One Good Turn…
Hello In The Pipers!
The “old man” is taking a short break while he prepares his latest pipe dream project - a crab pot kayak! Hopefully all those years of chasing leaks means he won’t take on water and we won’t lose him to the crabs of Puget Sound any time soon. In the meantime, I have a little plumbing story to share with you all….
As a kid growing up watching my dad wrench on pipes, I learned just enough about plumbing to think I could do it too. That inherited knowledge has come in handy plenty of times over the years as a homeowner and later, as a general contractor specializing in residential remodels. With that limited expertise in my back pocket, it’s often difficult to resist the temptation of taking on some of the little plumbing fixes and upgrades that accompany our frequent bathroom and kitchen remodels to save some time and even money. The (good) plumbers in my market are frequently very busy - “you can’t fit me in until when?!?” and expensive - “you guys are billing over a buck and a quarter per hour now?!?” Hmmmm…. well, I have a set of adjustable wrenches too. Maybe I’ll just do that last minute faucet replacement myself and save us all some trouble.
Ha! If only it ever worked out that easily. In this particular tale, we had just wrapped up our final day on a kitchen remodel for an adorable young family in San Francisco. Their condo conversion was on the 4th floor of a building that was presumably built sometime in the ‘teens. Mind you, that would be the ‘teens from 100 years ago. The project had gone very well, with only the usual level of surprises and cost overruns and they’d been perfect clients through it all. I knew they’d spent more on this remodel than they’d planned and had stretched themselves a little thin, especially with their second child soon on the way, but they were otherwise very happy with how everything had turned out.
It was early Friday afternoon as the Mrs of the house and I completed the final walk through, exchanged the final payment check and said our final “thank you’s”. As she walked me to the front door, she stopped at the little “washroom” off the hallway. This cute and very original half-bath had been used by my crew throughout the kitchen remodel since we didn’t have space for a portable toilet down on the street. “Oh, wait….. I want to ask you one more thing before you go”, she said as she flicked on the washroom light and grabbed a box from the floor beneath the sink. It was a new faucet she had picked up someplace for “a song” and she wondered if it was a suitable replacement for the old, tarnished original. I opened the box and sure enough, it was compatible with the sink and would work fine. It was a tasteful modern interpretation of a classic widespread faucet and it actually looked really nice with the sink and would finish off their otherwise pristine half-bath. I was quite pleased to have their project all wrapped up and taking on one more item didn’t exactly thrill me. But I would also never leave a good client hanging, so I contemplated the next move. Getting my plumber back out for such a small task wasn’t going to be easy, cheap or convenient and the more I looked at that gleaming faucet, the more invested I became in seeing it installed. I then realized that the tool kit in my truck had everything required for installation and in that moment it became impossible not to offer to swap it out for her myself, as a parting gift on a project that had gone so well. Should only take me about 20 minutes! I’d be home before the Friday commute even began...
Well, I’m sure at least a few of you have heard the old maxim, “a good deed never goes unpunished”. I probably should’ve taken a closer look at things before offering up my help, but I didn’t recall anything out of the ordinary about the old sink or faucet. And the only unusual detail on the new faucet was the factory-installed braided stainless steel supply hoses, but they had the garden variety, female ⅜” compression fittings that we use all the time, so I figured -- no problem!
Well, things got off to an unexpected bumpy start right away when I first tried to shut off the water to the faucet. The old angle stops below the pedestal sink were as original as everything else in that bathroom and not like anything we install today. They were thick, smoothly polished & plated castings with chunky 4-cross handles. They looked like they belonged on a steam ship or an old submarine. And they were quite impossible to turn! We had learned during the kitchen remodel that the apartment didn’t have its own water shut-off, so if I couldn’t get these angle stops to work, it would mean shutting down all 6 floors of the building. And that would mean a 24 hour notification to the other occupants, a return visit, the usual gripes and grumbles about inconvenience, plus the very real nightmare possibility of dislodged scale and crud from the 100 year old pipes clogging faucets, shower heads, dishwashers, washing machines etc. throughout the whole 12 unit building after the water came back on line. That was a nightmare scenario I was not prepared to endure for “a favor” and I was beginning to worry that I would have to renege my offer.
Then I remembered an old trick I’d learned from my Pops -- Pete the Plumber. We all know how plumbers use their propane torches to sweat copper pipes, right? Well, they come in handy for so much more: thawing icy pipes, cleaning gunky tools, warming cold, leftover pizza, to name just a few. I own a plumbing torch of course, but didn’t have it with me on my truck so I asked the lady of the house if I could borrow the next best thing - a hair dryer! It took a good minute to warm up those hefty angle stops and soften the hardened stem packing, but it eventually did the trick. The heat probably softened the crusty old rubber washers too because lo and behold, those ancient angle stops still managed to shut off the water to that old sink. It then took me less time to remove the old widespread faucet and rigid supply tubes than it did to shut off the water. Should take just another 15 minutes or so to get this faucet installed and I’d be on my way home for a cold beer and a satisfied early start to my weekend.
But not so fast! While I was wiping crusty (heat-softened) pipe thread compound off of the old angle stops, I realized I’d failed to take notice of the larger outlet size. It was noticeably bigger than the ⅜” fittings on the new faucet supply hoses and coarse thread to boot. Since I couldn’t swap out the swaged-on factory installed hoses, I would need a step down adapter for the angle stop. No problem, I thought. These looked like ½” coarse NPT thread. A quick run to the ‘Big Box’ for the parts and I’d be able to wrap this up before traffic got bad for the ride home. I’d also pick up a small tube of clear silicone for the faucet bases and a roll of teflon tape while I was there.
Have you ever gone to the ‘Big Box’ hoping to find something a little out of the ordinary? A: it doesn’t exist. Or B: it does, but the young kid working that department doesn’t know what you’re talking about or where to find it. Or C: they do have what you need and the computer says they have 14 of them in stock but there is only one in the box on the shelf when you need at least two. It was scenario ‘C’ that day. Luckily, the other nearby ‘Big Box’ answered the phone and was able to confirm they had some more on their shelf. So after a little detour I had the two “BrashCraft” ½” FIP adapters in my hand for less than $4 each. At least I was in and out of that second “Big Box” in less than 20 minutes!
Friday afternoon traffic congestion was starting to pick up and when I finally returned to the job it was pushing 3 o’clock. I confidently told the Mrs that I would be wrapped up and on my way in another 15 minutes or so. I could almost taste that beer waiting for me at home….
Alas, I would have to wait a little longer for that refreshing beer. Out of habit, not doubt, I did a quick test fit of the adapters on the angle stops before applying teflon tape to the threads. Hmmm…. these are WAY too loose. No way the teflon tape is going to take out this much slop. Dang, these adapters aren’t going to work at all!! What gives?? I’ve never had problems with “BrashCraft” stuff before. No, it was those old angle stops -- they were some funky size between ⅜ - ½”. So what to do now? Accept defeat and reinstall the old faucet? Too embarrassing. Try and find some way to connect old-style rigid supply tubes to the factory flex lines of the new faucet? This was all exposed - that would look awful and ridiculous. Replace the funky old angle stops with new ones? Remember the nightmare scenario -- no shutting off the building -- certainly not on a Friday afternoon. Dang… it’s time to call Pete the Plumber for some advice. Hope he doesn’t have his head stuck up in the bow of his kayak and he can hear his phone.
Turns out he did have his head up in the bow of his kayak, but fortunately for me he was using his cell phone as a flashlight and was able to answer. Before I finished my second sentence, he knew exactly what I was dealing with. He interrupted me, “Those are American Standard angle stops. They’re 7/16” coarse thread and not ½”. They used to sell adapters for those if you can still find them.”
Needless to say, “Big Box” didn’t have any such adapters. Neither did the last few remaining neighborhood hardware stores not already pushed out of business by “Aces” or “Big Box” and more recently “Amazonian”. Quite desperate now, I was on my phone Googling anybody that might sell plumbing parts. Shockingly, I discovered a previously unknown “WB Plumbing Supply” located just 10 short blocks away from the job…A quick phone call and finally the words I wanted to hear, “Yeah, we got ‘em. We’ll be open for another half hour. We’ll leave two up at the counter for you”.
“20 minutes” had now turned into nearly 4 hours, but I finally had that new faucet connected and just in time for the “crawling” Friday evening commute. If only I’d known about those old American Standard angle stops and their unusual thread size, or realized that small, family-owned plumbing supply stores still exist in SF’s neighborhoods, I could have started my weekend hours earlier. But it also could have turned out a whole lot worse (an embarrassing retreat, or the nightmare of clearing dozens of clogged faucets throughout the building). This was a useful reminder of the invaluable expertise and knowledge you get from your professional plumber and the dedicated stores that serve them. Without our active support to keep them both in business, stories like mine might not have had such a happy ending...
Thank you all for reading my little yarn! As I mentioned before, Pete the Plumber has been crustacean-obsessed lately and is presently spending most of his waking hours doing critical ocean-duty kayak modifications before the crabbing season closes. After some well-deserved “rest” in the brine and with luck, a belly full of hot buttered crab, he will return to his regularly scheduled In The Pipe duties. In the meantime, if you should need to reach ol’ Crab Claw Pete, feel free to send him a message. His “flashlight” receives email…
Peter Hemp is a San Francisco East Bay residential plumber and plumbing author and former R & D steam vehicle plumber. His hobbies are ocean kayaking and touring the Left Coast by bicycle.
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