Friday, August 1, 2014

Outdoor Spigot Replacement

A couple years ago, upon moving into our home, our outside spigot was removed to allow the installation of a new sill. That same contractor refused to re-install the spigot for one reason or another (see Structural Repairs, Part II). A friend had the right bits to drill me a hole through our new sill. Once complete, he also soldered the copper pipe back into place. Done, right?

A few months later came time to use the spigot. A surprise awaited me as the spigot was now streaming a leak. I only fear how much water was wasted since I last saw it.

Easy fixes first. These spigots have a rubber washer under the knob that seals the joint. Likewise, there's also one at the end of all garden hoses. A trip to Walmart got me a cheapo set of rubber washers. I come home excited, took out my pliers and wrench, turned off the supply valve and.... broke the nut holding the old spigot together. I just have no luck. Damn thing had been in the sun too long, been made of cheap metal or perhaps my neutrinos weren't spinning the correct way... whatever the case may be, now it was time to replace the spigot.

Sometimes, these things just don't go as well as we hope.

There are two general types of spigots, ones that are threaded on much like a shower head and the other, soldered on. The threaded type are the easiest (obviously). Unscrew the old one with wrenches, clean the threads, wrap plumber's tape and screw on the new spigot. The other type is a bit more complex having a soldered connection which needs to be de-soldered with a torch. Guess which one I have…

I ventured to my big-box-store to get some needed supplies:

  • Propane torch
  • Lockable vice-grip (or pliers)
  • Non-leaded plumber's solder
  • Plumber's flux
  • Pipe cleaner (sandpaper works too)
  • New spigot (obviously)

Warning: If you are not a "handy person", I suggest hiring someone who is. Changing out a soldered plumbing part is not overly hard, but can become dangerous when you factor in the torch. It may be best to have a fire extinguisher nearby, just in case.

Read the directions on the propane torch and get use to turning it on and off. It's imperative that this is done to avoid potential issues later on, such as burning down your house. Do not use the torch around hazardous materials nor in confined spaces (i.e. with no ventilation). Lucky me, my spigot is near my oil tank in the basement with sealed windows...

Tip: The hottest part of the torch is not the tip of the flame and not the metal tip of the nozzle. It's the area at the 1/3 point from the tip of the flame. Without this knowledge, you'll spend more time waiting to heat the metal than needed and you'll also use more fuel than you have to.

Once you are comfortable with using a torch, let's move on to the repair.

Remove the section of copper pipe from the system.

Find the connection couple closest to the spigot. Using the torch, heat the copper connection. Once hot enough, using pliers (not your hand... lesson learned), gently rotate the spigot end of the copper pipe connection. If hot enough and the solder has liquefied, it will rotate and can be pulled a part easily. Depending on the thickness of the copper pipe, and amount of solder used previously, the heating process may take some time.

What Not To Do
For my situation, my plumbing is located between the wooden joists, close to the floorboards above. I tried to use a protective barrier to avoid scorching the underside of the floor, need I cause the above-mentioned home fire. I took some aluminum foil as a heat shield. My knowledge of metallurgy is limited so it was a surprise to me when the aluminum became molten and then vaporized. Apparently, aluminum melts quite easily (1,220.58°F) in the heat from a propane torch (3,450°F). So don't use aluminum foil as a heat shield.

De-solder the spigot from the removed copper pipe. 
Same procedure as above. Since our exterior paint is leaded and the old spigot had some paint on it, as a precaution, I made sure I was upwind of any fumes. The de-soldering process heats the copper-spigot connection. I wasn't sure if any leaded paint was present around the spigot but didn't want to risk breathing in vaporized lead.

Clean the de-soldered copper pipe.
Copper tarnishes over time, hence why Lady Liberty is green. For a decent bond, it is best to have a clean (bare metal) surface. Various home stores sell cleaning tools. They look like torture devices, really, with a thick metal wire covered in spiky needles and the other end, a hole with spikes as well. However it appears to you, it's still an abrasive tool to clean off tarnish and light debris from the to-be soldered ends.  After cleaning the ends, the surfaces should look like a brand new penny and slightly roughened.

Apply the Flux.
Flux looks like a jelly paste.  When heated, it sizzles and a vapor is released which should be avoided; something about skull and cross bones being on the label made me assume this.  Really though, best used in a VERY well ventilated area.  Flux works by "attracting" the molten solder throughout the joint. Using a disposable brush, paint the surfaces that are to come into contact.

Assemble the spigot-copper pipe.
Simply insert the copper pipe into the spigot. Twist it a little to ensure adequate spread of the flux.

Solder the connection. 
It is best to secure the spigot and pipe to free your hands during the soldering process.  A clamp or vice should work just fine.  I used a bench vice to hold the pipe steady and the flux around the spigot was just enough to make a snug fit while soldering.  The connection to the system was a bit more complex since there wasn't a bench to work over.  Instead, I jerry-rigged a vice to keep my hands free (see below).  Then, I soldered away after applying the flux.  Its difficult to take a picture while using the torch for obvious reasons (Safety First!).

Test the spigot. Turn on the water and make sure nothing is leaking. Turn the spigot on outside for satisfaction. Done.