Family life appeals less to those who fix plumbing


WHILE listening to the speechifying at the recent Democratic and Republican conventions about the wonders of family life, I heard several folks remark that no one could harbor anti-family feelings. I disagree.

Anybody who spends time struggling with household plumbing can easily become anti-family. Families foul up plumbing. A perfectly functioning shower, for instance, falls apart once a family gets ahold of it. The faucet drips. The drain stopper ceases to stop. The shower curtain closes, but only occasionally and usually with a struggle.

Likewise with the bathroom wash basin. Once it was an efficiently functioning unit, a place where a guy could shave in solitary bliss. But then the family comes along, and the bathroom sink becomes a community watering hole. Toothpastes of many stripes and various fruit flavors move in. Legions of ointments and lotions lurk at sinkside. The faucet, formerly a model of no-drip frugality, becomes a babbling brook, forming little lakes in low-lying corners.

Last Saturday, as I tugged at various plumbing fixtures, trying to get them back in their adults-only state, I was in an extremely anti-family mood.

First, I tackled the leaky wash basin faucet. This was a rotating ball faucet. To get hot water, cold water or some mixture of the two, you move one handle. The handle was attached to a short metal shaft, which in turn was connected to a plastic ball. The faucet was leaking because some part of its workings wasn't tight.

I began by taking preventive actions. I reached under the sink and turned off the water supply. Then I closed the drain. Turning off the water supply prevents a stream of water from gushing from the faucet as you try to fix it. Stopping up the sink prevents vital faucet parts from rolling down the drain. Been there. Done that.

With the preventive measures in place, I began to take the faucet apart. The handle came off easily. All I had to do was loosen one ugly setscrew. The ugly setscrew was once protected by a decorative plastic cap which indicated which direction to move the handle for hot or cold water. The decorative cover had disappeared sometime ago, another victim of family life.

I loosened the adjusting ring, a threaded washer with notches on its top. The adjusting ring was snuggled between the top of the rotating ball and the metal faucet cap. Things were going smoothly. All I had to do was loosen the metal cap with a pair of channel-type pliers. The cap wouldn't budge.

I regrouped. I put waterproof adhesive tape on the teeth of the pliers. This, according to the home-repair advice books, would enable me to grip the faucet cap firmly without marring its chrome edges. I taped. I griped. I growled. The cap still wouldn't budge.

I tried various cap-loosening techniques. I tried bigger wrenches. To get more leverage I lowered the metal rod that operates the sink's pop up drain. This maneuver required sticking my head underneath the sink and turning screws while I was working upside down and backward. Anyone who has spent time in this position is full of anti-family sentiment.

I tried loosening the faucet cap with penetrating oil. I banged the cap with a rubber hammer. I put a monster wrench on the cap and banged the wrench with a metal hammer. This moved the whole plumbing fixture, but the cap stayed put.

I got very angry. So angry that I had to recline on the bed for a few moments to calm down. I did not want to do anything rash, like rip out the sink, or run away from my family. After resting, I reread a couple of home repair advice books. One said that sometimes a leaky rotating ball faucet can be repaired simply by tightening the adjusting ring with a butter knife. It seemed too easy. But I gave it a try.

I put the blade of a butter knife into the two notches of the adjusting ring and and turned to the right. It was tricky, I had to work around the shaft of the retaining ball, and the knife slipped. But when I switched to a putty knife, I made progress and tightened the retaining nut as far as it would go.

The leak stopped. I felt cocky. So cocky that I tried to fix the stopper in the bathtub. The drain stopper was supposed to move up and down when you manipulated a lever. Thanks to extensive use by family members, the tub would now empty only when the lever was held down with your hand or your toe.

I loosened the screws holding the plate covering the overflow vent near the top of the tub. Gently I pulled the whole plunger apparatus -- lever, linkage and stopper -- out of the overflow vent. I scrubbed these parts with a toothbrush soaked in cheap vinegar. There were several reasons I used vinegar. I had a bottle in the bathroom because I had used it a few minutes earlier in the drain cleaning ritual. The ritual involved pouring 1/2 cup of baking soda, then 1/2 cup of vinegar down the drain and, after waiting 10 minutes, pouring a kettle of boiling water down the drain. This helps prevent the tub drain from getting clogged, a condition commonly associated with family life.

I also believe in the purifying powers of vinegar. I have never given the kids a bath in vinegar, a practice I am told is recommended by some Pennsylvania Dutch grandmothers, but the vinegar scrub certainly took care of the bathtub stopper.

After about four hours of struggle, one small section of household plumbing had been restored to working order. Members of my family took little notice. The teen-ager did stick his head in the door as I was scrubbing the bathtub drain. Could I hurry up, he asked. He wanted to take a shower.

I considered dousing the nearby bar of soap with vinegar. It wouldn't hurt the kid. And it would probably help the plumbing.

Pub Date: 8/31/96

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