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Despite lots of fixing faucet is, sad to say, no sweat


Life has its milestones. You get married. You buy furniture. And then one day, you sweat pipes.

"Sweating" is probably too strong a term for what I did the other day. Plumbers who work with fearsome torches and powerful spark lighters actually "sweat" copper pipes together.

Guys like me, who use small propane torches which we light with kitchen matches, "coax" pipes together.

But whatever you call it, what I did worked. Water now flows from the backyard faucet. Even better, it stops flowing when the faucet is turned off.

That faucet had been out of service since last winter. That was when the water inside the faucet turned to ice. One Sunday night the frozen faucet fixture popped free of its supply line, thereby sending a stream of cold water from the pipe into the backyard. I shut the water supply to the faucet, cleaned up the flood and waited for warm weather to make the repairs.

While waiting, I studied up on pipe sweating. I read home repair books. I cornered veterans of domestic plumbing battles at neighborhood parties. As other partygoers discussed books, movies and paintings, I talked pipes. I went to the neighborhood hardware store. There the guys behind the counter sold me tools and offered me words of encouragement.

I gathered the needed equipment, a propane torch, safety glasses, solder wire, soldering flux, fine-grade emery cloth.

Then I took an unusual step. I read all the accompanying instructions before I started working. Usually I start working, then read to learn what I should be doing.

The more I read about sweating pipes, the more I worried. I read many warnings about the danger of setting your house on fire. I read repeated suggestions to use a piece of sheet metal or an old car license plate as a heat shield, thereby lowering the chances of setting the adjoining walls on fire. I read several mentions of having a bucket of water or a fire extinguisher at the ready.

I took all the warnings seriously. I began working when no one else was home. That way if a bonfire broke out, there wouldn't be anybody to evacuate.

When two copper pipes are joined together, they are supposed to be exceedingly clean. They are purified with an emery cloth, a kind and gentle sandpaper. Polishing pipe with emery cloth also turned out to be a good way to relieve tension. I was so anxious and polished those pipes so thoroughly that when I finished I could see my reflection in the shine.

Next, using a cotton swab I applied the soldering flux to the shiny copper and pushed the pipe and faucet fitting together. I am not sure what exactly is in flux, but I can tell you it is rough stuff. I wore gloves whenever I handled it.

I put on safety goggles and got ready to light the propane torch. Slowly I moved a lighted wooden match up into the stream of propane spewing out of the tip of the torch. The guys in the hardware store had told me this torch-lighting technique lowered the chances of getting my match snuffed out by the gas pressure. It was a good tip. It worked, the second time I tried it.

Holding the lighted torch in my "less-skilled" or left hand, and holding a spool of solder wire in my right hand, I approached the pipe and its fittings.

In my head, I repeated the advice of the home repair books: "Heat the fittings, not the pipe. Heat the fittings, not the pipe."

I put the flame on the fitting, and watched the seam where the fitting joined the pipe. According to all I had been told, when the moment for union was right, the flux in the seam would bubble. Bubbling flux was going to be my cue to touch the solder wire to the seam. The solder was then supposed to melt and quickly disappear into the joint, making the union secure.

Guys who had done it before had told me, in near-reverential tones, about the "magic moment" when the solder was drawn into the joint.

It never happened for me. Or, if it did, I missed it. I heated up the fitting. I got scared when the white paint on the adjoining brick wall turned black.

I put the solder wire on the pipe. The wire melted. But instead of obediently disappearing into the joint, some of the melted solder formed ugly lumps and lingered on the pipe.

I thought I had failed. But when the pipes cooled down and I turned the faucet on, the union held.

Anyone who inspected the job would never mistake it for the work of a plumber. But, so far, what I have joined together has not come asunder.

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