My DIY Plumbing Adventure

I am completely renovating the house that my partner and I just bought, and am 80% finished. Right now I’m working on the master bathroom.

The big garden tub that came with the house is the only thing I left in the bathroom, I gutted everything else. But the tub had BRASS handles. Brass is another unacceptable thing, it should be officially banned. Christian agrees. He’s allergic to brass. It makes his eyes itch and he breaks out in hives. God, it’s so ugly…

Anyway, I had to change the handles to silver. So yesterday when I dug into the floor to look at the plumbing, it was pretty obvious that they had gotten a hyper monkey to do the soldering. It was a disaster under there!

So I had to cut off the copper pipes below the soldering mess. I decided to attach valves to the pipes so I could control the water flow while attaching the faucet handles without having to run outside to the water meter and cut off the water to the entire house.

The easiest joining technique in plumbing is called COMPRESSION joining. That means a nut is slipped onto the pipe, along with a small brass sleeve. The valve is placed against the pipe, and the nut is screwed onto the valve, compressing the little brass sleeve firmly between the pipe and the valve, thus providing a water-tight seal.

For a DIYer with almost no plumbing experience, this is a no-brainer way for me to fix plumbing fixtures, and I had used that technique in a dozen places around the house already.

But the stupid monkey had bent the pipes so terribly while he was soldering them ten years ago that the compression nut would not fit over the pipe.

I dashed to Home Depot (for the fourth time that day…I’ve severely abbreviate what transpired with the pipes because its stimply not possible to explain in words) and asked for the most experienced guy they had in the plumbing department. He was called, and when he arrived, I was surprised to find that he was no older than I.

“I’m trying to put a stop valve on 1/2″ copper floor pipe,” I said, “but the pipe is so bent that I can’t get the compression nut down far enough onto it. What can I do? Can I straighten the pipe somehow?”

“No, just solder a threaded fitting onto it, and get a threaded valve and screw it onto the fitting.”

Solder. The very word makes me shudder. Ben and torches have not mixed since high school shop class, and even then the results were never better than disastrous. (Still, I was probably better than the monkey.)

“I’ve never soldered before,” I began.

“Ah, it’s the easiest thing. Even easier than compression fittings, to be honest with you.”

He filled my basket with the necessary fittings, torches (shudder), and valves. I scowled at the threaded valves. I’d had an earlier confrontation with threaded valves that day and had several bleeding wounds on my hand to prove it. Those things are IMPOSSIBLE to tighten to the point where they are water-tight, especially if they’re being screwed onto floor pipes in a very VERY tight corner almost underneath a shower pan.

Then I had a brilliant idea.

“Can I screw the valves onto the fittings BEFORE I solder them into place?”

“Sure you can. In fact, that would make things much easier,” he said. “Just make sure you put your Teflon tape around the pipe threads before screwing them together. But, yeah, you should have NO PROBLEM putting the valve onto the fitting before you solder it.”

I dashed home and spent an hour trying to light the torch.

“Okay, the logical sequence is…turn on gas…light cigarette lighter…hold into stream of highly combustible gas…gas ignites. Right?”

Wrong. Each time I held the lighter into the stream of gas emerging from the torch, the gas would blow out the lighter. Then I’d have to wait a few minutes for the air in the room to clear so I didn’t cause an explosion.

“It CAN’T be this hard,” I thought. I googled “+how +to light a propane torch” and got nothing. NOTHING. Not a single result returned. Dammit.

I decided the gas was coming out too hard, which was blowing out the lighter. So turned the gas on a little slower, and held the lighter into the stream. This time, the stream ignited once it was PAST the lighter flame, but as soon as I removed the lighter, the gas would instantly stop flaming.

It was the most baffling thing. Every redneck in middle America has one of these things, they CAN’T be that hard to light.

After a good hour and a half of trying to light the torch, I went back to Home Depot, figuring they’d sold me a bad torch. My plumbing guy was standing near the entrance.

“I can’t even light the damn thing!” I shouted.

“You gotta just barely turn on the gas, guy,” he replied. “If you can hear it coming out, it’s coming out too strong. Just barely turn the knob, maybe half a millimeter. Then light it and turn it up higher.”

“How high?” should have been my next question. But it wasn’t. Instead, I got back in the car and went home.

His technique worked like a charm, and soon I had a blazing flame about 6 inches long blasting from the end of my torch.

I’m not a complete idiot, so I knew to line anything combustible around the pipes with several layers of foil, to keep from setting the house on fire. So I did that. Then I attached the valves to the fittings, with many a scream and several more cuts. It’s amazing how difficult it is to screw those damn things together.

Then I relit my torch and got ready to solder (shudder) for the very first time.

I pointed the flame at the fitting, which required inversing the torch upside down. Instantly, the flame grew to 10 inches or longer and devoured the aluminum foil, blackening the wooden subfloor, and almost melting the PVC pipe coming from the tub drain.

I spat a few choice expletives, re-lined the cavity with about 10 layers of foil, and turned the flame as low as I could get it without it going out. Then I turned it upside down and held it to the fitting. This time the flame only grew to about 5 or 6 inches (I later learned that 1.5 inches is ideal), but I got the fitting heated to the proper temperature before I burned through all the layers of foil.

And then the joint was soldered.

I waited 15 minutes for it to cool down. Then I tested the valve to make sure it worked.

It spun freely in its joint, without ever coming to a stop, as valves do when they are fully closed.

“That’s funny,” I thought. “That should, most definitely NOT be happening.”

I picked up the other valve which had not yet been attached and looked at it. There, up in the inside, I could see…horror of horrors…plastic.

Plastic which melts at high temperatures.

Not only had I just ruined the valve attached to the fitting I had just soldered, I had likely melted out all the interior plastic, which subsequently dropped down into the water supply line, instantly solidified when it hit the cold water somewhere in the line, and permanently plugged the water supply line to the bathtub…or to God knows how many other plumbing fixtures, depending on how far down it fell before reaching water.

I shrieked and flung myself into the car and flew to Home Depot. It was after 9pm. I was hoping my plumbing boy would still be there.

He wasn’t. But two nice gentlemen (who looked far more experienced with plumbing) were there to watch the fury of my approach.

“I got TERRIBLE advice from one of your plumbing guys earlier this afternoon and may have SERIOUSLY screwed up my house!” I fumed.

“Okay, sir, calm down and explain.”

I picked up a valve and fitting, like the ones I had used. “He told me it was okay to screw this valve to this fitting before soldering it. So I did, but the valve has plastic inside, which melted when I soldered the fitting, and has probably clogged my pipes.”

The two glanced gravely at each other.

“Well, son, there’s just not really much plastic in these valves, and it doesn’t really melt like you would think, it just kind of disintegrates. Probably the stem just got over heated and broke. I doubt there’s any plastic down in your pipes.”

What ELSE would he say, considering it was his employee that gave such terrible advice.

“But one thing’s for sure, you don’t want to attach these before you solder. Unscrew the valve from the fitting and take a look at it. I doubt you’ll find that it melted down into your pipe.”

I flew back home, unscrewed the valve from the fitting (garnering a few more cuts and abrasions) and nervously peeked up inside the valve. Everything looked fine. No melted, congealed plastic. It looked brand new. But the valve knob was still spinning freely, so I knew it was broken. Thank God the plastic had not dripped down into the pipes.

I screwed a new valve onto the soldered fitting. Then I soldered a fitting onto the other pipe and screwed a valve onto it.

And, miraculously, when I turned on the water supply, nothing leaked.

And that was my plumbing nightmare yesterday.

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