridge is not working, I might as well buy a full new trim kit and a cartridge….
After getting the trim removed the valve looked fine the surround cleaned up easily and now it was time to examine that downspout. It was a slip-on compression fitting — the spout slips on 1/2″ copper tubing, has a couple of rubber washers to keep water from getting into the wall and is secured with a set screw from below. When I got it off I noticed that half the washer was stuck up in the front where the water should come out, the other was missing and there was a bunch of calking around the pipe at the wall opening. Without that washer holding back the water it made sense why water might be shooting back towards the wall and some dripping through. (Thankfully nobody seemed to use this bathroom much — there are others in the house — so there was virtually no interior wall damage)
Old fixtures removed
So a quick search on Google and I found a replacement trim kit at Lowe’s that should have a compression fitting downspout, a nice new look, fancier handle and shower head. And the replacement Posi-Temp cartridge was another $39. I got to the store and they told me they don’t stock the trim kits anymore (Even though the website said they should have 2 in stock). The in-store computer said all the stores in the area no longer stocked it as well. So now I had to buy the full kit which meant wasting an extra $20 on a rough in valve I’ll never use — but at least I now have a trim kit and cartridge in hand. Back at home again I used a dedicated Moen Posi-Temp cartridge extraction tool. This $12 tool works a bit like a steering wheel puller.
Moen cartridge extractor in use
Note which side of the cartridge is labeled ‘Hot’, then line up the jaws with the cartridge, tighten down the screw that goes through the body of the cartridge and then turn the big nut while holding the handle and the tool extracts the cartridge without damaging the valve body or the pipes.
Cartridge extraction tool on a sample valve body
With the old cartridge out I could see all the mineral deposits etc. With no cartridge in the valve body put your finger in there to make sure there is no other debris or damage.
Old cartridge (near) and the new cartridge (far)
Install the new cartridge using hand pressure on the white plastic body — do not press on the brass stem as this can damage your cartridge. With the cartridge fully seated (and HC in the same orientation) I replaced the safety pin.
Replaced cartridge ready to go
I could now re-install the trim around the valve and the new knob. Installation was the reverse of removal.
Here’s a link to a great You-Tube video walking you through this process:
Now on to the tub spout….
I opened the box and was examining the nice looking metal tub spout when I realized it was a screw on fitting which requires a longer pipe with a threaded end. WTF?! I figured this must be a mistake and I just had to exchange it. Back to the store with that part in hand the clerk told me that Moen came up with new numbering for their products and that both models are thread-on only. (The instructions in the box shows both screw on and compression spouts were made) A change like that is information that maybe they should put on the box and the website — but I guess I am old-fashioned that way — I expected the box to accurately tell me what was inside of it. They couldn’t order a kit with the compression spout fitting but they could order me a separate ‘genuine Moen’ slip-on downspout for $40 (which would be metal looking plastic and not matching the style of the kit they already sold me) or they could sell me a POS plastic generic model. Judging by the fact that I could see about 6 of these generic compression fittings that were clearly returned and taped back together I could tell buying one would not be a good idea…
Interior of a generic compression downspout
So I bought a 5′ piece of 1/2″ copper pipe — from which I only needed about 1.5″, a coupling, a male threaded nipple, solder and flux. I followed the directions for pipe length and soldered on the nipple. A nice video clip from TOH on soldering can be viewed here. Now time to screw on the spout — 2.5 revolutions and it won’t go on any tighter and its still 3/16″ from the wall and not water tight. At this point I was really not happy. I took the spout off and could see that it was poorly milled. It had some slag in it that it embedded into the new copper thread. That slag would not melt with the propane torch and I could not pop it out so I had to file it out with some needle files being real careful not to damage the nipple. I tried re-installing it and it didn’t go any further.
As they say ‘it’s not a proper plumbing project unless you’ve been to the store five times‘…
Back at the store yet again, I exchanged the spout for another of the same model. In the plumbing department the clerk from the first visit said she found the trim kit that she insisted was no longer stocked — (it was threaded spout only so still not all that useful to me) — and only a day late on finding that part…
On my way home I stopped at Home Depot and they had the same story about slip on tub spouts. In the plumbing aisle I found they did stock a Sioux Chief Smart Spout (which is a much nicer/heavier made, metal slip on/compression spout that has a patented mechanism that keeps it pressed tightly up against the wall, is made in the USA and seemed to have very good reviews online for that sort of fitting. If you decide to go the compression route I would suggest checking one of these spouts out here.) If you do find a slip-on spout you like here is a nice video on how you’d go about installing it:
In talking to the clerk at Home Depot he mentioned that they recently got a batch of bad copper nipples that looked fine visually but were defective and had to be sent back, so I figured I might as well try a nipple from Home Depot before giving up and using the Sioux Chief Smart Spout. I know my wife would not be happy if the spout didn’t exactly match the the faucet set….
“Propane and propane accessories” — Hank Hill would be proud
I fired up the propane torch, removed the previous day’s extension and nipple and installed the second attempt. The second Moen tub spout threading looked marginally better and I was holding my breath when I put the spout on. Thankfully the test fitting worked great. I took it off, added teflon tape to the threaded nipple, installed the spout and tested it under pressure — it works great and does not leak at all. We’re now back to having a working tub and shower etc. I also installed a curved Moen shower curtain rod that gives you a few extra inches of space in the shower — it screws into the wall as opposed to the old rods that were a friction fit and was a nice upgrade.
You can see the final result here:
Newly refreshed bathroom
What are the lessons from this marathon blog post?
- Plumbing is certainly a task you can tackle yourself, but you need to be patient and have the right tools for the job — don’t be afraid to look online or talk to others
- Make sure you know what type of tub spout you have as the websites are often not clear on what will be in the box
- Soldering copper tubing with a propane torch is something just about anyone can quickly learn to do
- Stay away from generic fixtures. Stick with bigger brand names like Moen, Kohler, Grohe, Pfister, American Standard, Delta etc as they are more likely to be around and have parts. (If I were building from scratch I’d go with a Kohler or Grohe fixture with a ceramic cartridge over the plastic cartridge in the Moen Posi-Temp line, but for the price it is a reasonably nice faucet)
- Make sure you use teflon tape and/or pipe dope on threaded fittings
- Don’t be afraid to try new things and learn new skills
With all the attention the shower was getting the toilet got jealous and decided to have an issue of its own. If folks are not too turned off by this brief departure into plumbing I’ll make a shorter post on refreshing toilet hardware as well.
P.S. For plumbing, as we do in woodworking, make sure you follow any instructions, local building codes and use common sense. (Disclaimer)
P.P.S. The Sioux Chief Smart Spout went back to the store today unopened — so if anyone out there gets one and tries it out, I’ll be curious to hear what you think of it.