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Sometimes, repairing the faucet can be a ball


IN OUR HOME, the kids are in charge of the computer, my wife is in charge of balancing the checkbook, and I am in charge of fixing faucets. This post of keeper of the taps is one my father held in my boyhood home. Years later, when I became a father and homeowner, I, too, took up faucet-repairman duties. It seemed to be part of the package.

Being a willing repairman is not necessarily the same as being a talented one. When I take on a dripping faucet I feel some apprehension. I worry that an ill-timed turn of my wrench will suddenly transform a recalcitrant faucet into Niagara Falls.

I wonder if this so-called "simple home repair" is really a dreaded "complex plumbing problem," one that ties up the household water supply, prevents teen-agers from showering, laundry from being washed and toilets from being flushed.

Some households, I am told, summon plumbers to fix faucets. Not mine. At least not right away. That would be counter to my family tradition. In my family we never called a plumber to fix a faucet unless we had first botched the repair job ourselves.

The other day, I prepared for an encounter with a dripping kitchen faucet. I took a deep breath. I read several home-repair books. And I purchased many faucet parts. These actions were designed to calm my nerves and build up confidence.

The deep breathing worked, but the home-repair books temporarily increased my anxiety. An illustration in one, "The Big Book of Small Household Repairs" by Charlie Wing (Rodale Books, 1995), showed me that if I opened up the kitchen faucet I might have to deal with as many as 15 different parts. That was what life looked like, the book said, in the world of the rotating ball faucet, the kind of faucet that has a round top and summons up hot and cold water when you move the lever.

The rotating ball faucet looked foreboding. So before venturing into its innards, I read more advice about how to approach it.

The first step was to turn off the water-supply valves under the sink. I laughed at this step. It is true that in newer houses you find these water-supply valves. Shutting them off enables you to cut off the flow of water to one particular sink, while the water supply to the rest of the house's plumbing system keeps flowing. But in older houses, like mine, the sinks often don't have supply valves. That means when you work on one single faucet, you have to turn off the water supply to the entire house.

I skimmed over steps two through six -- the turning of the handle setscrew, the gripping of the knurled ring around the cap, the removal of the cam, the spout and the O rings -- and paused at step seven. It suggested yanking old parts out of the faucet, placing them in a plastic bag and carrying them to the hardware store to find matching replacement parts.

Step seven would make sense if I had been able to follow step one -- using shut-off valves to cut the water off only to the sink. But since I was deprived of shut-off valves, I didn't want to leave the whole house high and dry while I paced through the hardware store hunting for replacement cam seals.

Instead, I went over to the neighborhood hardware store a day before I made the faucet repair. There I bought several bags of parts. If something looked like it might reside in a rotating ball faucet, I bought it. I covered the waterfront, so to speak.

Then early one morning this week, after the kids had headed off to school and my wife had headed off to work, I stepped into the realm of the rotating ball faucet.

I turned off the water supply to the entire house. Then, since this sink was on the lowest floor of the house, I pushed the lever back on the faucet and let the residual water drain from the pipes in the upper floors. This took about five minutes.

After three minutes, I thought the pipes had finished draining and made the mistake of turning the handle setscrew and loosening the knurled ring around the cap. This allowed the remaining water in the pipes to squirt over me and the kitchen counter top. The rotating ball faucet was mocking me.

Once the waters stopped flowing, I began probing the various levels of the rotating ball faucet. Eventually I got to the rotating ball itself -- made of metal in this particular model. Sitting underneath the ball were two springs covered with black rubber seals. I remembered reading somewhere that these springs and inlet seals were usually the guilty parties when a rotating ball faucet had been behaving badly.

I grabbed the suspects with a pair of needle-nose pliers and pulled them out. Then looking over my vast array of recently purchased parts, I found replacements and put them in place. Next, following steps eight and nine, I put the remaining parts back in place.

When I turned on the water, I expected to see an imitation of Old Faithful shooting out of the faucet. Instead the faucet was geyser-free. I moved the lever. Water came streaming out of the faucet spout. Hot water to the left, cold water when the lever moved to the right. And when I put the lever in the stop, or "enough already," position, it worked.

This faucet appeared to be drip-free. I couldn't believe it. I put a cereal bowl under the spout to catch any drips. Yet when I checked the bowl half an hour later, no water had accumulated in it.

I gathered up my tools and my excess parts and carried them to my workshop. I had enough spare parts to set up a small plumbing-supply business.

But I also had a feeling of accomplishment, a tingle of excitement that a guy gets after he has journeyed into the world of the rotating ball faucet, and come out unscathed.

Pub Date: 1/23/99

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