Trying to get a handle on the kitchen sink's drip


YOU CAN NEVER have enough spare parts. That is the credo of most basement-dwelling weekend repair guys, like me.

It is a belief that carried me through a recent tussle with the kitchen sink. The faucet was dripping. This was not an unexpected event. The kitchen sink has a tough life. If it were a Web site, it would rank right up there with the refrigerator as the most frequently visited sites in our domestic universe. The faucet of the kitchen sink gets a lot of hits.

Repairs are frequent, and over the years I have built up a stockpile of kitchen faucet parts. So much so that, recently when the faucet began dripping from the spout after the handle was in the off position, I felt a faint twinge of joy. Knowing I had spare faucet parts in my basement gave me a thrill. It was similar to the quiet pleasure that comes from finding a cold beer in the back of the fridge on a hot day. It was a "be prepared" moment.

Unfortunately it was short-lived. As I pawed through the collection of parts for a rotating ball faucet, I could not find the part I needed. I found the hex wrench that loosened the screw holding the faucet handle. I found a replacement plastic cam washer that fits beneath the faucet cap. I found replacement O rings that fit between the spout and the body of the faucet. I even found a rotating ball, the part that distinguishes this faucet from its single-lever cousins, the cartridge family.

What I couldn't find were the two tiny metal springs and the two small rubber seals they travel with. From prior journeys into the inner workings of the rotating ball faucet, I knew that the springs and seals sit in two openings at the base of the faucet and control the flow of water.

When the springs and seals are tight, they essentially answer "yep," "nope" and "maybe" to calls from the rotating ball for hot and cold water. "Yep" means the water is flowing at full force. "Nope" means things are shut tight. And "maybe" means a mixture of water flows from each hole.

A sure sign that your springs and seals are going is when your rotating ball faucet has trouble issuing a crisp "Nope." Instead of shutting up, it murmurs; water dribbles out of the spout.

I did find one set of springs and seals in my parts collection. But I couldn't be sure they would work on this brand of rotating ball faucet. This was a Delta faucet. The springs and seals I had were for a Peerless faucet. This was like putting a Ford part in a Chevy. It might work, it might not. I didn't want to chance it.

So I walked over to my neighborhood hardware store, Belle Hardware, and consulted with one of the hardware store guys, Mickey. In keeping with the tradition of neighborhood hardware store guys, he listened to my troubles, walked to the back of the store and handed me a remedy.

He handed me a small plastic bag containing two springs and two seals for a Delta rotating ball faucet. It cost about $1.50.

It was a gorgeous spring afternoon, an ideal day to tool around town in a convertible. There just happened to be a vintage Pontiac GTO convertible sitting in the parking lot outside the hardware store. The young man who owned the convertible had just visited the hardware store, too. He bought something for his convertible, then drove off in the sunshine.

It struck me that when you are young and footloose you can spend spring afternoons tinkering with your convertible. And when you grow older and mortgaged, you spend such afternoons buying parts to fix your kitchen faucet.

Back home, the most trying aspect of fixing the faucet was warning my family that I was going to turn off the water supply for the entire house. In a world of perfect plumbing, this wouldn't be necessary.

In a world of perfect plumbing there would be shut-off valves underneath the kitchen sink. These valves would enable me to shut the water supply to the kitchen sink while the pipes in the rest of the house kept flowing, and the family remained clueless that a repair was in progress.

I do not live is such a world. Instead, I reside in a world of imperfect plumbing. There are no shut-off valves under the kitchen sink.

The announcement to my family of the impending water shut-off produced either shrugs of indifference -- "Why are you telling me?" -- or votes of no confidence -- "Are you sure you know what you are doing?" Next time, I told myself, I am going to shut the water off and keep the family clueless.

After turning off the water supply and draining the residual water in the pipes, I went to work. I labored in solitary bliss for 10 minutes. But soon our two teen-agers were in the kitchen, opening the fridge, foraging for late-night sustenance. The first on the scene noticed that the kitchen faucet was in pieces.

"Who broke the sink?" he asked me.

I explained to him that no one had broken anything. That this was routine maintenance on a heavily used household fixture. Perhaps he had noticed that the faucet had been dripping lately. This he had not noticed.

A few minutes later the other teen-ager thundered into the kitchen in search of plunder. He too asked, "Who broke the sink?" I gave him the routine-maintenance spiel and asked if he had noticed that the faucet had been in distress lately. He, too, had not noticed.

I replaced the tired old springs and seals with new ones. I reassembled the faucet and turned the water supply on. Now in addition to "Yep" and "maybe," the faucet said "Nope" crisply.

I felt a fleeting sense of triumph. A faucet that had been malfunctioning was now working smoothly. Order had been restored, even if no one else in the family noticed.

I put the extra faucet parts back in the basement. The next time the faucet breaks, as it seems destined to do, I will be ready.

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