Repairing Old Plumbing Fixtures

You can handle repairs on modern fixtures easily. What do you do when you encounter something straight out of 1930?

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Editor’s Note: Master plumber Anthony Pacilla will occasionally be writing “Now What?” features, where he sets up a scenario and uses his real-life experiences to provide problem-solving advice about it.

As a service plumber, you’ve had extensive training on how to install/repair/replace a variety of fixtures and appliances. Most modern trade schools are lucky enough to get fixtures through sponsoring manufacturing companies who provide the trade schools with kitchen faucets, lavatory faucets, shower valves, water heaters, backflow assemblies, etc.

You get out of school, get hired, head to your first call and the customer has a 1930 six-handle Crane tub/shower/drain assembly.

Now what?

You’ve had training but how could you possibly be prepared for this? How does it come apart? Where can you find a new cartridge? Do they still make those white porcelain handles? Who do you call? How can you tell who manufactured this?

Stay Calm

You should enjoy working on older fixtures as they were made with the plumber in mind. We are so used to living in a throwaway society that most plumbing fixtures have become disposable items. Swap the cartridge out, and if that doesn’t work you need a new fixture. Well the old faucets aren’t the same. They were made so that a plumber can take them apart and have a good shot at making a repair. They’re even made so that you don’t necessarily need to know who manufactured them to make a repair.

Start With the Basics

The first thing you need to realize is that even though these things were made to be repaired, do not force or break anything. They can be fixed, but they have been discontinued for a very long time and finding parts is near impossible. With that said, you can’t just grab your Channellocks and start putting wrench marks on everything. Use your adjustable wrenches, or even better a legitimate monkey wrench. These types of wrenches are what the old-timers called “stock” wrenches because they can be used on delicate brass stock without nicking the finish.

The one negative thing about repairing old fixtures is that it is impossible to come up with a master book about how they come apart. There is too wide a variety of how they are put together. Some have specific hot and cold stems, some don’t. Some have flat seats, some have beveled seats. Some have regular threads and reverse threads. Some have compression packing nuts that hold the handles on, some have index screws. There is such a large variety that you have to not worry about which “model” it is and just carefully take it apart.

The good thing about taking them apart is that nearly every fixture was installed by a real plumber — not a handyman or homeowner — and therefore was properly installed and properly greased in most cases. You will be shocked how easy the old valves come apart because the installers had you in mind. They had the foresight to use marine grease on everything so that all these years later, you can easily make a repair.

Put a large rag over the tub drain so that you don’t drop any small parts down the drain, set out another rag nearby to set the parts out, take the valves apart and try to keep them laid out in the same order they came out in. In the case of an American Standard “barrel” assembly, mark the hot and cold barrels the second they come out. Trust me.

Diagnosis and Repair

Once you have taken the hardware and stems out, check the stem washers. With old valves, 90 percent have stem washers and you should keep all-in-one stem washer kits in your truck both beveled and flat. The type of washer that should be installed depends on the type of seat that it rests on behind the wall. That brings us to our next step — shining a light inside the valve body and seeing the condition of the seats. These seats are usually made of brass and can be taken out using the correct wrench (either a seat wrench, Allen wrench, or if you’re unlucky a specialty wrench). If you notice that the brass seat is nicked, you can remove the seats and replace them or use a seat grinder to smooth out the damaged area. Do research on your own about the difference between beveled washer seats and flat washer seats — it really does make a difference.

Once you have decided whether to replace, repair, or keep the seats depending on their condition, it’s time to check out the stem washers. If your seat requires a flat washer, find the right size and replace it. Same goes with a beveled type. If the bibb screw holes have been stripped, you can buy a bibb screw assortment kit that includes a re-tap tool to re-tap a new hole that accepts the new screws. It is good practice to repair both hot and cold as opposed to just one. Never assume that since it had beveled washers that that’s what should go back in. You never know — some homeowner could have jerry-rigged this thing in the 1970s.

Once you feel comfortable with how things look, buy yourself some plumber’s grease or marine grease and grease up the parts. This is very important on both new and old style valves. Greasing parts used to be a sign that a true tradesman had worked on the device, as it will come apart easily 100 years from now. After you grease the parts, snug them back into place and wipe excess grime or grease off with a rag, then test.

Once you get over the fear of fixtures being “old” and take a few apart to make a successful repair, you will have a new appreciation when older people say, “They don’t make things to last like they used to.” You will turn into one of the plumbers who complains about all the new disposable plastic plumbing fixtures. Not everything needs to be replaced.

About the Author

Anthony Pacilla is a registered master plumber for McVehil Plumbing in Washington, Pennsylvania. He has 22 years of experience in the plumbing and HVAC trades, and has a bachelor’s in business and economics from Thiel College. 


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