This blog post is a morality tale, a story within a story, broken into segments. The author employed it to give the reader some history involving the evolution of faucet and closet supply tubes, and angle stops. The header on Pete’s blog page states that he will be telling you about new materials, products and practices in In the Pipe. Well, for this post the author thought it fitting to give the reader a little history of older, past materials (some problematic) which are still lurking out there in the hope that if you encounter one or some, you won’t make a same mistake that PtP did (and spare you lots of regret). It begins with a visit to the cardiologist, wallows in the arcane world of manufacturer greed, exposes one plumber we know for a disastrous long ago repair decision, and winds up back in the doctor’s office, all striving to give your plumbing labors a “clean bill of health.”
Pete the Plumber recently found himself at his cardiologist’s for an annual check-up. All proved well for his re-circ pump. But a rather alarming discovery caused him no little unease. The author’s alarm had nothing to do with his physical state but rather a condition existing in Doctor P.’s exam room. While awaiting the good doctor’s entrance, the author’s gaze fell upon the plumbing of the hand washing sink. PtP finds himself critiquing everyone’s plumbing wherever he goes in his travels (public buildings, medical facilities, restaurants, you name it). (Just can’t help myself.)
It was not a long wait for Doc but I also thought not to bring up my concern until after the good physician had completed his responsibilities. Due to PtP’s anticipation over his soon, forthcoming diagnosis, it seemed an eternity waiting for the healer’s summation: “Hardy one you are…and unbelievably good labs…you’re showing off…get outta here…and never stop riding that bicycle.” (Dr. P., himself, is a ‘roadie’.)
Then, for an instant PtP wondered if he should even bother bringing up the sink plumbing. But, some remorse that the author still carries from many years ago was too much, not to: “That’s good news Doc, but, there’s something I gotta bring up…”
Oldies and Some Not Goodies
There’s a non-stop evolution in plumbing supplies. Sometimes it speeds up and other times it slows down, but it never really ceases. In this post we will take a critical look at past faucet and valve supply tubing designs and the angle stops that facilitated them.
When PtP was a young plumber, still working for another contractor, he was given a work order to fix a leak under a residential kitchen sink. The job was located on the third floor of an apartment building. The tenant was not in. I was escorted to the sink in question by the building manager. Upon opening the cabinet doors I saw this (Photo 1). (Facsimilie)
The reader is looking at a BrassCraft “AmeriFlex” combination angle stop (shut-off) and supply tube. (If you happened to be an animal technician working in a vivarium and were searching the lab for an escaped Naja naja (Indian cobra) and upon opening a low cabinet door, inches from your face, was your escapee, you would have a good idea of my shock. (By the end of this post hopefully you’ll understand (forgive) me for being so melodramatic.)
PtP’s first introduction to the AmeriFlex was in 1973 when he was “setting finish’ for a plumbing contractor who was snagging upscale, whole, new-house jobs in multi-acre avocado plots in California’s Southland. Prior to this time maybe only by five years or so, a long practiced, essential plumber’s skill was made redundant. This skill involved the proper shaping (bending), cutting and installing of heavy, solid wall, brass and copper faucet supply tubing being served by FIP (female threaded) rubber cone washer angle stops, Photo 2, below left.
This smooth brass supply tubing was sold in protective, paper wrapped lengths, five feet long. It was quickly cut to length with a plumber’s tubing cutter. (It has since joined the dodo bird.) Several wall thickness choices faced the plumber. The cheaper, thinner walled could be hand bent. The quality, thicker wall (Photo 2) required a mechanical bending tool (the operation of, requiring a learning curve). Two finishes (polished nickel and polished chrome) were popular (thus the protective shipping paper). When employing this hard, smooth supply tube material, leak-free water connections at both ends were achieved with rubber cone washers and brass friction rings and a “supply” nut, Photo 3 (above right).
In time (10-15 yrs) plumbers began to see a ‘newfangled’ version (Photo 4, below left) of supply tube and angle stop (Photo 5, below right) which aimed to reduce this installation time. The new tube was smooth and of rather thin wall for easy bending and it had a factory formed bulbous end which connected to the faucet or valve without a rubber cone washer. It was soon nicknamed the ‘acorn’ head’. Coupled with the new angle stop using a brass compression ferrule for the supply’s lower connection eliminated, meant even more labor savings.
Until this time all fresh water distribution piping was threaded galvanized and in some rare occasions threaded brass pipe or a combination of both. (On “Top Drawer” jobs the hot water was installed with brass pipe.) All angle stops threaded on to rigid galvanized or preferably brass nipples stubbed out of the wall. By the end of the 1950’s the ceaseless march for labor economy saw this iron and brass pipe practice being challenged by a newcomer: copper pipe and fittings, assembled with solder and flux. With the copper, at first, a brass adapter fitting was used (See Illus. 1A below and again along with Illus. 1B at end of article, with In-depth explanation) to transition from the copper pipe to threaded nipples for securing FIP angle stops. By the end of the 1960’s the march for labor savings (spurred by tract and subdivision construction) had made the transition fitting (copper by FIP winged 90 elbow) also redundant. (EXCEPT REAL PLUMBERS WHO CONTINUE TO DO “TOP DRAWER” WORK).
To effect this latest change, a new, compression angle stop (Photos 6 & 7, below) enabled the plumber to fasten it directly onto a ½-in. copper ‘stub out’ (which the author, to this day, thinks was a step backward).
The smooth acorn supply could still be employed with FIP angle stops for those who saw the superior quality of that practice. Skinflints adopted the compression angle stop variant. But, in either case the supply had to be trimmed to length, to fit between the angle stop and the valve above it. Unlike the old heavy supply stuff in 5 ft. lengths (which the plumber used with his/her rubber cone washer/FIP stops), and which the plumber could cut several or more supplies from, any trimmed material from acorn supplies was ‘junk’. This meant the acorn supply had to be sold in different lengths, the longer the more expensive. (It never felt good having to cut a pricey 30 inch acorn supply tube down to a short one to serve a toilet because you had used your last 12 incher. To leave the job to go to the supplier would cost you even more.)
“Why Can’t You Be More Flexible?”
How many years? It’s hard for Pete’s old brain to recall but what seemed like too soon, human greed fueled another supply tube design change, one that cost the consumer incalculable expense and sorrow.
Even with ‘acorns’ and smooth, thin-wall, some savvy was still required to install supply tube in a timely fashion. So, with our old nemesis greed still on the job the industry regressed again, with an ‘easy bend’ corrugated faucet/valve supply tube. In its debut form it came with a rubber cone washer pre-installed at the top, for faucet or toilet fill valve, depending (Photo 8). Due to the corrugations, trimming to length had to occur on the much shorter, smooth section closer to the bottom. The easier, quicker bending was a boon but the limited length of the smooth portion posed problems of its own. The author sees it as opening the door to the erosion of workmanship which ALL flexible designs, past and present enabled. (The plumber found that he/she could have lots of these supplies on the truck but none of them (due to limited cutting area) answered their needs of a particular situation, which resulted in supplies of excessive length becoming an accepted fashion. In time this corrugated design was offered with an acorn head but it did not find favor. Today the rubber washer topped version is still traded.
Industry To The Rescue
Do-It-Yourself-ism in the late 60’s/early 70’s had reached such heights that the plumbing supply manufacturers reached for the forbidden apple: a compression angle stop with a factory connected flexible, corrugated supply all in one piece!, the AmeriFlex (Photo 1, shown earlier & Photo 9, left). “Just keep a stock of extra long ones and trim them to any length.” “One or two sizes cover all of the plumber’s needs.” When something sounds too good to be true it often is. This proved the case for the AmeriFlex.
The big shame of the AmeriFlex combo is that if the manufacturer had not cut corners in the amount of raw materials going into the product, it would have proved a worthy addition to the world of plumbing trim. But that was not the case. The author himself (in other’s employ), reluctantly installed many of these. Yes, they were installed quickly, especially if the supply stubs sticking out of the wall were ½-in. tube copper. Now, the layperson probably thinks of water as a smooth, slippery medium. At the user end of plumbing it is. But, when under pressure, and laden with minerals (either utility or water well infused) water can be very abrasive, not to mention corrosive. I’ll mention more on this downstream.
Among the major shortcomings of this potentially helpful combo design:
However the combo still employed the standard 5/8ths compression mounting ferrule (Photo 10, below) with its one-off compression thread pitch.
Proof In The Pudding
After some years (ten or less?) on the market (depending on local water quality), problems with the AmeriFlex started happening… LEAKS! FLOODS!
The biggest cause was the make-up (alloy recipe) of the copper used to make the supply tube. It corroded easily in water systems not affecting products of other manufacturers. And, its wall was too thin. Remember upstream I mentioned water as a medium? This medium, when mineral laden, can act like liquid sandpaper to the walls of copper tube (smooth or corrugated). After enough of this “liquid sandpaper” has rubbed up against the internal corrugations of a corrugated metal supply tube, on its way to the above faucet (or toilet fill valve), it made holes in the tubing wall. On the outside this leak was in the bottom crevice of the corrugations of the tube, at any point in its length. On the inside of the corrugated tube, it was the tops of the corrugations that got ‘sanded down” long enough to eat all the way through.
Still to this day, recirculating systems for hot water plumbed in copper pipe suffer leaks in the piping and especially any 90 degree elbows used, due to the continual scouring action of mineral laden water. This is one advantage of PEX tubing. It greatly resists this scouring action and failure.
Another weakness of the AmeriFlex supply tube surfaced when a faucet or toilet valve needed replacement. Any re-bending of the corrugated supply cracked it all too easily. You were lucky if this problem made itself known, immediately. But often, the leak occurred at the crack (sometimes invisible under the plating) and the leak appeared weeks to months later.
In PtP’s first book, The Straight Poop, A Plumber’s Tattler, the author informed the reader that houses on Utility Water can undergo huge swings in water pressures between mornings and late nights. This night pressure swing can be double or more than the daytime operating pressure. (Any compromised part of the system usually meets its fate when you are in REM.)
And yet, there was another liability for the AmeriFlex also involving the corrugated supply. If you look at Photo 4, shown earlier and Illus. 1A & 1B at end, you see the “acorn” head of a smooth, copper supply tube. (Eastman is PtP’s preferred brand.). Around the underside of the acorn runs a metallic lip, or edge. This lip, being of rigid metal, guarantees that the supply tube, under excessive pressure, cannot pull through the bottom hole of the brass supply nut at the valve connection, (Photo 11, below). In this connection, there is no rubber cone washer employed. It’s a metal-to-metal seal. And, if left undisturbed, could last generations.
The Ameriflex supply did NOT have any such lip. It had regressed to rubber cone washer, and due to problems with their cone washer design and material composition, was subject to a failure referred to as a blow-out. The supply tube separated from its valve connection.
Another ‘one-off’ concerning the AmeriFlex corrugated supply tubing was the rubber cone washer itself. IT WAS NOT YOUR USUAL CONE WASHER used on smooth standard tubing. This, the A/F cone washer had female (inside) threads that matched the very corrugations of the supply tube. The plumber would drop a supply nut down the supply tube first, followed by one or two friction rings, (Photo 3, shown earlier). Then, he/she threaded the one-off cone washer down the corrugations to a dictated/desired length on the tube. When happy with its position/placement, the plumber then trimmed off the excess length sticking out the top of cone washer and made his/ her connection. The brass friction ring/s nested in the bottom of the valves supply nut is/are there to prevent a rotational (friction) tear in the rubber washer.
And a yet added aspect the author did not appreciate was: he could not employ his swift acting tubing cutter to trim this corrugated supply. He/she had to use the mini-hacksaw (or other grinding or cutting-tooth apparatus) which regardless of attention and sense of purpose in its use, was a p.i.t.a. This action, in most cases, left undesirable and imperfect ends. (These could cut the rubber cone washer when threaded on.) (You were not given extras.) In time these A/F ‘one-off’ rubber cone washers had their own black market value: One plumber to another: “The contents of your lunch box and I’ll give you one. Two? You gotta take me to dinner.”
A common mistake the plumber made when installing an AmeriFlex (instead of a single angle stop and a smooth brass/ acorn head supply) involved trying to supply a valve which was farther to one side or the other of the angle stop (shut-off) “than he/she would have been happy with”. Creating a long radius or sag with the A/F (Photo 1, shown earlier) was setting one’s self up for trouble. If/when the plumber did not install an A/F (AmeriFlex) with its cone washer connection as close to vertical as possible, above the valve, under high water pressure, without a rigid metallic lip to prevent ‘pullout’ the supply tube was prone to blow-out. The corrugated rubber threads of the cone washer were not formulated (strong enough) to contain the pressure. A special high density (remedial) washer for this application, one to successfully prevent blow out, was never on offer.
If the reader has already checked off PtP’s book “Installing and Repairing Plumbing Fixtures” from their reading list, by osmosis they would have known not to employ this component. But luckily, time and space has spared them the possible repercussions. This combo has long been out of favor and production.
An Uncommon Thread
Now for the uncommonness (non-standard) of the A/F’s installation/inlet compression thread alluded to upstream. A big problem with this A/F combo was the manufacturer’s decision to not employ already industry standard compression threads. (They came up with their own.) My Illustration 2, below will hopefully help you understand how the compression connection works, or is supposed to. (PtP has made zillions of compression connections but he never uses compression angle stops. By this term compression, he refers to the 5/8ths-in. (1/2-in. nominal) installation/inlet compression joint (Photo 6, shown earlier). (A 3/8ths-in. supply compression angle stop outlet connection (Photo 5, shown earlier) the author has no issues with. It seals much more effectively than larger sizes.)
A Change of Horses
From the ‘put-in’ upstream, the author has been venting about supply and angle stop design. Now he’d like to touch upon some issues of ‘practice’ involving angle stop installation.
Am I Stand Off-ish?
Now, take a look at Photo 2 (shown earlier) again. This was a decades old installation at the time of exposure. It was done when plumbers were still using the heavy, smooth, brass, electroplated, standard (then) supply tube. The closer to being almost a vertical rise the easier was the shaping and fitting. If you are one who employs copper tube supply stub outs (Photo 12, below) and compression angle stops (Photo 13, below) when you have a fixture supported by a cabinet, (where the occupant of the room does not see the under bowl plumbing, and when the water is stubbed out on the blind side of the toilet bowl, out of sight), cut your stubs 2&1/2-in. from the wall (Photo 14, below). This leaves room to cut the pipe, again, at a later date, and install a second angle stop, if problems in the future should arise. This extra thought/measure, now, could save someone else a nightmare in the future.
Up Tight (Too)
Here is my biggest dislike about compression inlet (mounting) angle stops in general: when someone has installed an angle stop like the one in Photo 7 (shown earlier) and they applied design force to the compression nut (1&1/2 to 2 full turns after finger tightness) and the valve needs to be replaced, and the compression nut is corroded to the valve body: someone else (you?) is in a pickle.
If separating (unthreading) the valve away from the captive nut, or vice versa, cannot be accomplished due to corrosion, and the valve leaks at any of its three prone points, how do you get out of this predicament? Well, a plumber merely opens the wall (after toilet is lifted? or sink cabinet?). If it’s a cabinet, what about a mirror resting on top of the counter. Does it have to be moved outta the way first? How many lost vacations has that just cost you? Then, with heat and solder or PEX and rings, depending, a new section of water tube and its anchoring fitting is put in place. With a new angle stop and fixtures back in position they’re usable again. (Oh, did the new winged 90 for a toilet require new $blocking$?)
(Even with a simple cabinet replacement, if you have compression angle stops, when escutcheons cover holes in a solid cabinet back, the cabinet cannot be easily pulled forward as would be done with FIP angle stops, after unthreading them.)
If you or a plumber had to go into the wall because of a dud compression angle stop, who patches the wall? Will the fixtures need to be moved again to do this patching and or possible painting? How much will that cost? How soon can they come? How soon can I afford to hire them? What if I told you seven more seconds of conscious thought by the installing plumber could have spared you or the customer the above p.i.t.a. When copper supply stubs/tube are far enough out of the wall that you can use the mini hacksaw and cut right behind the compression nut, and you have enough room to install a brand new valve, it’s a HUGE relief. It’s no big deal. But, few installers (not real plumbers) think about the ramifications of the labors they perform, at the time.
Not All Is Lost
Even when a non-repairable contemporary compression angle stop is installed up against an escutcheon, as in Photo 7 (shown earlier), if you can get wrenches on the captive nut and valve body, and can separate the two, you merely have to thread a new valve into the existing, captive nut. No need to go through all the pain and labor to remove the existing nut! That existing nut has proven it had enough torque (design force) put on it at installation time to stand up to the ages. And most importantly, the threads on the new angle stop body will mate with those of the long installed captive nut. You’ve saved yourself mucho dinero or time or both.
Now, as fore mentioned, the industry standard compression thread was not the case for the AmeriFlex. The wisdom of the manufacturer decided to create their own, new thread pitch which (by design?) would not mate with any of its competitors. If you have a must-remove, must-replace AmeriFlex, ONLY another AmeriFlex angle stop will do. You won’t be rescued by the procedure mentioned in the above paragraph dealing with Photo 7, shown earlier. Where would you find an AmeriFlex today? You won’t. If this was to be your fate, and you’re dealing with the A/F combo, and you need to hire a plumber (if you are not one) my true sympathies. At today’s wages and the plumber’s degree of sympathy, you might not be taking your significant other (or yourself) out to a fine meal for some time.
Most of the many floods this product caused were the result of an aneurism of the corrugated supply. A close second were the ‘blow outs’ mentioned. The vast majority of those combo’s that were installed are already history, but nonetheless, this product caused grave property damage to many and odds are there yet may be more, waiting!
(When a ‘seasoned’ plumber ever encounters a corroded A/F installed tight to an escutcheon, his/her shock is akin to a backhoe operator’s if they uncovered a big undetonated WW2 bomb.)
Okay, enough with the parts history and on to the morality part…
Now PtP has told you most of the shortcomings of the Ameriflex. What I’m going to tell you next is a confession, which most lucidly shows how:
Way back upstream the author mentioned being sent to an apartment to repair a leak. It was this repair call, early in his career that forever changed the author’s philosophy about his labors. PtP knows that in The Bank of Karma (due to this leak call), his account debits are still waaaay in the red to his deposits. But he hopes by sharing this event with you, the good deeds by others, might transfer some of their interest into his account?
Round One: At the Apartment
The tenant had left a note to the manager: “Soggy boxes of dishwashing detergent and other items on kitchen sink cabinet floor.”
Upon opening the cabinet doors hosting the kitchen sink, PTP did a cursory inspection of the waste (tubular drain ) system. Nothing alarming other than there were TWO GARBAGE DISPOSERS! Not just that, but to plumb both of them there was a LOT of waste piping components and it was all slip-nut tubular brass. Next his attention turned to the water supply. First he gazed at the hot angle stop (‘hot’ stops always (almost) leak before ‘cold’ stops.). This visit proved the case. And, the author immediately recognized the enemy, the Naja naja Ameriflex. Tiny, but continuous drip from a corrugation groove in the hot supply. PtP (in his bones) knew that this was going to be a p.i.t.a. repair in good part because the cabinet was a corner cabinet with a high kick stop (worse for spines). And, it had two small doors with a divider strip: the ‘Inconsiderate Design’. To make matters even worse, the water was roughed-out of the wall almost all the way back at the deep corner (and high up). Not only that, it was a TRIPPLE BOWL, tri-level, cast iron. The slip-nut tubular brass continuous waste system (out-of-the-wall tubular pipe connecting all three bowls) (by design) came very low and left very little room for PtP’s body to slide under, or around.
To put it bluntly, it was one of the worst working conditions encountered in the ‘repair’ side of my practice, concerning sinks. The author has lifted sinks and cabinets to get at waste and supply piping needing repair or replacement when there was no other way.
On this call, PtP was not about to try plucking a three-bowl cast iron hosting disposers, by himself. That is a three person chore. So the job was done the second, equally difficult, time consuming way: dropping disposers, wastes, p-traps, and all continuous waste piping, in place. It was a bent-neck-broken-back ‘long-stretch-crawl-stroke’ just to get my hands into working territory. After a real battle (opening the wall/torch/solder/fittings) the author had excised the hot Naja naja and replaced it with a new FIP (easily replaceable, over several times) Brass Craft supply stop and solid, smooth 3/8ths-in. Eastman acorn-head supply tube.
By this point of the battle PtP was already VERY sore. With the new hot supply installed, he then gave the A/F cold angle stop a closer inspection. No sign of any leaks. Even the plated steel escutcheon had yet to show any rust. To go after the ‘cold’ A/F would also entail more hellish hours, cuts and band-aids. Looking across the kitchen floor, at the disposers and useless corroded p-traps, wastes and other components (resting on a new, sacrificed, cardboard, water heater box panel), doing a quick (too) mental ‘labor time addition/subtraction’, he had to decide whether or not he should keep going and tackle the remaining Naja naja, even though it was not leaking.
Even for Pete the Plumber, just to re-install the disposers and make an all-new, 2-trap, three-bowl, ABS waste system, in these conditions, would be a p.i.t.a. chore. He argued with himself: Oh, “he’d make a ‘mental note’ and come back at some ‘slow’ point in his schedule and replace the other AmeriFlex.” Immediately he heard his other-self pipe up: “Oh, Pete, go for it and get it done, NOW! You’re making a big mistake if you don’t!”
How many people have other selves? I should’a listened to mine. Wanna guess what the author did? About two months after that repair, my boss called me to the office. “Pete, say, you remember doing a repair down on North MLK? A couple months back? It was a Wednesday, an apartment building?”
“Yeah I do, not resolved?”
“Far from not resolved, especially when you include attorneys and insurance.” “Pete, I got a call from the manager; that building flooded. Three floors.” “Over the extended holiday that tenant and those in the two units below it were out of town. For three plus days the water ran. Embarrassing to us, its source was the unit where you worked, under the kitchen sink. All three residences are totally trashed. Unlivable condition.” “The absolute worst case, the big four-bedroom, ground floor apartment was home to old ‘Professor X’, the world-traveling reknown archeologist. He had a huge rare book and document collection. All his rooms were wall to wall, floor to ceiling book cases, full. It’s now mostly all mush.” At this moment, the author’s vision and hearing sorta dimmed before almost not coming back to near full normal.
“Are we exposed to litigation?”
“No, thank goodness. The insurance investigators told the manager that it was the cold angle stop under the kitchen sink. Its faucet connection pulled loose. It was noted in their reports that the hot angle stop had been replaced ‘sometime in the recent past’. They’re calling it “an act of God.” (Which gave them an “off the hook.”)
Fifty years of scouring foreign lands and cultures. Meticulous selecting and collecting to add to his library, “at home”. Fifty-years. Was he insured? Not even close. Most were not even replaceable. (Join the Alexandria Library. At least it wasn’t sacked by plumbers.)
The ensuing years following the ‘happening’ have been uncomfortable to live through for me (not to mention the other tenants, especially the dear Professor X.
The author has tried to imagine what it was/is like to lose everything like these folks, especially the Professor whose most valued (personal and financial) possessions cannot be replaced, at any cost, even IF insurance had stepped up to the plate. The ‘knowing’ that a little more sweat, more scratches, another two pain relievers and getting home way late could have prevented all the destruction is a chronic, nagging pay-back.
What PtP stresses in the classroom is: “Don’t for a second think that you will be the last person to have to deal with any particular aspect of your labors.” The author, because of the “nagging pay-back”, is ALWAYS thinking about how he can do his best work for customers. Well designed and constructed living quarters, as the population continues to explode, only gain in importance and thus, value, as they age. (It’s the opposite for me and you.) When PtP now has a wall opened up in a building, and ‘there be’ other plumbing present aside his main concern, you can bet he says to himself: “What else might need doing here?”
Photo 15, below was what caught the author’s attention in Dr. P’s waiting room. And, the Doctor’s response was a great relief, a big: “Oh Thank You!...I’ll get it handled this Saturday!”
Illustrations 1A & 1B (mentioned earlier) with in depth explanation:
Until Next Time…
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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