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HOME DESIGN : Plumbing Problems? Then Grab a Wrench . . .

September 23, 1989|JOHN O'DELL | Times Staff Writer

It is a fact of life that faucets hardly ever begin leaking during normal business hours, when the local plumber is around and not charging overtime on top of his or her usual fee of about $60 an hour.

But you don't have to put up with that annoying and water-wasting drip all night or all weekend. In many cases, you can fix a leak yourself. You can even fix one during normal business hours and use the $60 plus parts you would have paid the plumber to help treat yourself to a nice evening out.

That is not to say that you should never call a plumber--if you have a gusher instead of a mere leak, or are looking at very old plumbing or a very new and expensive European faucet, it might save you money and grief in the long run to let a professional do the repairing.

But if you are looking at a standard American-made faucet with a standard made-in-America leak, then grab a wrench and follow along.

First, however, a look at what causes leaks.

The major culprit, according to John Biard, owner of Biard & Crockett Plumbing Services in Orange, is water.

"It is the most destructive element known to man," he said, and over the years, ordinary tap water can etch pits and grooves in the soft brass of a faucet's innards.

That, in turn, ruins the seal between the faucet washer and its seat--a removable machined part into which the washer compresses when the faucet is turned off.

Other causes of leaks include:

Foreign objects--rust from the walls of a pipe or grit in the water--that tear up the seat or jam open the ceramic discs in a washerless faucet.

Inferior parts, usually poorly machined seats or improperly fitted washers.

Old age--no faucet will last forever without maintenance.

Mistreatment by homeowners, generally from turning faucet handles too tight. This often results in torn washers, cracked ceramic discs or even a cracked faucet body.

The first step in repairing a leaky faucet is to identify the problem and the type of faucet you are dealing with.

"We stock more than 100 different combinations of faucet seats and washers," Biard said, and faucet manufacturers are creating more every day.

The proliferation of home supply centers has also helped the faucet explosion, with each chain finding its own cut-rate suppliers, often from Asia.

"We get people bringing in parts I've never seen and that we just can't get replacements for," said Greg Biard, who runs Biard & Crockett with his father. Many of the less expensive faucets don't even have replacement parts, he said. "They are made to be throw-aways."

If you are looking for a faucet that is going to last for a decade or more, the Biards said, also beware of special sales that often feature discontinued models, for which repair parts are not widely available.

John Biard said his basic rule of thumb, after 30 years in business selling fix-it supplies and dispatching crews to repair problems that homeowners couldn't handle, is that a good quality kitchen faucet set that will last 15 years or more with normal maintenance is going to set you back $100 or more in today's market.

"Of course, you can go a lot higher," he said, citing ornamental faucet sets--often studded with semiprecious stones and plated with gold--that can run $2,000 or more. One plumbing fixtures manufacturer, he said, makes a shower head that retails for $3,500--and you have to buy the faucet set separately.

But whether you paid $19.95 or $1,995 for your faucets, and whether they work with handles that you twist to turn the water on and off, or by levers that you push or pull, they come in two basic types:

Washerless, which allow water to flow by aligning openings in a pair of ceramic, plastic or stainless steel discs.

Compression, which staunch the flow of water by shutting off the opening when a rubber washer on the end of the stem is compressed into the specially machined seat.

The basic parts of a faucet (see illustration) are the same on both the hot and cold sides but differ in compression and washerless models.

When you look at that leaky faucet, you are looking at:

A pair of handles, usually secured with a set screw at the base or with a machine screw that runs down into the top of the stem and is hidden by a plastic or metal cap.

The spout or spigot, out of which the water flows.

The faucet body into which the working parts are fitted. In a three-piece faucet set, the bodies are separate and water flows through them to the spigot through a pair of connectors, either braided stainless steel flex hose, or solid stainless, or copper. In a one-piece faucet set, the water channels leading from the hot and cold sides to the spigot are molded or machined into the faucet body.

The stem body. This consists of the stem, or spindle, to which the handles are fastened. Twisting the handles turns the stem, which turns the washer or ceramic discs to control the flow of water.

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